Canada can't shake reliance on economic 'staples'

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Canada can be a hellishly difficult place to get a handle on, if labels are your thing. It's so spread-out, underpopulated and vague. It's reached the point where simply being open to everything, or being based on nothing specific except a non-specific openness, is often offered as our key characteristic. But in the past, one useful attempt was Harold Innis's staples thesis.

Innis, an economic historian, said that Canada in its European phase evolved solely to serve the needs of imperial centres with what he called staples: furs, cod, lumber, newsprint and most recently, energy.

Those imperial needs dictated the shape of colonial society. Indigenous peoples couldn't just be destroyed: their know-how and labour were needed to facilitate survival and resource extraction. Populations should be held to essential levels and kept in conflict to enable control.

But Canada's "settler-colonial" society, which developed within the imperial design, developed its own momentum. Now you rarely hear about imperialism but "settler-colonial" seems highly applicable.

Yet the deep structures hung on, like infections or bad dreams, long after their due dates. So there were attempts to uproot "staple dependency" and allow Canada to take a different route. John A. Macdonald's national policy was meant to build manufacturing here, for an expanding Canadian market. Heavy industry appeared in Ontario, alongside textiles and clothing in Quebec.

The flaw was that the metropole-hinterland relation got replicated with central Canada exploiting both east and west. Eventually, Canada's car industry was bought up by U.S. capital. In the late 1900s, some new flowers bloomed, like Northern Telecom, BlackBerry and Bombardier (which reached as far west as Thunder Bay but is now shutting down there) but they've all crashed or been swallowed up. Today, we don't manufacture the simplest stuff. If China closes its borders, Mitch Marner doesn't know where he’ll get his hockey sticks.

Each time an attempt to destaple-ize the Canadian economy fails, the staples monster re-emerges from the bedroom closet bearing ever more morbid symptoms. Today, it's in the form of Western alienation, panic, despair, delusion and paranoia over the threat to its oil revenues -- as if oil is a person held hostage -- an image used by an Alberta cabinet minister. The delusion persists that staples like oil will save us from the economic hellfire they themselves produce, by their inherent instability and unreliability.

Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer seems consumed by rage and regional paranoia. He said Justin Trudeau should use his federal authority to tell the RCMP to dismantle railway protests, then appeared surprised when reporters explained that the main blockades were in Ontario and Quebec, where the RCMP doesn’t operate. The mania had dropped him out west and left him there.

Alberta's Jason Kenney is in full paranoia. He's funding an "inquiry" into "foreign-funded" interference with oil and gas. He's got a "war room" to target "misinformation and lies" on it. He's adding a law targeting energy protests with fines and jail. It's nothing basically new -- Stephen Harper's only economic policy was drilling and selling oil -- but it's more hysterical and divisive than ever.

There are entirely rational elements to the fears of western working families, to which anyone should be sympathetic. You need work, and a sense of worth and dignity in what you do. But paranoia, angst and the personification of oil and gas as someone you "love”"(on bumper stickers), make it hard to deal with the twin challenges to the energy staples: climate change and Indigenous reconciliation, which are entwined and emotionally evocative themselves.

What makes this moment tragic is that there's a unique chance for reconciliation. Canadian opinion is more receptive than it has ever been. The work on Truth and Reconciliation, awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women, the output of Indigenous artists -- have created a potential breakthrough. If bureaucratic inertia and political gutlessness could be overcome, something might … happen. But the morbid forces of the staples monster aren't helpful.

Does any of this theorizing help? I doubt it. But if we muddle through this mess, in the traditional human way, it might be worth recalling, next time, what one of the sources of inaction and despair has always been, in Canada's case.

Rick Salutin writes about current affairs and politics. This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Image: Jeff Wallace/Flickr

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