Canada is big in the UK right now. In the last few months, references to Canada have been everywhere in the media as a variety of political actors in Britain have attempted to use Canada, or rather than image of Canada, as an exemplar of what Britain should do. I’m writing this blog post to set a few things straight.
On the left, Canada is praised for embodying progressive values. There is some evidentiary basis to support this viewpoint, as by most statistical measures, Canada is a relatively tolerant society towards newcomers and does a very good job of absorbing immigrants into its large middle class. However, I find that the progressive love fest with Canada is based on some misconceptions. Consider Gabby Hines’s recent and highly problematic column in the Guardian, where she wrote:
What’s puzzling is that Canada has been through most of the same grim experiences – the banking crash, recession, a series of thwarted Islamist terrorist attacks followed by a shootout inside its parliament building – that elsewhere are blamed for feeding the politics of hate.
With all due respect, the comments I have quoted display a mixture of ignorance and a failure to think statistically. Canada has not gone through the same grim experiences as other Western countries. Its banks were famously stable during the financial crisis, which perhaps contributed to the UK government’s decision to promote Mark Carney from Governor of the Bank of Canada to Governor of the Bank of England. The subsequent recession in Canada was mild and short relative to comparator countries. It is true that there was a shooting in Ottawa that can probably be described as an Islamic terrorist attack, although the exact motives of shooter, who was a homeless man of partial Algerian ancestry remain a mystery. While I am very sorry that a young father lost his life in this attack, we need to put this event into proportion. There is an epidemic of mass shootings in the United States, with killing sprees as cinemas, elementary schools, and the like being just part of the background of national life.
The shooting in Ottawa stood out because it is so unusual for Canada. In Western Europe, which has a far lower gun violence rate comparable to that of Canada, there is a serious problem with terrorism. Believe me when I say that I have no desire to minimize this problem or its underlying socio-economic, cultural, and psycho-sexual causes of attacks by young Muslim men: I was 150 metres from the Bataclan theatre during the recent terror attacks. However, the situation is Canada is very different: Canada’s Muslim population is generally affluent and generally assimilated, the Muslim Mayor of Calgary (see below) being a great example. My point is that columnists such as Gabby Hines need to think about this sort of context before arguing that what works in Canada can be easily brought to the UK.
On the Eurosceptic right, Canada is being used in a different way. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has argued in favour of Britain’s exit from the European Union on the grounds that the UK could simply negotiate a trade agreement with the EU similar to that of Canada. The crux of Johnson’s argument is that Canada has been able to combine free trade with the EU with the capacity to negotiate free trade deals with rest of the world. I hardly know where to begin with this argument. The recent Canada-EU trade agreement is a step in the right direction as it liberalizes trade in many areas, but the barriers remain far higher than those of trade between EU and EFTA countries. Moreover, this agreement took many years to negotiate (negotiating a trade deal with the EEC has been a goal of Canadian policymakers since the 1970s) and the bargaining round that led to the current agreement took seven years and still isn’t quite finished. In 2011 I ran a small conference in London at which the tortuously slow pace of the trade talks was discussed (see also here, here, and here). As David Cameron rightly pointed out in his response to Boris Johnson, leaving the EU and then negotiating a trade deal would expose UK business to years of paralyzing uncertainty.
British people on both the left and the right have a distorted view of what Canada is. It is entirely legitimate for political actors in the UK to point to specific policies in Canada that are worthy of emulation. However, it is important to have an accurate idea of what Canada is like in the first place.