“Ahead, Thar Be Dragons.”
The world of 2023 is a scary place. One major war is raging, with others probably on the way. The Pax Americana that has given us freedom of the seas and allowed global trade to flourish might be breaking down. International piracy, broken supply chains, and chronic inflation could all be problems that we will have to wrestle with in the years ahead.
But Canada faces many domestic challenges as well so many that the question of whether Canada will even be around in its present form in 50 years is worth asking. And although predicting the future is impossible, there are some strains on the Canadian fabric that are even now quite obvious.
This article will briefly look at four such problem areas. The first is political, the second demographic, the third is geographic, and the fourth can be described as an issue we might want to rethink.
The Laurentian consensus is breaking down. What is the Laurentian consensus? Simply put, it is the informal agreement that keeps Quebec in Canada—an unwritten acknowledgment that Quebec is more than just another province. Quebec and the rest of Canada (ROC) have different histories, and see things quite differently. Quebec is more European and ROC more American. An example of this is the expectations Quebecers have of their provincial government, as compared with the expectations the ROC have of theirs. Quebecers have come to expect that their provincial government will generously subsidize social programs, such as daycare expenses.
This difference in expectations wouldn’t matter except that these extra social benefits Quebecers receive are largely paid for by other provinces—mainly Alberta—through equalization payments. This, combined with Quebec’s special treatment within Canada, is the Laurentian consensus. Simply put, Quebec’s price for staying in Canada is having western Canada pay for its extra social programs, and tolerating Quebec’s claim to a special rights not given to other provinces.
The Laurentian consensus seems to have outlived its usefulness, and is now breaking down. Premier Danielle Smith’s “Sovereignty Act” is just the latest shot across the bow. Alberta rebels against both the equalization formula and the idea that Alberta should not have the same powers as enjoyed by Quebec. Other provinces seem likely to follow this trend.
This will present a challenge.
Canada is experiencing the same problem most developed countries are experiencing: Too many old people, and not enough young ones. There is no simple answer to his problem. As nations became more urban and more prosperous, family size becomes smaller. Canada has attempted, with some success, to deal with this problem by implementing a relatively aggressive immigration policy. Applicants, including many students, are vetted, and suitable applicants allowed into the country. All well and good. However, all of these immigrants need housing, language training, and other essential services. Bringing young immigrants to Canada in a controlled way that does not overtax the system will be a challenge. Doing so in a way that avoids the “ghettoization” now evident in parts of Europe will be even more so.
If scientists predicting that global warming will result in ice-free year-round passage through the Northwest Passage are proven correct (and if the ecological challenges can be overcome), it will yield enormous opportunities. But Canada does not have the population or wealth to properly develop its Arctic potential. However, the United States would also benefit from the northern sea route, and could partner with us to develop it. In fact, if Canada dithers, America might just help themselves. There is really no choice but to work with the United States on Arctic development. The partial loss of sovereignty that will result from partnering with our American neighbour to protect and develop the Arctic will challenge us.
Related to the above is our “blue gold”—water. By 2073, water might be as valuable as oil. The American Southwest is already parched. In the future the pressure to find more water will be intense. The American Southwest could become a garden, and probably double or triple its population, if they had some of our water that now flows into the ocean. The mutual benefits would be enormous. The problem is that any suggestion that we export water now meets with a negative response.
The odd thing is that Canada currently exports trillions of gallons of water that are contained within its agricultural, lumber, oil, and other products. Those products are mainly composed of water. Canadians have no problem with that. We might want to rethink our aversion to the sale of water, as demand for our “blue gold” grows.
The year 2023 ushers in a new world full of immense challenges. As mapmakers of old warned, “Ahead Thar Be Dragons.”
Canada will have to navigate around those dragons in order to survive, and remain relevant, in 2073.
Brian Giesbrecht, retired judge, is a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.