Reviewed by Rodney A. Clifton
It takes considerable audacity in these days of Canada’s diminished standing in the international community to think that our country can save the world. But Conrad Black is a courageous figure in Canadian business, politics, and intellectual life. The title of his 2019 book, The Canadian Manifesto: How One Frozen Country can Save the World, shows both his confidence in Canada and his character.
For a long time, Black has been a major force in Canadian life, starting newspapers like the National Post, and running large corporations like Hollinger International, which was the third largest English-language newspaper chain in the world. While managing large businesses, he was also writing articles for the National Post and The Epoch Times, in addition to writing books such as the Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada from the Vikings to the Present.
The Canadian Manifesto is actually a long essay with an introduction, three parts, and a conclusion. Like Black’s history of Canada, this book is full of strong statements about Canadian history, including a number of policies to make our country better. In the introduction, he says:
…Canada is benignly regarded in the world, but is rarely credited with anything beyond being a relatively gentle and democratic society with a good historical record of welcoming diverse immigration, assisting worthy international causes, staying clear of wars yet participating in the great struggles of civilization that have occurred in its time bravely and justly, seeking nothing for itself but the triumph of the principles of human decency and international law (1, 2).
Further, Black says: “The question of Canada’s self-identity is compounded by the poor job Canadians have made of understanding and teaching our own history.” (4).
In Part One, he gives a thumbnail sketch (43 pages) of Canadian history from Samuel de Champlain to the current prime minister, stressing important episodes in the development of Canada as an independent country. In this part, Black summarizes the evidence in the following words:
In (summary), we achieved freedom and full independence with almost no violence, and have survived the pressures of demographic and cultural absorption in the American orbit. We have fought only in just wars, always with distinction and on the winning side…. (55).
It is magnificent except that our progress has been so subtle and incremental that very few Canadians think it has been at all difficult or unusual since the heroics of the early explorers and settlers (56).
Importantly, Black is very positive about our first prime minister, Sir. John A. Macdonald, who was not a racist, drunken fool even though people who are now decapitating his statues and removing his name from university buildings claim that he was. Rather, Macdonald was largely responsible for creating Canada, and it is our duty as Canadians to learn more about his notable accomplishments.
Part Two is called “The Opportunity” and it is very short (16 pages). Black summarizes the strengths and weaknesses of Canada up to a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic intervened. In this part, he argues that the federal government is going in the wrong direction in supporting a number of policies, such as those on energy and climate.
As well, the Canadian government is preoccupied with political correctness. One example is the obligation of federal officials to begin every public statement with an acknowledgment that the audience is standing on land that was once occupied “by some Indigenous tribe or band whose name was reconditely extracted from the mists of antiquity”(62).
Equally problematic is the government’s claim that Canada was genocidal towards her Indigenous people. Black does not accept the claim that governments must apologize for the perceived mistreatment of Indigenous people, nor does he think it is reasonable that governments must deal with 600 or so separate “nations” within Canada’s borders.
Ironically, these nations are, to varying degrees, dependent upon Canadian governments and taxpayers for their existence. Black’s response to the federal government’s unwillingness to hold First Nations accountable for their spending is pointed: “The scandal of unaccountable misgovernment in the spurious name of Indigenous self-government must be ended” (65).
Part Three consists of 76 pages of “Prescriptions,” in which Black outlines his ideas for transforming Canada into a policy laboratory for the world. He focuses on 19 specific policies that are either national or provincial/territorial responsibilities. At the national level, he examines the economy, nation-building, monetary and fiscal policies, tax reform, and immigration, among others, and at the provincial/territorial level, he examines education, welfare, and health, among others.
In this short review, I touch on three areas—the economy, education, and health care.
Black’s major concern is the under-achievement of Canada’s economy. Here he says that a mixed economy with a strong capitalist base and a serious concern for people who truly need help is required. He correctly says that encouraging economic growth will lead our country into greater prosperity, which will benefit the great majority of Canadians including, of course, Indigenous people. Black also notes that the carbon tax will stymie economic growth:
It is not a well-considered policy and under the (federal) government seems more of a gesture of solidarity with the social democratic group-think than a serious response to a real problem. Canada now has a minister of (environment and) climate, a Swiftian mockery of official self-importance…. (59).
As an example, Black mentions the proposed Energy East pipeline that, if built, would help energy-producing provinces, like Alberta and Saskatchewan, and energy-consuming provinces, like Ontario and Quebec. This is just one of many projects that Black recommends for developing the Canadian economy and bringing increased prosperity to more Canadians.
Obviously, to develop an economy, it is necessary to improve the education of those who will soon join the workforce. Of course, Black realizes this is not the only reason to have good educational systems across the country. He recognizes that education is a provincial/territorial responsibility, and accordingly, he says: “The federal government should not grant a cent of education-related assistance to any province that does not make a series of profound reforms” (94).
Good teachers are fundamental, so Black focuses on ensuring that teachers do a better job of educating public school students. In his mind, teachers’ unions, while doing some good, have evolved into rapacious special interest groups that have too strong an effect upon what happens in faculties of education and in public school classrooms. Black thinks that good teachers should be rewarded financially, implying that poor teachers should be retrained or fired. He also says that students should only pass from grade to grade as a result of doing well on rigorous exams.
Finally, Black has some good ideas on improving the health of Canadians. He believes that across the country, the health system “is a shambles,” noting that the wait time for many medical procedures is unacceptably long. He reports that Canada has 2.54 MDs per 1,000 people, Japan has 2.37, and the U.S. has 2.57. In contrast, Australia (3.50), Russia (3.98), and Sweden (4.19) have many more doctors (109). Thus, Black recommends that Canada increase the number of practicing MDs. He also says that the restriction on private billing should be eliminated, and a small user fee should be instituted to discourage the misuse of services.
These are only three of the policy recommendations that Black has presented in The Canadian Manifesto, and he has equally important things to say about other critical policies.
This book has a two-page conclusion called “Greatness at Last,” in which Black argues that all his prescriptions could be fulfilled in five years if governments were, in fact, committed to building a stronger country. This will become particularly important following the COVID-19 pandemic in which federal and provincial governments have shattered the economy by destroying jobs and businesses, giving too many young people little hope for the future.
Though I am very positive about Black’s vision for Canada, I fear that no political party is bold enough to take his prescriptions seriously. The Conservative Party, of course, would do well to add some of Black’s prescriptions to its policy blueprint. If politicians across Canada do not open their minds to the issues Black has discussed, Canada will continue to stumble along, falling further and further behind her true potential.
In addition to my praise for The Canadian Manifesto, I note that the book has a few shortcomings. First, this book has no references and no reading list. Serious readers will want to know more, and references and reading lists are indispensable. Second, the book would be better if it had an index, also an important tool for serious readers. Finally, there are a few typos that should have been corrected, and more surprisingly, the introduction has “The Problem” as a subheading in the table of contents and “A New Purpose” in the text.
None of these minor slip-ups hinders readers from understanding Black’s arguments and prescriptions. I recommend that everyone who is concerned about the future of Canada read this book, and then ask politicians to respond to some of Black’s recommendations. Young Canadians deserve a few rays of hope, and Black’s The Canadian Manifesto has challenged us to give them hope by transforming our country in positive ways. Will some politicians heed his advice?
Rodney A. Clifton is an emeritus professor at the University of Manitoba and a senior fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.