The End of Canada’s Exorbitant Privilege: Mapping Where We Go From Here

The End of Canada’s Exorbitant Privilege: Mapping Where We Go From Here

Canadians are uncertain, angry, and frustrated as they face declining living standards, fraying social cohesion, and an evermore interconnected world that brings serious threats home rather than leaving them far away.  Our complacency has run its course. A new national discourse is urgently needed.

Canada’s geography and history, occasionally aided by innovative and forward-thinking leadership, brought us prosperity and security with relatively little effort, especially since 1945. Even our success in recent decades developing a remarkably diverse society reflects this advantageous alignment, allowing us to assert our Canadianness without thinking much about what commitments that entailed, what enabled us to get to this point, and the hard work required to preserve it.

This period of Canada’s “exorbitant privilege”—to borrow an old French critique of the position of the United States in the global financial system—is over.  Decades of living off our geography and history, and the trust built up internationally by our outsized contributions to global security in a previous century, have come to an end.  The world is now both highly connected and highly fragmented, while our location is not the unambiguous positive it once was.  We may not be far from a point where proximity to the USA poses as many risks as benefits, while threats to our sovereignty are increasing as newly powerful and/or assertive powers challenge an international order they do not see as in their interests, and often see Canada as the weak link in that international order.

While it would be easy to blame one person for our challenges, or to claim only one person can save us from the threats we face, this would ignore how we got here and how we might get back on track.  Canadians need to reflect on our common interests, the challenges the country faces, and how we might ensure security and prosperity for the next generation.  The question is how?  It will require at least some thinking in ways that cross party lines.  It could even help us remember what brings us together as Canadians. Business as usual will not bring meaningful discussion, let alone solutions.

Understanding what should be done and building the necessary support for it requires a serious national conversation about who we are, what our national interests (including values) are, and what needs to be done to put the odds back in our favour as we pursue those interests. Geography is hugely important to any country, but geography is not destiny.  What is important is how we respond to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.  This will take thoughtful and effective leadership, as well as engagement by a wide cross section of Canadians.  We need to understand what has made us successful in the past and what needs to change to secure our future.

Follow CIPS on Twitter

This process should engage Canadians, politicians, experts and the interested as an integral part of a process to reflect on and articulate our interests, while identifying options for pursuing those interests.  Ideally, this would lift discussion out of the echo chambers that are a seemingly inevitable part of modern media and political discourse.  Creative and thoughtful leadership is crucial.

Inspiration can come from the past but with a forward-looking agenda to deal with substantive issues, existing and emerging.  With cross party (and provincial) consultation, the current government should establish three related royal commissions (or the like) mandated to look at foreign affairs, the economy, and security/defence, with a view to identifying clearly Canada’s interests and options for securing our future in a deeply unsettled world.

Each would have compositions reflecting a variety of perspectives to encourage discussion.  Public hearings would be designed to engage with Canadians across the country—including politicians, other stakeholders, everyday Canadians.  With the collapse of most traditional media and the rise of echo chambers, a high profile, public engagement with Canadians could return some sense of a public square, where leaders (and the rest of us) are willing to pose questions and learn things they (we) do not already know.

Canada had a long tradition of white papers and royal commissions that, in contrast to communications today, were expected to prompt public discourse and recommendations that were not preplanned.  The interest of governments in public engagement on such issues has waned, presumably as message control has become paramount for the communications professionals.  What passes for consultation is typically engagement with pre-identified “stakeholders”.  A less charitable description could be “special interest groups”, which, if they are the primary target of consultations, can make the development of good policy in the national interest very difficult.

Engagement of the type I am suggesting would need the mandate and resources to seek widespread input—resource limitations cannot be the reason for not seeking public input—and to manage the inevitable unhelpful attention from troll farms the public work will attract.

As part of the effort to encourage cross party engagement on these commissions and the related public discussion, the final reports should be delivered beyond the next election, even as the public conversations in the process go on in the meantime.  The analysis and recommendations produced could await consideration by a government early in its mandate.

The shift in the relatively comfortable and undemanding world in which Canada has prospered has been a long time coming, but events in recent years have catalyzed the shift, meaning many Canadians are only now beginning to realize how much has changed. Action is urgent.


A precedent for this, of course, was the Royal Commission on the Economic Union and Development Prospects for Canada, aka the Macdonald Commission, established under the government of Pierre Trudeau in 1982 at a time of change and immense economic challenge.  Its report, issued in 1985, after the government had changed, was almost certainly quite different in key respects from what the first PM Trudeau’s government had envisioned.  But even before the report, its work prompted widespread, serious discussion of the challenges and opportunities, and the potential policy options, facing a Canada at a crossroads.

In recent weeks, many have remembered the Macdonald commission laying the groundwork for the late Brian Mulroney’s government to undertake major, lasting reforms of the economy, some of which, e.g. free trade with the USA, the Progressive Conservatives had opposed in the 1984 election. The Macdonald commission enabled the new government to consider a range of policy options, not just the politically convenient ones, to identify what made sense in the circumstances.  Politics still played a role, of course—several recommendations (e.g. Senate reform) did not get traction, but the report helped PM Mulroney’s government make decisions about where to spend its political capital, at least on economic issues.

Back to now. The shift in the relatively comfortable and undemanding world in which Canada has prospered has been a long time coming, but events in recent years have catalyzed the shift, meaning many Canadians are only now beginning to realize how much has changed. Action is urgent. The range of global and domestic challenges we face demand us to think beyond political sloganeering about where we go from here.

David McKinnon
David McKinnon

Related Articles








The CIPS Blog is written only by subject-matter experts. 


CIPS blogs are protected by the Creative Commons license: Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)