One of the most fundamental responsibilities of the government of Canada is to manage our relationship with the United States. The shocking events surrounding the end of the destructive Trump presidency make that task more challenging. They also make it more important than ever that we get it right.
Canadians are accustomed to seeing unruly and even violent scenes play out on the streets of the United States. We know our neighbour can be noisy, as competing visions and clashing values bring raised voices and sometimes clenched fists to the American streets.
But what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, was different. The violent events of that day were deliberately incited by the sitting president. Even as the mob broke through the Capitol’s doors, Donald Trump called them “special” and he claimed that he loved them. He rejected frantic demands that he call them off. He refused to summon the National Guard to stop them.
The mob was not at the Capitol simply to protest. Its aim was nothing less than to overthrow the settled order. Entirely. Violently. Some brought zip ties to restrain the legislators they hoped to seize. Others spoke of carrying out summary executions on the lawn. This was an insurrection. Their conduct was seditious.
A tense beginning
With only days to go in Trump’s term, it is tempting to imagine that once he’s gone, the mob will go with him. Sadly, that’s not going to happen.
Trump may be leaving office, but the forces he has unleashed are not going away. He has spawned a fearsome political mutation, fed by a toxic mix of white supremacy, strident libertarianism, evangelical fundamentalism, virulent anti-Semitism and, of course, a visceral devotion to their guns. And whether it’s Trump or some other false prophet free of principle and fuelled by ambition, there will always be someone to mobilize the mob and galvanize that network of haters.
Managing those divisive forces and pulling Americans together will be one of incoming president Joe Biden’s early and urgent priorities. But it tops a long list. The pandemic is still surging, menacing both public health and the economy. The existential threat of climate change is more urgent than ever. Migration and forced displacement need to be managed humanely. And while these challenges require a collective response, the breakdown of international co-operation and the hostility of authoritarian regimes make a multilateral solution unlikely.
All of this gives Canadians a great deal to think about. As always, the fate of our two countries is very much entwined. What are the implications for our own future in light of what we’ve seen to the south? How can we help the Biden administration manage the aftermath of Trump and his enablers?
A gesture of solidarity
America is in crisis, and Americans are in pain. The insurrection has shaken the trademark American confidence like few events in the last half century. Canada’s relationship with the U.S. is unique in all the world. Among the many feelings we have for our neighbour and closest ally are admiration and affection. This is a moment for us to express our solidarity with Americans as they struggle to overcome their crisis and to regain equilibrium.
Why doesn’t our government put a resolution before Parliament intended to capture the “sense of the House,” wishing the new administration well? This would reaffirm our steadfast friendship and support for the U.S. and its democratic institutions, from which we have learned much and have frequently drawn inspiration. By adopting that resolution unanimously, we can reassure Americans that they have a neighbour who is fully supportive of the restorative initiatives they will now undertake.
Public-service news delivered to your inbox.
No room for complacency
The events on Capitol Hill are also a learning moment for Canada. There is no room for complacency. We must not think that “it can’t happen here.” The anger, alienation and resentment behind the mob’s fury is not unique to the United States. And networks of hate don’t stop at the border. The website of the Canadian Anti-Hate Network, which monitors hate groups, discloses that there are over 300 active right-wing extremist groups in Canada. Hate-motivated crime is a continuing concern.
We need to focus on strengthening Canada’s social fabric. Have we done all the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows to target hatemongers and their tactics? And since networks of hate are international, we should work with the Americans to establish a global coalition against them, sharing best practices, harmonizing strategies and co-ordinating the enforcement of anti-hate laws.
We can make democracy in Canada more resilient by finding more opportunities for bipartisan consensus, and by rejecting approaches that widen cleavages and turn political opponents into enemies.
The American experience also reminds us that democracy is fragile. Our commitment to its values and institutions must be continuous. Democracy is weakened by excessive partisanship and the politics of division. We can make democracy in Canada more resilient by finding more opportunities for bipartisan consensus and by rejecting approaches that widen cleavages and turn political opponents into enemies. Why not propose an all-party initiative to tackle the hate groups that threaten our security and social peace? We can all agree on that.
We can act as well to strengthen Parliament. We can empower MPs by distributing at least some of the authority that is now so centralized in the Prime Minister’s Office (the PMO). Why not fund Parliamentary committees properly and give them scope to take on the meaningful policy work they can do so well?
Of course we want Biden to succeed in bringing Americans together, and in resuming American leadership internationally. Where we have shared challenges, let’s promote common strategies. Like a deepened partnership on issues involving energy, climate, public health, and border collaboration. On a global scale, let’s offer to work with Biden to rebuild multilateralism, promote disarmament and non-proliferation, and restore the vitality of the United Nations and other multilateral institutions.
Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau both like to say that in recovering from the pandemic, they will “build back better.” As they do so, let’s make sure they include the Canada-U.S. relationship. Repairing and strengthening that bond will serve the best interests of both countries.