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COMMENTARY: Canada’s sense of ‘national project’ is unravelling

Trudeau says they are going through processes to determine if Teck Frontier mine a ‘national interest’
WATCH: Trudeau says they are going through processes to determine if Teck Frontier mine a 'national interest'

Does Canada have a strategic vision for at home and abroad?

I have thought about this a lot since returning to Canada after 35 years of living abroad. I feel it most acutely when watching grainy National Film Board documentaries from the post-war years.

The films are fascinating time capsules that capture the immense hope of Canadians at the time about their country and its future. Narrators marvelled at the scale of the country and its potential.

There were lovely bits of Canadiana showing the prairie harvest, miners in northern Ontario, woodcutters in Quebec and fishermen on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

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Many of the vignettes would be considered politically incorrect and patronizing today, yet they were produced by the progressives of that time. Women figured prominently in many of the stories. So did Indigenous peoples and poor immigrant families.

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Excitement was expressed about the RCAF’s Canadian-made Argus reconnaissance aircraft, the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the launching of polar icebreakers such as the Louis St. Laurent.

It was a time of great pride in Canada’s peacekeeping missions to places such as Congo and the brigade and air squadrons in France and Germany that helped keep the Soviets in check.

Both sides trying to sway opinion on Teck Frontier mine
Both sides trying to sway opinion on Teck Frontier mine

Developing natural resources was a national obsession, and it was acknowledged that the lucre they created brought greater prosperity to remote areas and to cities such as Montreal, Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver.

There was a universal sense then that Canadians were embarked together on a great national project and that the country punched above its weight. There was confidence that the nation — which was far more prosperous than Europe at the time — had become a world-beater and was just about the fairest place anywhere.

Those threads have unravelled a lot since then. Not many Canadians, whether oldtimers or newcomers, have much interest in the can-do mentality that propelled the country for its first century.

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Though much of the population now lives in fast-growing cities, rather than the hinterlands, many urbanites are convinced that smaller is better. Such a philosophy is difficult to reconcile with an expansive frontier mentality.

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What we have instead are provinces bickering constantly, and sometimes spitefully trying to do each other economic harm. There is little patience anymore for the notion that what is good for one can actually be good for all.

No political leader has figured how to convince Canadians that the best way forward must be to continue to responsibly develop the country’s natural resources, while at the same time urgently investing billions into projects that seriously mitigate the effects of climate change and will encourage the super high-tech industries that will eventually overtake resource industries as the backbone of the economy — but not soon enough to walk away today from oil, gas, coal and the like.

Nor does any politician articulate a far-sighted nation-building vision that includes, say, a high-speed train corridor from Quebec City to Windsor or a partnership with the Inuit, who tend to be practical and business-oriented, to finally exploit the treasures of the High Arctic archipelago and adjacent waters.

Not to do so harms Canada economically and is a gift to China and Russia, who have no compunctions about resource development.

READ MORE: Quebec premier watching Bombardier’s financial situation ‘very closely’

Canada’s lack of a strategic vision was underlined last week by a development that got relatively little attention. With no more poorly thought out federal or provincial bailouts coming, Bombardier Inc. must soon decide whether to sell its business jet or its rail arm.

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Worse than that, even Quebecers have stopped caring about what, given how much it has cost taxpayers, should have been one of the country’s crown jewels for decades to come.

Would the Japanese, the South Koreans, the French or the Germans have ever let a company with such great international potential as Bombardier sell off its world-class C series jet company to Airbus for $1, only to see it immediately rack up hundreds of millions of dollars in new sales?

The indifference surrounding Bombardier’s fate today reminds me of the way many Central Canadians and British Columbians regard Alberta’s energy industry. It is commonly viewed as evil and unnecessary because Canadians are smart enough to find alternatives, although this natural gas and oil still fuels the national economy and pays a lot of bills in Quebec and Atlantic Canada.

Oil cars continue to burn at site of Saskatchewan CP train derailment
Oil cars continue to burn at site of Saskatchewan CP train derailment

The consequence of this illogical sentiment about the energy industry was underscored last week when a freight train carrying crude oil derailed in Saskatchewan, triggering a fire and spewing great black smoke clouds into the prairie sky, reminiscent of a similar crude oil train fire that in 2013 killed 47 people at Mégantic, Que.

These disasters happen because it has somehow become more politically correct to endanger Canadians by sending long oil trains snaking across the country than to build pipelines, which are a much safer option. Yet there seems to be little political will or skill to sort out what has become a hugely divisive problem.

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For all that, Canada has muddled through until now because of the resource-based economy that was largely created between 1880 and 1970 by visionary politicians, captains of business and labourers willing to do the bull work and trade with the world.

Perhaps it is naive to think this, but with the country badly fractured along east-west lines and divided into traditional and progressive camps today, there is a huge opening for an internationally-minded political leader who can inspire Canadians with an articulate, coherent dream of a united Canada.

Finding such a visionary — or having him or her find us — is a daunting task in these cynical times.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas