General Articles


If customs union led to annexation, Canada might gain a richer life at little cost — except her soul

ARTHUR LOWER June 15 1948
General Articles


If customs union led to annexation, Canada might gain a richer life at little cost — except her soul

ARTHUR LOWER June 15 1948


If customs union led to annexation, Canada might gain a richer life at little cost — except her soul


EVERY FEW years old Satan comes around to us Canadians, displaying the glittering rewards he has for a little easy submission: these invariably wear such labels as “Commercial Union,” “Unrestricted Reciprocity” or, simply, “Reciprocity.” He has been back again recently and this time his package is marked “Customs Union.”

We used to assume that Satan was merely baiting a trap for us; if we fell into it, the unpitying hunter, Uncle Sam, would come along and take our hide. Canada would be annexed and would disappear. As a result, we got used to throwing

Satan out, along with his glittering packages. We did this in two famous general elections, 1891 and 1911, and on various minor occasions. But it is usually forgotten that for 12 years, from 1854 to 1866, there actually was reciprocity. While the customs houses were not closed up, a wide measure of free trade existed between the two countries and Canada prospered as never before and seldom since. Maybe the bait which Satan sets deserves examination. Maybe he is not Satan at all, but Santa Claus.

Whatever the temptation, we have always retained our freedom in tariff matters. Now, however, the dollar crisis, added to external disturbances, is once more turning the thoughts of some Canadians toward a customs union, and

many Americans, including «ome influential politicians and publishers, also favor the idea.

Today we may acquit Uncle Sam of being a hunter. Still, closer associations with the best of neighbors, when changes in legal relationship are involved, are not to be entered upon lightly and must be examined carefully. A customs union is a peculiarly intimate form of relationship and we must know what it would really mean and how it would actually affect our economy and society.

“Trade naturally flows north and south”; this phrase is repeated millions of times a year in this country. Like many other clichés, it is accepted without much examination. Does trade naturally flow north and south? It does not; I implore my fellow Canadians to cease Continued on page 8

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repeating shibboleths and begin looking at facts. The facts are simple and physical: the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. These are the arteries of trade. Our grain would go out by the Great Lakes if there were not a single railroad north of the Lakes.

Trade “naturally” flows over the border, too. Trade flows in every direction. Most “naturally” of all—in any area capable of producing surpluses—it flows from the interior of the continent to its edges, down the natural and man-made highways, to the great ports. For us, a customs union would alter this “flow” in detail, but would not terminate it.

“If there were no tariffs, our industries would all be drawn south of the line.” Gallons of ink have been spent in arguing this point, so it is impossible to do much more here than notice it. It was American holders of timber limits in Canada who fought for the 1935 reciprocity agreement: Canadian lumbermen were indifferent. It was a fight between two sets of Americans, one having timber limits on one side of the line, one on the other. The reciprocity agreement enabled the American owners to slaughter the Canadian forests in happy abandon, reaping quick profits from their sales in the American market. American tariffs against Canadian raw materials have constituted measures of conservation, holding up the exhaustion of our supplies.

Of course, the great consuming centres of the United States will get much of our wealth anyway. Cornell University is said to have been built out of the pine forests of Simcoe County, Ont. There are American colleges today which are similar happy recipients (through donors) of funds derived from Canadian raw materials—a wealth that passes right by equally deserving but much poorer Canadian institutions. The position would not be altered by a customs union, except in that it is just conceivable that the spirit of public generosity so marked among wealthy Americans might prove catching ! This, however, it is not safe to count upon.

Would It Close Our Factories?

THE reciprocity proposals of 1911 were defeated because Canadian manufacturers feared for their own survival. It is on manufactures, rather than raw materials, that the debate really centres. Under a customs union, how much of our industry would disappear? That is the crux of the question. And it cannot be answered. Undoubtedly the readjustment would be great. Many American branch plants might close (a proud people might see these as symbols of alien domination, anyway, though we do not). But the present trend toward decentralization of industry, based on electric power and cheap transportation, might compensate for any that were closed. Canada has passed the infant stage in industrialization. Many native Canadian firms might expand into the United States without losing their Canadian indentity, as they usually do at present when they follow this course. The western farmer and many other farmers would get supplies much more cheaply than now. With the several hundred dollars saved on a car, for example, the farmer, and other car owners, would buy more services: there would be advances in medical care, in education, in merchandising facilities and so on.

One other matter of importance: under a customs union, the United States would find it difficult to discriminate against us when the pressure goes on oil, coal, freight cars and other such articles for which we partly depend on American sources of supply.

The pros and cons are endless but, everything considered, Canada, I imagine, would gain materially from a continental economy.

But we have never made our decisions on such a basis. We have always looked to the more indirect results, the political, constitutional, legal results: remarkably enough, even to the cultural results.

The first political consequence, so it is always said, would be that our tariffs would be made in Washington. I don’t see how this could be escaped: directly or indirectly, they Continued on page 71

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would be. Perhaps representations made by Ottawa might be listened to; more probably, they would be overborne by powerful American “pressure groups.” It is just possible that the bargain struck would include some kind of tariff board, under which we could rétain some type of veto right. Or it might prove possible for us to go on making our own tariff arrangements with countries outside the Canada-U. S. union, providing goods imported from abroad were segregated and not allowed to cross the present American boundary. The exact devices would be for the experts to work out. Persistence might save us some tariff autonomy.

Exchange and finance would almost necessarily follow goods and go on to a continental basis. Would this involve a currency union? At present, an American presented with a Canadian coin drops it as if it were a hornet. A currency union would at least avoid this—because there would no longer be Canadian coins. Would we miss them? I have yet to meet the Canadian who has any great objection to taking American money.

Our banks would certainly have to readjust themselves to a different atmosphere: this would be highly painful. It might involve ending internal

exchange charges—there are none in the United States. On the whole, Canadian banks should not be much afraid, for Canadians seem made for this sad business of finance in its secondary rungs (not its more daring) and, moreover, our banking structure at the moment, it would seem to an avowed amateur, possesses no great degree of independence. However, it did get us through the storms of 1933 without the horrors which came to Americans. So, here again, we come to a balance.

The Annexation Bogey

The real difficulty, of course, in the whole situation, even allowing due weight to the profits which reside in the tariff and the employment it is supposed to give, is the fear that commercial union would lead to political union. Disguise it as we may, it is the old bogey of annexation with which we are dealing.

The 12 years’ experience from 1854 to 1866 would suggest that the more prosperous Canada is, the better able she is to resist tendencies toward union. Would the experience be repeated under a modern customs union?

One of the first demands that would follow a customs union would be a demand for common citizenship. A common citizenship would at least

eliminate the border-crossing nuisance. But it would not eliminate questions of residence and domicile: just as people from one province today have to “qualify” in another for residential rights, such as voting, so they would still have to qualify on moving from Ontario to Ohio, or from North Dakota to Manitoba. It would take more than a common citizenship to abolish that favorite perplexity of the lawyers, domicile. A common citizenship would not be a decisive factor, one way or the other.

It is when we come to symbols of citizenship that we get into dangerous territory. Would our fighting forces put on American uniforms? A whole division did so during the closing stages of the last war without anyone objecting very much. Union or no union, what would happen if the pressure were to go on again? Common heroes? Would we have to stop naming ourschools “King George” or “Winston Churchill” and begin calling them “Abraham Lincoln?” There is no reason to think we would, though we would be more respected (especially in England) if we dug up a few heroes of our own and quit borrowing those of Great Britain. Would we have to rewrite our popular historical legends and, for example, depict the war of 1812 as an American triumph? Why would we have to do anything like that? Both peoples would still be at liberty to misrepresent their history as much as they wished, just as English Canadians and French Canadians today misrepresent it. This kind of history— the kind too often taught in the schools—is not strikingly dissimilar from Jack-the-Giant-Killer stories anyway.

The Flag Debate

It is symbols like flags and national anthems that make the real trouble. Would it be fair to put it this way: that since we Canadians have none of our own, adopting the American flag and national anthem would simply involve switching over from one set of exterior symbols to another? Many would not accept this view, but it is to be feared that simply because they have never been able to acquire symbols of their own, symbols growing out of their own native soil, they might, under suitable pressure, be the first to accept still another non-native set. We must never forget that the only really big annexation movement set on foot in this country, that of 1849, was sponsored by the wealthy English-speaking group in Montreal, who a year or two previously had been vociferous in their cries of “loyalty.”

Just at present there would be fierce resistance to a suggestion of a change of flag, though it cannot be sustained that Canadians dislike the American flag: it flies too freely here for that to be so.

1 f talk of union ever comes to anything it will he precisely because there is an unfilled vacuum between the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes: if that space were filled with something to which all Canadians without exception could give their undivided allegiance, discussions like this would be unnecessary.

If we were to go on from a common citizenship to a common flag, we would be precious close to complete political union. The debate at this point, requires relentless application of its own logic: where would we get to under political union?

Would we have a common government? Would Ottawa cease and determine? Would they lock up the Parliament Buildings? Anyone who has been in Edinburgh can see what an abandoned capital looks like—a city bravely trying to keep up appearances

after the reality has fled. Abandoning Ottawa would be pretty hard to take.

Could we avoid abandoning Ottawa by having some kind of government within a government? An American friend of mine, in a moment of unusual candor, once said to me: “We fought a civil war to prevent certain states arrogating special privileges to themselves.” His implication was plain: “Come in, if you like, but not as a nation.”

A Weak Minority

If we decided to accept such terms, tearing up the concept of Canada, and becoming states of the union, then what? Eighteen senators at Washington? Eighteen senators would speak with a far more powerful voice, one would think, than one ambassador—if they spoke with the same voice. But who could imagine 18 senators speaking with the same voice? No, our senators at Washington would simply speak for their individual neighborhoods, not for a dead idea, Canada.

But would we get 18? Would Prince Edward Island get two? That is hard to believe. Our proportionate share is more like nine. As to members of the House of Representatives, our share (1940 figures of population) would be 38, out of a total house of 473. The three Maritime provinces together would be entitled to three representatives, Quebec 10, Ontario 12, Manitoba two and so on. Of course, before numbers were fixed, a prolonged party battle would be fought at Washington. Each party would attempt to forecast the political complexion of a particular Canadian region and to act accordingly. The Democrats might fight for an overrepresentation of the West, hoping that from it they would get recruits to offset the agrarian Republicans of their own West. The Republicans would certainly try to shove up the figures of representatives from the Toronto area.

It is evident that we could not take it for granted that all our provinces would become states. If it were proposed to telescope the Maritimes into one or two states, what reaction could be expected from Maritimere?

Integral political union would involve acceptance of the American constitution in its entirety, president, fixed terms and all. Provincial rights would be rearranged, becoming broader in some respects, narrower in others. Ontario bellows loudly in Ottawa’s

ear: her voice would be little more than a whisper at Washington. The special and official place of the French language in Canada would disappear, though in Quebec there would be nothing to prevent its position remaining as strong as it is now. There would be no constitutional guarantees for separate schools, unless these could be made a special condition within the basic arrangement.

An important part of the American constitution is its Bill of Rights. We do not have a Bill of Rights in Canada, guaranteeing civil liberties. While we have not too much to complain of, it may be that liberty is safer under the written American constitution of 1789 and the great tradition built up since 1776 than under our own powerful type of government. The point is debatable and the debate is endless.

Lost In the Crowd

Here are some other considerations, of a political or related nature, which deserve to be well-pondered; it is impossible to do more than enumerate them:

1. Our representatives at Ottawa are remote enough from the average man, as it is: they would be much more remote at Washington.

2. The average congressman (not senator) at Washington has little prestige: membership in the House of Representatives would actually be a “comedown” from membership in the House of Commons.

3. The American system of government would be found strange and alien by the average Canadian.

4. Canadians might fail to identify themselves satisfactorily with the American party system. How many of us could work with illiberal Southern Democrats, for example? That might expose us to the dangers of wandering around in a kind of party no man’s land, our weight not great enough to tell very much in any direction.

5. From our point of view, we would find the American party system inflexible. That has some real disadvantages, especially in these troubled times. For example, it has not proved possible to set up in the United States a reformist third party. The result has been that the Communists have crowded into this gap and have put up another false front around Henry Wallace, which may go far. The Canadian system allowed of the emergence of a reformist, or social democratic party,

the CCF, in response to the plainly discerned tendencies of the age, and this party takes the shock: it acts as a lightning conductor, as witness the Communists’ elephantine efforts to make use of it.

6. No feoling is more common among

Canadians who attend American conventions than the oppressiveness of mere size: in these huge gatherings one feels lost in the crowd. Politically, union 11 mean that we Cana-

dians wóuiulfe “lost in the crowd,” recognizing few whom we knew, filled with a feeling of helplessness because of the mere size of the show. Canada is at least a manageable political unit, large as it is, and it is still possible for Canadians in similar lines of endeavor to know all their fellows, from coast to coast. In the United States, when they put in sugar rationing, it took an army of 27,000 people to run it. We avoid some of the evils of being a giant.

7. Washington is normally a bedlam.

A strong expression? Well, just go to Washington. Go to the House of Representatives. The average Canadian will wonder how any country can exist, let alone be well-governed, with such an atmosphere prevalent. There is another side to the story, of course, and things do get done and often welldone. But anarchy is always rife. Take this uneasy period we at present face, with all the bolts and tumblers in the American combination lock out of alignment and working efficiency to be restored only by the general election of next November, no matter what happens in the interval. The normal

atmosphere of Washington approximates that of bedlam.

8. Could our provinces retain their

judicial system? We appoint judges, the Americans elect. We usually

consider our system the better. However, the quip an American made should be noted: “In the United

States,” he said, “we at least appoint the successful candidate as judge: in Canada, I gather, it is the defeated candidate whom you appoint.”

9. While certain incidents suggest that American “third-degree” methods are not unheard-of among our police, there is little reason to believe that they are customary. With union, would the American police system “slop over” into Canada, together with their system of law enforcement generally? Such things would be pretty hard to keep out. Would bribing minor officials, corrupting the courts and so on, become common here? This is a well-worn topic and it seems to me to present too much of a temptation for us to fall into our old attitude of complacent superiority to make it wise to put much emphasis upon it, unless it be fully discussed and investigated, which it cannot be here.

10. Could we avoid the American legal system, with its technicalities and its endless delays? Our provinces would keep their own laws and the spirit of their administration would continue. But what of the criminal law, now common to all Canada; under union, would each province write its own, adding to the confusion already existing in a country where theoretically there may be 49 different kinds of murder?

Political union would not be all disadvantage. There would be some tangible advantages: these also must be enumerated:

1. Members of Congress are not bound by party considerations to stick to their party line through thick and thin: there is probably a good deal more plain speech and genuine expression of opinion at Washington than there is at Ottawa.

2. We would be citizens of a great power. How much would Austrians or

Czechs give for the possibility of such a membership? As citizens of a great power, with the world’s destiny depending on us, we would acquire a greater sense of responsibility in international affairs than we now possess. If Americans in foreign affairs are adolescents, Canadians are no more than boys of nine. Membership in the Commonwealth does not give us responsibility or the privilege of decision, for there, too, decision rests on a great power and we avoid interfering—just as we do, also, at present, with the United States.

3. We would become members of a country which is more of a “grassroots” democracy than our own. In the United States, power grows out of the people’s will to a degree hardly credible to the average Canadian. Anyone who knows the American scene well can supply evidence of this.

4. Our fighting forces would, by and large, be in a more familiar medium than heretofore, better adapted to our highly democratic society than they are at present, with the traditions of aristocracy that infuse them.

5. We might as well have the game as the name. We shall certainly incur all the results of American policy— especially of its mistakes. As J. V. McAree remarked in the Globe and Mail not long ago: in the case of another world war “the United States will be in it from the beginning and, of course, Canada will be too.” If we are so completely tied up as all that— and there is not the slightest indication that Canadians desire anything else— then, perhaps, we ought to think about getting the benefits of American budgets, American weapons and of unity of command.

6. Union would open big careers to Canadians. This is not an unworthy motive: it had a good deal to do with bringing about Confederation. Now, again, as before, possibly some of our big men may feel “crowded” on the mere Canadian stage. I am sure many a Canadian businessman would like to be a director of United States Steel. Many a military man would like to command something higher than a corps.

The most important—and the most elusive—factors in a country’s life are not tangible, but intangible. Because they touch the roots of life, they are hardest to discuss and, whatever language is used, it will appeal to the fewest people. But the spiritual realities which stand behind them, however inadequately I voice them, will settle our national fate.

It Would Be “Our” Hollywood

The intangible advantages of union with the United States do not directly affect the average man very much. But they are of profound importance for the sensitive and the creative spirit, on whom the inadequacies of Canadian life weigh heavily. For such, merger in a real nation, with a genuine national spirit and tradition behind it, would flush out many of the shoddinesses of Canadian life—its imitativeness, its divided loyalties, its deep - rooted colonialism (and perhaps its parochialism), its hangdog submissiveness to the greater world beyond its borders. Submissiveness? Yes, and an illustration: In a recent issue of Maclean’s, a letter writer chided Beverley Baxter for a little mild criticism of Winston Churchill: that was “presumptuous.”

Merger might get rid of our polite hypocrisies—the conceit that, somehow or other, we are more “refined,” less “materialistic” than our neighbors. It might relieve our sorry subjection to another country’s culture, though only through the hard process of drowning

whatever native culture we have in that other country’s. At any rate, the American movies, such as they are, would be our movies and their popular heroines, ours. When we supplied an actress to Hollywood, she would not, as now, be lost to us. Nine-tenths of our people live, move and have their being in American popular culture anyway. Personally, I loathe American popular culture, with its mournful croakings and croonings, but I don’t count, for I am only a “prof” lost in the crowd (dare I exercise a “prof’s” prerogative at this point and shout out words that few will understand: odi

profanum vulgus?). So maybe it would be better for the average Canadian to quit watching the baseball game through the knothole in the fence and walk up and pay for his ticket.

Of culture in the nonpopular sense, the culture of educated people, we have in Canada no oversupply, either native or imported. Our native culture—and it is only by its cultural creativeness that, in the long run, a country can justify its existence—is a tender plant. We have done magnificently in political and legal institutions. We have done creditably in medicine and science. We have done rather well in painting. We are beginning to make a literature of our own and even some music. We show some promise in the scholarly world. But in none of these fields, except the first, have we gone far as yet, and a distinctively Canadian culture and way of life, as there is a distinctively American, has not yet

decisively manifested itself. A large part of the explanation for this lies in the mentality of our people. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” Canadians seem to ask themselves. We oscillate between a touchy vanity and the servility that accompanies deep self-distrust; we have little deep pride. We sometimes seem afraid to allow anything really native to grow up: for generations, for example, the universities, admittedly among our most conservative institutions, have imported teaching talent from Great Britain and Europe, all too often turning aside their own promising young men and forcing them into exile in the United States. The result has been unreality and colonialism in one of the most vital areas, higher education.

Must We Be Logical?

We export our best, carelessly and casually, whether they be professors, writers or athletes, and then wonder why they so quickly forget us, outAmericaning the Americans in their scorn of the backward fringe of settlement “up north.” Such attitudes do not make for a healthy community, one rejoicing in its strength, confident in its destiny.

It may be that to become American would be to have the gates of imagination and creativeness open up to us. It may be that the power, the vitality of American life would thaw this frozen northern ground and that in the end, whatever we have worth-while about

us would not be submerged, but would come out stronger, more valid than before. On the other hand, the frozen north might continue full of frozen northerners, still living on the thin gruel of unrealistic notions of superiority.

And yet, that north! The illimitable wilderness, its shining lakes! Those waves I’ve fought with on the Gulf of Georgia, or on Nipigon or Simcoe, those far blue hills the St.

Lawrence! Those sf.Jjjié; kindly people! Whatever their shortcomings, they are mine.

Intellectually, I am afraid the balance may not be difficult to strike, as the points I have enumerated go to suggest. But is cold logic the whole story? When you are faced with decision, there wells up within you that which renders rational argument difficult and you think of another unfortunate country, spiritually torn, too, though perhaps not so tragically as ours, a country whose course, so similar to our own, has been touched off by the English historian Trevelyan, in words with which this article must close:

“For two centuries and a half after Bannockburn, Scotland remained a desperately poor, savage, bloodstained land . . . Her democratic instincts had prevented her from being annexed to England, who would have given her wealth and civilization . . . What then had Scotland gained by resisting . .. .? Nothing at all—except her soul, and whatsoever things might come in the end from preserving that.” ★