Canada after Trump: Harold Innis and What to Do When Empires Go Crazy
The Americans shocked the rest of the world by electing Donald Trump last Tuesday. Pierre Trudeau suggested that Canada’s proximity to the US was like “sleeping with an elephant”, and thus Canadians are particularly concerned about what this means.
Canada’s most preeminent political economist, Harold Innis, can offer some lessons. Innis is known for the “staples” approach, which examined the role of natural resource exploitation in Canadian economic development. However, his interest was really about the rise and fall of empires and the role of Canada as a nation on the periphery of the leading nations of the world.
In his later work, Innis explored the role of communications technologies. He contrasted time-based and space-based communications technologies. Time based technologies facilitate the creation of knowledge through dialogue and appreciation of history. Small group discussion and books are examples. Space based technologies enable communication over long distances and thus the quick diffusion of ideas, which is required to exercise power and influence. Social media is a very space-bound technology. A balance between time and space can protect intellectual endeavour and diffuse information. Yet, Innis warned about unbalanced situations where empires become overly focused on the exercise of power to the neglect of the development of time-based knowledge. In these unbalanced situations, communication decreases understanding.
Trump seems to have been elected via the dominance of space-based technologies. He was the ultimate click-bait candidate and twitter troll. The spread of information outpaced consideration of truth. America was working on time-based problems, such as climate change, under the Obama Administration and now Trump’s election puts these initiatives under severe threat. For instance, if Trump cancels climate related programs, some of the country’s top energy experts are going to leave the Department of Energy.
So what is Canada’s role? According to biographer, Alexander John Watson, Innis felt that the “great intellectual contributions that re-energize western civilization” would come from nations like Canada that exist on the periphery of large empires. Peripheral regions have potential to create a protected space for new ideas and focus on grappling with local problems. Innis promoted Canadian independence because he saw the country playing this important role in the world.
The grand theories of Innis have some concrete policy implications. Let’s consider how an Innisian perspectives suggests Canada should react to the potential exodus of clean energy experts from American institutions. It was a joke that Americans might move here in the event of a Trump victory. Yet, perhaps there is a role for Canada as a niche space for sustainable energy knowledge in North America? Canada should consider implementing a talent attraction strategy that welcomes refugee energy experts from the US, and combine the American expertise with domestic capabilities to solve the real sustainable energy transitions problems in Canada. Canada could gain a foothold in clean technology and start to finally reduce its emissions. Most importantly, Canada would be making an important contribution to the rest of the world by maintaining and expanding sustainable energy capabilities on the continent.
Canadians should think about what other values and ideals need to be nourished and preserved on the northern end of the continent. Trump’s election could introduce attacks on basic human rights, and Canada will need to rally with American allies to respect the dignity of all persons, regardless of origin, skin colour, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views (as Angela Merkel said).
This is not an argument for Canadian exceptionalism. Canada is not somehow immune to the intolerance and authoritarianism expounded by the Trump campaign. This is not the time for Canadians to rest on any imagined laurels. What Innis’ thought teaches us is that Canada might have a particular role to play when the American Empire gets out of whack. Thus, it is a time for the Canadian nation to actively consider how it can play a constructive role in the changing world order.