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Matt Gurney: We are an extremely naive country and reality is going to punch us in the face
Why does the Business Council of Canada see this while our politicians can't?
By: Matt Gurney
A recent report on our economic and national security, prepared by the Business Council of Canada and published earlier this month, makes for an absolutely fascinating read. Not just for what it says — though it's interesting enough on its own merits. What's really interesting is why the report exists at all.
In short, it exists because Canada is, as a whole, a naive, spoiled country that stands a pretty good chance of getting punched in the face by reality sometime in the not-too-distant future.
But that's maybe a bit much all at once. Let's slow down a bit and talk about what the report actually is and what it says.
Published on September 7th, and freely available online, the report is titled, "Economic Security is National Security: The Case for an Integrated Canadian Strategy." Across several dozen pages, the authors make a compelling case that a deteriorating geopolitical situation threatens Canada's economic prosperity, and further, that economic prosperity is the root of what Canada is and the lives we enjoy. The main thesis of the report is entirely in line with my own thinking, and closely echoes some of what I've been writing here in recent years, particularly as regards our expectations being a problem.
Here's the challenge, as the report's authors see it: "The free, open, and relatively stable unipolar order that prevailed following the conclusion of the Cold War – and which provided Canada with unprecedented levels of safety, security, and prosperity – is giving way to a new, more turbulent, multipolar reality marked by geopolitical rivalry."
To which I say, bang on.
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The report continues in that vein. "In a world where security is a prerequisite for prosperity, and prosperity a prerequisite for security, Canada will be unable to sustain a healthy and prosperous society without a national security strategy that safeguards our economic security," the report says. It also says, "Absent a strong national security environment, it is impossible to have a healthy and productive economy." A few sentences later: "For decades now, successive Canadian governments have overlooked, taken for granted, or simply ignored the principle that economic security is national security." (Emphasis from the original.)
That's the broad outline of the report, and it goes into a lot more detail of ways in which Canada's economic security is threatened. There are sections on threats from cyber attacks, from ransomware on the low-end to catastrophic utility grid crashes in a worst-case scenario. The report discusses industrial and commercial espionage, and hostile or competitor states using mercantilist tactics against our free-market system. It covers the danger of foreign economic and trade measures narrowly targeting sectors of our economy to achieve political ends (China's targeting of our canola exports is cited as an example). The report discusses our access to critical minerals and the dangers of being reliant on critical goods and commodities when the relevant supply chains ultimately lead back to enemies or competitors. The authors don’t just list problems; they also have earnest suggestions for action plans and white papers and working groups and the optimal structures and procedures for cabinet groups that will help address all these issues. Proposed timelines for reforms are laid out.
It's a fine report, and well worth your time to read. Seriously. Take the 20 minutes to read it. To the extent that the Business Council of Canada seeks or cares about my endorsement, they have it. Their insights are thoughtful and shrewd and their proposals measured and reasonable.
But as I was reading the report, there was this nagging thought in the back of my mind. Why is the Business Council of Canada trying to impress upon the government (and the country at large) the importance of economic security? Why do we need a report from top business leaders to remind our political leadership that poor countries aren't generally safe and peaceful ones, and that there are countries out there that would wish us harm and that we need to be on guard against? Like, shouldn't we know that already? Because none of this stuff is revolutionary. It's all extremely basic stuff that any mature country should just sort of intuitively grasp. Right?
And that's when the shoulder-slumping realization lands on you like a ton of bricks. We should, but in this country, we don't. We just don't. Because, well ....
It seems to me that a country shouldn't need a report to impress upon key civilian leadership that economic prosperity is the cornerstone of all security, or that, on the flip side, security is a prerequisite for prosperity. Toronto is a fair bit rougher than it used to be these days — join us at our event next month! — but when I leave the house to run an errand, I'm reasonably confident I'm not going to be abducted by a band of roving pirates prowling the leafy streets of Leaside. When I head up north for the weekend, it doesn't occur to me that there'll be a checkpoint along the route, looking to shake me down or carry off my children into slavery. In the mornings, when I lurch out of bed with a groan that gets louder with each passing year, I expect that the light switch will indeed result in light and that the faucet in the bathroom will provide clean water. I don't have to worry about whether the water treatment plant has been bombed or the power lines shelled.
Many of my Canadian readers may find the above absurd or, at least, a bit of hyperbole. But that's the point. As I have written many times before, almost everything we do in this country, and almost our entire self-identity as Canadians, accepts internal security and safety from military attack as an ironclad given, just by default. That makes sense: that has been the norm for us, for a long time. It seems absurd precisely because how distant it seems from our normal.
But it isn't the norm in any historical sense much beyond a human lifetime or two or three, even in Canada. And more to the point, as the voice-over guys in the commercials say, past performance may not be indicative of future results.
We are not owed prosperity in perpetuity. We are not guaranteed security by virtue of our niceness. These are precious things that require more than just good luck — and good luck, thank God, is something Canada still does seem to have. In addition to luck, though, we need realistic understandings of our strengths, weaknesses and the threats we face. We need political leadership that is mature and aware enough to understand the difference between political interest and national interest, and that is seized enough with these issues to devote the necessary resources to building up and preserving our security, from all reasonably foreseeable threats. That includes not just investments of money and people, but also simply intellectual bandwidth and emotional toil. We have to think, hard, about things that aren't nice to think about, and have robust, effective institutions and a critical mass of people with the necessary combination of mindset, academic and professional training and lived experience to be effective at foreseeing, heading off and, when necessary, managing crises that threaten our safety and prosperity. We need a supportive bureaucracy that is efficient and task-focused and doesn’t get in the way of all this vital work.
Does any of this sound like Canada to you?!
Does it sound like the leader of any of our governments, or any of the people who'll replace those leaders? Does it sound like any of our institutions except the ones specifically tasked with security and defence? You know, the ones we habitually starve so we can spend a few extra bucks and a bit more political capital on something a bit more pleasing to the average voter? Does it sound like the sort of thing smart, well-read and educated Canadians spare a single solitary moment thinking about as they go about their day to day lives?
Of course not. No one does, and our politics reflect this. These just aren't issues of concern in Canada outside of the military, the intelligence agencies and a few fellow journalists and academics I could probably recount here in their totality by their first names.
I'm one of them, and probably freer to speak my mind than most. I'm an exasperated columnist with his own magazine. I can just lay this stuff out as bluntly as I see fit. It's a luxury. The Business Council report authors have to be a bit more polite about it all. But I have no doubt whatsoever that the authors would agree with what I've said above, because they say it, too. They just say it in a Business-Council-of-Canada kind of way. With statements like this: "Canada must fundamentally alter the way it approaches issues of national security. This will require an over-arching national security strategy that takes an eyes wide open approach to the complex ways strategic threat actors seek to undermine Canada while explicitly recognizing that economic security is central to a broader national vision of a more secure country." And this: "Failure to address this challenge with urgency and ambition will have serious, long-term consequences for Canadians."
And, crucially, this:
The Government of Canada has been responding to our new geopolitical reality. But its actions have been slow, modest, and piecemeal. This approach stems largely from a mode of governance that responds to immediate and pressing issues that arise without sufficient long-term planning for dealing with strategic threat actors which think well beyond the length of an average Canadian political cycle.
This is how polite corporate leaders talk at posh downtown luncheons. Allow me to translate this back into more normal English, by quoting from what I said at the outset of this column: "Canada is, as a whole, a naive, spoiled country that stands a pretty good chance of getting punched in the face by reality. "
Readers should know, and may by now be wondering, why this column hasn't referred at all to the latest issue that has burst onto the news regarding Canadian security — the India situation. The short answer is that the report came out before the India story broke, and I started my notes for this column last week. It would have been written already if I wasn't staggering around on a busted foot, which is as much fun as it sounds. I thought about trying to shoehorn some India stuff in to make it more topical, but I think the points above largely speak to themselves (especially that stuff about targeted economic pressure — how's that lentil harvest going, Saskatchewan friends?). If Canada was, in a general sense, better at security, perhaps India or any other country would think twice before even considering what India is accused of. But maybe not. I honestly don't know.
What I do know is that reports like this don't get written unless people are worried. I expect national security weirdos like myself to worry about this stuff; I admit to being surprised to see national security now being on the radar, no pun intended, of the Business Council of Canada.
But don't confuse surprise for displeasure. I think it's fantastic that they're raising these issues. You know why? Because the decade and a half I've spent writing about these issues has been a complete bust. Just a total waste of effort. Sheer futility. I haven't moved the needle the slightest bit. There remains in this country a fairly small group of people still clinging to the notion that maybe we ought to think about our defence and security, and understand the role economic prosperity plays in that, and how and why prosperity and security are two sides of the same coin. These are the people who have a pretty good understanding that the world is turning nastier, fast, while our plodding institutions aren't even prepared to fight the last war. They're still probably a war or two further behind than that. These are the people that, like me, lose sleep at night knowing that bad things are coming — that bad things are already happening — and that we aren't ready for them. And worse, that we are probably incapable of getting ready for them before something terrible happens.
They're gonna frickin' love this column. They'll forward it around to all their buddies and maybe even bore their kids recapping it. But is it going to get any attention in the PMO, or in Poilievre's office, as they ponder what they'll prioritize if and when they're the ones in the big office?
Eh. Probably not.
Because that's the other thing that came to mind when I read this report. It is a kind of anachronism. Everything they're asking for makes perfect sense, but if we lived in a country that was capable of taking itself as seriously as the authors would want, they wouldn't need to be asking for these things in the first place. We'd have them, or at least be on the way to developing them. Instead of having a government that can "proactively share timely and actionable threat intelligence," we have a government, as we learned over the spring, where key ministers and officials assigned to public safety and national security files don't regularly check their emails or communicate with colleagues. Critical information is just shoved into binders that no one makes sure ever actually get read.
That's not an accident. It didn't happen by fluke. It happened because our politicians are very good at sniffing out what Canadians care about and tailoring their politics to meet that need (or at least promise to). This isn't an issue Canadians take seriously. And probably won't, until it's too late. Until we get punched in the face.
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