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The Canada experiment: is this the world’s first ‘postnational’ country? | Charles Foran

When Justin Trudeau said there is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada, he was articulating a uniquely Canadian philosophy that some find bewildering, even reckless but could represent a radical new model of nationhood

As 2017 begins, Canada may be the last immigrant nation left standing. Our government believes in the value of immigration, as does the majority of the population. We took in an estimated 300,000 newcomers in 2016, including 48,000 refugees, and we want them to become citizens; around 85% of permanent residents eventually do. Recently there have been concerns about bringing in single Arab men, but otherwise Canada welcomes people from all faiths and corners. The greater Toronto area is now the most diverse city on the planet, with half its residents born outside the country; Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and Montreal arent far behind. Annual immigration accounts for roughly 1% of the countrys current population of 36 million.

Canada has been over-praised lately for, in effect, going about our business as usual. In 2016 such luminaries as US President Barack Obama and Bono, no less, declared the world needs more Canada. In October, the Economist blared Liberty Moves North: Canadas Example to the World on its cover, illustrated by the Statue of Liberty haloed in a maple leaf and wielding a hockey stick. Infamously, on the night of the US election Canadas official immigration website crashed, apparently due to the volume of traffic.

Of course, 2016 was also the year really the second running when many western countries turned angrily against immigration, blaming it for a variety of ills in what journalist Doug Saunders calls the global reflex appeal to fear. Alongside the rise of nativism has emerged a new nationalism that can scarcely be bothered to deny its roots in racial identities and exclusionary narratives.

Compared to such hard stances, Canadas almost cheerful commitment to inclusion might at first appear almost naive. It isnt. There are practical reasons for keeping the doors open. Starting in the 1990s, low fertility and an aging population began slowing Canadas natural growth rate. Ten years ago, two-thirds of population increase was courtesy of immigration. By 2030, it is projected to be 100%.

The economic benefits are also self-evident, especially if full citizenship is the agreed goal. All that settlers ie, Canadians who are not indigenous to the land need do is look in the mirror to recognize the generally happy ending of an immigrant saga. Our government repeats it, our statistics confirm it, our own eyes and ears register it: diversity fuels, not undermines, prosperity.

But as well as practical considerations for remaining an immigrant country, Canadians, by and large, are also philosophically predisposed to an openness that others find bewildering, even reckless. The prime minister, Justin Trudeau, articulated this when he told the New York Times Magazine that Canada could be the first postnational state. He added: There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.

The remark, made in October 2015, failed to cause a ripple but when I mentioned it to Michael Bach, Germanys minister for European affairs, who was touring Canada to learn more about integration, he was astounded. No European politician could say such a thing, he said. The thought was too radical.

For a European, of course, the nation-state model remains sacrosanct, never mind how ill-suited it may be to an era of dissolving borders and widespread exodus. The modern state loosely defined by a more or less coherent racial and religious group, ruled by internal laws and guarded by a national army took shape in Europe. Telling an Italian or French citizen they lack a core identity may not be the best vote-winning strategy.

To Canadians, in contrast, the remark was unexceptional. After all, one of the countrys greatest authors, Mavis Gallant, once defined a Canadian as someone with a logical reason to think he may be one not exactly a ringing assertion of a national character type. Trudeau could, in fact, have been voicing a chronic anxiety among Canadians: the absence of a shared identity.

But he wasnt. He was outlining, however obliquely, a governing principle about Canada in the 21st century. We dont talk about ourselves in this manner often, and dont yet have the vocabulary to make our case well enough. Even so, the principle feels right. Odd as it may seem, Canada may finally be owning our postnationalism.

Theres more than one story in all this. First and foremost, postnationalism is a frame to understand our ongoing experiment in filling a vast yet unified geographic space with the diversity of the world. It is also a half-century old intellectual project, born of the countrys awakening from colonial slumber. But postnationalism has also been in intermittent practise for centuries, since long before the nation-state of Canada was formalised in 1867. In some sense, we have always been thinking differently about this continent-wide landmass, using ideas borrowed from Indigenous societies. From the moment Europeans began arriving in North America they were made welcome by the locals, taught how to survive and thrive amid multiple identities and allegiances.

That welcome was often betrayed, in particular during the late 19th and 20th centuries, when settler Canada did profound harm to Indigenous people. But, if the imbalance remains, so too does the influence: the model of another way of belonging.

Mavis Gallant once defined a Canadian as someone with a logical reason to think he may be one. Illustration: Jacqui Oakley

Can any nation truly behave postnationally ie without falling back on the established mechanisms of state governance and control? The simple answer is no.

Canada has borders, where guards check passports, and an army. It asserts the occasional modest territorial claim. Trudeau is more aware than most of these mechanisms: he oversees them.

It can also be argued that Canada enjoys the luxury of thinking outside the nation-state box courtesy of its behemoth neighbour to the south. The state neednt defend its borders too forcefully or make that army too large, and Canadas economic prosperity may be as straightforward as continuing to do 75% of its trade with the US. Being liberated, the thinking goes, from the economic and military stresses that most other countries face gives Canada the breathing room, and the confidence, to experiment with more radical approaches to society. Lucky us.

Nor is there uniform agreement within Canada about being post-anything. When the novelist Yann Martel casually described his homeland as the greatest hotel on earth, he meant it as a compliment but some read it as an endorsement of newcomers deciding to view Canada as a convenient waystation: a security, business or real-estate opportunity, with no lasting responsibilities attached.

Likewise, plenty of Canadians believe we possess a set of normative values, and want newcomers to prove they abide by them. Kellie Leitch, who is running for the leadership of the Conservative party, suggested last autumn that we screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values. A minister in the previous Conservative government, Chris Alexander, pledged in 2015 to set up a tip-line for citizens to report barbaric cultural practises. And in the last election, the outgoing prime minister, Stephen Harper, tried in vain to hamstring Trudeaus popularity by confecting a debate about the hijab.

To add to the mix, the French-speaking province of Quebec already constitutes one distinctive nation, as do the 50-plus First Nations spread across the country. All have their own perspectives and priorities, and may or may not be interested in a postnational frame. (That said, Trudeau is a bilingual Montrealer, and Quebec a vibrantly diverse society.)

In short, the nation-state of Canada, while wrapped in less bunting than other global versions, is still recognisable. But postnational thought is less about hand-holding in circles and shredding passports. Its about the use of a different lens to examine the challenges and precepts of an entire politics, economy and society.

Though sovereign since 1867, Canada lingered in the shadow of the British empire for nearly a century. Not until the 1960s did we fly our own flag and sing our own anthem, and not until 1982 did Trudeaus father, Pierre, patriate the constitution from the UK, adding a charter of rights. He also introduced multiculturalism as official national policy. The challenge, then, might have seemed to define a national identity to match.

This was never going to be easy, given our colonial hangover and American cultural influence. Marshall McLuhan, one of the last centurys most seismic thinkers, felt we shouldnt bother. Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity, he said in 1963.

According to poet and scholar BW Powe, McLuhan saw in Canada the raw materials for a dynamic new conception of nationhood, one unshackled from the states demarcated borderlines and walls, its connection to blood and soul, its obsession with cohesion based on a melting pot, on nativist fervor, the idea of the promised land. Instead, the weakness of the established Canadian identity encouraged a plurality of them not to mention a healthy flexibility and receptivity to change. Once Canada moved away from privileging denizens of the former empire to practising multiculturalism, it could become a place where many faiths and histories and visions would co-exist.

Thats exactly what happened. If McLuhan didnt see how Chinese, Japanese, Ukrainian and later Italian, Greek and Eastern European arrivals underpinned the growth of Canada in that sleepy first century, he surely registered before his death in 1980 the positive impact of successive waves of South Asians, Vietnamese and Caribbean immigrants. The last several decades have been marked by an increasingly deep diversity, particularly featuring mainland Chinese, Indians and Filipinos.

Others have expanded on McLuhans insight. The writer and essayist John Ralston Saul (co-founder of the charity for which I work) calls Canada a revolutionary reversal of the standard nation-state myth, and ascribes much of our radical capacity not a term you often hear applied to Canadians to our application of the Indigenous concept of welcome. Space for multiple identities and multiple loyalties, he says of these philosophies, the roots of which go deep in North American soil, for an idea of belonging which is comfortable with contradictions.

How unique is any of this? Ralston Saul argues that Canadas experiment is perpetually incomplete. In other countries, a sovereignty movement like Quebecs might have led to bloodshed. Instead, aside from a brief period of violent separatist agitation culminating in kidnappings and a murder in 1970, Canada and Quebec have been in constant compromise mode, arguing at the ballot box and finding ways to accommodate. Canadas incomplete identity is, in this sense, a positive, a spur to move forward without spilling blood, to keep thinking and evolving perhaps, in the end, simply to respond to newness without fear.

Were still working on the language. The same Canadian who didnt appreciate being told he has no identity might rankle at being called a citizen of an incomplete nation. The American and European citizen, too, may find all this chatter about inclusion and welcome ethereal, if not from another planet given the events of 2016, in which the US elected an authoritarian whose main policy plank was building a wall, Britain voted to leave the EU in large part to control immigration, and rightwing political parties gleefully hostile to diversity may soon form national governments, including in France.

None of this raw populism is going away in 2017, especially as it gets further irritated by the admittedly formidable global challenge of how to deal with unprecedented numbers of people crossing national borders, with or without visas. But denial, standing your nativist ground, doing little or nothing to evolve your society in response to both a crisis and, less obviously, an opportunity: these are reactions, not actions, and certain to make matters worse.

If the pundits are right that the world needs more Canada, it is only because Canada has had the history, philosophy and possibly the physical space to do some of that necessary thinking about how to build societies differently. Call it postnationalism, or just a new model of belonging: Canada may yet be of help in what is guaranteed to be the difficult year to come.

Charles Foran is a novelist and the CEO of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship

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Vancouver hopes to cool off housing market with a tax on empty homes

City approves 1% tax on homes that are not principal residences and are empty for more than six months a year, which data suggests could number 20,000

Vancouver has become the first city in Canada to approve a tax on empty homes, as officials in the city scramble to address the spinoff effects of an overheated housing market that ranks as one of the worlds least affordable.

On Wednesday, Vancouver city council voted to move forward with a 1% tax on homes that are not principal residences and which are left empty for more than six months a year.

The tax is aimed at bolstering the citys meagre supply of rental stock. Vancouvers rental vacancy rate currently stands at 0.6% resulting in some of the highest rents in the country while city data suggests that more than 10,800 homes are sitting empty and another 10,000 are left vacant for long periods of time.

Vancouver is in a rental-housing crisis, Gregor Robertson, the mayor of Vancouver, said earlier this month as he unveiled details of the tax. The city wont sit on the sidelines while over 20,000 empty and under-occupied properties hold back homes from renters struggling to find an affordable and secure place to live.

An increase of 2,000 rental properties would raise the rental vacancy rate almost sixfold to 3.5%, according to estimates by the city.

The tax which will come into effect at the start of 2017 will be based on the assessed value of the property, meaning the owner of a C$500,000 ($370,000) condo left vacant would pay an additional C$5,000 a year in taxes. Exceptions include properties that are undergoing renovations, condos or townhouses that have restrictions on rentals, and homes whose owners are in medical or supportive care.

The tax will rely on homeowners to declare their vacant properties, with random audits by the city to ensure compliance. Those caught skirting the tax will be steeply penalised: from a 5% penalty for those who are late in paying the tax to fines of C$10,000 a day for false declarations.

In the lead-up to the vote, the city held two open houses and heard from more than 10,000 residents, including those who voiced concerns that the tax unfairly targets those who have second homes that they or their family use on a regular basis. Elizabeth Ball, one of the few councillors who voted against the tax, called it a cruel, cruel tax on good citizens who arent rich.

Robertson responded by pointing to the many who will be exempt from the tax and the appeal process created for residents who feel theyre being wrongfully taxed. The fact is these are second or third homes so its difficult to see how hardship applies if you own multiple homes in Vancouver, said the mayor. The motion proposing the tax was approved by eight votes to three.

Recent months have seen a slew of measures aimed at cooling metro Vancouvers red-hot property market, where low interest rates and demand from foreign investors many of them from China have seen housing prices grow by 249% since 2005.

In August the provincial government imposed a 15% tax on foreign buyers, while in October the federal government tightened the rules for mortgage insurance eligibility and moved to close a tax loophole believed to be used by some speculators.

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Canada closes tax loophole to cool down overheated housing markets

Finance minister outlines measures to rein in foreign speculators after house prices in Vancouver and Toronto have doubled in last decade

The Canadian government has announced a handful of measures aimed at dampening demand in its red-hot housing markets, including closing a tax loophole used by some foreign speculators.

Canadian authorities are facing growing pressure to address frothy housing markets in Vancouver and Toronto, where home prices have more than doubled in the past decade. Earlier this year, Justin Trudeau, Canadas prime minister, pointed to an influx of capital from Asia as partly responsible for the soaring prices.

Overall, I believe the housing market is sound, Bill Morneau, the countrys finance minister, said in Toronto on Monday. I want to make sure that were proactive in assessing and addressing the factors that could lead to excess risk.

Currently, Canadian homeowners who sell their principal residences do not have to report the sale or pay taxes on any profit earned. Amid reports suggesting that some non-residents have been taking advantage of the same exemption, the government will now step up scrutiny of principal residences, said Morneau.

We know that there is a principal residence tax exemption and that should only be applicable to people who own their home in Canada and live in that home in Canada.

In Vancouver, where housing prices have risen 249% since 2005, a 15% tax was introduced in August on all home buyers who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents. Its introduction saw home sales in the Vancouver region drop 26% in August while the average price of detached properties fell to C$1.47m ($1.1m), a decrease of 17% from one month earlier.

With an eye on increasing housing affordability, the city of Vancouver has also vowed to launch a tax on empty homes by 2017 and is currently exploring measures to curb short-term rentals through sites such as Airbnb.

On Monday, the Canadian government said it would also introduce a stress test for insured borrowers in hopes of injecting greater stability into the countrys housing market. Starting in mid-October, the test will ensure would-be homebuyers some of whom are rushing to gain a foothold in the market amid fears of being priced out down the road would be able to afford their mortgage if interest rates were to rise, said Morneau.

Low interest rates have gradually changed the way both borrowers and lenders view debt and indebtedness in this country, said the finance minister. As these attitudes and behaviours have changed, some households began carrying high debt loads and pockets of risk have begun to emerge.

A recent report by the Swiss bank UBS looked at 18 financial centres around the world and singled out Vancouver as most at risk of a housing bubble.

Mondays announcement received a mixed reaction. Josh Gordon, a professor at Vancouvers Simon Fraser University, described the government measures as prudent.

The tax change, he said, sent a clear signal to foreign investors and others looking to speculate on real estate. I do think it will have an impact on its own, but I think the bigger point is the message, he said. Because it suggests that the federal government does believe that foreign demand is an issue and its willing to tackle that.

Others argued that the shored-up tax requirement would do little to dissuade investors, whether it was foreigners or local people who have been using the exemption to avoid payments on profits earned from selling secondary residences. Its not going to dampen the market, said Bob Aaron, a Toronto real estate lawyer. If people think they can make money on flipping real estate, they will.

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Vancouver slaps 15% tax on foreign house buyers in effort to cool market

Canadian authorities have taken action to tackle the affordability crisis in British Columbias biggest city where a detached home now costs C$1.56m

Foreigners looking to purchase a home in Vancouver now face an additional tax of 15%, as Canadian authorities seek to temper a heated housing market that ranks as one of the worlds least affordable.

The tax, which came into effect on Tuesday, will be levied on all home buyers in metro Vancouver who are not Canadian citizens or permanent residents. The measure will also apply to corporations that are not registered in Canada or which are controlled by foreigners.

Announcing the measure, the provincial government of British Columbia said the tax was intended to help cool the citys red-hot property market, where demand from foreign investors many of them from China has helped push the cost of a detached home to C$1.56m ($1.2m) in June, a 39% jump from a year earlier.

There is evidence now that suggests that very wealthy foreign buyers have raised the price, the overall price of housing for people in British Columbia, Christy Clark, the provinces premier, told reporters recently.

Figures collected by the province during a five-week period this summer showed that foreign nationals invested more than C$1bn amounting to about 8% of sales in real estate in the province, with the bulk of the money heading to Vancouver and the surrounding region.

Clark has long resisted calls to intervene in the real estate and construction industries, which in 2014 accounted for 25% of the provinces GDP.

In a city where the median household income in 2014 stood at about C$76,000 a year, the proportion of detached million-dollar homes now sits at 91%. If we are going to put British Columbians first, and that is what we are intending to do, we need to make sure we do everything we can to try and keep housing affordable, said Clark, who leads the provinces Liberal government.

Ultimately, the goal is to affect the demand by making sure its maybe a little tougher for foreign buyers to find their way into our market.

Money collected from the tax will be put towards housing initiatives for renters, low-income residents and first-time buyers, amid record numbers of homeless in the city.

The measure, which echoes the taxes imposed on foreign buyers in Hong Kong and Singapore, was met with mixed reviews. Gregor Robertson, the mayor of Vancouver, welcomed the initiative. Its too early to judge whether or not [the tax] will have a significant impact, but its good to see, he told reporters. Last month the city of Vancouver was given the go-ahead to impose a new tax on empty homes.

Others pointed to the loopholes that could allow foreigners to get around paying the tax by measures such as having Canadian friends or relatives purchase homes for them. The tax depends on buyers self-reporting their nationality, threatening jail time and steep fines of up to C$200,000 plus the unpaid tax for those who attempt to avoid the tax.

Still, those intent on ducking the tax will find a way around it, said David Eby, a New Democrat member of the provincial legislature. We have a wild west real estate market where there is really very little auditing or policing of it, whether its around money laundering or tax avoidance or any of these issues, so this tax is going to be subject to all of those weaknesses.

He worried the tax would make it more difficult for companies in the city to recruit and retain highly skilled workers, as it also applies to foreigners who are in the city on work permits and who pay taxes. Theres a lot of bycatch it catches a lot of people that it shouldnt, he said, citing researchers recruited by the citys universities or specialised workers needed for the citys tech industry as examples.

The effect of the tax will probably be evident within a few months, said Tom Davidoff, a professor at the University of British Columbia. This could possibly have significant impact but we just dont know how big it will be because we do not know what the foreign buyer will do.

Some could look to homes in other parts of the province or in Toronto, where the average cost of a home stands at C$746,000, a 17% increase from one year earlier. Last week, the Ontario government said it was closely watching the implementation of the new tax in Vancouver as a potential means of increasing affordability.

Davidoffs best guess is that the new tax in Vancouver would drop home prices by 10%. Some foreign buyers may find a way to get around the tax, he said. And some people will just pay the 15%. Theyre rich and theyll do it.

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