Is It Time to Rethink American and Canadian National Borders?

One intriguing aspect of American culture is the insular nature of our national culture. Many Americans know little about our national neighbors beyond oversimplified and highly stereotypical caricatures. Such an inward focus can be counterproductive when it prevents American citizens and politicians from recognizing common political problems and identifying outside-the box-solutions. Political partisanship is an example of such a shared characteristic. While Americans may be rightly alarmed at the increasingly extreme hyperpartisanship in the United States Congress, they are dead wrong if they think this problem is uniquely American. Just as the election of Donald Trump has brought out the deep partisan divisions that are extant in the United States, the controversial prime ministership of Justin Trudeau has reignited interregional conflict and renewed calls for western Canadian separatism. Both nations must address their own fundamental demographic dilemmas in order to prevent permanent, cantankerous, partisan gridlock.

         A cursory examination of an electoral college map from the 2016 election paints a stark picture of the partisan gap in the United States with strongly Democratic strongholds in urban and coastal areas, and a sea of Republican red in the Rocky Mountains (excluding New Mexico and Colorado), Midwest, and Southeast [1]. This divide does not just represent different political preferences, but entirely different cultural views [2]. A lifelong rancher in Wyoming, for example has almost nothing in common culturally with a cosmopolitan Los Angeleno, a D.C. think tank analyst, or a Manhattanite working on Wall Street. The ethnolinguistic makeup, population density, and core values of these regions are starkly divergent from one

another, and they hold fundamentally different policy preferences.  Should the government stay out of private affairs in order to prioritize personal liberty, or should a more expansive government proactively seek to reduce poverty and right historical wrongs? Should the country prioritize the welfare of its current citizens or serve as a beacon of hope to the world’s destitute? A consensus on these core issues appears to be interminably out-of-reach. The United States has become a nation without a common purpose or set of moral values [3]. The federalist nature of the American government, coupled with the horizontal checks-and-balances at the national level, ensure that a lack of a shared central philosophy will result in a permanent legislative stalemate and an increasingly dangerous, partisan, tit-for-tat escalation.        

Canada finds itself in a similar situation. Canada uses a Westminster model system with seats in the parliament apportioned according to population [4]. Like the United States, its politics are divided primarily along regional fracture lines. Vancouver, British Columbia on the western coast primarily elects liberal representatives along with the central and eastern provinces of Ontario and Quebec (Quebec also has a strong regional party, the Bloc Quebecois) [5]. These provinces resemble Washington or New England, with densely populated, multiethnic, liberal cities like Toronto constituting a substantial chunk of Canada’s overall population. In contrast, the more sparsely populated, western prairie territories of Alberta and Saskatchewan have consistently voted conservative In the most recent election, Trudeau’s Liberal Party did not receive a single legislative seat in either province [6].

         Nevertheless, Trudeau maintained power as the head of a minority government almost entirely off the backs of urban voters in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver [7]. In fact, minority governments have become the norm in Canadian politics. There have been 13 minority governments since 1921 [8]. Just as Wyoming voters have little in common with urban California voters, Albertans increasingly feel that the minority Trudeau government does not represent them. They arguably have more in common culturally and economically with western Americans than with central and eastern Canadians [9]. To make matters worse, Alberta, the richest province in terms of per capita economic output (due to its rich oil reservoirs), is forced to subsidize the poorer liberal provinces like Quebec and Ontario, while environmentalists from these provinces seek to block the construction of new oil pipelines [10]. This frustration is coming to a boil as the Albertan separatist movement known as “Wexit” rapidly gains popularity [11]. While an easing of pipeline restrictions could help soothe tensions, Albertans’ grievances are also fundamentally structural and can not be easily addressed under the current Canadian political system.

         What should be done to reduce the vitriol in Ottawa and Washington? A change of the party in power will prove insufficient, as the roles of dissatisfaction will simply shift. Republicans in Congress would oppose a Democratic president from New York, Massachusetts, or Vermont just as vociferously as Democratic members of the House now detest President Trump.  A resurgence in Conservative Party power in Canada would simply swap the primary separatists in question from Albertans in the west to Quebecois in the east. A national call for civility and open dialogue may help, perhaps if initiated by a prime minister or president that somehow manages to stay above the fray (an unlikely scenario indeed). Should these attempts to reduce partisanship fail and polarization become even more extreme, perhaps one way to  restore efficient, popular governance in Canada and the United States is to change national boundaries.

         This could be accomplished through a land swap between the two nations or the breakup of the nations into smaller pieces. This idea is just starting to gain currency among mainstream writers. For example, New York Magazine’s Sasha Isenberg proposes that the U.S. be broken up into three distinct units (a conservative, liberal, and neutral one) [12]. The New Republic’s Kevin Baker proposes a “Bluexit” [13]. Bonnie Kristian proposes a breakup into seven different countries [14]. 

I propose a land swap that would help solve both nation’s polarization problems at once. The United States would receive the primarily conservative, western Canadian provinces and territories: Yukon, Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan. In return, Canada would receive liberal New England and New York. California, with its large population and gigantic economy, would become an independent nation. Hawaii would be given the choice to become an independent kingdom once again, break off with California, or remain part of the United States. The land swap and potential independence for California and Hawaii would be implemented only if successfully passed through referenda by the populations in the affected regions, in order to ensure maximal popular sovereignty. Such respect for the popular will could be advanced further by granting a reasonable accommodation period during which American or Canadian citizens dissatisfied with the change in boundaries could freely move to a different region. While such a land swap may seem bizarre and represents a partisanship escape hatch to be used only if necessary, it would follow a long American tradition of strategic acquisitions like the Louisiana Purchase and the Adams-Onis Treaty that remade the nation. In any case, the current political status quo is untenable. 

[1]https://www.politico.com/2016-election/results/map/president/

[2]https://www.wsj.com/articles/political-divisions-in-u-s-are-widening-long-lasting-poll-shows-1504670461

[3]https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/9/5/16227700/hyperpartisanship-identity-american-democracy-problems-solutions-doom-loop

[4]https://thecanadaguide.com/government/parliament/

[5]https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/grenier-election-results-1.5330105

[6]https://globalnews.ca/news/6064901/alberta-saskatchewan-conservative-liberal-minority-federal-election/

[7]https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/grenier-election-results-1.5330105

[8]https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/minority-government

[9]https://www.reddeeradvocate.com/news/some-albertans-feel-they-have-more-in-common-with-u-s-than-canada/

[10]https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/of-course-alberta-is-getting-fleeced-by-ottawa-just-not-in-the-way-you-think

[11]https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/25/wexit-alberta-canada-independence-separatism

[12]https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2018/11/maybe-its-time-for-america-to-split-up.html

[13]https://newrepublic.com/article/140948/bluexit-blue-states-exit-trump-red-america[14]https://theweek.com/articles/805689/should-chop-america-into-7-different-countries-seriously

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Steven Schone

STEVEN SCHONE is a senior from Boise, Idaho. He is majoring in economics with minors in political science, math, and geology. He served an LDS mission in Detroit, Michigan. Some of his political passions include addressing climate change, macroeconomic policy, and the day-to-day thrills of “horse race” and entertainment politics. While not obsessively reading or watching the news, he enjoys watching or playing sports. He finds football, basketball, and volleyball particularly enjoyable. After graduating, Steven intends to pursue a Ph.D. in economics.

Steven Schone

STEVEN SCHONE is a senior from Boise, Idaho. He is majoring in economics with minors in political science, math, and geology. He served an LDS mission in Detroit, Michigan. Some of his political passions include addressing climate change, macroeconomic policy, and the day-to-day thrills of “horse race” and entertainment politics. While not obsessively reading or watching the news, he enjoys watching or playing sports. He finds football, basketball, and volleyball particularly enjoyable. After graduating, Steven intends to pursue a Ph.D. in economics.

2 thoughts on “Is It Time to Rethink American and Canadian National Borders?

  • February 12, 2020 at 1:34 am
    Permalink

    I have a question about one of the things you’ve said:
    “The federalist nature of the American government, coupled with the horizontal checks-and-balances at the national level, ensure that a lack of a shared central philosophy will result in a permanent legislative stalemate and an increasingly dangerous, partisan, tit-for-tat escalation.”

    How, exactly, does federalism play into this? Wouldn’t federalism, properly applied, reduce polarization at the national level by transferring legislative responsibilities to the state governments?

    Reply
    • February 16, 2020 at 12:37 am
      Permalink

      In theory, yes it would. I’m practice, however, the shared sovereignty between states and the national government results in a state of permanent fighting when some of the states have hyper-partisan governments. Take, for example, the omnipresent state of political fighting and lawsuits between the Trump administration and the states of California and New York or the fights between conservative states and the Obama administration over the ACA and environmental regulation. In a unitary system, a regional government that is constantly fighting against the national regime in power could have its parliament dissolved and the national government ‘s policy implemented (so long as there is not horizontal gridlock at the national level).

      Reply

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