01.24.2017 08:56 AM

This week’s column: the USA, RIP

Countries die. Nations fade away.

They do, they do. Great nations – however great they may be – are not eternal.

Pierre Trudeau certainly thought so, some thirty years ago. Appearing before the Senate to condemn the Meech Lake Accord in the Spring of 1988, Trudeau said: “If the people of Canada want this Accord, and that is not beyond the realm of possibility, then let that be part of the Constitution. I, for one, will be convinced that the Canada we know and love will be gone forever. But, then, Thucydides wrote that Themistocles’ greatness lay in the fact that he realized Athens was not immortal. I think we have to realize that Canada is not immortal; but, if it is going to go, let it go with a bang rather than a whimper.”

T.S. Eliot, Thucydides, Themistocles and realpolitik, all in three pithy sentences. Those of us who are old enough can recall watching him on that cold March day, simply in awe that one man could say such a thing – that Canada could die! How could a country like this one disappear? Was Trudeau right?

As with many things, he was. In the intervening years, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Yugoslavia, the U.S.S.R have all slipped beneath history’s waves, supplanted by something else entirely. Replaced – in the cases of the U.S.S.R. and Yugoslovia – with something where monstrous and horrific things have happened. It could happen to Canada, too.

It was not arrogant for Pierre Trudeau to say what he said. It is arrogant, instead, to insist that a nation – which is mostly just the shared hopes and dreams and values of a people, a body of laws, and some squiggles on a map – is incapable of dying. Nations, like the people who constitute them, die.

The United States of America, for example.

Ascertaining the moment of America’s demise, as a forensic scientist might do, is subjective. It is in the eye of the one doing the autopsy. And, in this case, America died in degrees.

JFK. His brother. Dr. King. Watergate. The Depression. Civil war. Slavery. Lynchings. Internment camps. McCarthyism. Iraq. Enola Gay. Vietnam. 9/11. All of these, and too many more, were grievous wounds. They deeply weakened the only democratic superpower, but they did not fully kill it.

For this writer – who lived in the United States, went to school there, and can still even recite the Declaration of Independence – two less-historical moments come to mind. One was in the late Sixties, when my family was living in Texas, and my best friend was an Hispanic boy, David.

David and I did everything together, but he mysteriously did not go to my school, David G. Burnet Elementary. I asked my mother why. She had no answer, so she asked the Stevensons, the Texas family who had taken this group of newcomer Canadians under their wing. Wasn’t the day coming, my Mom asked, when David and Warren would be allowed to go to school together?

Mrs. Stevenson, the sweetest and most generous person you could ever hope to meet, looked at my mother and said: “On that day, I will go down to the school with my gun.”

The other moment came much later, in 1993, when I was holed up in a cabin in Lake Placid, New York, trying to finish up my book about racism in Canada and the U.S., Web of Hate. In the evening, to get a break, we went into town for a burger and beer at a place on Main Street. Mid-way through our meal, a guy walked in with a T-shirt with a swastika and the words WHITE POWER on the front of it. What was remarkable wasn’t him, or his shirt: it was how he was greeted by the people there, like an old friend. “In Canada,” I said to my partner, “you don’t see that, so much. Here, they don’t care.”

The United States died – the United States was killed – on December 14, 2012. On that day in Newtown, Connecticut, a 20-year-old man – carrying a gun that was legal for him to possess – gunned down 20 children between the ages of six and seven years old. He also killed six adult staff members, but it is those tiny victims we remember most.

And what was the response to that act of evil by the United States of America, the nation that likes to claim it is the greatest on Earth? What did it change, what did it do? Nothing. It defeated any and all attempts to prevent Sandy Hook from happening again.

It was then, right then, that the United States of America died. When you can let 20 six and seven-year-olds be murdered, and do nothing to prevent it from happening ever again, you cease to be a country. You cease to be a people worthy of the name.

The United States didn’t die when Donald Trump was sworn in as President. In a nation where savageries like Sandy Hook could happen, over and over again, Donald Trump is not an aberration.

He is its logical conclusion.


  1. daveconstable says:

    I think it was late 1960’s, a tv interview with playwright John Lazarus, and the interviewer asked Lazarus about Quebec in Canada. Lazarus answered something like:’I think the United States would break up before Canada does.” He explained more, but I remember the States at that time was in some turmoil with a lot of protest and a government going to some extremes to counter and maintain control.
    When Bush 43 was pres there were small, but gingery secession groups in some states, and today I think there is a secession petition of some kind gathering signatures in California.

    Meanwhile, we and our new allies in Mexico can rub out hands and meddle so that Mexico can get that wall built along the 1844 border, and we can get back all that Britain gave away in 19th Century treaties.
    Canada irredenta, here we come.

  2. Federalist Paper says:

    An amazing column. But missing a couple of elements. Not many people know that before the US had its present constitution, its first constitution was the Articles of Confederation. That document plainly and clearly invited the Canadian colonies to join the revolutionary project as follows ““Canada acceding to this confederation, and adjoining in the measures of the United States, shall be admitted into, and entitled to all the advantages of this Union; but no other colony shall be admitted into the same, unless such admission be agreed to by nine States”

    This is the origin of the Canadian exception as it pertained to our relations with the United States – where we were seen not as foreign but as family, despite the fact that we would have the War of 1812 just 50 years after those words. While Canada was formed in 1867, it was formed while Britain was still hostile to America, and as colonials we were afraid of the excesses of American Republicanism. Sound familiar? Interestingly enough by 1871, the US and UK signed the Treaty of Washington, essentially cementing their friendship, and giving us, for a while, the false choice of which nation was a better friend.

    But … what if the Canadian colonies had taken America up on the offer? Would America have ended up so divided among North/South lines? Is it possible that the Canadian identity would have moderated the tensions inherent in the forming of the new US.

    All this to say that if one posits that it’s RIP America, it also stands to reason that something can emerge in its place. What if that something, in the tradition of creating a more perfect union, was political union between Canadian provinces and US states? Give Canadians the vote in a US election and Canadians are the most influential people on earth. Create a country that combines Canada and the US and you could have that more perfect union that could lead to a more peaceful, less energy intensive world.

    Political union has always been positioned as the dream of a rapacious American right, when in reality it could become the legacy of a purposeful Canadian left, speaking of logical conclusions.

    • Derek Pearce says:

      Which is why the US would never go for it now. The ever-gerrymandering Republicans would be horrified to find 30 million instant Democrats have married into the “family”.

  3. Ronald O'Dowd says:


    An aside: Remember that thing called the NAFTA? Three sovereign nation-states signed that. But even before Trump, U.S. Customs and Border Protection won’t accept as official, copies of related documents in either French or Spanish. That says it all.

  4. Tim says:

    Ehhh… I’m a data person. How many people are dying from cause x per year is more persuasive to me. Sandy Hook was undoubtedly terrible. It caused us all to question so many things. But to rationally process whether there’s progress or lack there of, one should look at stats. I don’t have have those numbers in front of me to make an argument as to whether preventable childhood mortality is up or down, but that’s what I’d look to for deciding whether the US is making progress or not. How many kids in isolated incidents were killed vs another year’s cumulative total? Again, I don’t purport to know. Sandy Hook tells us that there are still mentally deranged people who will commit the unthinkable, it doesn’t though, necessarily paint the picture for how America raises its youth. In a country of over 300 million you can’t entirely prevent cancerous individual acts. There’s just too many independent variables (people) operating to have every one person being rational, 100% of the time.

    With all of the above said, I still support restrict access to guns on many levels. I think the aforementioned goes hand in hand with reducing the rates of these types of things. There is something to be said for being raised in a culture where solving a problem with a firearm isn’t as pervasive as it is the US. I grew up in a rough Saskatchewan town, but you never thought to think that you’d encounter gun violence, even with violent crime at the levels it was (and is)

  5. Dan Calda says:

    About the only thing that gives me hope…

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