Hugh Segal’s “North American Community” idea


Sen. Hugh Segal’s new book The Right Balance presents a peculiar challenge to the reviewer. In next week’s issue of Maclean’s, I contribute a brief note on it, focusing on Segal’s main thrust—his bid to explain the common denominators of Canadian conservatism from its roots in New France to the Harper government. But Segal throws a curve in his concluding chapter, veering away from mapping the DNA of his party to float an unexpected proposal. He calls for the creation of what he labels, with significant capital letters, a North American Community. “This should be a Conservative and conservative priority,” he writes.

And what would the NAC look like? Well, something like the formative stages of the European Union. Segal proposes: fewer barriers, among Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, to trade and investment; a continental policy on social and economic development (modeled partly on Canadian equalization payments for poorer provinces); cooperation of environmental, social and military activities; and— wait for it—“the creation of a North American Assembly, not unlike the early European Parliament.”

Needless to say, that’s a controversial notion. In fact, it’s probably a non-starter. I decided not the address it in the brief space available to review the book in the magazine, since it hardly seemed of a piece with the history-lesson intent of the book as a whole. On the other hand, Segal does position his NAC concept as coming out of the tradition of NATO, NORAD and NAFTA.

As well, the idea lands at an interesting moment, just after Prime Minister Harper and President Obama announced their plan to negotiate a perimeter security agreement between the two countries. Their intention is, of course, far less radical and ambitious than Segal’s proposal. Harper and Obama are aiming for a deal that would see the two countries address terrorist or criminal threats earlier, make trade easier, cooperate more on border-related law enforcement, and  work together on “infrastructure and cyber-security.”

My guess is that few will take Segal’s sweeping scheme all that seriously. Still, give him credit for trying. And here’s the part of his pitch  that I found almost made me misty-eyed with nostalgia: “The time is ripe for a White Paper that discusses what a North American Assembly would look like, how its members could be elected within the three founding countries, and what initial advisory, consultative and auditing role it might play, as the European Parliament did in its early days.”

Leave aside, for a moment, the content Segal imagines this White Paper would contain. Consider only the old-school assumption that such an ambitious, informative, debate-provoking document might be generated. The Harper government hasn’t bothered to produce anything of the sort even on policy files where its activist agenda clearly calls for one, notably crime. To cite another example, pleas from some economists for a proper policy document to be released on the fiscal implications of an aging population as part of next month’s budget are almost certain to be ignored.

Instead, we’re too often left to guess at the analytical underpinning of this government’s policy and legislation. It makes debate incoherent. Segal’s North American Community might not win many converts, but his underlying assumption that Ottawa needs to return to a pattern of big ideas being first floated, then formally fleshed out, then fully debated is more than worthy of close attention. You’d think it wouldn’t seem such a alien concept.


Hugh Segal’s “North American Community” idea

  1. I think STephen Harper should make joining Canada with America a top priority in the next election!

    • What makes you think he hasn't already?

  2. It's unreasonable to expect a government that operates on ideological givens and short-term political considerations to practice logical, evidence-based and transparent policy development.

  3. How would such a union work? Attaching ourselves in such a way to such a juggernaut as the USA is backdoor annexation.

  4. "but his underlying assumption that Ottawa needs to return to a pattern of big ideas being first floated, then formally fleshed out, then fully debated is more than worthy of close attention."

    Mr. Geddes, I would buy you a beer if I had the opportunity, as you've hit the nail on the head. Perhaps there are those who believe that Canada is a model of absolute perfection, but for the rest of us, who see a host of issues within our great country, the first step to developing solutions is putting forward ideas.

    And that art appears to be lost in Ottawa these days.

    • Believe it or not, I am by nature quite conservative. I am concerned with the idea of great big immediate change as essentially a positive. I am all for reviewing issues as they arise, and adopting a bold new strategy only when it is clearly the best path.

      • Similar to you, I am wary of neat solutions to complex problems. But I am also young enough to be infused with a certain naivety when it comes to this sort of thing, and I also recognize that total inaction is the complete acceptance of a different idea, an idea which states that "all is well in the world".

        While I don't see the government (whichever party is in power) as ever totally escaping its inherently reactive nature, it still requires the fuel of new ideas in order to adjust to changing conditions, and once in a while it would be nice if some of those ideas could be vetted prior to a significant crisis forcing the issue.

  5. Hugh Segal – still bravely trying to lose the War of 1812.

    • Segal is, bar none, the funniest senator I've ever met. I may not agree with all his ideas, but he's awfully entertaining to listen to.

  6. Hugh Segal has devoted a lot of his political energy and policy wonkish efforts to the cause of electoral reform so it is interesting that he brings up the point about a policy paper discussing the ways in which members of this assembly would be elected.

  7. Perhaps we should consider forming a Canadian Community first.

    Talk to me when you can expect similar standards of health care on both sides of the country, and when your studies in Alberta are recognized in Ontario.

    • It's probably easier to simply create the North American Community first, and then launder all of our trade through the United States and then back into the destination province.

      I expect a solid and comprehensive Agreement on Internal Trade about the same time as I expect to take a trip on a space elevator.

  8. Sigh. Why is it every time I think I've found a sane conservative, they end up being utterly mad?

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