The 21st century belongs to Canada

Surely Canada deserves to "own" a century even more now than we did in Wilfrid Laurier's day, writes Don Pittis.
Experts say Canada's economy could be poised to do well in the coming years. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Is it impolite to claim a second century?

Of course, only Canadians know that our seventh prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, said "The 20th century belongs to Canada." So perhaps we can sneak another century without anyone noticing.

The fact that Laurier didn't actually say his famous quote might also be a mitigating factor. Here is what he did say in 1904: "The 19th century was the century of the United States. I think we can claim that it is Canada that shall fill the 20th century."

One lesson appropriate to the modern economic situation may be that it is not always a good idea to count out Uncle Sam.

On the other hand, the U.S. has had a good run. At some point our southern neighbour may encounter the fatal sequence that The Economist magazine recently ascribed to Toyota: hubris, undisciplined greed, denial of risk and eventually capitulation.

They've been great customers, but the Americans have been buying on credit. U.S. President Barack Obama tells us he is borrowing $1.6 trillion US this year alone, and adding it to the national debt.

No intelligent Canadian wants to see U.S. capitulation, if just for reasons of self-interest. They buy most of our stuff. But as long as it lasts, borrowed money is also good. That should be no barrier to Canada claiming ownership of the 21st century.   But can we really pull it off?

Being big isn't everything

These days China gets the odds on "most likely to own the century." But, hey, big isn't everything. Big populations can cause big problems. Besides, China already owned lots of centuries. Sort of everything up to the end of the Ming.

Small countries have done quite well too, thank you very much. It is easy to forget that Portuguese navigation technology conquered much of the world, for a while at least. The Dutch did very well, too. Japan had its day in the sun. England had an excellent run for a small, damp half-island with bad plumbing.

Cold may not be a disadvantage. Remember Gustavus Adolphus and Genghis Kahn?

And tables turn. Who nowadays would think of Mongolia ruling most of the known world (you were better off if the Khans didn't know about you during the period when their empire was at its peak). Greece may be having a little trouble just now, but for the centuries after Alexander the Great, Greek was spoken from Persia to Egypt. Or else.

All hail Canada, eh?

Now I am not suggesting Canadians should march beyond our borders and start forcing people to eat maple syrup and poutine at the point of a sword. That is not the kind of century ownership we are talking about. Our possession of the next 90 years would be much more enlightened.

But look at the facts. In a world swamped in national debt, our debt is tiny. For that reason international investment fund manager Bill Gross says Canada would be the safest place to invest for the foreseeable future. Except for Germany.

Germany may be safe, but it doesn't have our kind of cultural contacts. Other countries may have clever linguists and good trade relations. But what other country has at least one person with relatives in every country in the world? Germany may have Germans, but so do we. And Brazilians and Russians and Indians and Chinese.  That means we'll have relations with the upstart economic power of the BRIC nations sewed up.

Some people have suggested Canada could become the world's top financial centre, as banks come north to escape tough new U.S. rules and taxes. Canada would benefit just like we did from the influx of Vietnam draft dodgers. Same principal, except they'll bring their own money.

That's good, because owning an entire century can be expensive. Have you looked at tuition at American universities lately, for example? With individual states running out of money even public colleges are getting expensive. In California, tuitions are up 30 per cent this year alone.

Affordable education in Canada also means smart young children of immigrants get a chance to become the world's best brains. Surely some of them will stay. And even if our education is not as affordable as some places, so what? Canadians can always borrow against our houses to pay tuition. Unlike our southern neighbour, our houses are still worth as much as we paid for them. So far at least.

Areas to work on

Unfortunately, when it comes to turning all that brain power into innovation, the Conference Board says we are at the bottom of the global pack. But that's not our fault. It's just that all the parent companies of our branch plant companies currently prefer to do their research at home. Who wouldn't?

And resources. We've got oil and nickel and potash. The fact that they are increasingly owned by foreign multinationals shouldn't make much difference. Except maybe when it comes to innovation. And the location of head offices. And labour relations.

But these niggling problems can be overcome. Heck, we did it with our weather. For years people have complained about our cold weather. But now all that's changed. With global warming on the way, being colder than other countries has suddenly become a big advantage. If everything from California to Florida is a windswept desert, we can sell them lettuce.

And speaking of deserts, there's our trump card: We have lots of cool, fresh, water. No one else owns that (yet). It's the cleanest, freshest water in the world, which someone should mention to the people who import all that water in bottles from Italy.

With all those advantages, surely we deserve another century. We deserve it even more than we did in Wilfrid Laurier's day.

But there is one special trick that old Wilfrid knew when he made his grab for the 20th century. To succeed, Canadians should take a lesson from our wise and conciliatory seventh PM.  When you're going for a century, and especially after you get your mitts on the darned thing, don't wave it around cheering. That is so un-Canadian.

It's OK for us to smile smugly at one another and know the 21st century also belongs to Canada. Just don't blab it about.