iAffairs Canada sat down with Irvin Studin, editor-in-chief and publisher of Global Brief magazine and president of the Institute for 21st Century Questions, for a discussion on Canada’s post-pandemic future. A graduate of Oxford University, the London School of Economics, and York University, Studin was the first recruit of Canada’s “Recruitment of Policy Leaders Program,” and was a member of the team that wrote Canada’s first-ever national security policy in 2004. He was the principal author of Australia’s 2006 national counter-terrorism policy in the John Howard period. After working in the Privy Council Office in Ottawa and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet in Canberra, Studin started his career as an educator, editor, and writer.

His forthcoming books, out later this year, are: Canada Must Think for Itself – Ten Theses for Our Country’s Survival and Success in the 21st Century and The Consequences of the Pandemic – What Happened to the World? And What’s to be Done? 

The interview, conducted on June 21, has been edited for clarity and length.


iAffairs: Dr. Studin, it is a pleasure to talk with you this evening. I was wondering if you could start by speaking to Canada’s position in the world. In terms of power and influence, is Canada in a better position now than it was before the pandemic?

Irvin Studin: Canada is in a catastrophically weak position now. We were in a very weak position coming into the pandemic, but coming out of the pandemic, we’re catastrophically weak for two structural reasons.

One is that the world is much more cruel and destabilized. And two: we are that much more destabilized domestically, and therefore our assets of influence are that much poorer than they were before the pandemic. 

Thanks for that. Now, in your view—mindful that we are emerging from an exceptionally destructive pandemic and economic crisis—what are the greatest threats to Canada right now?

We’re in the throes of six ‘crises of system’ in Canada that did not largely exist pre-pandemic. These crises of system risk tearing our country apart over the next three to five years. These could be processes that are not even recognized by decision-makers, but the crises are much larger than the two that you articulated.

Let me go through them.

The first is the public health crisis, which I think is much larger than the pandemic. The pandemic is by now the minor of the public health crises, which have to do with undiagnosed illnesses, procedures foregone or delayed, and declining mental and physical health as a result of quarantine and general social destabilization in Canada over the last year and a half.

The second crisis is economic in nature. We’re talking about 20% effective unemployment and closed borders on almost all sides of the country, multiple interprovincial borders, huge numbers of businesses bankrupt or disintegrated, a population that is not mobilized economically, and fiscal resources that are historically stressed at all levels of government. All that to say: we have an economic crisis that is catastrophically large and is, by now, much more significant than the original pandemic crisis could have foretold.

The West has perceived itself as largely ignored or misunderstood during the entire pandemic, with Ottawa self-isolating and few politicians and leaders travelling the country to see realities on the ground.

Third is the national unity crisis. I mentioned the inter-provincial borders, indicating that the country’s various regions experienced the pandemic very differently. These different lived realities will be extremely difficult to restitch in the near term. The Quebec question is now back again, the Indigenous question still risks disintegrating the federation, and the Western question is much sharper than it was before the pandemic because there’s a distinct sense of physical and psychological distance from Ottawa. Indeed, the West has perceived itself as largely ignored or misunderstood during the entire pandemic, with Ottawa self-isolating and few politicians and leaders travelling the country to see realities on the ground.

The fourth crisis is one of institutions. Parliament has been largely moot over the pandemic – same with the provincial and territorial legislatures. Most jurisdictions have been governed by emergency rule: a small handful of decision-makers in ‘Zoom Rooms’ with no corrective mechanisms from the ground. And the second part of this crisis is an information crisis caused by the collapse of media institutions, such that no two parts of Canada enjoy the same common picture of our problems. In many cases, they outsource their understanding of the world to American algorithms on social media. In the extreme cases, Canadian decision-makers end up responding to reality as represented to them by American-run social media. This happened many times over the course of the pandemic, and continues to this day.

The fifth crisis—a real calamity—is education. You may know that I’ve been leading on the national and global problem of ‘third-bucket’ kids—kids who are in neither physical nor virtual school. We have estimated that there are more than 200,000 such third bucket kids across Canada not in any school at all. These are kids who were in school but a year ago. They can be poor or rich, Francophone, Anglophone, Indigenous or non-Indigenous. But they are not in school, at our feet, and therefore they will die young unless we get them back to school with speed. We cannot rebuild the country without a deeply-educated talent pool.

The final crisis is the international crisis. Having come into the pandemic as a vassalized country, we now are a country that has no instruments of influence at all, is deeply destabilized domestically, and is surrounded by very serious, large players in a world that is ‘de-stitching’ in the global sense.

Canada must work very hard for its survival in this context.

I want to ask you now about the Canada-China relationship. Do you see China as a partner, a rival, or somewhere in the gray area? Is there a way to emerge from our current spat with the country, or are we destined to be at loggerheads?

Well, I neither see it as a rival nor a partner. It is an objective neighbour, and a new one at that.

First, China is the most important country of this century, and comes out the most important country of the post-pandemic period.

It has been the least destabilized of all the major countries and is also part of the least destabilized region: northeast Asia. But for 150 years, Canada has not known China. Canada is federated in the modern sense right after China loses its second Opium War. It took China almost a century and a half to restabilize, passing through wars, occupation, civil wars, revolutions and many mistakes of public policy and administration. We therefore have 154 years in which we’ve not known a properly stable, sophisticated, powerful China.

It is a new country for us and Canada is an older country than China in the political sense. The China that emerges now is closer to us, geographically, than it is to Australia. And if the Australians say that they are in Asia, we are even more in Asia. Through Prince Rupert and Inuvik, we are closer to Beijing and Shanghai than are Canberra and Brisbane. We must reckon with the Chinese as we did with the United States over the first 50 or 60 years of our modern relationship—with difficulty, but trying to come to an equilibrium that is peaceable and equally profitable for both sides.

We must take the first step on the Canadian side—to learn about China, to be curious, to master Mandarin, to travel and study, because they’ve already done that in reverse.

Certainly not from a place of moralism or dogma, but one of strategic sophistication across the systems.

To get there, we must take the first step on the Canadian side—to learn about China, to be curious, to master Mandarin, to travel and study, because they’ve already done that in reverse.

We’ve not reciprocated yet. It behooves us to do just that in order to move to a more sophisticated understanding of China and then the Canada-China relationship over strategic space-time. I see this as an exciting adventure, and it also coincides with some of my work on the north and Arctic of our country – and the west of the country – where the Russia and China relationships triangulate across Canadian geography.

We’re going to need to figure out how to play a larger, more sophisticated, more porous role with these large neighbours at our border. And if we play this role well, it will play enormously to our benefit, and be very kind to the human condition more generally.

Turning back to North America now. You’ve written about the need for Canada to “think for itself” in foreign policy and in other areas. But is it possible, or realistic, for Canada to truly act independently while having such a strong dependence on the U.S.?

I’m not talking about “independently”; we all have situational degrees of dependence on neighbours and allies.

Thinking for ourselves turns on a number of factors. But before I get to ‘how,’ why must we think for ourselves? I start from the raw proposition that we in Canada, in strategic terms, do not think for ourselves. We entered the pandemic as a vassalized country in law through the USMCA. There were specific clauses in there that vassalized us – happily or not.

First of all, the Americans are not as impressive as they were 20 or 30 years ago. I’m not impressed with them at all, intellectually or strategically; I find their judgement on international affairs largely banal. What they still have is a term-setting elite, huge platforms and assets, and national energy—that is, human energy that we do not have.

Outsourcing our thinking to the U.S. is neither impressive nor does it necessarily help our interests. We have very specific interests – starting with our geography – that are different from those of the U.S.; we have different borders, a different domestic configuration, and different socioeconomic realities.

We must think ruthlessly about our own reality—the American ‘thinking’ is neither in our interest nor sufficiently à la hauteur.

Second, there is geography. Our Arctic is opening up and we’re going to have to deal with it—that is not an American reality. We’re not going to ask the U.S. to do it for us, unless we’re not thinking for ourselves. That means we’re going to have to up our game: there are huge territorial stakes and neighbours – China, Russia, the Americans – there.

Third, we must never again lazily presume that the Americans will defend us. In fact, the Trump administration showed that in certain administrations, if the leadership so wishes, it can be parasitic, if not predatory, on Canada. They can destroy us. On a given day, if there were a second Trump administration, we wouldn’t have as friendly access to vaccines and we would have had huge territorial pressures, including annexation pressures, possibly in the Arctic, where geographical considerations for the Americans touch on those of other great powers.

And so, we must do as the Australians did after the Second World War, when they determined that Britain would never be guaranteed to protect them. They began to think for themselves. We must do the same with respect to the U.S.

Now, how can we think for ourselves? This is much more than an intellectual exercise. And far more than a declaration of pride. It requires an entire strategization, starting with the basic bulwark of national assets and the creation of a specific school of Canadian strategy, specific vocabulary, leadership, and then experimentation over time and under pressure so that we prove to ourselves and the world that we can think for ourselves.

And to think properly for a country, you need to create the assets for thinking: economic, educational, information, diplomatic, military, legal and intelligence—all of that needs to be part of the choreography. It’s much more than the Department of Foreign Affairs; we need the entire national machinery to be working in this direction. 

Is Canada lagging in any policy area in particular? Immigration comes to mind, as one of your proposals for the federal government is to consciously work toward 100 million Canadians to bolster our stature abroad and prosperity at home.

In terms of the strategic outlook in Canada, we’re about 15 to 20 years behind the leading countries, after the pandemic.

To catch up, we need to change our posture. We need to be aggressive, energetic, ruthless, ambitious – and plan. Yes, plan!

One-hundred million Canadians was originally a metaphor that I began with in 2010. It was a metaphor for us to think of ourselves as one of the leading countries of the 21st century. But 100 million is, of course, everything: it’s the economy, education, business, government, sport. And of course, international affairs. So, it was a broad, interesting umbrella.

I wouldn’t reduce it to immigration, but coming out of the pandemic, immigration is a necessary condition for Canada to accelerate and make up that gap of which I spoke.

We need to ruthlessly pick off the very best in the world across the sciences, the medical profession, business, culture, the intellectual sphere, sport, students, the trades – we want to pick the best and brightest (as have the most important countries in history when they needed a boost).

It just so happens that we’ve – over last 60 years – had a very favourable environment to immigrate that didn’t require the same amount of choreography. But now we’re going to have to bring them here in much larger numbers, distribute the population properly, ensure that everyone is ‘all guns blazing’ as soon as possible, and that the common project is comprehensively understood and felt – not just immigration for the economy. There has to be a sense of national mission; the core national mission is to survive – yes, survive! – in difficult circumstances, but if we turn the corner, we can still be one of the major countries of this century.

At that point, with our geography, we could do wonderful things for our population and country, and for humanity at large.

I have argued that we’re going to need to get many millions up to the North in order to properly tame that geography that is opening up through climate change and therefore suddenly opens us up to Russia, the EU, China and the U.S. through the Arctic. The demography of those markets and regions alone is 6 times larger than than of the continental U.S. alone. If we have a demographic base to support this change in national posture and focus, and if we think of ourselves as a term-setting country, then the North and Arctic can be a much more lucrative proposition than the American border proposition that preoccupies us. (This also means that Canada’s international thinking can never again reduce to a mere ‘theory of the American border’.)

Which countries should Canada choose to increase its engagement in the world? Are we relying too much on our ‘old allies’ of the U.K. and the U.S.?

You may be aware of my ‘ACRE’ framework: we must know and engage on all fronts and have peaceable, prosperous relationships across America, China, Russia, Europe.

If we don’t get that ACRE framework right, they will crush us – or pull us apart – individually or in any combination.

The ‘AC’ (America-China) conflict across our geography is just a small paper cut relative to what could come our way if we don’t manage this ACRE framework, which results in about 15 permutations of pressure and pull across our territory.

We therefore have to worry about the combination of Moscow-Beijing, or Moscow-Washington, or Beijing-Brussels across our territory, pulling us apart or pressuring us, and often not in friendly ways. This strategic game will force us to become a major player if we can survive it. It could, alternatively, force us into a deep vassal position – which is our present course. Or it could annihilate us, and quickly.

Beyond that, let me say that I do not believe in engaging or learning from like-minded countries as such. There is little differential learning there for us. We must first learn from non-like-minded countries – that’s where the differential learning takes place.

There’s no point in having our diplomats and Prime Minister go to Berlin or Paris or London all the time. It’s not only boring, it gets us nowhere. We neither learn nor do we increase our capacity to survive. We must go to the most unlikely and uncomfortable capitals, much like what happened during the Meiji reforms in Japan. Peter the Great realized Russia was behind and did the same; Deng Xiaoping realized China was very behind, and did the same. The Americans in the earliest days learned from around the world. Now it is our turn.

So, we must look 360 degrees and learn very promiscuously from all the countries we don’t understand—sending major delegations, learning the languages, establishing diplomatic, business, scientific, academic, cultural and people-to-people relations, and then bringing many lessons home.

Photo Credit: Adam Scotti, PMO.

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