Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Book Review: The Big Shift by Darrel Bricker and John Ibbitson

In 2013 Bricker and Ibbitson published a book that argued that Canada was undergoing a fundamental shift (the eponymous "Big Shift") that will result in a total shift of Canadian politics, governance, economy and values. The authors come to the conclusion that the Conservative Party is best poised to take advantage of this changing landscape and will become the natural governing party of Canada.

How does adding a Toronto every 10 years change a country?
Shortly after the 2015 federal election Paul McLeod of Buzzfeed wrote a satirical, mocking review of Ibbitson and Bricker's thesis. For a time The Big Shift became an easy punch line, even though Ibbitson and Bricker laid out the exact path the Liberals (or NDP) would take to get back to power.

What is the big shift? The authors point to the incredible level of immigration to Canada as the driving factor. Every ten years the country adds another Toronto to its population. Over 250000 immigrants arrive in Canada each year, a number which is increasing over time, and over ten years that is 2.5 million new residents who alter everything from the food in our grocery stores, the languages in our neighbourhoods and faces in our schools.

Most of these immigrants come from Asia, particularly India, China and the Philippines. As a result Canada is increasingly orienting away from the Atlantic World to the Pacific World, which is likely for the best. While Europe has stagnated Asia has boomed. It is easy to imagine why the future of the country is closer aligned to the Pacific nations and not Atlantic ones.

The new immigrants have been overwhelmingly drawn to British Columbia, the Prairies and Ontario, which have also increasingly grown as the economic hubs of the country. As the population of the West continues to swell as will its political and social dominance in the country. Canada (roughly) uses representation by population. By 2040 Alberta's population will roughly be on par with Quebec, this will have a seismic shift in the balance of power in this country.

One of the key concepts of this book is the notion of the Laurentian Consensus and Elites. Laurentian refers to the class of elites found in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and to a lesser extent Vancouver. They formed the bureaucracy, high positions in politics, academia, and business. They represent Old Canada, in a sense. The Liberal Party, they write, best aligns with the Laurentian ideology. Laurentianism is statist, anti-military, pro-peacekeeping, pro-federalism, anti-American, is concentrated on accommodating Quebec and thinks Canada is a fragile country. Ibbitson and Bricker write convincingly why that this view is out of step with the New Canada that is developing.

I was conflicted reading sections of this book because I have spent a great deal of time in Laurentian circles, if not myself a Laurentian, but I also identify with the emerging New Canada they talk about. One of the phenomena they cite that I have also noticed is a shift towards a more confident, proud nationalism that is taking root. Humble hand-wringing Canadian nationalism increasingly seems a thing of the past. Canadians seem a prouder people more willing to wave the flag than in years past.

Obviously the big prediction of the book is that the Conservatives will become the natural governing party in the 21st century. Many have laughed this off after 2015, but I think they make an interesting case. Here's the basic argument: immigration is driving tremendous growth in Ontario's cities and suburbs and Western Canada and more and more the interests of Western Canada and Ontario are aligned in a new voting coalition. The new divide in Canada, they argue, is not between West and Centre, but along the Ottawa River between provinces that have embraced immigration and growth and those that have not. Atlantic Canada is small and marginal and economically backwards and Quebec may reach an economic and demographic crisis point if they do not change course soon.

So, is the Big Shift disproven? I'd say no. So far in the 21st century the Conservatives governed 9 of the 16 years. Despite their losses the Conservative Party remains very strong in Western Canada, Ontario and is even showing new strength in Quebec. They are almost at the same place today the NDP was in 2011 and we thought then that they could be the next government. The Trudeau Liberals will be lucky that if in four years time the Conservatives don't start moving back into the suburbs of Ontario.

Even still, it's hard not to say the demographic transformation in this country isn't still impacting our politics. The faces of the Liberal caucus today are quite different from the ones we would have seen 25 years ago. The challenge to all parties will be to adapt to the big shift as it occurs. The Conservatives under Stephen Harper learned the implications first and seemed to have forgotten them in the 2015 campaign when they attacked Muslim Canadians. Right now another element of Ibbitson and Bricker's prediction has come to pass, an alliance of Quebec and Ontario with Atlantic Canada, but Quebec and Ontario are not as suitable bedfellows as they once were and we will see if this coalition can hold.

The Big Shift is a clear, concise and fascinating glimpse into the political, economic and cultural transformations occurring in Canada. Those who summarily dismiss its conclusions do so at their peril. Changes are occurring, they may not manifest exactly as the authors predict but this is one of the few books out there talking about this watershed moment. I'd highly recommend this book to those interested in Canadian politics, society and culture.

1 comment:

Jared Milne said...

I don't think as much of Ibbitson and Bricker's analysis, as I found several flaws in it that I discuss here:


What's worse is that I find that Ibbitson and Bricker express some of the same arrogant condescension that they accuse the Laurentians of displaying towards Western Canadians. Just as the Laurentians might have airily dismissed the concerns of Western Canadians as so much nonsense, now the Big Shift supporters seem to display the same airy dismissal of the concerns of people east of Ontario, notably Quebecers and Atlantic Canadians.

Nor did the parties who benefit from the Big Shift, notably the Harper Conservatives, necessarily do any better in terms of maintaining the Liberal Laurentians' worst habits of centralizing power in the PMO, treating Parliament as an afterthought, and viciously attacking anybody who displayed a dissenting opinion.

The Big Shift, if it occurs, will not build a truly pan-Canadian consensus. All it does is simply change which region is lording it over the others, often arrogantly dismissing their concerns and treating them with condescension. Ibbitson and Bricker are merely putting a different shade of lipstick on the same ugly pig.

Finally, what precisely do the Big Shift supporters have to say about Indigenous rights, particularly when the courts are making it clearer than ever that these things matter, and cannot be swept away like Ibbitson, especially seems to want to do?