I’m in the midst of reading a fascinating new book The Final Act: The Helsinki Accords and the Transformation of the Cold War by Canadian historian Michael Cotey Morgan. The book recounts the run-up to the signing of the 1975 Helsinki Accords, the diplomatic agreement widely considered to have marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
Morgan, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spent 10 years deep in the archives of all 35 nations involved in the agreement. He explains how the Soviets and the west’s shared goal of respect for human rights drew them to such widely divergent solutions.
As Morgan described in the book, “The Soviets championed an idea of peace in which security demanded impermeability. The more robust the barriers between states, they reasoned, the safer governments would be… While, according to the Western concept of peace, by contrast, security required openness. As barriers between states fell, so would mutual suspicion and the danger of war.”
I couldn’t help but think of these entrenched beliefs as I watched the latest developments in the Waterfront Toronto/Sidewalk Labs partnership unfold this week.
All of the stakeholders have the shared goal of a more prosperous Canadian future. Where they diverge is in how to get there.
Some believe Canada’s future depends on building a uniquely Canadian economy—for us to stand as an independent nation on the world stage as a sovereign economic power. These folks would look at the Oshawa General Motors plant closure, for example, and see it as a cautionary tale of what happens when you build a branch plant economy that is over-reliant on foreign corporations.
Others believe Canada’s future depends on working within the orbit of global economic superpowers, most notably our neighbour to the south. These folks would look at the same plant closure and take it as a sign that we need to be open for business to attract more foreign investment.
Both sides are convinced they’re right, which is why the Sidewalk Toronto project has divided so many. Led by Alphabet Inc., the Mountain View, Calif.-based company at the very height of its global dominance, the project hits deep at the core psyche of what it means to be Canadian. Are we a colonial outpost that has simply traded one imperial overlord (Britain) for another (the United States)? Or, are we an independent nation standing on our own two feet and creating world-beating businesses like Nortel, BlackBerry and Shopify?
This is nothing new, of course. Northrop Frye, the famed Canadian literary critic, used to refer to the Canadian identity as a “garrison mentality.” For Frye, Canadian nature inspired “deep terror” because of the threat of a “huge, unthinking, menacing, and formidable physical setting.” Margaret Atwood then expanded on the concept of “survival,” seeing it as arising less from the threat of the real wilderness and more from the threat of American cultural domination (I’m mindful that Canada’s identity existed long before our colonial history).
In the case of the Helsinki Accords, it was the western concept of human rights that won that day and ultimately led to the downfall of the Soviet Union. A short-term win for the west, but also the moment that began the march to power for a young Russian KGB agent named Vladimir Putin—the unintended consequences of win-at-all-costs diplomacy.
As the Sidewalk Toronto project moves into a new chapter, stakeholders would be wise to spend some time thinking about the Canadian psyche. Despite everyone’s best intentions, they may be alienating the very folks they need to win over.