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Neighbors Without Benefits

Why Americans should be more concerned about the situation in ... Canada.

America’s relationship with Canada has been a wildly fortunate one: What other country in the world has had the luxury of never giving a moment’s thought to its neighbor? And with the Middle East exploding, the proxy wars between Pakistan and India growing less proxy by the day, questions of succession in North Korea becoming increasingly bizarre, and a Mexican drug war beginning to spill over the border, the parliamentary crisis in Canada may seem low on the list of America’s priorities. But, believe it or not, it shouldn't be. If Canada does collapse--and the parliamentary crisis is pointing us in that direction--the U.S. will end up with something like a Balkans to the North.

Canada has become ungovernable, entering a period of Italian-style instability. The beginnings of the recent parliamentary crisis were innocuous enough. The Conservative minority government, elected in October, put out a fiscal statement which proposed ending the subsidy to political parties as a cost-cutting measure. The response from the Liberal Party was unprecedented. They proposed forming a coalition with the New Democrats, a smaller socialist party. The Conservative response to the proposed coalition was equally unprecedented. They asked the Queen to prorogue parliament, something that had only ever been done in times of national emergency. Michaëlle Jean, the Queen's unelected representative in Canada, decided what constituted the people's will at the beginning of December and allowed the Prime Minister to suspend parliament--until today.

Mercifully, parliament has opened with relative calm. Everyone is on his or her best behavior, and the budget has not caused the government to fall (yet). The question is how long Stephen Harper can stop himself from insulting his opponents, thereby inviting them to topple his government. Michael Ignatieff, the former Harvard professor and newly minted leader of the Liberal Party, has stated that this session of parliament will be Harper’s “last shot.” Without compromises, Ignatieff will make the government fall, which would force Canadians to another election less than a year after the last one. But the worst part is that we can't even blame the politicians. The country keeps refusing to pick an out-and-out winner. We have had minority governments since 2004, revealing our lack of shared purpose. The Conservatives have been unable to build the strategic alliances between regions that they have traditionally used to form governments, the Liberals are coming off their worst electoral showing ever, and the Greens have split the left without ever holding a seat in the Commons. In place of strong national parties capable of creating consensus, the country is realigning along single issues and regional interests, centrifugally spinning apart.

The path to dissolution has already been built. Quebec holds a referendum on independence every 15 years or so. The last one was 1995, so we have about two years left. If the rest of Canada is still incoherent, there will be less of an argument to keep the country together, and Quebec may well go. No one has any idea what a patchwork of national units divided by linguistic identity across the northern part of the Continent would look like. The East Coast would be split from the main body of English Canada--how would that work? And while we are a quiet and peaceful country almost to a fault, political passions have been known to flare up. In the sixties, the Front de libération du Québec ran an active terrorist campaign which culminated in the kidnapping  of British Trade Commissioner James Cross and the murder of Labour Minister Pierre Laporte in 1970*. Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister at the time, suspended all civil liberties to crush them, making George Bush’s response to terrorism seem positively measured and bureaucratic.

Indeed, it's likely that the death of Canada would have larger consequences for Americans than they realize. Canada is America's largest trade partner after China, and its dissolution would be highly disruptive. $1.5 billion worth of goods cross the border every day, along with 300,000 people. The two countries also share the largest energy trade relationship in the world. The oil sands in Alberta are the best hope for the United States to get the energy it needs from people who are not brutally corrupt dictators. One way or the other, Americans will eventually be drinking Canadian water, too. Nobody really worries about any of this now because the relationship between Canada and the United States is close and friendly. But what happens if Canada ceases to exist?

President Obama has already announced that his first visit of state will be to Canada, resuming the historical precedent with which Bush broke when he chose Mexico as his first stopping place. Obama hasn't chosen a date yet, but let's hope it's soon. Canada needs to see what a unifying leader looks like, and the new president needs to have a look at a country which may turn out to be yet another mess dropped on his doorstep.

Stephen Marche is a culture columnist for Esquire, and the author, most recently, of Shining at the Bottom of the Sea.

CORRECTION: The article originally stated that James Cross had been murdered. We regret the error.

By Stephen Marche