There are many who feel the United States is the luckiest nation in modern history. Blessed by benign geography, the distractions of European powers during the nation’s infancy, an abundance of natural resources and the geopolitical latitude to stumble often in establishing a workable democracy, the US can hardly deny its good fortune.
One of the most significant advantages enjoyed by the US is its long peaceful northern border with Canada. While the two nations have mostly acted in concert with each other and developed common objectives toward the rest of the world, there have been bumps in the road.
One large bump might be Donald Trump. His foolish behaviour toward Canada over the NAFTA treaty negotiated 20 years ago and his personal rudeness toward Canada’s charismatic premier Justin Trudeau have roiled the waters, but Trudeau and the Canadian government seem to be adopting the waiting game until Trump leaves or is voted out of office. So far it does not appear the brash American president is doing irreparable damage to a bilateral relationship still hugely important to both countries.
But while most Canadians will admit to at least a partial addiction to American television, music and sports - and are generally very well informed on American politics and international relations - Americans remain startlingly ignorant of their northern neighbour. The notion of taking advice from a Canadian would never cross the mind of most Americans.
Nevertheless, the US has much to learn from Canada and Canadians. One such person is Canadian Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella, a brilliant, articulate speaker and commentator who has closely studied the US Supreme Court and its justices. Abella is the child of Holocaust survivors and was appointed to the Ontario Court of Appeal in 1992 and to her current position on Canada’s highest court in 2004.
Appearing recently before a largely American audience in New York State, Abella spoke eloquently about the law, justice and democracy. Some of her remarks should serve as a template for America today. Though it is likely futile, one could even hope that Trump and his advisers might listen and take heed.
“The rule of law,” Abella said, “is the holy grail of democracy today. The rule of law provides protection against state power and against rule by whim. And justice is what laws are designed to promote.”
Abella said “democracy is so much more than merely elections. While democracy has its flaws and inconveniences, it remains the best system of governance man has devised. Still, it needs to be protected and nurtured. Part of that protection is a free press. But we should all actively promote the triumph of democracy and the rule of justice”.
Without naming Trump or even the callow Republican Party that so selfishly props him up, this distinguished Canadian jurist was clearly critical of them. It is precisely the rule of law that is supposed to protect Americans from state power and rule by whim, both eagerly if clumsily wielded by Trump.
Abella turned to human rights and civil liberties, and pointed to successful multiculturalism as the natural accommodation between the two principles. “Human rights,” she said, “means treating people as a group in need of state intervention. Civil liberties means treating everyone the same before the law and society.”
In Canada, she explained, the constitution appreciates that, for example, French and English speakers can be of equal worth and entitlement. “As has been shown in Canada, pluralism can be unifying. Canada is probably the most successful practitioner of multiculturalism in the world today.”
On American jurisprudence, Abella said the US legal system is in danger of ignoring 600 years of common law as it veers toward granting to public opinion a veto over justice. “Judges should not be elected as they are in the US, and they should only fearlessly interpret the law.”
Turning to recent history, Abella said the most important lesson of World War II is to prevent injustice. “When we are silent in the face of intolerance and injustice, intolerance wins. And unless we pay attention to intolerance, we will forfeit democracy.”
The lessons for contemporary America are clear. Perhaps a Canadian can lead the way to understanding.