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Time to reconsider the nature of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

Charles Darwin's ideas about evolution and the survival of the fittest portray a world that is competitive, one divided into winners and losers. On this basis, co-operation and accommodation are – as Donald Trump, the champion of unbridled competition, might put it – for losers.

And, of course, they are not. In fact, two simple words, "mutual accommodation," seem to resonate as a way of going about big things in a much better way. They also reflect the broadly shared way in which Canadians have made their country work – not always, but more often than not.

Mutual accommodation has been the focus of my previous essays, but now that the country faces a pivotal federal election and the world grapples with social upheaval and economic turmoil, it is time to look at the concept more closely.

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The simplest way of thinking about mutual accommodation is that it helps to get things done by making room for others. It is often about compromise, and always requires an understanding of what each side needs . Inclusion is the key driver. Mutual accommodation may be about shared purposes, values, interests, and beliefs; it may simply make room for different approaches; or it may just make a particular goal possible. Each objective may be very hard to achieve – indeed, impossibly hard at times . Although mutual accommodation is big and its reach inexhaustible, it does not always work, and force may be needed along the way.

Accommodation today

The big challenges facing mutual accommodation traditionally involve clashes over nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, language, territory, status, resources and money – and how best to overcome them. In the early 21st century we are seeing the resurgence of some of these clashes with potentially dangerous intensity, as well as the addition of new challenges posed by population growth and the use and abuse of the planet. At some point, and in many different ways, these dual challenges are likely to bring enormous pressures on our ability to achieve mutual accommodation.

And this is not a case when doing well most of the time is enough. Throughout history there have been admirable examples of the achievement of mutual accommodation. In terms of individual countries, Canada is probably the standout. As Ken Dryden, the hockey great who became a federal cabinet minister, once put it, Canada has become a "do what it takes" country. However, to continue to succeed, we need to understand not only our mutual-accommodation triumphs but our failures, too.

In 1859, English political philosopher John Stuart Mill published his famous, 50,000-word essay On Liberty, and the same year Darwin's Origin of the Species appeared, describing evolution as the product of "the struggle for life." But just as liberty was no more important an idea in Mill's day than mutual accommodation is (Donald Trump aside) for our times, U.S. journalist Robert Wright has quite a different interpretation of Darwin's thinking.

In his 2000 book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, he argues that biological and cultural evolution are shaped and directed primarily by what he calls "non- zero-sumness" – a term used in game theory to describe co-operative games in which both sides win (two sums rather than the zero-sum conclusion in competitive games). Although he accepts the idea of natural selection, he argues that throughout human history we have evolved to states of increasing complexity – and greater rewards for complexity. This evolution has been more adaptable and inclusive (both/and) than rigid and exclusive (either/or) – but always involves both. We have reached the stage where we need to move beyond winners and losers to inclusion and collaboration.

The deepest, broadest mutual accommodation would be a world where there is room for everyone to be a winner – if they so choose. This goal may forever be beyond humanity's reach. Grasping for it would transform the world. If the success of some groups or countries over a full life-cycle did not blunt the potential for success of others, then all the winners could participate in a world of progress and accomplishment akin to the mature stage in human development described by German-American psychoanalyst Erik Erikson.

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Shared and separate stories

Some people worry that a shared story will exclude all others. They see separate stories as a source of Canadian strength. So do I. The co-existence of many separate stories is one form of mutual accommodation. Non-inclusive societies like only one story.

Separate stories are stronger if there is a real shared story (not one constructed for political or self-serving purposes) that includes all of them. Mutual accommodation is about opening up the possibilities, not narrowing them. Canada's shared mutual-accommodation story excludes no particular separate story, but it can change the historical and conceptual contexts in which these separate stories are perceived. Or, as Austrian psychotherapist Alfred Alder put it, what happens is important, but how it is perceived can have even more important consequences. We must pay attention to perception.

The separateness of things is more than the breakup or disruption of their everyday connectedness, and the connectedness of things always reconnects what is separate. I have observed this dynamic at the heart of everything that happens and use it to figure out what is really going on. It has never let me down and applies to how separate and shared stories relate.

Successes and failures

A world of two sums (win/win) that add up to a more than one zero sum (win/lose) moves beyond the political compromises that have made Canada possible. It leads to a more inclusive Canada that affects everyday life and cultural attitudes. Canadians today are more familiar than ever with the need for political compromise. We are not likely to see any major political party push for a divisive program based on its own narrow-base prejudices, as the Conservatives did with conscription during the First World War. It took the party 65 years to recover in Quebec. Mackenzie King learned that lesson as prime minister, and became the great consolidator of Sir Wilfrid Laurier's political vision of public purpose through compromise. And a solid majority of Canadians like inclusion – witness the fact that Canada is one of few Western countries without serious divisions over immigration.

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Throughout our history, political leaders devoted to mutual accommodation and their followers have made Canada a coast-to-coast country, despite the pressures of an expansionist United States and the challenges of French-English and Catholic-Protestant divisions. Without war or even much violence, Canada became a country – and stayed together. It overcame the same kind of national and religious differences that most countries find very hard to manage do.

Canada's mutual-accommodation challenges between 1867 and 1945 were primarily political. They revolved around French and English, Quebec and the rest of the country, language and schools – all deep, fundamental issues that were settled through compromise. The arrival of waves of immigrants from all over the world in the 20th century moved Canada beyond these issues. Since 1945, Canada has used political compromise and inclusion to consolidate two great strategic and structural achievements – the embracing of the differences we now find in our society and the handling of the Quebec separatist threat to the nation's future.

But Canada has also had its failures, most enduring in its relations with the First Nations (which I now believe are about to improve). Others episodes include the racism that excluded a shipload of Sikhs from landing in British Columbia in 1914; the anti-Semitism that kept out Jews who had escaped the Nazis in 1939; the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War and the confiscation of their property; and the confinement of Doukhobor children in the 1950s so they could be forced to go to school. As everywhere in the world, there has also been some violence in individual labour disputes. The positive news is that, apart from the unfinished business with First Nations, these sorts of regressions have not occurred during the last half-century in Canada. Over all, the magnitude of our achievement outweighs the shortfalls.

Canada and the world

We engage in many voluntary acts of mutual accommodation every day, such as letting people with disabilities go first in line. These acts are easy. Even letting one's spouse have her or his way is not really that hard most of the time. However, the kind of lasting mutual accommodation that involves political compromise, compassion, freedom and the law can be hard, at least at the start.

Canada's mutual accommodation has focused on the big, hard-to-manage divisions within societies and between countries. Before 1867 there was the Quebec Act of 1774 and the Lafontaine-Baldwin partnership around 1848. Then followed Confederation itself (in a form flexible enough to centralize for war, counter economic catastrophe and return to a more decentralized world as times changed), a French-Catholic prime minister (Laurier) only 29 years later, and getting through two divisive world wars. More recently there has been the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, with its notwithstanding clause – which was forced upon Pierre Trudeau by the provinces but went on to save the country by allowing Quebec to pass Bill 101 and protect the French language. A similar clause in the U.S. Constitution would negate the right-wing claim that the courts are overriding elected representatives. In Canada, however, the courts can be overruled if politicians think the electorate is ready to see the Charter overridden. The asymmetric elements in national medicare and the Canada Pension Plan also are ways of accounting for differences among provinces.

The pursuit of public purpose through compromise is harder for Americans for two main reasons. First, public purpose runs against the grain of many Americans, although they have still managed to achieve a lot of it at the federal level (too much for some). Second, the fact that the country got started with one war and was preserved with another has put force in the driver's seat in a way that has never happened in Canada. Still, the United States has also had its own great mutual-accommodation moments:

  • Crafting the Constitution, with rep by pop winning for the presidency and the House of Representatives, and equality of the states winning for the Senate;
  • leading the great post-1945 achievement based on broadening the inclusive order in the world, containing what cannot be included, and acting collectively;
  • expanding civil rights, as the U.S. political system responded a mostly non-violent movement.

The key mutual-accommodation challenges in the United States are unresolved racist attitudes, equal race-related rights protection, and the current divisive turmoil of its politics. No other country, however, has ever had/ accommodated so many separate and diverse sources of initiating action. Also, the United States probably has more individuals capable of being leaders in mutual accommodation than any other country. Unfortunately, a broad swath of public opinion does not yet accept the necessity of compromise and flexibility.

Following the continent's near suicide – two wars and the Holocaust – the rise of the European Union represents another great achievement in mutual accommodation. There is still a lot of unfinished business, however, particularly in the economically strained Eurozone. It is likely now in the early uncertain stages of its own existential crisis. But Germany's recent decision to accept 800,000 refugees is remarkable by the standards of all history.

The big challenge today is a crowded world – there are too many people, too many ideas, too much change and too much carbon to continue with the present order. We must move to a system of broader mutual accommodation in order to build the foundation for a better world of wider prosperity – where more people will live in peace and safety. Over the last two centuries Canada has been able to find its way to mutual accommodation, in part because it developed in a place and at a time that had none of these problems of overcrowding: Its physical space was huge for its sparse population; change was slow, and new ideas had the time to take hold.

Nowhere in the world today is there anything like the usable physical space Canadians and Americans had during their formative years. It is imperative we find ways to create more safe, socio-cultural space where individuals and groups can find, and be, themselves. Confident self-responsibility is the surest path to workable mutual accommodation – and much else.

Neitzche's will to power was based on his stated rejection of compassion and mutual accommodation (he used those two words). The will to power underlay the European hell of the first half of the 20th century. It is mutual accommodation's opposite. Power to contain – and in rare cases, to win – is crucial. The power to impose, no matter the purpose, is what the 21st century cannot accommodate.

William A. Macdonald is president of W.A. Macdonald Associates Inc., which consults on government relations and economic policy, and has an extensive record of public service. To bolster his campaign for a coast-to-coast conversation about the state and nature of the country, he and his associate, William R.K. Innes, have created The Canadian Narrative Project, with assistance from Trent University. For more about the venture, please visit www.canadiandifference.ca.

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