Brian Lee Crowley

What makes Canada great: My talk to MLI’s Canada 150 Dinner, 16th February 2017

Forget diversity, multiculturalism or social programmes. Despite what you may have heard, these are not the things that make Canada great, however desirable they may be in their own right. The things that have brought untold millions to settle in Canada were here long before these ideas ever saw the light of day.

Instead we have to look for the explanation of Canada’s greatness in things like our grounding in the New World, our tradition of freedom and our willingness to sacrifice to protect what really matters. At least that’s the argument I made in my talk at the MLI Canada 150 Dinner on 16th February 2017.

Multiculturalism, public health care and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are all well and good. But they don’t get at the essence of why true patriots love Canada, says Crowley.

The willingness to sacrifice in order to protect the freedoms uniquely available to us in the New World: now that, ladies and gentlemen, is a country worth celebrating.

Provincial liquor monopolies: you can run but you cannot hide

Canada’s liquor control boards – the provincially run bodies that control the sale of alcohol to Canadians – have proven surprisingly adept at enduring through calls for lower prices and greater consumer choice.

But as I argue in a new commentary for MLI, that doesn’t make them immortal. The fact that they have survived so long is itself a tribute to their political advantages for provincial governments, even as their economic advantages are gradually eroding under the onslaught of the consumer power revolution. In this Commentary, based on a talk I gave to the Canadian Association of Liquor Jurisdictions, I lay out the strengths and the challenges liquor monopolies must manage if they are to survive and how their world is changing thanks, among other things, to increased judicial scrutiny of trade barriers as well as the traditional objections of consumers and taxpayers.

We live in a world driven by the power of the consumer, and regulatory obstacles to consumers getting what they want are falling all around us. That has bodies such as the provincial liquor boards, with their monopolies, lack of choice and high prices, swimming against the historical tide.


The conflict between elites and ordinary people that brought us Trump and Brexit has Canada in its sights

There is no wall protecting Canada from the populist tidal wave that washed Donald Trump to the presidency in the United States, as I argue in a new Macdonald-Laurier Institute commentary based on a talk I gave in Vancouver to the local chapter of NAIOP.

The phenomena that delivered a stunning election result in the United States and a surprise vote to leave the European Union in Britain are – despite what some observers think – also happening here in Canada. I single out three areas where this conflict is already coming into the open: labour markets, immigration and housing prices.

The Brexit vote last June and the recent election of a populist and anti-establishment American president are perhaps only the opening chapters of a new era of friction and even confrontation between the opinions of the Davos-inspired elites who have been in charge for decades, and those of the man and woman on the street.

Celebrating Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the founder of modern Canada, on his 175th birthday

Last November 16th MLI issued my talk in celebration of the remarkable life and achievements of Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the founder of modern Canada and one of my personal heroes.

Laurier deserves a venerated place among the historical figures responsible for making Canada the great country we live in today.

As I argue in the piece, “Sir Wilfrid dwells among us through the wisdom and energy with which he shaped politics, institutions, and especially the ideas underlying modern Canada”.

Laurier’s “courage and vision” are largely responsible for some of Canada’s major achievements during a period where he won four federal elections: Opening Western Canada to mass settlement, welcoming unprecedented numbers of immigrants and unleashing a manufacturing and resource boom across the country.

But outside of those accomplishments, Laurier is worthy of our praise for building a foundation of progress and freedom on which Canada today rests.

Why cars and roads, not transit, are solution to urban ills

My head must need examining. Here I am once again pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes to a crowd of admirers of the imperial fashion sense. Yes, I have once again stuck my finger in the eye of the smug elites who think the solution to the ills of our cities is to make people live in cramped conditions and get around on their bike or on the subway. So sorry, but the evidence doesn’t point your way. read all about it in my latest column in the ROB in the Globe and Mail.

Column: Why government and gambling do not mix

In my latest column for the Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald, Vancouver Sun and other Postmedia dailies I examine the issues raised by governments’ enthusiasm for casinos. Politicians have allowed their addiction to the ready cash that casinos provide to distract them from vital issues such as where the money comes from and the ethics and economics of a government being a self-interested promoter of gambling.

Governments should get out of gambling

Brian Lee Crowley, Ottawa Citizen, July 19, 2013

Gambling can be a terrible addiction, made worse by government’s addiction to money.

Ottawa and Toronto are only the latest communities to get caught up in the rush to expand access to gambling. Casinos are all the rage — in addition to Ottawa and Toronto, many aboriginal communities want them, for example. (Of the over 70 casinos in Canada about a fifth are aboriginally owned.) Once Detroiters saw their money going across the river to Windsor’s, they built three.

But while the discussion about casinos usually focuses on where to put them, and how to divide up the spoils, too little attention is paid to the huge issue they represent for governments and fairness. As one participant in a conference on gambling observed a few years ago, “the Canadian government gambling model focuses on revenue generation and glosses over harm.”

If you’ve ever sat in a bar watching punters feed loonies into video lottery terminals (VLTs) you’ll know that a lot of gambling has nothing to do with the Hollywood image of tuxedoed high rollers betting vast sums on a roll of the dice. Much of it is cheap and sordid, vulnerable people enticed to throw away the rent money in the eternal quest for the Big Score.

Knowing that the industry preys on human weakness, governments sensibly used to make it hard to gamble. Casinos were only available in distant places like Reno and Las Vegas, or restricted to private clubs to ensure that low-budget punters didn’t get in to squander that week’s pay. Because they didn’t depend on them for revenue, governments could be the disinterested regulators that potentially dangerous activities require.

Then they discovered what the Mob has known all along — that gambling generates huge amounts of cash for those who own or control casinos. After that the jig was up. Governments’ insatiable search for money, born of an inability to control their own spending, unleashed a wave of state-promoted gambling dens to relieve the credulous of their cash.

By a sleight of hand every card sharp ought to admire, these governments shifted the discussion from preying on human weakness to all the benefits that could be created by politicians getting their hands on casino cash cows. Think of all the great public purposes that could be achieved, the good works, charities and sports teams supported, the “community reinvestment” and so forth. And all without raising taxes.

But in the rush to cash in the chips, governments forgot that it matters enormously to the integrity of public spending how the money spent is raised. Doing good with the money is not enough.

It is the job of government to decide what public services the community needs and can afford but also to ensure that the money raised to pay for those services meets certain standards. We endlessly debate the fairness of the tax system, the regressive nature of sales taxes, how the tax burden should be shared out between individuals and corporations, how much harder the income tax should hit those at the top of the income scale than at the bottom. We worry about how user fees will affect low income people. Ability to pay is a crucial part of the debate over taxes, as Margaret Thatcher learned when she was driven from office in part by a decision to impose a tax (the “community charge”) that took no account of ability to pay.

Somehow gambling revenues escape this scrutiny. Yet if politicians are genuinely convinced that the things they spend gambling revenue on are legitimate public purposes, then they should use the established tax system to collect those revenues, making everyone contribute their fair share under the law, and not just those vulnerable to the siren song of Lady Luck.

Remember that no matter what the politicians promoting gambling say, gambling revenues from local casinos by and large comes from local people, not outsiders. The casinos don’t generate new wealth for the community. They take money from locals who would have spent it on other things, on clothes and rent and food, and exploit human weakness to transfer that money into the hands of those same politicians to dispense on projects that they think make them look good.

Yes, we’ve always taxed vice (think tobacco and alcohol) and we should continue to do so. But clearly the scale of revenues governments get from controlling (and not just taxing) gambling have become so large that they no longer focus successfully on the damage gambling does. Governments that should be arm’s length independent regulators of gambling in the public interest are now shabby self-interested enablers. Everything we used to understand about how to limit the harm gambling does has been tossed out the window by politicians in the pursuit of cash. Shame on them.

Column: Tell the truth, separatism is dead

In today’s Ottawa Citizen, and following on the heels of the recent Great Canadian Debate “The Government of Quebec can decide unilaterally to secede from Canada” I argue that for all practical reasons, the idea of an independent Quebec is a non-starter.

Column: Tell the truth, separatism is dead

By Brian Lee Crowley, Ottawa Citizen June 21, 2013

Why will no political leader stand up and tell the truth about Quebec separatism? That truth is that separatism is dead—not, of course as something to dream about and vote for; that, like death and taxes will always be with us. No, the truth is that the hurdle is set so high for it to be done successfully and legally that separation is, for all intents and purposes, impossible.

Even Stéphane Dion, architect of the Clarity Act and one of the most courageous and rightly admired of Quebec federalists, still maintains the fiction that the key question is whether Quebec gives a clear answer to a clear question on secession. Quebec will not be kept in Canada “against its will.” He said so again the other night at one of the Great Canadian Debates Series organised by my institute in Ottawa. If Quebeckers really want to go, he says, they can.

True, forcing Quebeckers to stay against their clearly expressed will is a recipe for misery. On the other hand, downplaying the certain costs Quebeckers would confront to get out of Confederation encourages separation fantasies, distorting that very decision about whether to vote to leave. The secessionists, like former Bloquiste Daniel Turp, who debated Dion, strive to make Quebeckers believe that independence would be essentially costless, while creating all kinds of benefits (we will finally be maîtres chez nous, or as the great Quebec chansonnier  Félix Leclerc put it, it would mean the end of the fat greasy fingers of strangers pawing through the family papers).

It seems clear, though, that if Quebeckers understood the real cost they would have to pay to get out of Canada, the likelihood of such a vote ever occurring would plummet. So by failing to confront Quebeckers with the truth of their legal and constitutional position, the defenders of federalism actually help to foster the climate of confusion and uncertainty that has cost the whole country so dearly, and no one more than Quebeckers themselves over the last half century.

The Supreme Court had the cojones to make clear just how high the bar to secession sits in its 1998 decision on three questions referred to it by the Chrétien government. Those questions dealt with when and under what conditions Ottawa might be required to recognise a pro-independence vote in a Quebec referendum and negotiate the province’s secession.

What many people, including the federal government, took away from the Court’s ruling was that Quebec could not unilaterally set the rules of such a referendum. Ottawa is entitled to say it will never open negotiations on Quebec independence unless a clear question has been asked and a clear majority given. The 1999 Clarity Act gives legal form to this requirement.

Ottawa has remained silent, however, on the rest of the Supreme Court’s decision, for it did not stop at setting the conditions under which Ottawa would be legally obliged to open negotiations on secession.  There were also conditions to be attached to the negotiations themselves. Those conditions include respect of the rule of law, the rights of minorities and the federal nature of Canada.

Think about what any of those conditions might mean. The rule of law means that secession must be accomplished under the Constitution. Since the Constitution does not contemplate a province leaving, it would have to be amended. Such an amendment would fall under the unanimity rule, meaning that Quebec must negotiate secession with the nine other provinces plus Ottawa; any province, even tiny Prince Edward Island, could legitimately upset the secession applecart all on its own. Nor would any province give its consent unless it got its quid pro quo; Quebec taught us that rule of constitutional negotiation. Federalism doesn’t disappear simply because Quebeckers vote to make it go away.

Respecting minority rights means that Ottawa would almost certainly have to protect the interests of at least two minorities: Aboriginals (who have zero interest in leaving Canada) and federalists who voted to remain in Canada. Accordingly, Quebec could not possibly get out of the negotiations with its territory intact. Minorities given short shrift in the negotiations could turn to the Supreme Court for relief.

Fond fantasies aside, Quebec cannot, by majority vote, wave away its legal obligations. Quebec would crave and need international recognition, but that recognition will only be forthcoming if Quebec leaves according to the rules. Those are the ones the Supreme Court has laid down.  Virtually any imaginable secession deal that could emerge from such negotiations would be repugnant and unacceptable to Quebec nationalists. Result: economic devastation and deadlock, no matter how much Quebeckers might wish to leave.

Breaking up is indeed hard to do; so hard in fact that the chances of it ever occurring are microscopic. We should say so and act accordingly.

Brian Lee Crowley ( is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:

My homage to the (undeservedly) hated car

In my latest column for the Globe & Mail, I call down the worst the car-haters can muster in defence of the automobile and what it has meant in terms of raising the standards of living for millions of people.

My homage to the (undeservedly) hated car

BRIAN LEE CROWLEY, Special to The Globe and Mail

Wednesday, Jun. 12 2013

When Toronto Mayor Rob Ford came to power, he promised to end the “war on the car.” He was taking aim, of course, at the paternalistic philosophy of centralized urban planning that has infected city halls in virtually every major city in the country. Cars are bad, and the sprawl that they give rise to is worse, a blight on the countryside that all bien-pensants abhor and wish to reverse.

Timorously, I periodically raise my hand, cry “rubbish,” and let slip the dogs of war. For every time I question this article of faith of the smug new self-righteous urban puritans, I am immediately inundated with angry e-mails blaming me for every ill associated with cars, including one kind reader who accused me of being in favour of people being run down in crosswalks. So be it.

I call down on my unrepentant head the worst the car-haters can muster. The automobile is a wonder that rapid transit can never hope to replace, but can at best supplement to some minor degree, and at a cost greatly disproportionate to its benefit.

Almost universally, as people’s standard of living rises, one of the first things they buy is more space for themselves and their families. Those cities that anti-car proselytisers embrace with fervour, such as the centres of New York and Paris, have seen their population density fall over most of the past 100 years, as people have fled their cramped inconvenience in favour of blossoming suburbs, where everything is bigger, including the lots, and cars are the workhorse of city travel.

As a result, people who don’t live there hold up the centre of Paris or Stockholm as an example of what we should do with our own cities, ignoring the fact that the French and the Swedes live in far greater numbers in suburbs that are basically quite indistinguishable from those of Toronto or Montreal.

What’s this got to do with cars? Suburbs and space go hand in hand with the car. The car means people can reach affordable space. Instead of a balcony and a window box, they can have a yard. “Urban sprawl” and the car have given people a higher standard of living and more freedom than ever before.

Cars put you literally in the driver’s seat, including about when you travel, and what route you take (picking up the groceries on the way home from work or taking the kids to dance, hockey and music) without advance planning, transfers or extra fares, it is as essential as having a Graco FastAction-Fold-Click-Connect stroller for your kids at home. You stay dry and warm no matter what the weather, and travel time by car is in the vast majority of cases shorter than by transit, especially if you have to transfer. Cars carry more than one can manage on bus, bike or foot, allowing people to shop at supermarkets and discount stores farther from home. The car has been essential to the emergence of IKEA, Costco and Target, which raise our standard of living by improving choice and lowering prices.

Economic activity, far from being concentrated in city centres, is increasingly dispersed across our cities, meaning that the way people move for work less and less matches urban mass transit, which largely moves people to the central core and back again. Transit could never reproduce the blooming buzzing diversity of travel needs the car accommodates with ease. A tiny fraction of commuter trips are made on mass transit. Even if we were to double the share of mass transit in major cities (in itself a huge, and hugely expensive, task), it would still barely affect congestion, while emissions per kilometre driven are now vanishingly small.

The incontrovertible fact is the vast majority of people will continue to rely on their cars for transport. Mass transit is chiefly a poorly designed and very expensive social program for those who don’t have a car. We’d be better off buying them cars and spending the leftover money on well-designed roads, preferably where people were charged for every kilometre they drove and a premium at rush hour to reduce congestion.

Everyone talks in favour of urban transit, but what they really mean is that they wish the driver in front of them on the road would leave his car at home. This includes the allegedly anti-car young, who say they want to live downtown but in fact live in ever greater numbers in the suburbs. Pay no attention to what people say, because it is so unfashionable to be pro-car. Look instead at what people do; while city centres have grown, suburbs have grown hugely more, as people voted, not with their feet, but their steering wheels.

Brian Lee Crowley ( is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:

Latest Column in Ottawa Citizen: “The problem with ‘tax the rich’”

In today’s Ottawa Citizen, I try to make the case that in a world of finite resources, simply taxing the rich may cause more harm than good for the economy.

The problem with ‘tax the rich’


When asked why he robbed banks, notorious gangster Willie Sutton is alleged to have replied, “Because that’s where the money is.”

Some of the debaters at the recent Munk Debate on whether we should tax the rich more felt like they were channelling Willie.

By way of context, the Munk Debates are sponsored by Canadian businessman and philanthropist Peter Munk. They bring together global intellectual heavyweights to debate hot topics of world interest.

The last debate, held May 30 in Toronto, was no exception. Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman, former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, and famed economist Arthur Laffer debated the motion “we should tax the rich more.”

Surprisingly, given the ideological gulf between the debaters and their impressive intellectual firepower, the debate seemed to me to fail to tackle the central issue: not “do we want more government?” but “how do we get the best value for society out of our scarce resources?” We can all think of pet projects we would like government to undertake, and most of us would be prepared to accept higher taxes if it meant that project went ahead. But we go badly wrong when we frame the question this way.

The reason we go wrong is that it makes it sound like the money is free, that taking it from “the rich” leaves everything else as it was, and just gives us the benefit of greater public spending. But when you take money from someone, it is not as if they had no plans for it. They were going to use it to buy goods and services or to save and invest. All of those things are good for everyone, creating growth and jobs. But if you take their money through taxation, society does not get that benefit. Instead it gets the very different benefit of increased public spending.

Which of these is more valuable? Again if tax money just magically appears, any benefit from public spending is a pure gain for society.

But if private spending also creates public benefits like growth and jobs, you must subtract the lost benefits of the private spending from the benefits of the new public spending. Remember, the decision is not whether the dollar is to be spent, but by whom and on what.

For a lot of reasons, including that we spend our own money more carefully than we spend other people’s money (Senate expenses, anyone?), a dollar raised in taxes costs more than a dollar in lost economic activity. A very conservative estimate would be that this so-called deadweight loss is about 20 per cent. In other words a dollar taken out of private hands and spent by government doesn’t just mean a dollar less in private activity but $1.20 less.

That would be fine if we got $1.20 in value from a dollar spent in the public sector but governments are notoriously wasteful and inefficient. Decisions are slow and cumbersome and are often taken for reasons of political expediency rather than economic impact (flown out of Mirabel lately?), so a dollar in public spending produces less than a dollar in actual economic benefit. The net public benefit of shifting that dollar by taxation is starting to look pretty skimpy.

That brings us to the other great undefended assumption of the debate, namely that larger government is the best friend of the most vulnerable. If you accept that premise, then resisting higher taxes for the rich sounds like mean-spirited denial of benefits to the needy.

Leave aside the fact that government itself does many things that leave the most vulnerable worse off, such as agricultural supply management that makes their food more expensive, or employment insurance, whose benefits go predominantly to the well-paid, and that much public spending goes to comfortable civil servants, not the poor. Is more public spending what the poorest need?

Not if Canada’s experience of the 1990s is any guide. In the decade that followed the Chrétien government’s great fiscal reforms, we saw the size of government go from 53 per cent of GDP to 39 per cent, an unprecedented fall. We balanced the books and cut taxes to boot. Yet we simultaneously saw the number of people living in poverty fall dramatically.

Why? Because we unleashed a torrent of private investment and economic growth that pulled previously unemployed people into work and the very best escape route from poverty is more family members able to work more hours. We made government smaller while generating a tide of growth that lifted all boats.

In Willie Sutton’s terms, the rich may be where the money is; that doesn’t mean substituting government’s decisions for their decisions about how to spend it produces the best outcomes, even for the poorest among us.

Brian Lee Crowley ( is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa:

Commentary: “Islam vs. Islamism: Confronting the terrorist threat while preserving the free society”

How can free, western-liberal-democracies protect themselves against violent terror attacks such as we have seen recently in Boston and the streets of London, while still preserving our essential freedoms and founding values?  At what point should the beliefs individuals hold themselves be subject to the laws of the nation?  These are difficult questions to answer since our desire to remain free must be balanced against our need for security.  Here is my latest Commentary “Islam vs. Islamism: Confronting the terrorist threat while preserving the free society” where I try to establish the lines of demarcation between the freedom to hold personal beliefs, an the freedom to act upon them in society.

Recently, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute co-sponsored a discussion event with renown Middle East expert Daniel Pipes titled “Islam vs. Islamism: an evening with Daniel Pipes” where Pipes gave an impassioned talk on what we mean when we talk about the difference between Islam – one of the world’s great religions – and “Islamism”, the ideology behind so many terror attacks.

Following the talk by Mr. Pipes, there was a panel discussion with Salim Mansour and myself where we explored this issue further.  This event was the impetus for a column I wrote for Postmedia which you can read here.  But I felt that more needed to be said than the confines of a 750 word column would allow so I have expanded on that column with the following full length Commentary posted at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s website.

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Brian Lee Crowley
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