To understand Canada is to understand the odd relationship the country's Anglophone majority has with the French-speaking province of Quebec, one that has endured, in various stages of rockiness, since the country came into being in 1867.

On one hand, Canadians from other provinces resent Quebec's prickly fiscal demands and its discriminatory treatment of its own Anglo minority. On the other hand, successive prime ministers have done their best to appease Quebec in an ongoing bid to suppress separatist agitation. If Quebec ever does leave Canada, it will destroy the melding of two languages and peoples that was Canada's original raison d'être -- not to mention create an eastern rump of four Atlantic provinces, which could easily become absorbed into the United States, offshore oil riches and all.

Fearful Symmetry: The Fall and Rise of Canada's Founding Values. By Brian Lee Crowley. Key Porter Books, 2009.
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Crowley's book is a good starting point for understanding Quebec's tortured relationship with Canada. Crowley, a longtime Canadian political wonk who now runs his own think tank, argues that Quebec has essentially been blackmailing Canada for years. This blackmail hasn't just created a massive flow of cash to Quebec from the rest of Canada (the ROC, as it is sometimes called); it also has ended up expanding government programs that satisfy Quebecers' love of statism and skepticism about private enterprise. The result: Canada has become a European-style welfare state, despite a majority Anglo population that might otherwise prefer the small-government American model.

But Crowley's story comes with a happy ending: Thanks to the oil industry, Alberta is booming these days. And the West, in general, is attracting lots of immigrants. Quebec's share of the population is diminishing, as is its clout in Ottawa. Thus, in future years, the rest of Canada will have to pay less and less Danegeld to Quebec's policy extortionists.

For almost seven years, Canada has been ruled by a disciplined center-right Conservative administration led by Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Although not blessed with anything resembling great charisma, Harper somehow managed to stitch together the remnants of two now defunct political parties (the Reform Party and the Progressive Conservatives) to create a coalition that has won three straight elections.

Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power. By Tom Flanagan. McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007.
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Few authors are more qualified to tell the tale of how this came to be than the insider Tom Flanagan, a political scientist and occasional newspaper columnist who had worked for the Reform Party before becoming campaign manager for the Conservatives. Harper's Team was originally published in 2007, but more than five years later very little of it seems dated: Harper is still the same pragmatic, middle-of-the-road, nominally small-C conservative he was when elected in 2006.

As successful as Harper has been, the most successful Canadian politician of modern times remains Jean Chrétien, who won three parliamentary majorities for the Liberal Party and served as prime minister from 1993 to 2003. Chrétien tackled the country's massive debt, created an effective legal template for combating Quebec separatism (the Clarity Act), and deployed troops to Afghanistan, the first Canadian ground combat mission since the Korean War. Moreover, he held together a fractious Liberal party that began dissolving into chaos almost as soon as he passed its reins over to his onetime finance minister, Paul Martin.

Iron Man: The Defiant Reign of Jean Chrétien. By Lawrence Martin. Viking Canada,
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Iron Man, by Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin, tells the story of Chrétien's time in power. Martin, who also wrote an earlier volume, The Will to Win, about Chrétien's rise to the top, based his book on extensive interviews, including with Paul Martin and Chrétien himself. The tone is upbeat, perhaps excessively so, and the author emphasizes how an unsophisticated, homely fellow from rural Quebec managed to get the better of his far more well-heeled rivals. But the book does cover some of the various grubby scandals that marred what was otherwise one of the most successful prime ministerial runs in Canadian history.

Memoirs: 1939-1993. By Brian Mulroney. Douglas Gibson Books, 2007.
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Before there was Harper, before there was Chrétien, there was Brian Mulroney, the Conservative prime minister of Canada from 1984 to 1993. Mulroney's considerable legacy is significantly tarnished by scandal, including a particularly tawdry one involving the exchange of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash with a German-Canadian businessman named Karlheinz Schreiber. But it is important to remember that Mulroney was, in many ways, the architect of Canada's modern prosperity, since it was he who signed the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (the precursor to the North American Free Trade Agreement), as well as the Goods and Services Tax, which, to this day, helps keep the nation's books (almost) balanced. Mulroney's autobiography is a 1,152-page doorstopper that is often boring and omits any truly candid discussion of his scandals. Nevertheless, it is essential reading for anyone seeking to understand how Canada became the outward-looking, free-trading nation it is today.

Although Canada has been ruled by a Conservative government for seven years, it is still a very socially liberal country, with a stubborn streak of anti-Americanism (on the left side of the political spectrum, at least). This is very much part of the legacy of Pierre Trudeau, who served as prime minister from 1968 to 1979 and then again from 1980 to 1984. He befriended dictators (including Fidel Castro), alienated Western Canada with his heavy-handed energy policy, racked up an enormous debt, and often overplayed his self-image as philosopher king. Yet in surveys he remains one of the most popular prime ministers in Canadian history -- in large part, no doubt, because he established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms within Canada's constitution (the rough equivalent to the U.S. Bill of Rights, and its subsequent constitutional amendments).

Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau: 1968-2000. By John English. Knopf Canada, 2009.
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English's Just Watch Me, the second volume of his Trudeau biography, provides an excellent profile of this transformative prime minister. It's also one of the few Canadian political books that provides anything resembling celebrity spice: Among the women Trudeau dated were the actress Kim Cattrall, the guitarist Liona Boyd, and the actress Margot Kidder, not to mention the woman he eventually married, Margaret Joan Sinclair, whom he met during a vacation in Tahiti in 1967, when she was 18 years old.

  • JONATHAN KAY is Managing Editor for Comment at the National Post and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @jonkay or email him at [email protected].
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