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Why we need to ditch US for Canada in benchmarking

By XN Iraki | January 26th 2021
XN Iraki, associate professor at the University of Nairobi.

The US elections are over, but why are we ignoring her northern neighbour?

Canadians often insist they are proud not to be Americans, a curious statement given that the two countries share the world’s longest border, speak the same language and have similar history and heritage.

Even the landscape is similar. They also share rivers, plains, mountains and oceans.  

For all their many similarities, however, a visit to Canada reveals just how different the two countries are culturally.

It may have a lot to do with history. Canada is a dominion with the Queen of England as the head of state and the prime minister as the head of government. Theirs is a parliamentary system.

The Queen is represented by the Governor General. Remember during the American war of independence, some royalists wanted the British rule to continue. The US is a republic with a strong president who is both the head of state and government.

We have in the last 10 years tried to be as American as we can. Our constitution strongly mirrors that of the US even in words. We even kept archaic terms like cabinet secretary. We have governors and senators too.

We somehow forgot, or overlooked, the fact that the US has three levels of government, with the state between the county and national governments. 

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It is one of the paradoxes of our nation. Politically, academically, spiritually and socially, we face West, where the sun sets.

We read their books and newspapers and watch their news outlets and movies.

Newly inaugurated US President Joe Biden with Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a past visit to Canada as Vice President in 2016. The two countries' systems of government are glaringly different.

Did you notice most Kenyan TV channels broadcast Joe Biden’s inauguration live? We love visiting and living in the West, giving our children Western names, their religion and even foods.

Curiously, we have never acquired the taste for Western beers. How did vodka, with its communist tag gain a foothold in Kenya? And lately being married by a Westerner or marrying one is a mark of class.  

When it comes to economic models, we face East where the sun rises. South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and China are our benchmarks. Vision 2030 and its derivative Big Four agenda is inspired by the East. 

Do we know or care about the religions of the East? Why have Kenyans not been converted to Hinduism despite Indians’ presence in Kenya for over 100 years? Why can’t we copy the Asian political models, which have catapulted these nations into the first world? In copying the West, we are selective; the West, it seems, is America. Why did the US appropriate the name of a whole continent?  

Why do we ignore Canada, which I guess could be a competing benchmark? Don’t we get a better perspective on any issue if we get our information from as many sources as possible? Remember literature review in writing a thesis? 

The Canadian experience could even enrich the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI).

The easiest way to know the character of a country and judge if it is worth being a benchmark is to look at the top leadership. 

Something captures your attention when you look at the Canadian Cabinet, a conviction that it should be emulated. Beyond a prime minister whose father was also prime minister, the Cabinet diversity is unrivalled in gender and race.

Names of ministries are very innovative. Remember ministers must be elected MPs in Canada. We used to have such an arrangement, but we abandoned it. This could be reintroduced through BBI. 

In the Canadian Cabinet, there is a turban-wearing Sikh and even a black man. The names of ministries are fascinating.

Examples include the Minister of Diversity and Inclusion and Youth; Minister of Families, Children and Social Development; Minister of Digital Government; Minister of Middle-Class Prosperity and Associate Minister of Finance and Minister of Seniors, among others. Should we not create ministries depending on our needs? 

We rarely talk about Canada in Kenya; it is drowned by the media blitz from the US. We know few Canadian musicians or actors beyond Justin Bieber, Celine Dione and Alanis Morrissette.

Yet the country has something to offer to Kenya in managing diversity and welcoming newcomers. Granting citizenship to the Shona community was a step in the right direction. We should be a welcoming country. Immigrants bring talent, new thinking and socio-economic dynamism. That is why cities are popular economic magnets. Most think of Canada as a cold faraway place with igloos and native Americans on dog sledges. Yet there is a lot we can learn from this country in leveraging diversity AND getting the most out of our differences. I found it curious that I did not carry the burden of being black the few weeks I lived in Toronto, Canada. This was a big contrast with the US Deep South where I spent six long years.

Canada is a more liveable and homely place. If I schooled there instead of the Deep South, I would probably still be there.   

Finally, Kenya has one lasting Canadian legacy - the 8.4.4 system of education. Remember Prof Colin Mackay? 

- The writer is an associate professor at the University of Nairobi  


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