“Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”
In the half century since John F. Kennedy said those famous words, the balance has definitely shifted toward asking what your country can do for you. In almost every democracy, citizenship today offers more rights and imposes fewer responsibilities than it did in 1961.
How much should that balance shift? Canadians have been debating that question this winter—and landed in favor of rights, against responsibilities. Canada’s example offers cautionary lessons for others.
The story starts far from Canadian shores, in Lebanon, in the summer of 2006. A cross-border raid by Hezbollah triggered an armed Israeli response. The fighting rapidly escalated into a serious Israeli-Iranian proxy war. Hezbollah fired rockets into Israel. Israeli troops crossed the border to destroy the rocket launchers. Hundreds of thousands of Lebanese were displaced in the fighting.
At the time, some 50,000 Canadian passport-holders made their homes in Lebanon. Under intense media pressure to do something to protect these Canadian citizens from the Israeli onslaught, the Conservative government organized the most ambitious seaborne evacuation in Canadian history. The government chartered passenger vessels to ferry Lebanese Canadians to Cyprus and Turkey. In the end, about 14,000 people were evacuated, at a cost estimated (but never officially confirmed) of close to 100 million Canadian dollars. In another break with precedent, the government foisted the entire expense on taxpayers.