Lake Champlain, an extended finger of water on the border of Vermont and upper New York state, was once a strategic waterway. It took its name from Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer who defeated the Iroquois there in 1609 to open the way for fur traders. Later, a ragtag army of the newborn United States followed Champlain’s footsteps on its way to attack Montreal in an unsuccessful attempt to export the American Revolution. The same path has been followed south by generations of Quebecers seeking their fortunes in America.
André Senécal is the son of one of them—a glassworker who abandoned Canada with his family in 1957. Senécal, now 47, heads the Quebec studies program at the University of Vermont in Burlington, on Lake Champlain’s east shore. From that vantage point, he studies the still-uneasy relations between Quebec and America, and between Quebec and the rest of Canada. For the United States, his adopted land,
Senécal is keenly optimistic.
But for the country of his birth, he admits, “I am extremely pessimistic.”
In that, Senécal reflects both sides of one of the few differences in outlook between Canadians and Americans, as reflected in the Two Nations poll. Canadian poll respondents are more pessimistic—a condition plainly influenced by their country’s crisis of confidence over its Constitution and economic outlook. American optimism is tempered by concern for what many American respondents cite as their nation’s moral and social problems, including those that centre on the blight of illegal drugs and the plight of the homeless.
But, in other respects, the poll shows that the gap in perspectives between Canada and the United States is narrow. When they consider the change taking place in Eastern Europe, three out of five respondents in both countries say that enhances the chances of world peace. In common, they appear to find that mood reflected in their private lives. Observed Senécal, one of scores of North Americans interviewed separately from the poll: “Events worldwide give me buoyancy.” And aside from unity and the economy in Canada and social and moral issues in the United States, roughly one in five people in both countries agreed, in response to an open-ended poll question, that the most important problem that their country faces is pollution of the environment.
The poll also revealed a convergence in the two peoples’ attitudes towards the roles of business and government in their lives. Asked whether business, government or unions best served their personal economic interests, Canadian respondents divided 56 per cent to 20 per cent for business over government. Americans split in a narrower ratio, by 48 to 22 in favor of business. Unions trailed in both countries. On the one hand, said Decima chairman Allan Gregg, “Canada appears to be more probusiness than the hairy-chested bastion of free enterprise, America.” The United States, meanwhile, shows signs that it is rediscovering its social conscience on the way to becoming, in President George Bush’s oft-quoted phrase, “a kinder, gentler nation.”
The survey confirms the reputation of Americans as a people with a sunnier disposition, in their lives, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, than their northern neighbors, with their constitutional commitment to work for peace, order and good government. Asked whether they have become more optimistic or pessimistic about the future in recent years, 50 per cent of Americans polled said that they
have become more hopeful, compared with 36 per cent who are more pessimistic. Among Canadians, feelings are more evenly divided, by a ratio of 42 to 40, between pessimists and optimists.
The difference may partly be a matter of national character. “The worst part about the Canadian attitude is pessimism,” says Peter Liszt, who moved from California to Vancouver Island in 1985. “Americans, by and large, are more optimistic.” Liszt, in fact, calls lack of enthusiasm “the biggest problem facing Canada.”
Others suggest that the crisis over national unity—identified by 19 per cent of Canadian respondents as the country’s most important problem— has much to do with Canadians’ gloom.
“It is quite terrifying to see the old order under question,” noted Lee Thompson, 44, a Montreal-born Vermont colleague of Senécal’s as a professor of Canadian studies.
For her part, Sonja Smits, 34, a native of Osgoode, Ont., and the ac-
tress who plays Carrie Barr on CBC’s Street Legal, finds that her countrymen are becoming “too insular and regional. There is a sort of smallness of thinking. It seems that people don’t care about anyone else.” Many, however, plainly worry about their national future. “Iam very pessimistic about Canada,” said Florence Trillo, a 65-year-old Halifax accountant. “I think the country will break up.”
But there are many people in both countries
Stanley Stephens, “that our form of government and the American freemarket system are being adopted all over the world.” And in Washington, Elizabeth Coburn, 35, a Nova Scotia native who works in the U.S. capital for the Quebec tourism department, said, “If you think things are going well in the world, that will trickle right down to your personal life.”
America’s strong optimism is not without sour notes. One American respondent in four (24 per cent) told poll researchers that such social ills as crime, homelessness, ill-educated youth and the decline of religion present their nation with its biggest challenges. Another 21 per cent cited drugs and alcohol. Noting that the two issues taken together topped the preoccupations of 45 per cent of U.S.
who say that the historic changes remaking Eastern Europe have inspired a brighter personal outlook. “It is very heartening,” declared Montana’s 60year-old, Calgary-born governor, respondents, Decima’s Gregg remarked, “Moral and social-fibre issues virtually dominate public opinion in America.” In contrast, barely seven per cent of Canadian respondents considered those to be top national issues.
America’s focus on its moral fibre and Cana-
da’s concern for its political future aside, however, two common problems are among the top three issues cited by respondents on both sides of the border. Among Canadians, 20 per cent identified pollution as the country’s most important problem. Nearly as many American respondents did the same—17 per cent, compared with just five per cent one year ago. In the view of Meridan Bennett, 63, a management consultant in Jackson Hole, Wyo., the figures show that America is catching up to Canada’s earlier sensitivity to the environment. “The most important problem we face is learning to live within our means, environmentally,” he added. “I think the adjustment will be severe.”
At the same time, 12 per cent of Americans and 25 per cent of Canadians said that public debt and heavy taxation—many Canadians cited the proposed federal sales tax—are their countries’ top problems. Not only are Canadians twice as likely as Americans to view taxes and public debt as leading national problems, but they are also rapidly losing their former faith in government to ensure their individual security. Only 20 per cent of them say that they now believe that government best serves their personal economic interests.
Americans give signs of changing as well, re-evaluating their priorities according to values that many Canadians, until recently, regarded as distinctly their own. Bush’s inaugural commitment to soften the hard edges
of Reaganism, together with a marked change in U.S. perceptions of the
country’s global role, has encouraged a measurable shift in American priorities. A growing number of Americans worry about their country’s ability to
compete with Europe and Japan. “We are not the dominating nation we were in the 1960s and 1970s,” observed Montana’s Stephens. “We have to work harder to compete.”
At the same time, such social issues as the environment and the plight of the underclass have emerged as more dominant concerns. Indeed, in one survey earlier this year, three out of five Americans polled by The New York Times said that Washington should direct the
savings from reduced military spending to fight such social problems as drug use and homelessness. Already, the country is debating alternatives to its free-market health-care system— including socialized medicine on the Canadian model. “Canada,” in Cobum’s view, “is basically the kinder, gentler nation that President Bush says he wants the United States to be.” But to André Senécal, it is Canada that inevitably will change the most as the two national perspectives continue to converge. He dismisses the notion of a political union between the two countries as “unrealistic— America is past its stage of annexatiofiism.” But Canada, he reflects, is “part of an empire and increasingly looks like the United States.” Certainly, there is a diminishing difference between the world as seen through Canadian eyes, and the view from America.
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