Books

Lessons of Uncle Sam

Two authors explore Canadians’ fixation on their southern neighbour

Julian Beltrame October 30 2000
Books

Lessons of Uncle Sam

Two authors explore Canadians’ fixation on their southern neighbour

Julian Beltrame October 30 2000

Lessons of Uncle Sam

Books

Two authors explore Canadians’ fixation on their southern neighbour

Since the formation of the United States, Canadians’ fixation on their southern neighbour has been unceasing. It’s bigger than us, more aggressive, more confident, more boastful and, at least some of us fear, just plain better. Our preoccupation has been so all-encompassing, argue two recent additions to the mountain of books exploring the uneven relationship —tellingly, most of them by Canadians—that we risk losing sight of what makes Canada unique and worth celebrating.

Such is the common terrain explored by Jeffrey Simpson and James Laxer in, respectively, Star-Spangled Canadians: Canadians Living the American Dream (HarperCollins, 391 pages, $35) and Stalking the Elephant: My Discovery of America (Viking, 312 pages, $32). But that’s where the two authors diverge, both in their manner of reporting and their conclusions. For the New York City-born Simpson, who became an accidental Canadian at age 9 when his family was uprooted to Montreal, America is not so much to be feared as studied. There is a reason 660,000 Canadians currently call the United States home, and discovering the nature of that irresistible pull could provide clues for stemming the so-called brain drain, which Simpson maintains is a serious problem for Canada’s future prosperity. Laxer, a socialist political scientist at York University, is more into polemics than strict journalism. He looks at the United States and finds nothing but ugly warts.

If Americans can teach Canadians anything, says Laxer, it’s that we should avoid becoming them.

Of the two, Simpson makes the most convincing case, even if his reach is more modest. A respected columnist for The Globe and Mail, Simpson lets Canadians who chose to pursue their dreams in the United States make his case. He conducted 250 interviews with expatriates of every stripe, from nurses to high-tech engineers, entrepreneurs to entertainers, scientists to educators, and these star-spangled Canadians talk openly and glowingly of their adopted country. In most cases, there is no bitterness for the nation they left behind. In fact, the vast majority of expats departed fully expecting to return. Having succeeded in their new country and established roots there, they find the prospect of going back home too wrenching. Surprisingly, however, the idea of being Canadian, a concept that is as difficult for expats to pin down as it is for stay-at-homes, continues to hold a mysterious place in their hearts. Of Canadians who emigrated in 1977, only 18 per cent had taken out U.S. citizenship 18 years later, a remarkable statistic considering that they could have done so without turning in their Canadian passports.

Why did they leave then? Their testimony offers little solace to those who argue that reducing Canadian taxes would stop the brain drain. Taxes were a minor factor. Higher salaries, certainly, but often not decisively. Almost exclusively, expats point to greater opportunities south of the border. Many were aggressively courted by American recruiters after they graduated from Canadian universities, whereas at home they

encountered closed doors or tepid interest. Once in the United States, their career arcs were limited only by their abilities. Peter Jennings, the star television news anchor, is a case in point. He recalls that in the early 1980s, already an established foreign correspondent for ABC News, he sought to return to Canada and talked to a CBC executive, who promised to get back to him the next day. He got that call 11 months later, by which time he had signed a new contract with ABC. Simpson concedes that the Jennings of the future will likely continue to choose the more populous, more economically bullish country to the south. But governments should at least try to keep as many as possible here, he argues, through increased funding for research, innovation and cultural industries.

When Laxer looks south, he doesn’t so much see a nation that can teach Canada a lesson or two about building a world-beating economy, but a menacing presence. In his journey through the heart of America’s darkness, he finds rampant crime, racism, inequality and unbridled greed. If Canadians don’t learn to loathe Americas history, they are doomed to live it in the future, he warns.

But Stalking the Elephant lacks the breadth and extensive research to make the apocalyptic vision ring true. Instead, the reader is treated to an interesting but familiar tour of America’s ills—the Michigan Militia, the gun culture, the killing of abortion doctors, Texas executions, school massacres, rampant consumerism, crumbling inner cities, the winner-take-all ethos that, according to Laxer, drives “losers” to suicide. Even the simple act of eating Buffalo chicken wings results in the author resorting to “strong soap” to scrub “the stain” from his fingers, as if mere exposure to American society leaves the innocent Canadian feeling dirty. However, the testimony of Simpson’s expats suggests the ugly American is harder to find than Laxer would have us believe.

Julian Beltrame