A number of years ago, two Canadians visiting England fell into discussion in a pub one night with a barmaid. After about 20 minutes, one made a reference to his home country. The barmaid, surprised, said she had been sure they were American—because, she said, “the first thing out of the mouths of you Canadians usually is either the country you come from, or the fact you’re not American.”
When Canadians travel abroad, there’s something rather touching about our eagerness to declare our origins, but baffling about the haste with which we distance ourselves from Americans. Sure, at a political level, the actions of the world’s sole superpower aren’t to everyone’s taste—but if being mistaken for an American is likely to endanger your safety, you’re probably not in a very tourist-friendly environment to begin with. On a one-to-one level, most people—including Americans—find it hard to distinguish between Canadians and Americans, and don’t care much about differences. The notable exceptions are the countries most involved in our founding. In France, Canadians are expected to be able to speak French; in England, people look upon Canadians with the same marked lack of interest with which they might view a visiting, particularly dull relative.
In the end, only Canadians really care about perceived differences—and we bring different prejudices to the equation. It’s actually possible to love Canada but say good things about the United States, which is a notion that many on the left find unacceptable. It’s also possible to admire America but prefer life here—an idea that makes many conservatives equally scornful. Consider the National Post, its good qualities are diminished by the crabby, finger-wagging manner with which many of its writers seem committed to proving that Canada is your basic social backwater and, all appearances to the contrary, a hopeless economic basket case.
The two countries really are different in a lot of ways, but neither side should be too smug about comparisons with the other. At the recent Republican and Democratic conventions, God, as always, was a featured guest at both. Canadians, by contrast, treat Him as though He should be slipped in by the back door at political events. Religion and politics go handin-hand in the United States: even Bill Clinton, who has enough material to spend a lifetime in the confessional, makes a big deal of his faith. That’s why the choice of Joe Lieberman, a devout Orthodox Jew, as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate caused such a fuss. In Canada, no one cares that Herb Gray, the deputy prime minister, is Jewish. On the one hand, that indifference to religious faith is nice. But it’s not
nice that we’re suspicious of those who take their religion seriously, like Preston Manning and Stockwell Day. Then there are the Liberals, who throw millions at failing companies, but so far won’t cough up a dime to help the country’s major church groups as they face financial catastrophe—and potential bankruptcy in the case of the Anglicans—from damage claims. There’s no defending the physical and sexual abuse aboriginal youths suffered at church-run residential schools. But the churches’ other collective sin—attempting to assimilate natives—was a policy encouraged by the federal government. If the policy of the feds is to bust the chops of every national body that’s done wrong in the past, where do we line up to dish out similar rough justice to Ottawa?
Another way in which the United States differs is that it’s absolutely, positively the best country in the world to live in if you’re rich. Here, we make that sound like a bad thing, but it’s the reason why rich, smart people from around the world flock there. If we cut Canada’s income tax rate in half tomorrow, we’d still face a brain drain, because America is a magnet to the rest of the world, and with 10 times as many people as Canada, the opportunities are often 10 times better. The downside, of course, is that it’s tougher to be poor down south, where social benefits are far lower.
As any proud Canadian—and some Americans—will say, we have our own strengths beyond the usual clichés about medicare and peace, order and good government. The broadcaster Peter Jennings often says the difference between Canadians and Americans is that they understand power because they always exercise it, while we appreciate the subtle value of influence. We get the benefits of being a pal of the Americans, but not the headaches. As for the different systems, we focus on our flaws, but among other things, Americans love the concept of House of Commons Question Period. They think it’s terrific that our leader is grilled regularly by opponents, and bemoan that doesn’t happen there.
There are lots of other positives—but we should get over the need to measure everything against the way it’s done in the U.S. Countries can be different without judging each other, just as they can be pals without being identical twins. At a lunch last year, John Kenneth Galbraith—who became an American citizen in 1937—remarked that one old frustration to him about Canada was that our traditional style of nationalism prevented us from looking and learning much beyond our borders. But that’s changing, he thought. And he and Jennings both insist there’s lots that Americans could learn from our ways of life. So Canada, love it or leave it? As those two overachievers demonstrate, it’s possible to do both. Things aren’t always as black-and-white as we paint them.
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