J.B. Priestley,ANDREW PHILLIPS January 4 1988


J.B. Priestley,ANDREW PHILLIPS January 4 1988



The Canadian is often a baffled man because he feels different from his British kindred and his American neighbors, sharply refuses to be lumped together with either of them, yet cannot make plain this difference.

—J.B. Priestley

The Maclean's/Decima Poll indicates that the feelings of Canadians about their national identity have not changed markedly since the British author J.B. Priestley made those observations 20 years ago. The survey left no doubt that Canadians do consider themselves to be distinct from the Americans. In all, 79 per cent of respondents maintained that Canadians are different, with just 21 per cent saying the opposite. But Maclean's interviewers found much less consensus when they investigated further—trying to find out exactly what the respondents think makes Canadians unique. Concluded Decima vice-president Bruce Anderson: “What we’re left with is this vague, ephemeral notion that we’re different.”

Canada’s much-analysed sense of national identity took on new relevance in 1987 as the debate over free trade became louder—and much more passionate. Opponents of the trade deal that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government reached with Washington in October—a month before the poll was conducted—turned the debate into much more than a fight over facts and figures. With many Canadians confused by the conflicting claims of politicians and economists, opponents of the deal touched an emotional chord by warning that Canada risks losing its national soul if it draws too close to the United States.

Indeed, the Maclean's/Decima survey uncovered public feelings that, if they persist, spell trouble for the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. The poll shows that there has been a sharp increase in the number of Canadians who fear that free trade would weaken the national character. A year earlier, in Decima’s an-

nual survey for Maclean's, two-thirds of those questioned said that closer trading relations would not erode Canada’s identity; the rest—one in threesaid that they would. But in the latest poll, about half of the respondents

said that the proposed trade deal would weaken the ability of Canadians “to keep those things which you feel make Canada unique.” Only 15 per cent said that it would strengthen Canadian identity, with the rest—one in three—saying that it would make no difference.

At the same time, the survey indicated that the language adopted by leading opponents of free trade is wellchosen to appeal to Canadians’ deepest fears. Playwright Rick Salutin has said that Canadian culture is threatened by free-traders speaking a “Ramboesque” language. And labor leader Bob White, president of the Canadian Auto Workers Union, has cautioned that free trade means the country will have to adopt the “dog-eat-dog” style of the United States. The implication that the United States is a violent, overly competitive society touches what The Maclean's/Decima Poll shows is a strongly held view among Canadians—and a view reflected in serious concerns about the free trade deal that were expressed by several poll respondents.

Two out of three of those surveyed said that Americans are more violent than Canadians, and fewer than one in 10 rated Canadians more violent. The image of the United States as a gun-ridden Rambo-like society was a frequent theme during follow-up interviews with poll respondents by Maclean's reporters. Mary Goldman, a 57-year-old retired social worker from North Side East Bay, N.S., said that she was shocked when she visited her sister in New Jersey and found guns in the house. Said Goldman: “They went out and I walked around to the front door—and banged into a pistol. And they’ve got seven kids.” Added Debbie Macintosh, 18, of Port Coquitlam, B.C.: “They have a right to carry a gun, and what if we get that up here with free trade? I don’t want to stay cooped up in my house, afraid to go out on the streets in case someone blows my head off, just because of the Americans.”

According to the poll, Canadians also see Americans as more competi-

ti ve—by a margin of 53 per cent to 19 per cent. That perception is especially strong in British Columbia, which has been hurt over the past 18 months by damaging border levies on softwood lumber, and cedar shakes and shingles as a result of American trade actions. Decima’s analysts said that that view tends to fuel the widespread perception that Canada is certain to lose in the trade accord with the United States.

On the other side, the survey shows that Canadians see themselves as more concerned about the environment (by 69 per cent to 11 per cent) than Americans; more concerned about the poor (56 to 10 per cent); more honest and fair (42 to 6 per cent); and more hardworking (33 to 14 per cent). The portrait that emerges from the poll is a general Canadian perception of their country as a gentler, slower, more caring society—but a society that is not as successful or as likely to reach the highest peaks of achievement. Lucille Leduc, a 69-year-old poll respondent from Rawdon,

Que., said: “As a people, we are much more mature than the Americans. We are less money-oriented. They have to have two big cars and a swimming pool. Hopefully, free trade won’t make us more like them.”

Many of those perceptions confirm the self-image that Canadians have had of themselves ever since the United States was born in revolution and forged in a bitter civil war—while Canada evolved largely peacefully toward full nationhood. That perception persists even though some of those long-held views are sometimes shown to be less true than most Canadians may have assumed or have wished.

For one thing, although Canadians see themselves as more caring—a view based in part on a history of such public social support programs as medicare—a recent survey by the Toronto-based Canadian Centre for Philanthropy shows that individually they in fact contribute two-and-a-half times less to private charity as a share of income than do Americans. “The perception is that we’re more generous,” notes Martin Connell, chairman of a public awareness campaign organized by the centre. “The reality is that we’re considerably less generous.”

Similarly, Canadians’ image of themselves as being less competitive is not shared by many American observers, who note that Canadian companies have become increasingly aggressive in taking over American corporations in the past decade. Stephen Blank, director of the Institute for U.S.-Canada Business Studies at

Pace University in New York City, noted that a New Yorker might buy his suits at Brooks Brothers (owned by Toronto’s Campeau Corp.), work in an office tower owned by Olympia & York Developments Ltd. (controlled by Can-

ada’s Reichmann family) and see a movie at a theatre owned by another Toronto company (Cineplex Odeon Corp.). Declared Blank: “I don’t think Canadians understand how competitive or successful they are in the United States.”

The Maclean’s/Decima Poll also assessed how respondents rated various aspects of Canadian culture against the American counterpart. It found that the strongest verdict concerned television programs. Despite years of government policies that attempted to promote Canadian programming, Canadians clearly favor the likes of Family Ties over such CBC mainstays as Front Page Challenge. Fully 57 per cent said that Canadian TV programs generally are worse than those from the United States, with just 21 per cent supporting the opposite view. Said Debbie Sigouin, a 26-year-old bookkeeper from Surrey, B.C.: “Americans are definitely more sophisticated than Canadians. Just look at their TV shows.”

Respondents were not much kinder to Canadian movies. Altogether, 46 per cent of respondents said that Canadian films are worse than American films, while 19 per cent said the opposite. But Canadian musicians and authors fared better; respondents judged them about as good as those in the United States. The numbers: 22 per cent said Canadian authors are better, 19 per cent described them as worse. And 20 per cent judged Canadian musicians to be better, compared with 25 per cent who said that they are worse. The strongest vote of confidence was for news coverage. Thirty-five per cent said that it is better in Canada, while barely half that number (18 per cent) called it worse.

In economic and technological fields, the survey showed less confidence among Canadians. Most (51 per cent) said that Canada’s science and technology is not up to the U.S. level. And 37 per cent judged American business expertise to be superior, compared with only 16 per cent who said that Canada has the edge in business knowhow. Overall, concluded Decima chairman Allan Gregg, “the feeling is that we are a better people intrinsically— more honest, more concerned—yet somehow, in the final analysis, we always get whomped.” It is a sentiment that the Mulroney government must wrestle with as it tries to persuade Canadians that they can reap the benefits of a more tightly integrated North American economy—while remaining true to themselves.