CHRIS WOOD July 3 1989



CHRIS WOOD July 3 1989

We are different, but not always in the ways we thought. Americans, it turns out, are greater respecters of the social mosaic than are self-professed multicultural Canadians. And despite our vaunted attachment to public enterprise and state subsidies, it is Americans who trust their government more implicitly. Those discoveries, overturning some traditional assumptions about what sets Canada and the United States apart, emerged from the most wide-ranging survey of American and Canadian attitudes ever conducted—completed recently for Maclean’s by Toronto’s Decima Research. As Decima’s chairman, Allan Gregg, observed, “The image we have of ourselves does not reflect the lives we are living.”

A revealing and intriguing profile of two national characters emerged from the poll. The survey upheld at least one long-standing impression: Americans are profoundly unaware of events in Canada or even of the growing role that Canada plays in U.S. affairs. Canadians, meanwhile, were often harshly negative about the American personality. “Obnoxious, pigheaded snobs,” summed up the most frequently expressed Canadian sentiments. In general, Americans took a far kinder view of Canadians. A majority (66 per cent) even said that they would welcome Canada as the 51st state. Eighty-five per cent of Canadians, however, opposed joining the union, one of the clearest rejections of such a proposal since polling began in Canada.

But in some startling and not always flattering ways, Canadians and Americans are very much alike. Admitted illegal drug use, for one thing, is almost as common in Canada as in the United States (11 to 13 per cent). And despite Canadians’ belief in their country’s more peaceful temperament, nearly as many of them reported encountering violent crime as did Americans (21 per cent compared with 26). But fewer Canadians expressed open racism and more of them displayed concern for the economically disadvantaged.

The survey, which polled 1,000 people in each country earlier this year and produced results considered accurate to within 3.3 percentage points 19 times out of 20, revealed an increasing determination by Canadians to preserve their independence from their superpower neighbor. In fact, despite the concerns of some nationalists, the Free Trade Agreement, which went into effect on Jan. 1, appears only to have strengthened that sentiment. In 1943, in one of its first surveys on the subject, a Gallup poll discovered that 21 per cent of Canadians were willing to become part of the United States (the rest were divided over whether to seek full independence or remain a dominion within the British Empire). By 1964, a Maclean’s poll found that the number of would-be Americans had risen to 29 per cent of Canadians, and a further nine per cent were unsure whether they wanted the country to become a U.S. state.

Since then, Canadians have plainly acquired a stronger taste for independence: in the current survey, 85 per cent opposed or strongly opposed “Canada becoming the 51st state of the United States with full congressional representation and rights of American citizenship”; 14 per cent favored it; and only one Canadian in a hundred expressed no opinion. One province that stood out significantly was Quebec: respondents were much more likely than other Canadians to favor annexation to the United States (23 per cent said yes, followed by Newfoundlanders at 17 per cent).

But while they rejected political union, Canadians were more willing to consider other kinds of ties. Indeed, 49 per cent agreed with the idea of sharing a common currency with the United is States (compared with 74 per cent of Americans). And 39 per cent of Canadians supported a proposal to adopt “common and identical policy on all matters relating to defence and foreign affairs” (with 73 per cent of Americans in agreement). Said Gregg: Canadians don’t want to be warm and friendly to the Americans. They want to have good commercial relations.”

Quebecers again stood out—60 per cent supported a common continental currency, while 55 per cent agreed with the proposal to share defence and foreign policies. New York City-based American sociologist Martin Lipset, author of several studies of the two nations’ differences, said that those results bear out a long-standing view of Quebecers as “French-speaking Yankees.” He added: “Francophone Canadians are not worried about the United States. They think they can hold their own.”

There was certainly a marked contrast in how Canadians and Americans felt about each other. Asked to describe the other country in one word, the largest number (11 per cent) of Canadians said “snobs,” with negative comments accounting for 46 per cent of the answers and positive ones numbering 33 per cent. But the view of Canadians most often expressed by Americans was “friendly” (28 per cent), with 69 per cent of their overall comments positive and only nine per cent negative.

For many Americans, it was Canadians’ similarity to themselves that earned praise. Said one: “I think they are great people, no different than we are.” Others described Canadians as “knowledgeable” and “nice.” Pressed to identify what they “liked least about Canada,” however, Americans did find qualities to criticize. “I don’t like the way Canadians talk,” remarked one. “They are always saying ‘eh.’ ” Said another: “I can’t stand the way they dress.” A third, more perceptively, complained about Canadians’ “preoccupation with their independence from the United States.” Lipset said that for Americans, “if you don’t like Canadians, that is almost like not liking Americans.”

For their part, Canadians, asked to identify what they “liked least about Americans,” had no trouble naming an abundance of undesirable traits. “They are self-centred,” one Canadian observed, adding, “They don’t try to understand what is going on beyond their borders.” Said another: “They are brought up to believe nobody else in the world matters.” Many also mentioned American aggressiveness, pushiness and materialism.

Indeed, only one quality drew as many compliments in Canada as in the United States. That was personal attractiveness. Decima’s researchers asked women in each country to rate the other’s men; men were asked to rank women from the other country on the same 1-to-10 scale from least to most attractive. On average, Americans were rated at 6.2 by Canadians, and Americans awarded a 6.3 to Canadians.

But in a further reflection of Canadians’ reserve, 73 per cent told Decima’s researchers that they would not like to live in the United States; 58 per cent would not want to send their children to study there. By contrast, only 56 per cent of Americans ruled out living in Canada, and even fewer—39 per cent—said that they would not want to send a child to study in Canada. One American who has studied in Canada, however, 21-year-old history major Martin Perschler, suggested that many Americans might reconsider living in Canada if they were more aware of what he called Canadian “latent anti-Americanism.” Perschler, a native of Erie, Pa., who attended Montreal’s McGill University on an exchange program last spring, said, “At times it is quite uncomfortable.”

Canadian policy-makers may find more uncomfortable a series of questions that focused on attitudes to ethnic minorities and immigrants. Overturning a popularly held stereotype, more Canadians (61 per cent) than Americans (51 per cent) said that immigrants should change their culture to “blend with the larger society.” The findings appear to signal a previously undetected reversal in Canadian opinion over the past decade. In a survey conducted for the federal government in 1979, 75 per cent of Canadians supported Ottawa’s expressed policy of encouraging immigrants to preserve cultural traditions.

At the same time, the poll produced evidence that open racism is more widespread in the United States than in Canada. Eighteen per cent of Americans said that they had been the “victims of racial or ethnic discrimination,” compared with 12 per cent of Canadians who made the same claim. Asked whether they would be “happy, indifferent or unhappy” if one of their children married someone of another race, more than twice as many Americans as Canadians said that they would be unhappy (32 per cent compared with 13). The findings, however, offer Canadians little room for complacency. In some parts of the country and among some groups, reported racism exceeded the American average. Twenty-four per cent of Torontonians and 53 per cent of Asian Canadians said that they had been victims of racial or ethnic discrimination.

Other findings attacked the comfortable Canadian belief that their country is a safer place to live. In fact, while more Americans than Canadians reported having been “robbed or assaulted,” the difference was slight: 26 per cent compared with 21 per cent. Fear of street violence is also widespread in both countries: 31 per cent of Americans and 24 per cent of Canadians said that they were “afraid to walk alone on the streets” of their communities at night. Meanwhile, illegal drug use, often a catalyst to crime, appears to be as common among Canadian men as it is among American men. Eighteen per cent of male Canadians admitted using illicit drugs, compared with 17 per cent of American males. Among Canadian women, however, drug-taking is only about half as common as among Americans (four per cent compared with nine per cent).

One pivotal difference did emerge that clearly affected the quality of life in the two countries: the extent of the American love affair with guns and Canadians’ hesitation to share the lethal romance. Nearly one-quarter of Americans (24 per cent) said that they owned a handgun, compared with only three per cent of Canadians. That response bears out statistics that show much greater gun and rifle ownership in general in the United States. Americans own some 200 million firearms, while Canadians possess 923,125 registered restricted weapons. Because of the similarity in drug use and experiences of assault, that single difference may go far to explain the vastly higher American murder rate of 8.3 per 100,000 people, compared with Canada’s rate of 2.5 per 100,000.

Despite the evidence that they face broadly similar risks, however, Canadians have yet to place drugs or crime as high on the agenda of pressing public issues as Americans do. Asked to name “the most important problem” facing the country, more Americans named drugs than any other issue. “Drugs,” said one, “are destroying our children.” Crime, linked to drug use in many of the answers, was ranked 11th. In contrast, Canadians ranked crime in 20th place, just ahead of the aging population, and did not mention drugs at all. Observed Gregg: “Either the media or the politicians in America have done more to focus concern.”

In Canada, the focus was on the environment. Seventeen per cent of respondents ranked pollution as the country’s biggest problem, followed closely by unemployment (10 per cent), the Free Trade Agreement (nine per cent) and the deficit (nine per cent). “As humans, I believe we have a right to clean air and water,” responded one Canadian, adding, “The government is not doing enough.” But despite that strongly held belief, when asked if they would favor shutting down a major employer if its plant was polluting the environment, a significant minority (37 per cent) said no. The verdict among Americans: 33 per cent approved of allowing the polluter to remain in business.

Next to drugs, Americans cited the national deficit—$193.9 billion, or 2.9 per cent of the gross national product, compared with Canada's at $28.9 billion, or 4.7 per cent of the GNP—as the country’s most pressing problem. The FTA did not place on their list of national problems. Instead, third place went to a range of moral issues from abortion to pornography. Pollution ranked fifth and unemployment tied with crime at 11th.

Both groups of citizens expect and even demand government action on several fronts. But Ottawa and Washington command very different degrees of public confidence and their room for political manoeuvring differs widely. Fewer Canadians than Americans (56 per cent compared with 63 per cent) reported that they trusted government “to act in the public interest all of the time” or “most of the time,” results that overturned the expectations of many sociologists. At the same time, Canadians seem less willing to see “taxes increased significantly or services cut in order to reduce” the deficit. Canadians were evenly divided on the issue (48 per cent accepted tax increases and service cuts, while 49 per cent said no). But a clear majority of Americans (54 to 44 per cent) agreed to them. “Americans are a lot more seized of the deficit as a political issue,” commented Gregg. Moreover, he said, “in deficit reduction, George Bush has far less pressure than Brian Mulroney.”

The pressure on Mulroney results largely from Canadian voters’ strikingly greater attachment to publically funded social programs. In general, far more Canadians than Americans told Decima’s researchers that they regarded such services as universal medicare and a guaranteed minimum income as “absolute rights” rather than rights that should be limited. Canadians expressed decisively greater support than Americans for medicare (71 per cent compared with 52) and for a guaranteed minimum income (62 and 51 per cent, respectively). The findings, said Clark Cahow, director of the Centre for Canadian Studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C., reinforced his view that “Canadians are humane in a fashion that we are not in the United States.”

Still, the responses were unexpectedly revealing. Support for child care, for one, was roughly equal in Canada and in the United States (50 per cent compared with 46 per cent). And 72 per cent of Americans supported the absolute right of a woman to have her job protected while she is on pregnancy leave, compared with 71 per cent of Canadians. Federal and provincial law already grants that right to most Canadian women but it remains unavailable in much of the United States. Quebecers, meanwhile, were markedly more likely to support all social programs than the average Canadian. In the most striking example, support for the absolute right to child care stood at 68 per cent in Quebec. In Ontario outside Toronto, by contrast, 38 per cent supported it.

At the same time, in a national crisis, The Canadian Prime Minister could probably count on more support than the American President. Asked, “In times of crisis, do you believe government should or should not have the power to declare a national emergency and remove all civil rights?” 56 per cent of Americans said no. But Canadians were about evenly divided: 49 per cent said no, while 48 per cent said yes. In Quebec, where memories of the imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970 may have been a factor in the results, a majority (63 per cent) opposed suspending civil rights. Still, in most of Canada, Duke’s Cahow observed, “[there is] a respect for law and order; democracy in our country borders on licence.” In neither nation does business command more confidence than government. Americans, however, seem to be slightly ahead of Canadians (57 to 53 per cent) in trusting that business will generally act “in the public interest,” although the poll’s 3.3-per-cent margin of error may make the difference negligible.

The poll also reinforced the fact that Americans know little about Canadians. Only 11 per cent of Americans correctly named Brian Mulroney as the Prime Minister of Canada. By contrast, 35 per cent of Canadians correctly named the U.S. vice-president, Dan Quayle. The number of Americans who knew that Canada and the United States are each other’s largest trading partners was scarcely higher at 12 per cent. Among Canadians, 83 per cent had that information. (Sixty-nine per cent of Americans and nine per cent of Canadians incorrectly identified Japan as their own country’s largest trading partner.) The FTA, however, appears to have penetrated the U.S. consciousness more widely: 57 per cent of Americans were aware of the pact. The Canadian figure: an overwhelming 97 per cent.

Americans appeared to assume that Canadians are little different from themselves. Seventy-eight per cent described the two countries as “mainly” or “essentially” the same. Only 57 per cent of Canadians agreed, a figure significantly lower than the 67 per cent who said in response to an earlier Macleans/Decima poll conducted in November, 1987, that the two countries were either “not at all” or only “slightly” different. Said Gregg: “Canadians know and reject the United States. They do not know, but embrace, us.”

But without doubt, the two countries have different values. And those became clearer when Decima’s researchers asked people in each country to select the “ideal” quality of their own fellow citizens from a list that included sexy, aggressive, tolerant, clean, peaceful and independent-minded. For 38 per cent of Canadians, that quality was tolerance, followed by independent-mindedness (27 per cent) and peacefulness (26 per cent). Among Americans, 52 per cent said that they rated independent-mindedness as the leading ideal quality. Tolerance was second at 21 per cent and aggressiveness tied with peacefulness as third-highest rated quality with 12 per cent. Only three per cent of Canadians regarded aggression as a virtue.

Clearly, the Free Trade Agreement has set Canada and the United States on a course that will bring the two countries closer together than ever before in their long history of sharing the North American continent. It is a course Americans seem willing to pursue as far as political union. For Canadians, the challenge will be to profit from closer ties without endangering the political independence they apparently prize.


In times of crisis, do you believe government should or should not have the power to declare a national emergency and remove all civil rights?


  • CANADA = 48% / UNITED STATES = 41%


  • CANADA = 49% / UNITED STATES = 56%

Have you ever been robbed or assaulted?


  • CANADA = 21% / UNITED STATES = 26%


  • CANADA = 79% / UNITED STATES = 74%

What do you think is better for Canada/the United States: that new immigrants be encouraged to maintain their distinct culture and ways, or to change them to blend with the larger society?


  • CANADA = 34% / UNITED STATES = 47%


  • CANADA = 61% / UNITED STATES = 51%

Would you strongly favor, favor, oppose, or strongly oppose Canada and the United States adopting a common currency?


  • CANADA = 21% / UNITED STATES = 4%


  • CANADA = 28% / UNITED STATES = 19%


  • CANADA = 40% / UNITED STATES = 62%


  • CANADA = 9% / UNITED STATES = 12%

Would you like to send your children to the other country to attend university or college?


  • CANADA = 41% / UNITED STATES = 58%


  • CANADA = 58% / UNITED STATES = 39%

Would you strongly favor, favor, oppose, or strongly oppose Canada becoming the 51st state of the United States with full congressional representation and rights of American citizenship?


  • CANADA = 54% / UNITED STATES = 10%


  • CANADA = 31% / UNITED STATES = 22%


  • CANADA = 12% / UNITED STATES = 54%


  • CANADA = 2% / UNITED STATES = 12%

Would you strongly support, support, oppose or strongly oppose Canada and the United States adopting common and identical policy on all matters relating to defence and foreign affairs?


  • CANADA = 24% / UNITED STATES = 4%


  • CANADA = 36% / UNITED STATES = 19%


  • CANADA = 33% / UNITED STATES = 58%


  • CANADA = 5% / UNITED STATES = 15%

Would you describe Canadians and Americans as essentially the same, mainly the same but with some small differences, mainly different but with some small similarities, or essentially different?


  • CANADA = 13% / UNITED STATES = 18%


  • CANADA = 43% / UNITED STATES = 60%


  • CANADA = 24% / UNITED STATES = 15%


  • CANADA = 19% / UNITED STATES = 6%