The heart of Texas might seem like an odd place to talk about the soul of Canada,” Prime Minister Jean Chrétien told American newspaper editors meeting in Dallas last week. But for a prime minister who refuses to live in a security bubble and thinks nothing of sneaking off for a round of golf or a movie, Dallas was, in a sense, a perfect choice. It was in Dallas, after all, that a U.S. president fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. And it is Texas, with its frontier history of the Alamo, where the gun culture is a fact of life, and the death penalty is carried out more often than anywhere else in the union. Where better to explain to Americans that Canadians are not just their northern cousins? Where better to borrow the words of Texas native George Bush and describe Canada as a “kinder and gentler” nation?
Except for the plunging dollar, Canadians have had their reasons recently for reassurance as they gaze southward. First came the defeat of President Bill Clinton’s health-care bill, which would have guaranteed universal medical care in the world’s richest economy. Then, with the Republicans in control of the Congress for the first time in decades, came House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s attempts to impose a new Contract with America.
That document contradicts most Canadian verities. While Gingrich talks about a Personal Responsibility Act that would deny welfare to
unwed mothers under age 18, Chrétien spoke in Dallas about the sense of community responsibilities that Canadians take to heart. While the Republicans support a repeal of gun-law legislation, Chrétien spoke about a Commons vote the previous night that brought tough new gun-control measures a step closer. And while Republicans want to make it harder for U.S. troops to participate in United Nations peacekeeping missions, Chrétien proudly spoke of Canada’s international responsibilities. “If we collectively lose the capacity to care about others in foreign countries, we will eventually become hardened to the fate of our fellow citizens,” Chrétien said.
For all the differences, there also are similarities between the two countries that are in keeping with a shared language and continent. And the contrasts may be fading under the glare of American cultural influences. “It’s television,” says commentator and longtime Tory Dalton Camp. “We all sit in the shared cinema”—where American stories predominate. During the week of March 13 to 19, according to Nielsen Marketing Research, an average of one million Canadians tuned each night to CBC’s Prime Time News—less than half the number that watched such popular U.S. programs as ER and Law & Order.
Anyone looking for political similarities need look no further than the Reform party. There is a notable absence in Reform ranks of centrists like Camp or Joe Clark, so-called
Red Tories who helped give the Conservatives a softer edge. And in Reform's advo cacy of direct democracy, there are strong echoes of American populist doctrines. "There is," says Camp, "a fi nite political connection be tween the Reform party and Gingrich." That connec tion was explicitly spelled out in mid-March when Reform Leader Preston Manning journeyed to Washington to meet Gingrich. Gingrich lav ished Manning with praise as an inspiration to his sort of conservative.
But some Canadian critics worry that the influence of the right in Canada, which predates the Republican surge, now reaches beyond Reform to the Liberals, who have embarked on a draconian deficit-cutting exercise at the same time as they high_ light law-and-order issues § and take a tougher line on g immigrants. Reform MP Herb 2 Grubel says it is not so much mimicry of things American as a reflection of a worldwide belief that state intervention no longer works. Whatever the motivation, as the Liberals have moved right, Camp argues that they have left a large number of political orphans: “There is quite a frustrated, significant community who feel they have no voice, no party.” There remain, however, sharp limits to the tendency of Canadian politics to follow American ideas. Liberal pollster Michael Marzolini, chairman of Insight Canada Research, says that while public opinion has moved to the right, Canadians are not willing to abandon many of the hallmarks of their society. As much as they worry about the deficit, an Insight poll of 1,200 Canadians in February found that only 10 per cent wanted to spend less on medicare and pensions. By contrast, 49 per cent wanted to increase spending on health, and 39 per cent wanted to spend more on pensions.
But perhaps the clearest sign that Canadians are not about to embrace a Canadianaccented Newt Gingrich came last week during a Commons exchange on medicare. During the debate, Health Minister Diane Marleau baited Reform MPs as advocates of U.S.-style health care. Finally, Reform MP Keith Martin could take it no more. “Once and for all, I want to end this fallacy,” he cried, jumping to his feet. ‘We in the Reform party in no way, shape or form are in favor of an American-style health-care system.” Jean Chrétien could not have said it better.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.