COVER

Keeping our distance

We’re sympathetic but not really close to Americans

ROBERT SHEPPARD December 31 2001
COVER

Keeping our distance

We’re sympathetic but not really close to Americans

ROBERT SHEPPARD December 31 2001

Keeping our distance

We’re sympathetic but not really close to Americans

ROBERT SHEPPARD

You’d think tragedy would draw us closer. And there is no question it has—up to a point. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 brought out Canada's most generous characteristics. Without a second thought we trekked to New York City to help with the rescue and comfort survivors, and to spend our battered loonie in the cause of reclamation. Truly, we felt our neighbours’ pain. There is even some sketchy evidence to suggest Canadians haven’t quite returned to “normal” as quickly as Americans have when measured by such esoteric criteria as airline travel and sleeping habits. We must be more sensitive beings than we like to let on.

But scratch a little deeper and the portrait of a nation that emerges from this latest Madearis/CBC News poll is of one quietly distancing itself from its big neighbour to the south. Two years ago, a yearend survey focusing on Canada/U.S. issues prophesied “The Vanishing Border” as it documented a remarkable confluence in the two countries’ attitudes. That is not the case today. Interest in a common currency has dropped from previous levels. So, more noticeably, has the number of Canadians who feel we are becoming increasingly like Americans. Asked in 1990 if they would like to become American citizens and live in the U.S., 60 per cent said no thanks. Today that number stands at a vigorous 72.

The rhetoric, of course, from prime ministers on down, is that Canada and the U.S. are the best of friends. So close, in fact, we feel slighted when British Prime Minister Tony Blair gets more White House attention than Jean Chrétien. But if you ask Canadians directly how they would describe relations with the U.S., the overwhelming response is much more reserved: friends, but not especially close. Only one in 10 say we are like family.

FRIENDS-SORT OF

Keeping our distance

Q: If you were given the opportunity to become a citizen of the U.S. and live and work there, would you?

Q: How would you describe our relations with the U.S.?

Q: Were the Sept. 11 attacks aimed at the United States alone or at western democratic societies, including Canada?

Q: How long do you think the war against terrorism will last?

Why such coolness, especially in the wake of Sept. 11 ? There may well be psychological reasons. When a tragic death occurs in someone else’s family it can be difficult to know how much to intrude, and so sometimes you pull away. Also, the presence of a Republican in the White House may account for some aloofness. Pollsters have long remarked that Canadians would make great Democrats if we could vote in the U.S.; we share, even today, the insouciant belief that the state can do some good.

But the biggest reason may be found in the poll itself. Canadians hugely back the war effort in Afghanistan and against global terrorism—on par with American public opinion. But there is one area where we part company dramatically. According to a recent Gallup survey, the vast majority of Americans feel the war against terrorism will be over within months, a year at the most. Canadians—even though the Macleans!CBC poll was conducted after Kabul fell and the Taliban were in full rout—are still bracing for the long haul. Fully 70 per cent feel this conflict will go on for at least two or three years. Forty per cent feel it will last longer than the Second World War! Correct or not, the response is telling evidence of a country hunkering down, of Canadians putting on their war face.

We have been here before, of course. And the interesting corollary—whether from the Boer War, Vimy Ridge, Dieppe or even Vietnam (or the 1970s fight against inflation, for that matter)—has been the corresponding rise in nationalism, even nationhood. Governments beware: Canadians are willing to sacrifice for the cause—support for a security crackdown is everywhere apparent—but they almost always demand something in return. The aftermath of the Second World War ushered in a social activism— pensions, medicare—that still dominates the national agenda. The battle mentality of the ’60s and early ’70s can be said to have sparked the revolution in human rights.

This war, of course, is still in its infancy. And in the media age moods swing with unrepentant ferocity. But this yearend cultural snapshot does give credence to the notion that history repeats. In our time-honoured schism, Quebec opinion towards the U.S. and the events of Sept. 11 is noticeably different from the rest of Canada’s. Quebecers are surpris-

ingly less troubled, less affected in almost every way. By contrast, in Atlantic Canada, a feeling of vulnerability—fear of more attacks, fear that Canada itself will be a target—seems to permeate the collective soul.

As a group, mind you, the message is clear. Canadians are willing to give up individual freedoms—we are suddenly huge supporters of identity cards—but not a jot of sovereignty. How this will play out in the ongoing cross-border disputes over lumber or border stops for commercial traffic is still an open question. But a sign of the times is that we seem ready to back a more vigorous Canadian Forces—and one that is more than merely an international boy scout. After years of saying they prefer the butter of social investment to guns and tanks, Canadians are now prepared to give more money to the military and—shades of the mouse that roared —roundly reject the notion that Canadas security needs are protected by sheltering under the U.S. umbrella. Of course, that may simply reflect the realization that superpower missiles are irrelevant when terrorists slip through borders on visitors’ visas.

A resurgent nationalism? Pent up, perhaps? It will take more than one poll, no matter how detailed, to make that call for sure. There is still a kind of stubborn, selfcentred rationalism running through the heart of Canadian opinion. While American surveys show the fight against terrorism squatting all over the public agenda, this poll shows Canadians have not been dislodged from their primary concerns: health care, jobs and the economy still dominate.

That’s not to say we haven’t been emotionally affected—especially in Englishspeaking Canada, not generally known for wearing its emotions in plain view. A notable and perhaps surprising majority of Canadians outside Quebec (54 per cent) feel the Sept. 11 attacks on Manhattan and the Pentagon were not just on America but on all Western democracies, Canada included. An even larger group (64 per cent) feels Canada is a likely target. If we say to the U.S. at this horrific juncture in our linked history that we feel your pain, it is because we do, quite literally. And if that empathy causes us to draw away and assert our own Canadianness, our own sovereignty, in the months and years ahead—well, maybe that is just something pain and sacrifice will do.