AMERICA LITE: IS: THAT OUR FUTURE?
For all our talk about differences, Canada is becomin
iiore and more like the U.S., says JONATHON GATEHOUSE
DEFINITION OF A CANADIAN, FOUND ON THE INTERNET: AN UNARMED AMERICAN WITH HEALTH INSURANCE.
NOT LIKE THEM. It’s how we’ve defined ourselves for generations. Quieter, less violent, more caring, not as arrogant. Different. Better. Everything Americans are, we aren’t. It is the thing, along with the lint, that we have found at the very centre of ourselves—the only chartable discovery in our seemingly endless search for a national identity.
Sure, not everyone in Canada thinks that way, but enough of us to make Rick Mercer rich (or, since he works for the CBC, comfortable), and reward pretty much anyone else—you can trace the line all the way back to Judge Haliburton, the creator of Sam Slick— who has been able to pander to our insecurities. The bogeyman south of the border has been reliable fodder for turgid academic treatises, earnest literary paeans, electoral crusades, even informative magazine articles.
We whinge when America ignores us. We bellow with rage when they pay too much attention. Last week, it was a national fit of pique over the musings of an obscure columnist for a far-right magazine. “Wimps! ” is the banner emblazoned across a photo of Mounties on the cover of the National Review. In his article, Jonah Goldberg takes Canadians to task for their reflexive anti-Americanism: “the massive spine-bending chip” we have on our shoulders when it comes to our cousins to the south. By the end of the week, he had already received more than 700 angry e-mail messages from Canadians complaining about a piece that most of them can’t possibly have read—the story isn’t available on the Net, and apart from the editorial board of the National Post, few people in this country actually subscribe to the magazine. Sort of proves his point, doesn’t it?
Goldberg’s piece is filled with cheap shots (“a northern Puerto Rico with an EU sensibility”) and errors—he gets, of all things, the name of the Canadian Alliance wrong— but wipe away the flecks of spittle and there
are some legitimate points. The air of moral superiority that Canadians like to cloak themselves in—especially when it comes to criticizing U.S. policy—is getting harder and harder to justify, he argues. “Canada is a country that wills ends, but isn’t willing to commit the means to create those ends,” Goldberg told Maclean’s. We now rank near the bottom of G8 and NATO nations when it comes to defence spending, and spend next to nothing on foreign aid, he points out. “You can’t talk about how you want to make the world a safer place, then sit on your hands.”
But it’s the things Goldberg and other observers are saying about the eroding basis for our nationalism that should really give us pause for thought. “You define Canadian culture as Mounties, health care and a beer commercial—that’s not what a serious, normal country does,” he says. “Face it. Canadians are extremely similar to Americans. Your anger is so heightened, because the differences are so small.”
It has always been easy for the rest of the world to write us off as “kind of” Americans. We have common roots, most of us speak the same language, our popular cultures overlap. And in turn, it has always been relatively simple for us to point to the substantive distinctions between the two nations: cleaner streets, less violent crime, better access to health care, no capital punishment, more players in the NHL.
Over the last two decades, however, those once indelible lines have started to fade. Today, 85 per cent of Canadians still believe our quality of life is superior to that of our American neighbours, but take a long look around. Gunplay on the streets of our major cities is no longer a rarity. Homelessness is a national crisis. Food banks are a permanent fixture in communities across the country. Free trade has made the border (at least for goods) practically a thing of the past. Eatons and Front Page Challenge have been replaced by the Gap and American Idol. Our foreign policies are almost indistinguishable. Culturally, com-
mercially, politically, Canada and the United States are closer than ever. And if we’re going to persist in branding ourselves in opposition to the Yanks, we’d better be careful that truth-in-advertising laws don’t force us to start using the label “America Lite.”
Just 14 years ago, Canadians were profoundly divided over our relationship with the U.S. The proposed Free Trade Agreement stoked popular fears of American domination, not just in manufacturing, but in cultural industries, public policy, the environment and practically every other facet of Canadian life. In the 1988 federal election, both the Liberals and the NDP opposed the trade pact, and a majority of voters apparently agreed with them (the Mulroney Tories won with 43 per cent of the vote). Today, however, those broad concerns about expanding U.S. influence barely register with the Canadian public. A recent opinion survey by Pollara—the firm that provides the federal Liberal party with its data—found 66 per cent of people in this country would like to see the Chrétien government foster even closer economic ties with the United States. Only five per cent were adamantly opposed to the idea. Eighty-seven per cent of respondents said Canada must look beyond its border to “improve economically.”
That shift in attitudes isn’t limited to purely economic questions, says Michael Marzolini, chairman of Pollara. Canadians remain patriotic and intensely protective of our national symbols—the idea of adopting the U.S. dollar is a non-starter, he says—but are less and less worried about the dangers they used to see in getting close to our neighbour. The things that once distinguished us—a belief in a more activist government, support for cultural protectionism—have ebbed away. “The differences are becoming less distinct,” says Marzolini. “When we put people in focus groups they wrap the flag around two things—gun control and health care.” When you take into account that there have always been a significant number of Canadians—mostly rural residents—who
have never agreed with our gun laws, and that dissatisfaction with the state of the medical system is now widespread, you have to wonder if our identity, such as it is, is unravelling at the seams. It’s fine to cheer along with Joe Canadian, but once you get beyond the patriotic bluster and the simmering resentment, what exactly is it that sets us apart any more?
True, not everything is sweetness and light with U.S.-Canada relations—in recent weeks there has been anger over the increased scrutiny some foreign-born Canadian citizens are enduring when they enter America. Not to mention Michel Jalbert, a resident of the border town of Pohénégamook, Que., who languished in a Maine jail for more than a month before being released on bail last week. His sin: crossing the border to gas up his pickup truck without checking in with U.S. officials (Jalbert also had a hunting rifle in his truck). But this is small beer in diplomatic terms. When it comes to the one overriding preoccupation for Americans these days—Iraq—there seems to be little question that Canada will end up supporting, probably even participating in, a U.S.-led attack. We might steer a different course on climate change by ratifying the Kyoto accord, but that will only become a cross-border issue if it hampers our ability to provide the U.S. with cheap energy.
The prevailing view among senior Canadian diplomats and policy-makers is that the relationship between the two countries is about as good as it gets under a Liberal prime minister and a Republican president. Post-Sept. 11 fears that tightened security in the U.S. would cripple trade have largely been soothed by the signing of a comprehensive new border management plan. And Americans seemed grateful for Canada’s contributions to the war on terrorism, even if that hasn’t translated into an invitation for Chrétien to visit the Texas White House.
From the American side of the table, the complaints are even fewer in number. The Bush administration has made it clear that it would like to see Canada increase its military spending, but people in the know in Washington say it is hardly a make-or-break issue. “I am sure that there are people in the Pentagon worrying about Canada’s lack of defence spending, but I haven’t seen any mobs of outraged American citizens besieging the Canadian embassy over the subject,” says John Pike, founder of the U.S.
think-tank GlobalSecurity.org and one of America’s leading defence analysts. “The United States is quite capable of blowing up anybody that needs to be blown up without anyone else helping.”
Gordon Giffin, the former U.S. ambassador to Canada, believes relations could get even better over coming months. With Republicans controlling the White House, Senate and House of Representatives, and no election on the immediate horizon for either country, there’s an opportunity to settle nagging trade disputes over commodities like wheat and softwood lumber, he says.
Giffin, who has spent a large part of his life living in Canada, says he isn’t sure if it’s a question of the two cultures drawing closer, or rather one of the deep similarities that have always been there coming to the fore. “I’ve always found it extraordinarily hard to articulate the differences between us,” says the ex-ambassador, who now works as a trade lawyer and sits on the boards of several major Canadian corporations. “But I know it when
I see it.” And regardless of how close we become, says Giffin, there is one thing Canadians should always keep in mind: “Nobody in Washington gets up in the morning and thinks about how to take over Canada.” But that sort of assurance is cold comfort to Canadian nationalists. Mel Hurtig, the Edmonton author and publisher, is travelling across Canada and the U.S. promoting his latest cry to arms, a book called The Vanishing Country. He says he can’t understand why his fellow citizens aren’t more concerned about what is happening around them. “We’re going to end up as an American colony,” he says. “Since Mulroney abolished the Foreign Investment Review Agency, there have been more than 10,000 Canadian companies taken over by non-resident corporations, mostly American.” Hurtig says there are now 35 sectors of our economy under majority foreign ownership, compared to zero in the United States. And protected sectors, like banking, publishing and telecommunications, will soon follow, he warns.
That’s the kind of argument that would have had Canadians leaping to the barricades a couple of decades ago. Today, it barely elicits a yawn. Some observers see that shift as part of a global trend. It’s no longer just us-versus-them. In the last 20 years, as the world has become more economically interdependent, everyone’s national sovereignty has eroded. The transnational corporations might be based in the United States, but the evidence suggests they’re just as willing to shut down a factory in Baton Rouge as one in Waterloo, Ont., if they can find skilled and cheap labour in the developing world.
University of Toronto political scientist Stephen Clarkson says the type of nationalism that flourished in Canada in the 1960s and 70s is all but dead. “The issues are pretty much the same, but the debate is nonexistent.” Economically, Canadians seemed to have surrendered once free trade became a reality. Culturally, the success of our musicians, actors and novelists, both national-
ly and internationally, seems to have soothed our fears of assimilation. “There’s no crisis to respond to,” Clarkson says. In his latest book, Uncle Sam and Us, he writes that the question isn’t whether Canada will survive— no politician in America wants to upset the apple cart by adding millions of socializedmedicine-loving, gun-hating northerners to the mix—but what type of country will we become? Canada has already proven that it can fill a positive role in the new globalized order by playing midwife to efforts to forgive Third World debt and ban land mines, he says. Now Canadians have to decide if that’s the type of country they still favour.
But frankly, it’s not an issue that is consuming us. Matthew Mendelsohn, the director of the Canadian Opinion Research Archives at Queen’s University, says the trends in public thought are so contradictory that it’s sometimes hard to tell whether we’re sophisticated or naive. “It’s like we believe we can have our cake and eat it too,” he says. “That we can be closer to the U.S. on issues of de-
fence and security, have closer economic ties, but that we can still symbolically object to American policy around the world and maintain a distinct societal organization.” Canadians, especially young Canadians, are voting less, and fewer and fewer of us belong to a political party. Our patriotism is real, says Mendelsohn, but it hasn’t yet translated into an economic platform or a political agenda. And in the absence of elected leaders who are presenting a vision that the public is willing to buy into, we find our national sustenance in the frothy, feel-good symbolism that Don Cherry and Molson hawk. “We have become a people who, without a trace of irony, love to yell about how modest they are,” says Mendelsohn. Screaming our virtues from the rooftops? Strange, but that sounds an awful lot like the sort of thing we used to object so strongly to about Americans. And if that’s the case, maybe it’s time to start hating ourselves. HR
With William Lowther in Washington firstname.lastname@example.org