Canada and the USA

Charles Jeanes
By Charles Jeanes
March 16th, 2016

Stephen Harper, Donald Trump, and Angry Democracies

“It’s an angry world but no doubt everything will go as planned.”                                                                        — Neil Young, Angry World, from Le Noise

The unavoidable comparison: Canada observes the USA

When I was in secondary school and my young brother was in elementary, I visited his classroom with a friend who knew my brother’s teacher.  I was very surprised indeed by a comment the teacher made about my brother’s regard for me; he said, “Ah, at last I meet the famous brother – Ralph never stops talking about how wonderful his big brother is!”  I was unaware that I had that effect on my brother, whom I had largely ignored since my entry into adolescence and self-importance.

I tell this story so I may segue artfully into the topic of Canadians’ long-running fascination with the activities and eccentricities of our brother-nation, the United State of America, once our common sibling within the empire ruled by our “Mother Country”, Great Britain.

We seem to never tire of having opinions and facts to tell each other on the topic of Americans and their ways.  We study America in our universities within departments of history, sociology, economics, literature, music and politics, to name the most salient. Our news media and entertainment screens, our magazines and popular music, would be unimaginable without the content supplied by the United States and its people.

My father had a typically Ontario W.A.S.P.,  Anglophilic attitude toward our “American cousins”, admiring of their ingenuity, inventiveness and energy – they had made sure the Empire won the war with Germany, and they had incredible abilities to accomplish wonders such as the moon landing.  But he held their general cultural achievements in much lower regard, an attitude I would come to know as not-unusual among the English.

My dad told a joke (when he did not know I was listening) about the Americans that he had heard so often in the war during the war:  Englishmen often complained that Americans in the UK were  “overpaid, oversexed – and over here.”  I rather enjoy this witticism although it was years before my studies of history gave me the context to appreciate why the English might feel this way about Americans.  But with time, I also learned that my father and his English mother were not the only Canadians with strong opinions about the USA.

Canadians are simply unable to avoid thinking about Americans.  As Pierre Elliott Trudeau so memorably put it, for a nation sharing a long border with the USA, it is  “like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”  

The avoidable topic: America observes Canada

Switch perspectives now and imagine oneself viewing the world with the eyes and mind of an American citizen, one who is politically engaged and cares about the doings of the Great Republic.  How often does such a person give thought to current affairs in Canada?  It’s a safe bet the reply is “not often”.

Justin Trudeau may have made himself celebrated as a sexy “hottie” in social media by virtue of his looks, style, personality  (and the same qualities in his wife), but that is hardly the kind of notice I am considering here.  Do Americans care what Canadian culture might be contributing to global dialogue in the community of nations?  I doubt they do.

NationalLampoon magazine devoted a cover to one issue during my undergraduate years entitled  “Canada: the retarded giant on your northern doorstep.”  (My apologies for insensitive language used in 1972.)  Canada has come some way further into the light of world affairs since that era of the Viet Nam War, Watergate, Oil Crisis, and NASA space triumphs, but we still have very little weight to add to world order and when we do, it is because we are operating within NATO, the UN, or the OECD, and almost never for an initiative we alone have undertaken independently.

We may not be as much an object of ridicule as in the pages of a satirical journal 40 years ago, but we are far from mattering to the world’s equilibrium.  We can take some solace in being unnoticed so much of the time; it is a measure of the rarity of crises, disasters, and tragedies in our land that we do not often make headlines in global media.  Americans can ignore us because of our relatively uneventful interior and our insignificance in the wide world.

Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security advisor, who’s married to a Canadian, told CBC on March 9 that the US appreciates that Canada is not a source of trouble in the world — and can worry less about us because of that.

We did garner a lot of US attention in 2001 when the World Trade towers went down and Americans noticed our presence as a friendly neighbour so close by; during those dark days, a radio broadcast by CBC reporter Gordon Sinclair, dating back to the era of the US war in Viet Nam, was replayed several times on US airwaves; Sinclair had instructed Canadians to hold the USA in high regard for its many good qualities.  Americans needed to hear such sentiments from a best-friend neighbour in the post-9-11 atmosphere of fright and vengefulness.

But the fact remains:  Americans do not have to pay much attention to Canada, and their neglect of our domestic conditions is understandable.  How many Americans know anything at all about our First Nations’ struggle for rights?  While we know so much from our media and our schools about civil rights movements in the US, about slavery, racism, and the Civil War, their media, which ought to do more to educate average citizens, do not say much about our social ills.  And that is frankly not much to regret, although occasionally one sees pieces in Canadian media complaining about American ignorance.

As an educator myself, and as a journalist, I advocate the ideal of an educated electorate in a democracy.  So I am not happy with American citizens’ general ignorance:  America has a smaller fraction of its population who hold passports and travel outside their state than Canada has, and that seems to me sad and unwise for such a powerful nation.  But why Americans do not travel abroad in numbers as great as Canadians or Australians has a complicated explanation.  It is not okay to dismiss Americans as narrow egotists uninterested in other lands;  the insecurity of US citizens and their lack of experience of travel must be understood with sympathy, not standard anti-American prejudice.

I understand that Americans in general do not know much about people in the world beyond their lives, but that does not bother me so long as their leaders take time to learn about the world – and the USA has excellent universities and think tanks,  as good as any on the globe, to teach American elites about peoples outside the USA.  There are many things American leaders need to know about the world where America is the superpower;  Canada is not an urgent concern. 

Power and Periphery: the US matters, Canada not so much

Many Canadians hold the USA in low regard for the errors it has made during its time of pre-eminent power on the global stage – since 1918, or 1941 at the very latest.  Canadians ought to commit themselves to think this through: would Canada, possessing imperial power on the planet as the US does, and the UK once did, have done a more creditable job as a global great power?

Do not jump to a hasty “yes” – there is little evidence that Canada and Canadians own some special moral and political qualities that would make us apt to be trusted with great power.  Examine history within our own borders:  is it so admirable?  Can we make the case that Canadians are naturally the right people to exercise power over other nations and states, to dispose of resources on an imperial scale, and to be entrusted to introduce order into the world’s zones of conflict and misery?

I assert that our history does not prove we are morally and politically superior.   Canada can’t claim to be better than globe-spanning empires as champions of justice or democracy.  We have an appalling history of abusing the Native peoples on this land, a poor record for protecting our environment against the ravages of resource-extraction industries, nothing to be proud of in our treatment of the female citizens of the nation, and no claim to have founded social justice on our policies for assisting people living in poverty or with disabilities.  Canadian racism and abuse of our environment is documented.  If we do not know it, that is only a measure of self-ignorance.

Canada is, in short, quite typical of Western, developed nations in our very limited application of principles of human rights, democracy, justice, and ecological conservation.  I hold the Scandinavian nations in higher regard than Canada in most measures of what constitutes a society built on fairness and freedom.  Our “good fortune” is not really luck, it is a result of power relations that have elevated the West over other lands of the earth since Columbus’ era.

Yet despite the facts of history disproving the idea that we are a people superior to Americans, we love to condemn them for their empire.  Canadian anti-Americanism has a façade of being anti-imperialism, but in fact, our economic system is so immersed within the global capitalist order set up by European powers over the last four centuries that we can’t justly claim to be a people who take no profit from empire.

We are a rich nation, and that is a function of Europe’s history of global dominance for centuries.  Canada was founded by a capitalist imperial system with all the injustice that such a foundation implies.  We are still enmeshed in that history.  We have not begun to make restitution to the victims of our rise.

To summarize:  Canadian history shows we have no claim to be morally better than the English, French or Americans, when we have had the chance to be imperial masters over other people, and how we have treated First Nations here is the clearest lesson for that.  There is no plan yet for Canada to make material restitution to Natives for the vast riches European settlers have extracted from the land we stole nor to pay the aboriginal people for the “private property” settlers think they own.  BC Premier Christy Clark delivered a “declaration on the sanctity of private property” in January, as reported in the Vancouver Sun March 10.

Empires: they rule, we judge

It is so very easy for people who possess very little power to judge the mistakes, injustices, and stupidities of people who have power and exercise it.  Children are certain their parents are ignorant, and feel sure they will be better parents when they have children.  Weak nations like Canada fall easily into the trap of assuming their moral superiority over strong empires.  Until one is responsible for an empire, one never knows just how moral and benevolent one truly is.

When Canadians were under the imperial domination of Britain, some of us identified with the Empire and were super-patriots at times of war in Europe, eager to fight for the Mother Country.  Others of us wanted nothing to do with the far-off quarrels of the Empire; we refused to send military help to Britain to quell rebels in Ireland or India in the 20th century.  I am anti-empire myself.

Our ruling class was a colonial ruling class, loyal to the Empire and using the power of police, courts and military to keep dissent suppressed.  Too few Canadians know that in WWI our army killed Canadians in Quebec during anti-conscription rioting, or that army veterans were used as special police to crush union power in Winnipeg in 1919.  As England itself developed a more liberal society, with more rights for women, for workers, and for people of colour, Canada kept pace, but we never became the cutting edge of progress.

(The great classic text of the Tao, the “book of 5,000 characters”, has a great deal to say about how people with power – kings, nobles, and “sages” – do best by doing least, and how “the people” do not need governors who are constantly active and attempting to control society.  That book would be my personal choice as a manual of political science for anyone ruling subject people.)

Canada has never been the centre of an empire; we have only been the weak partner, or client, or colony, of bigger centres of power in London and Washington.  Our weakness lets us pretend we are not imperialists.

We know that Canadian corporations, in mining and banking for example, have actively exploited lands where American military and political power have kept “law and order” – they impose control so that capitalists can operate profitably.  Look at the Royal Bank in Mexico for example, or Teck in South America or Africa.

Until Canada has exercised the global power of an empire, or had power hung around our necks like a unwanted responsibility, we cannot know what our capacity for good government of other people might be.

We know that Americans themselves have a very healthy and admirable tradition of dissenters who abhor war and empire, from Tom Paine and Mark Twain, on through John Reed and Woodrow Wilson, to Noam Chomsky and Chris Hedges.  The USA is a pluralist society with a cacophony of voices on the subject of its empire and its conquests. Powerful American voices condemn American excess.

Has Canada resisted American power when it tried to seduce us to follow?  Yes, we said “No!” to helping America fight in Viet Nam — when Australia sent troops. Yes, we said “No!” to George Bush’s war in Iraq in 2003 — when the British joined in.

But in 2001, we saw that when NATO pressured us to betray our traditions — by engaging in a war of counter-insurgency in Afghanistan — we sent troops and warplanes.  A truly just society in Canada would pursue a foreign policy of staying out of other people’s lands and not pretending we can go there to impose our notion of order upon others.  The Afghan Mission was a national disgrace, in my opinion.  Canada’s military families are outraged by criticism of that mission, for they need to believe their loved ones were killed or wounded there for a noble cause.  To them I say, sorry, your family member was a dupe of geopolitics and Canada acted without wisdom or principle in that war.

History: theirs is a religion, ours is uncelebrated

It is a commonplace opinion among Canada’s educators, politicians, and media writers that Canadian history-teaching needs to inflate us with more pride in ourselves, as American and British and French history is employed to create feelings of nationalist affection in those countries.  I am a teacher of Canadian history, and I disagree with that.  I am content that we do not try to create a national mythology to copy the Americans’,  no intentional method of turning history into self-praising patriotic mythos.

The USA has a well-worn habit of teaching its history as the story of  Exception:  America was founded by people yearning to escape the shackles of European history, its wars and its social injustice – and behold!  America in fact is exceptional.  The first colonists were driven by a vision of “A City on the Hill” populated by a godly people to create a Christian paradise.  Democracy was planted there, and blossomed, and the Revolution of 1776 was like a beacon of light for the oppressed of the world.  “Send us your cast-off people” was the slogan of the Great Republic, and with massive immigration from Europe, a new society was built from the soil of the New World, a society of hope and achievement.

This is the theme of American Exceptionalism in history.  America: it breaks all moulds, it is unique in history, a gift to humanity.

The British and French also have imperial myths to exalt national pride, of being “The Mother of Parliaments” or “Fountain of Liberty.”  European empires claimed to be “Champions of Civilization” (Christian, or capitalist, or scientific) as they expanded the power of that continent from the time of the Spanish conquistadors.  The worst form of this myth is Nazi Aryanism.

Canada was part of the Euro-Christian mythos of progress, but since gaining independence from an empire, we have needed a new tradition.  Where is the glory of a colony that never freed itself by revolution?  We were bequeathed freedom, we did not acquire it by struggle.  Being a dependent colony of the UK in 1914 meant we were taken to war by the British Parliament’s decision, not our own.  We did not sign the Peace of 1919 as a sovereign nation-state.

Canadians have not been too interested in generating our own egotistic historical narrative; Quebec is a bit different, for it has a strong nationalist school of history, but that mythos is in opposition to English Canada rather than for global image-making.

I am content, as I said, that Canada lacks a strong tradition of nationalist history-teaching that makes nationalism into secular religion.  History is better, more truthful, when it is not being used.  Using it to create a sense of national identity means suppressing the darker, more shameful facts of our past, and I would rather we didn’t.

Dreams: Americans wax lyrical, Canadians prefer reticence

What is the Canadian Dream?  I only ask because Canadians are so familiar with The American Dream and we love to ridicule and satirize that ideal.  But on many occasions our political class love to proclaim that Canada has a wonderful reservoir of “values” that we stand up for; that is as close to a Dream as Canadians seem to get.

The trouble with anything labelled “The Canadian Dream” is its lack of consensus support, whereas Americans are pretty harmonious about the meaning of their Dream: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Some people try to argue our Dream is “peace, order and good government” – the words taken from a clause of the British North America Act.  But there is no substantive case that this phrase was well-worn by common usage until quite recent times when historians have made it contrast with the US slogan.

I am fine with the Canadian lack of consensus on a national Dream. It gives each of us scope to imagine our own.  When I hear the phrase, “the unbearable lightness of being Canadian” coined by a poet, I get the gist at once.  We are not burdened, we feel a lightness, because our nationalism demands so little conformity.  Be Canadian in any way you see fit, no one can say you’re wrong.  I don’t want us to be a nation that uses the word “un-Canadian” as an insult.

Conservatism: parliamentary and republican

Is Canada generally a more liberal society than America? Sociologists and political scientists in general can agree it is.  History explains it; America has a conservative centre of gravity Canada lacks.  A great part of the explanation is the fact of Southern attitudes in US politics, and the facts of slavery and the Civil War.  The rest of that explanation is that Canadian politics are coloured with a liberal/social-democratic hue on the political spectrum by Quebec.

Quebec is a type of European social-democratic jurisdiction within Canada’s confederation, with many features of life there having parallels with nations like the Netherlands, Denmark, or France.  It has been said by sharp observers of US-Canada comparisons, that if one removes Quebec and the deep-South states from the measurement of attitudes in Canada and the USA, the contrast between our two nations is less-sharply delineated.

Conservatism in Canada was yoked officially in one political party with the word “Progressive” since the 1940’s, and the label was only dropped by the Conservative Party in 2003 when it merged into the Canadian Alliance/Reform Party under Stephen Harper.  Canada’s West, the four provinces west of Ontario, holds the centre of gravity for Reform politics, and Alberta is the very heart, soul, and brain of it.

The American Republican Party is not easily identified with one region of the USA, but most states along the Canadian border are “blue” (Democrat).  Red states are notable in the US old south but the balance is not easy to sum up.  In the US now, the Republicans are in dire disarray with the pre-eminence of one Donald Trump among non-elite party members while the elite want him gone.  Trump has support in all regions; so did Stephen Harper in our election of 2011.  I will venture a comparison of these two conservative leaders.

Trump and Harper: unfair parallels? instructive analogies?

Perhaps on the face of it my comparison is outrageous to begin with.  Harper is in no way as “fringey” as Trump; yet I could not understand his victory in 2011 any more than huge numbers of Americans can understand the rise of Trump.

Harper is gone from, Trump has yet to be at, the top.  But I’d argue that Harper was put in power by forces not unlike the ones driving Republicans away from the candidates that the party elite prefer.  The force that is easy to identify in both cases is anger.  Canadians are not angry for the same reasons as their American cousins, however.  Our two societies are too different for that to be so.  Harper supporters’ anger was against urban dominance, against the power of Ontario and Quebec in our federation, against socially-liberal governments: these irritants for conservatives in rural areas, in the West, are valid.

Harper had support from that notoriously-loyal 30 percent of Canada’s conservatives who liked his religiosity, his anti-government pose, his assertive military policy, his disdain for “elites”.  But he could only win an election by dint of clever tactics, boutique politics, wedge issues, and a weak opposition.  Canadian conservatives were not angry as Americans are angry.

Harper had a personality problem the opposite of Trump – the former is an introvert with very little in his past to boast about, and the latter is an egoist extrovert with flashy accomplishments as a business tycoon and TV celebrity.  We Canadians handed Harper majority-party power in 2011 after testing him in minority governments — and he revealed such an unpleasant side of himself when he had such power that we enthusiastically ejected him and chose a man with charisma, style and sunny ways.  Trump reveals unpleasant sides of his personality and surges ahead in polls because Americans are deathly tired of politicians who are tactful, civil – and do not deliver clean, honest government.

Harper was a conservative in his religiosity – a prime minister who would say “God bless Canada” at the microphone.  He was conservative in his insistence that he would stop government being “big” and “interfering in the Economy” and that he would “cut red tape and bureaucracy” and “keep taxes low.”  His friendliness to corporate Canada, especially his notion that the nation is a “raw commodity superpower”, marked him as typically conservative in our milieu.

Harper incorrectly sensed that Canadians wanted a more nationalistic, even patriotic, tone from their leader.  His bombastic posing on the global stage as he hectored leaders of Russia, Iran, Libya, and Syria, or jihadis  in IS, Palestine, Afghanistan, or Gaza, was weirdly out-of-touch with what Canadians expect from our leaders;  his manifest disrespect for the UN was similarly not in harmony with the kind of Canada a majority of us want to see in action in the world.  Harper’s loud proclamation of support for Israel didn’t reflect our inclination toward even-handedness.

However, none of those actions aligns Harper with conservativism of the Tea-Party, anti-feminist, crypto-racist, anti-environment, Christian-apocalyptic variety we see in the USA.  Ted Cruz and Donald Trump are so far right of any Canadian conservative that here I must cease to compare them with Harper.

Angry Americans, contented Canadians

Canada has problems and issues of a dimension that are blessedly small in comparison to America’s social, economic, and political challenges.  Their quandaries are several degrees of magnitude larger than ours.  I am by temperament a pessimist and critic, and even so I know Canada is not so bedevilled by conflict and fracture as America – which  is a society I believe to be in imminent danger of violent unravelling.

No matter who becomes president in their election this year, Americans seem unlikely to be able to accept a victory by the other side.  They seem to loathe their opposition.  Clinton is all ambition, no principle — and she is considered the best on offer.  Sanders has my admiring support, and he is just never going to be able to overcome the fact that the establishment rejects him.

Most Canadians are, at this moment, contented citizens, thanks to our new Prime Minister’s sunny ways, capable of lifting our spirits with hope rather than substantive action.  Americans are very far from sharing our state of mind.

Conclusions: culture, history, and ideas matter

America’s political culture is markedly dissimilar from Canada’s, and it is not only our continuing traditions of British parliamentary practice that make this true.  We are a people who built the first federal state in our land on the basis of a very necessary compromise between two great ethnic groups, the English of Ontario and the French of Quebec.  The near-parity of power between them led to the situation in the United Province of Canada in 1863 that forced that province to escape political deadlock by Confederation in 1867.  The party of John A. Macdonald, when he sought a way for his province to break the paralysis of its politics in the 1860’s, was called the “Liberal Conservatives”.  That indicates a long tradition of holding the middle ground that is a hallmark of Canadian politics.

America was birthed in violent revolution against an empire, then fought nearly constant wars with the Natives and at times with Spain, Mexico, and Britain, for the next 150 years.  Its worst war by far was the Civil War.  This history matters.  And History-teaching matters, for it is a foundation of ideology.  America has had to propagate great ideological structures to hold it together with patriotism, national and imperial “destinies”, and religious missions.  The ideas which held America together oft-times did not operate well enough to avoid violence, but Canadian history is minimally-afflicted by civil war, rebellion, revolution or wars by our army against the First Nations.  Lacking wars, we lack the hangover of wars, the bitter feelings between victor and vanquished.  Personally I believe that the lack of big ideological structures to cement Canada together is preferable to what glues America and Americanism.

There is a long way to go before Canada becomes the kind of just society  I myself imagine.  And my imagined Canada is not desired by all.  It is a very good thing that Canadian society, ideology, and political-legal institutions are in a state of fluidity.  Our Charter of Rights and Freedoms dates only to 1982 – that is how flexible our strictures are.  We can write our future history with few rigid parameters from the past to constrict our writing.


P S to WASPs and Anglophiles:  I trust that you enjoyed your private contemplation of Commonwealth Day, March 14?  Empire lingers.  Celebrate!

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