A Canadian Talks to Americans (and Anyone Else Who Will Listen) About Canada, in the Year 2012

by Colin Eatock

“Q: Why did the Canadian cross the road? A: To get to the middle.” (a rare example of Canadian humour).

ScreenHunter_06 Jan. 02 13.39The year 2012 has a special significance in the relationship between Canada and the USA. It’s the bicentennial of the War of 1812: a comedy of military errors in which American forces invaded Canada (which was still a British colony), with the intention of annexing it. The attacks were repulsed – and at the end of the war, a peace treaty left borders unchanged. Ever since, Canadians have claimed victory in the war, while Americans prefer to say it was a draw.

Yet a cursory glance around Canada today gives the impression that the American invasion of Canada was a complete success. Americans visiting Canada find cities and towns full of the same kind of architecture, retail businesses and cars that they left at home. They find people who speak and dress like them, and eat the same food. And they find people who watch American films and listen to American music – and do not think of these things as foreign. (The one major exception is the province of Quebec, and I’ll talk about that shortly.) To some Americans, the idea that Canada is an independent country is an elaborate fiction.

Canadians resent this: we feel we are different, and we want our different-ness to be acknowledged. However, when pressed to name specific examples, we often find ourselves grasping at straws. We call the last letter of the alphabet “zed,” not “zee.” We celebrate Thanksgiving on the second Monday of October, not the fourth Thursday of November. Our federal police, the Mounties, wear red jackets and ride horses. The rules of Canadian football are somewhat different from the rules of American football. Canadians say “eh” a lot, and (we’re told) we pronounce the word “about” in a peculiar way.

But such petty distinctions do not a nation make – and Americans are right to dismiss such arguments as trivial. The fact remains that many parts of Canada look like they could readily be somewhere in the USA. That’s why American movies are sometimes filmed in Canada.

Yet outward appearances can be deceiving. A person who knows very little about marine biology might think that the shark and the dolphin are closely related species, because they are similar in size and form. But of course the shark is a fish, and the dolphin is a mammal: they are entirely dissimilar on the inside. And so it is with Canada and the USA. The similarities are obvious and abundant, while the differences are subtle yet profound.

That said, I’d like to first lay to rest a couple of false distinctions that are often touted as prominent non-American features of Canada: bilingualism and the monarchy. (Then we’ll move on to the real stuff.)

It’s true that Canada is officially a bilingual country: our laws are written in English and French, and our federal civil service operates in both languages. Yet unless English speakers live in Quebec – the only Canadian province with a French-speaking majority – they rarely come into significant contact with the French language. Throughout most of Canada, the English language reigns supreme and unchallenged.

From time to time Quebec threatens to leave Canada. But whether or not the province ever separates politically from Canada – and I wish them well if they do – it has always been culturally separate from English Canada. Quebec is not really part of the “Canada” that English Canadians usually mean when they speak of their country. And like most English Canadians, when I talk about Canada (here, for example), I mean English Canada.

And it’s also true that Canada is a monarchy. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II is the Queen of several former British colonies, and Canada is one of them. We are her subjects: her portrait adorns our coinage, and she has a representative called the Governor General who officially opens sessions of the Canadian Parliament.

But again, there’s a disconnect between officialdom and what the average Canadian experiences. Aside from the occasional visit by a member of the Royal Family to Canada, most Canadians see little evidence of the monarchy – and that suits most of us just fine. In Australia, bitter political battles have been fought over the role of this institution. But in Canada, we retain the monarchy because we can’t be bothered to abolish it. There may have been a time when the crown was a valued symbol to Canadians, but that time has passed.

If not bilingualism or the monarchy, then what are the real differences that separate Canada from the United States? Let’s start with the general political atmosphere in both countries. Canadian political thought has always stood to the left of the USA’s spectrum. An American politician who is considered moderately left-leaning (such as Barack Obama) would be a centrist in Canada; and a politician who might be described as strongly right-wing in the USA would be considered a nut-case in Canada. This is no small matter – and it has a deep impact on many aspects of Canadian society.

One of the most far-reaching manifestations of Canada’s left-wing tendencies is universal public health care, or “socialized medicine,” as it’s sometimes called. We’ve had it since 1966 – although it seems much longer – and it’s wormed its way into our hearts as something essentially Canadian. On this issue Canadian consensus is strong: we don’t understand how any prosperous and civilized country wouldn’t want to have such a program. And no Canadian politician who hoped to get elected would ever dare to say, “Let’s scrap our public health care, and do things the way they do in the United States.”

Gun control is another issue on which Canada stands to the left of the USA. Unlike health care, a Canadian consensus on this issue is a little harder to pin down: some years ago, a Liberal government established a national firearms registry, but the current Conservative government wants to abolish it. However, even if this registry is abolished, Canadian gun laws will still be much stricter than American laws with regard to automatic weapons, handguns, concealment, obtaining permits, and other matters. Unlike Americans, we have no constitutional right to bear arms – and most of us probably wouldn’t want such a right.

Multiculturalism is yet another leftish idea that is stronger in Canada than in the USA. The belief that the cultures of immigrant groups should be respected, and even encouraged in some ways, is not merely public policy in Canada, but something most Canadians have come to accept (perhaps with some grumbling). Quite simply, multiculturalism works in Canada – unlike some other countries, where it seems to be a disaster. And when I say it works, I mean it cleverly achieves the opposite of its putative goals: by offering a welcoming hand to immigrants, it’s an effective policy for integration and assimilation. As a result, we don’t have hard-edged “ethnic” neighbourhoods in Canada where, as Archie Bunker once put it, “If you go in there, they’ll kill you.”

Canadian views on governance are incongruent with the American ideal of minimal intervention in citizens’ lives. In Canada, public administration is considered an art form, and we practice it with virtuosity. For instance, Canada has one of the best-regulated banking systems in the world: no Canadian bank failed, or even broke a sweat, in 2008.

I could go on about other policies and programs – capital punishment, same-sex marriage or the state-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation – that generally lie to the left of American positions. But, perhaps the time has come to ask why Canada is more left-leaning than the USA.

In part, it’s because we maintain close ties with Europe, where political thought has been various shades of pink since World War II. But it goes deeper than that. The USA was founded on a set of political principles, clearly set forth in the constitution and other documents. Americans have a term for ideas that are at odds with the nation’s foundational principles: they are called “un-American.” But no idea is “un-Canadian.” Indeed, the term barely exists – if used at all, it would probably be aimed at someone who doesn’t like hockey.

But enough about politics. There are other complexities to explore here.

Here’s a big one: Canadians are less – much less – nationalistic than Americans. Nothing makes us feel more not-like-Americans than seeing a bunch of agitated Yanks chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” We think Americans can be insensitive and superior when vacationing in other countries, so we stitch Canadian flags to our backpacks, lest we be mistaken for one. And we disapprove of the way that the US education system so strongly emphasizes American history, American geography and American literature, to the exclusion of so much else. Most Canadians have heard of the first President of the United States. How many Americans could name Canada’s first Prime Minister?

But just a moment – how many Canadians could name Canada’s first Prime Minister? Even though Sir John A. MacDonald is on our ten-dollar bill, poll after embarrassing poll has shown that plenty of Canadians have no idea who he was. In our efforts to be as un-nationalistic as possible, we have chosen not to learn about ourselves. How many Canadians know that a Canadian invented the light bulb, or the game of basketball? (Consult Google, if you don’t believe me!) If America is inward-looking to a fault, Canada is too self-effacing. For better or for worse, that’s the way it is – and it’s a huge difference.

The “nationalism-gap” between Canada and the USA manifests itself in other ways, too. For instance, we Canadians like to think of ourselves as less bellicose than Americans. I say “like to think” because this hasn’t always been the case. Canada marched off to World War I in 1914 (not 1917, as the Americans did), and to World War II in 1939 (not 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked). But after WW II, we had a change of heart: Canada’s armed forces were scaled down and retooled as a peacekeeping force.

This made us quite pleased with ourselves – and from our moral high ground, we scorned American military adventurism. We sheltered draft-dodgers during the Vietnam era and shook our heads at the invasion of Iraq. It’s true that we did send our army off to Afghanistan, as a post-9/11 gesture of solidarity – but this was only because we thought it was going to be yet another peacekeeping mission. How wrong we were! One more point: Canada has plenty of uranium, and an assortment of nuclear reactors dotting the landscape. We could build a bomb any time we wanted to. We just don’t want to.

If America constantly aspires to be the best in the world, Canadians can be uncomfortable with striving for excellence. We are less competitive and more risk-adverse than Americans, and we certainly don’t want to appear “uppity.” There are a few exceptions: we sincerely want our national hockey team will come back from the Winter Olympics with gold medals. But in many areas of human endeavour – the arts, sciences, commerce – Canadians often take a curious pride in being at the centre of the herd, rather than out in front.

And there’s more. Americans are friendly (if they like you), and Canadians are polite (whether they like you or not). Racism in America can be shockingly blunt; racism in Canada is carefully veiled – and many Canadians will deny it exists in their country. Americans are more inclined to take a strong stand on one side or another of an issue. Canadians like to look at things from all perspectives, and are reluctant to unequivocally ally themselves with any single view.

America’s Declaration of Independence declares “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” to be inalienable rights. Canada’s constitution promises “peace, order and good government.” The phrase-structure is similar, but the values expressed are not at all the same.

The United States failed to conquer Canada in 1812 – yet over the last two centuries, our mighty southern neighbour has made a strong impression on us. We are dazzled and fascinated by the USA. We are alternately envious, baffled and horrified by the things Americans say and do. We compare ourselves constantly to Americans, and imitate America both consciously and unconsciously. But remarkably, for all this, we have not become you. Canada and the United States of America remain two different nations.


Colin Eatock is a composer, music-critic and essayist who lives in Toronto, Canada. He holds a PhD in musicology, and has no formal training in political science. But he didn’t let that stop him.