Boundary Issues

Have Canadians and Americans become the same people?

“Who do we think we are?”

That huge identity question roils the world, including our closest relations. Many Scots want to leave Britain, especially if Britain leaves the European Union. Other Europeans are challenged by the integration of refugees from other places, especially Muslims. Eastern Europeans who had longed to join their old European cultural family have ended up disappointed.

The Québécois had two searing referenda to decide on having a separate country of their own.

Geography insists that the relationship with the United States must be Canada’s lead foreign policy priority. It has never been easy because of the asymmetry in power and dependency. Canadians have been jarred by the surge in the United States of political antagonisms accompanied by the assertive nativism of one side that challenges core Canadian values of inclusivity and tolerance. It encourages the latent tendency of Canadians to self-identify as the “other North America,” or “not the United States.”

For the University of Toronto’s dean of Canadian historians, Robert Bothwell, this binary way of looking at the two peoples as being distinct challenges the historical norm. In his valuable, ambitious and fascinating new book, Your Country, My Country: A Unified History of the United States and Canada, Bothwell, who authored The Penguin History of Canada in 2008, traces the interlocking histories of Canadians and Americans from the first days of North American settlement by Europeans through their colonial and post-colonial growing pains, and their shared experience in depression and world war up to the present.

It takes a seasoned historian to range so self-confidently over more than 300 years of history. Bothwell describes how the 18th century’s wars between France and Britain determined who had what in the New World of North America. The outcome was a split between a status quo–inclined British-ruled Canada and an upstart post–revolution new republic that subsequent events, notably the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, made into an expansionist continental power. A compelling national identity of American exceptionalism emerged from the narrative that conflated episodes of violent conflict and conquest with romantic idealism. It acted for Canadians as both a magnet and a cautionary reminder to embrace their own distinctiveness.

Bothwell recognizes in his opening sentence that shelves groan under the weight of books on the ups and downs of our relations, overwhelmingly written by Canadian scholars. They ritually underline our vulnerability because of an “asymmetry” in mutual dependence, arguing our overdependence makes knowing our neighbour a natural necessity while Americans know little about us and care even less. Possibly only the magisterial study of Canada’s character by a top U.S. scholar, Seymour Martin Lipset, pierced U.S. indifference. According to a student of his whom Bothwell cites, “‘Lipset’s ideas were so compelling’ that he could even ‘make Canada interesting to Americans’.”

Bothwell’s account leans toward the notion that over the long run, Canadians and Americans have become pretty much the same people, whose similarities are periodically refreshed by major cross-border migrations. Americans sporadically fled specifically painful experiences, such as the United Empire Loyalists from the Revolution, escapees from slavery on the Underground Railway or young men defecting from a contested American war in Vietnam. By far the biggest sustained migration was the 4.3 million Canadians who chose to emigrate to the United States between 1820 and 1950, in search of a better living, or even fame.

Are we the same people? Bothwell acknowledges our institutions have evolved differently, as events imposed different choices. The revolutionary imperative of resistance to authority separated power under the U.S. Constitution, with the eventual downside of today’s partisan gridlock in Washington, while in Canada’s parliamentary system a majority federal government can almost do pretty well what it wants within its jurisdiction.

For Bothwell, differences in political and social trends have tended to even out over time. He judges, for example, that for much of our history, “the United States was known to be more forward in social security than Canada.” The United States had the New Deal. Canada did not. “But then in the 1960s their relative politics would be reversed, with Canada becoming more liberal, with American social policy either paralyzed or in retreat.”

Differentiating U.S. events shaped those trends. As a resident of the United States in the 1960s, I witnessed the consuming drama of the U.S. civil rights movement and the colossal ambition of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. But the liberal domestic agenda succumbed politically to the cause and costs of war in Vietnam. Division over the war shook the United States to its core, as had the Civil War, creating a distrust of government that Canada did not share.

Since 1968, Canadians sustained a more classically “liberal” culture than their U.S. counterparts. The Harper government was attracted to GOP-style conservatism, but the notion there had been a “big shift” in Canada toward such a U.S.-style conservative sociopolitical culture has been contradicted by our recent electoral outcomes. Jean Chrétien caught the difference a few months ago when he described to Jane Taber in The Globe and Mail a conversation with Hillary Clinton—then First Lady—who was astonished he could oppose the death penalty and support a universal healthcare program and still get elected.

Still, there are Canadians who favour capital punishment and even some who find our single medical system an abridgement of our freedom of choice. Bothwell reminds us that “there is no idea, good or bad, that pops up in the United States that will not find disciples in Canada.” He writes: “What can be found in the United States can be found, soon enough, in Canada. But it is seldom found in the same proportions, and it frequently occurs at different times,” which explains the disconnect between the Obama and Harper eras.

Although he confirms overall that today “it is likely that Canada and the United States have diverged,” it is not “a deep division that will lead into the indefinite future.”

He cites Michael Adams’s view that gaps tend to be regional, not national. Prevailing political and social inclinations in Massachusetts are closer to Ontario’s than to Alabama’s. The natural instincts of most Calgarians were long held to be closer to those in Houston than in Toronto. Books have been written—Robert Kaplan’s An Empire Wilderness: Travelling into America’s Future, for example—about natural affinities across the Canada-U.S. border in the Pacific Northwest.

Regional gaps aside, it is probably correct that along with Great Britain, Canadians and Americans inhabit “the same moral universe,” when everything and all countries are taken into account. But this was much clearer in the 1930s when Americans and Canadians jointly faced the Depression, and the 1940s as partners in war, and the 1950s as allies in the Cold War. Since, the U.S. personality has hardened after veering all but alone into all-consuming wars of American conquest, notably in Vietnam and Iraq. That the wars were lost deepened a popular sense of embattled patriotism and militarism, which became searingly abraded by the atrocity of 9/11.

Having lived in the United States off and on since university in John F. Kennedy’s time, I grew accustomed to easy personal adjustments. But on the matter of a common moral universe, I have never known a national values gap as large as today’s. The differentiating effect of U.S. wars has had its domestic counterpart over divisive, even toxic, touchstone social issues that by contrast in Canada are more or less common ground.

We still watch the same shows, worship sports in the same way and laugh at the same jokes, partly as an extension of America’s “cultural universe.” But how we amuse ourselves is less significant than what we value. Many Americans are like many Canadians, but many Americans are not. Increasingly, the latter seem to hold sway, channelled through the Republican Party that has become much more conservative and combatively patriotic in the last 40 years. Again, as Bothwell underlines, there are Canadians who share their views because of regional and political affinities.

But overall, Canadians identify with and support U.S. Democrats massively, by 63 percent to 17 percent according to a recent poll by Nanos Research. They do so because Democrats radiate instincts of social empathy that are familiar to Canadians. Republicans, who increasingly valourize individual freedoms above all, seem to Canadians to harbour an implicit social antipathy. It puzzles Canadians that such Americans tolerate the widest and deepest expanse of poverty among all the members in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. It is not for lack of means. Every other industrialized country provides for a paid form of maternity leave for working women. Extraordinary and increasing economic disparities motivate the followers of the Bernie Sanders insurgency, but are tolerated by Republicans although real wages for employed men have not risen in 30 years.

In the recent past, such growing disparities ceded ground to the long-standing American reverence for individual self-belief. I recall from my public speaking days a decade ago how Europeans were appalled to hear that 1 percent of Americans possessed 68 percent of the country’s wealth. But they were even more amazed to hear that 17 percent of Americans believed they were in, or expected to join, the 1 percent. That zany American optimism now seems depleted. Will Donald Trump succeed in reviving it? His followers seem more driven by bitter hostility to winners than by belief that they and their children will themselves succeed.

A big difference in attitude is that nowhere in the democratic world is there such ideological hostility to government as in the United States. During the Eisenhower administration there was one federal civil servant for every 78 citizens. Under Ronald Reagan, who declared government to be “the problem, not the solution,” in the 1980s there was one for every 120. Today, there is one for every 150. The consequent decline in services gives scant promise that support for effective government will make a recovery to much higher Canadian levels of trust in government intentions.

Then there is the differentiating issue of money in U.S. politics, permitting wealthy special interests a blocking prerogative over the agenda.

Bothwell is fairly thorough on some of the differences we have had in recent times, especially under Pierre Trudeau and Richard Nixon, but curiously omits any mention of the crisis over unilateral U.S. import charges in 1971 and the effect on Canadian policies. That crisis led to much more assertive economic nationalism (the “Third Option”) in Canada that was eventually overtaken by the free trade agreement under Brian Mulroney and Ronald Reagan, but that created some benchmark Canadian institutions.

My tentative demurral from the assertion that we are basically the same people seems reinforced by evidence that a sizable body of Americans identify with a nominee for the presidency whose perspectives and personality are abhorrent to a large majority of Canadians. On the other hand, they may turn out to be equally abhorrent to a majority of Americans, validating Bothwell’s axiom that there is a symmetry of view among many in both countries, although often in different proportions at a given moment. Canadians opposed the Vietnam and Iraq wars. But so did many Americans.

After all, Barack Obama has an approval rating from Gallup that is still over 50 percent, a rare accolade among today’s democratically elected leaders. He won two majorities from the American people.

It is partly because Obama remains immensely popular in Canada today that the evident antipathy to him from a large hard-core U.S. opposition is disturbing to us. Its probable rooting in largely racial attitudes, at least in its intensity, reminds us that the United States had one overarching social issue—slavery and racial segregation—that we did not. They are not over it. Its psychological blight channels the identity grievances of poorer and older Southern whites and drives the deplorable antagonism to Mexicans shown today by Trump supporters and in southwest regions of the United States. “DEPORT THEM ALL” brays a billboard near the Phoenix airport.

For our part, we have issues they have not had. Bothwell notes that the “existence of a substantial French-speaking population gave … Canada a distinct political culture.” He defines Quebec separatism as “an existential question for Canada” and covers Pierre Trudeau’s handling of it with U.S. counterparts. But he does not otherwise devote a lot of analysis in this book to Quebec and the Québécois apart from recognizing them as a significant “complication” in North American trans-nationalism. On one hand, it seems just another regional variation that is different from others in North America by language and history. But on the other hand, the fact is that it has the capacity to end Canada as we know it. In any event, the answer to the question of “who do you think you are?” is not the same in Quebec as elsewhere in Canada.

I do not want to position a snapshot of recent U.S. political wars and trends to invalidate any of Bothwell’s magnificent narrative of a history of peoples that covers centuries. But I fear these various differences are forming a divergence in national personality and perspective, depending on who comes out on top politically, that may, even on a historian’s scale of time, prove to be long-lasting.

Perhaps the respective national composites will realign more closely in the next decade or two than they seem to be today. Millennials are much less nationalistic and more socially empathetic than their elders. Canadians have no permanent monopoly on enlightenment; Rob Ford was just a few years ago. Nor should we place our Canadian “sunny ways” today against the current dark U.S. political combat for the American soul and assume the gap to be the end of any story.

That is the huge value of Bothwell’s time-spanning book. He situates us as North Americans, plotting respective trajectories behind and across our borders. Abroad, in the Philippines or Peru, ordinary people might not discern a big civilizational difference between Canadians and Americans. We are the inhabitants of that great North American space that has become as much an idea and ideal to others as a geographic entity. It will be very interesting to see the legacy of Justin Trudeau’s reconvening of the “Three Amigos” North American Leaders Summit in June, if any, and if so, if Obama’s successor will also see the strengthening of the North American neighbourhood as a positive step to reinforce our shared competitive position and security and belief we are an interdependent community.

Canadians as well as Americans are both inheritors of what F. Scott Fitzgerald cast as the “fresh, green breast of the new world” whose discovery was “the last and greatest of all human dreams.” What its inhabitants have done with it so far, in somewhat different ways while still inhabiting the same essential culture, is Bothwell’s fascinating story. For Canadians, what could be more -important?