It’s a pleasing question to consider, in a way: How has Canada been spared? Is it something we’ve been eating? Does our cold climate breed some resistance against would‑be strongmen? Over the past two years, looking at the club of Western democracies, commentators have remarked on how everyone but us seems to have come down with the same bug. Its symptoms are well known and frequently recited. Nationalism, xenophobia, anti-elite sentiments, protectionism, isolationism, a rejection of international and counter-majoritarian institutions — the whole lot subsumed under the banners of “populism” and “illiberalism.” How is it that Canada has emerged unscathed?
A first response is that it has not. We have Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, we have Quebec’s recurring fixation with laïcité and eradication of religious symbols, and we have a re-emerging Conservative Party that, at one point, seemed bent on replicating Donald Trump’s campaign tactics. Immigration may well become a wedge issue in October’s federal election. These are all true caveats. Compared with the affliction’s advanced stage elsewhere, though, they’re mere sniffles.
Nowhere is the question more puzzling than in the comparison between Canada and the United States. How is it that we have sunny ways — occasional clouds notwithstanding — while the Americans have Trump and white nationalism? How is it that the world’s longest undefended border divides such different expressions of democracy?
One explanation is that we were subjected to a decade-long inoculation under Stephen Harper, which provided just enough of an irritant to ensure Canadian liberalism did not grow complacent. Harper threatened the long-form census, and that triggered sufficient antibodies to temper the political effects of the global economic slowdown and income inequality.
Another explanation looks further back, to our divergent origin stories. Lately, historians have emphasized the true violence of America’s foundational moment — just how formative and bloody its Revolutionary War was — whereas Canada weaned itself off colonial rule gradually, until it came to rest at its current arrangement, one that enshrines a cozy relation with a distant Crown.
Rita Shelton Deverell’s new American Refugees offers an intriguing third explanation. The book reads as a sort of scrapbook, a compendium of characters who all left the United States for the “promised land” to the north. It contains family photos, excerpts from local newspapers, comic strips, obituaries, plays, unproduced scripts. Deverell herself is ever present; she is one of those Americans who came to Canada and stayed, eventually becoming a television broadcaster and a prominent social activist. The plays and unproduced film scripts are mostly her own.
The individuals whose stories she tells, spanning two centuries of migration, have come to Canada for various reasons. They’re escaped slaves turned British loyalists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; targets of McCarthyism in the 1950s; Vietnam War draft dodgers in the 1960s; and refugees from homophobia in the 1990s. They share something else beyond their eventual destination: whatever has led them from their native land to the plains of Saskatchewan, where Deverell herself ended up, or the shores of Nova Scotia, where many escaped slaves landed after the War of 1812, their experiences continue to shape their behaviour once they arrived.
Migration is a difficult, often risky enterprise. And so, in a natural way, it is those most aggrieved by injustice, those most willing and able to work against it, who undertake it. Once these people make it to their adopted land, American Refugees suggests, they keep reacting to the injustices they witness around them.
“As a black person from the American South,” Deverell says, “when I travelled from northern Ontario to the prairies in the 1970s, I quickly identified with racism directed at Indigenous peoples, and this identification led to years of chronicling Indigenous issues in my media career.” That the lived experience of racial discrimination would prompt newcomers, facing their own share of challenges by virtue of being newcomers, to seek and assist victims of discrimination in their new country — that such a concern would travel, literally, across borders and ethnic identities — proves genuinely moving. Deverell tells the story of a number of newcomers who likewise connected with the plight of Indigenous peoples and made it their life’s cause. She may well be speaking to a broader phenomenon.
John Hagan comes to an analogous conclusion in Northern Passage, from 2001, where he examines those Americans whose objections to the Vietnam War led them to Canada: “The politically active resisters . . . became part of a variety of social networks that produced patterns of commitment that have persisted to the present.” Draft dodgers became lifelong activists who sustained Canada’s role in international peacekeeping. When the Iraq War began, for example, they were at the forefront of the anti-war movement. “Some Americans who came limited their resistance to the act of migration in response to draft and military laws,” Hagan writes. “The majority of the Toronto resisters in my sample, however, actively protested the war before leaving the United States and continued their active protest after arriving in Canada.”
If this pattern holds, even a small difference in the character of the two nations would progressively become a larger one. Generations of new arrivals — escaping enslavement, discrimination, and persecution, attracted by the staid promise of “peace, order and good government” — would expand on it, collectively bent on opposing the maladies they’d run away from. Over time, it would breed a social reflex against the pitting of one cultural group against another by political entrepreneurs, or the use of fearmongering as an electoral device. If such self-selection has indeed been at work since the American Revolution, then, little by little, whatever myth attracted people to Canada would prove self-fulfilling.
Indeed, a myth.
None of this takes away from the fact that something has attracted generations of American refugees, along with immigrants from around the world. Deverell writes of her own initial guilelessness: “As a black person who grew up in the American South, the story I knew about Canada was that, as soon as slaves or the descendants of slaves crossed the border, they were free at last!” Of course, expectations are not always met.
Deverell explains how her original idea of Canada came from her husband, who would read aloud from Stephen Leacock’s Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, that folksy Edwardian account of the people living in the fictional town of Mariposa, Ontario. “Mariposa sounded terrific,” she writes. Deverell’s intimate recounting invites readers to relate to her story, and the stories of the other characters in American Refugees, on a personal level. And I couldn’t help but do so: the Canadian national myth has proven consequential for me. It is, simply put, the reason I’m here, writing these words from my office at McGill University — which is housed, incidentally, in the Stephen Leacock Building.
The myth of Canada has long held a fascination for Eastern Europeans, just as it does for those Deverell describes. In Poland, my birth country, there’s an expression, “To nie Kanada,” which translates to “It ain’t Canada.” That is to say, “Let’s be reasonable — you can’t have it all.” These received notions go back generations. Before the Second World War, my great-grandfather — true story — owned a confectionery shop, to which he gave the most appealing, sweetest-sounding name he could think of: Kanada. Then the Communists came and expropriated it. That’s right, the Communists took Kanada away. Half a century later, when martial law in Poland was lifted in the early ’80s and my parents fled Communist rule, where else were they going to go?
The true richness of American Refugees comes when it moves beyond shared preconceptions of Canada, to consider what happens when new arrivals confront the contrast between their expectations and reality.
Yes, the Underground Railroad allowed many escaped slaves to settle in southwestern Ontario. Some were even given Crown land to farm, in places like Oro-Medonte Township. But Deverell reminds us that Canadian authorities did their best to staunch the flow of refugees, sending emissaries south to spread stories of how hard life was in the north, trying, largely in vain, to alter the prevalent myth of a promised land. In doing so, they mimicked American slave owners who were known to spin similar tales to dissuade slaves from escaping in the first place. Moreover, Canadian institutions often lagged behind the promise of our myth, well after the American Civil War. Ontario and Nova Scotia both featured segregated schools; Nova Scotia retained them for as long as Texas did.
Deverell stops short of delving into this history fully. But, in fact, legal slavery existed in Canada for much longer than we like to think. True, Upper Canada’s 1793 Act against Slavery declared, “It is unjust that a people who enjoy Freedom by Law should encourage the introduction of Slavery in this Province.” But it also maintained that abolition should be done “without violating private property.” That meant anyone born a slave before 1793 would legally remain one. This ambiguous state of affairs endured until 1833, when slavery was abolished in all the British colonies by an act of Westminster. In other words, slavery was legally preserved in Canada years after it was formally abolished in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, and several other states — even as thousands of former slaves risked their lives trying to reach Canada. These things are simultaneously true.
Similar contradictions come out of the Red Scare of the 1950s. The hunt for Soviet agents by the House Un-American Activities Committee and Senator Joseph McCarthy proved a convenient way to target a host of bothersome individuals: trade unionists, African American civil rights leaders, left-leaning Jews, social activists of all stripes. McCarthyism went after scores of scholars, artists, and intellectuals, many of whom sought refuge in Canada. American authorities knew this and sometimes took action to prevent the beleaguered from emigrating. The civil rights leader W. E. B. Du Bois was one who embodied all that McCarthyism rejected. The U.S. State Department revoked his passport in 1952, to keep him from attending a peace conference in Canada and to pre-empt any attempt to seek asylum.
Yet Canada was not itself wholly free of McCarthy-style paranoia. Here, too, the hunt for Reds proved a convenient pretext for harassment. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the National Film Board both purged suspected Communist sympathizers. The RCMP quietly investigated civil servants, university professors, and union leaders across the country, seeking to eradicate political or sexual nonconformity. Supposedly vulnerable to Soviet blackmail, public servants outed as homosexuals were removed from their posts.
A decade later, during the Vietnam War, Canada became the primary refuge for draft dodgers — and, to a fault, American Refugees describes sympathetic, welcoming border guards who granted them landed status on the spot. But Canada remained complicit in the war in other ways. As one of the estimated 40,000 war resisters who emigrated to Canada admits in the book, she protested against Washington mightily for its warmongering but took less notice of how Agent Orange was being produced in the “lovely little town of Elmira, Ontario.” Hey, isn’t that just down the road from Mariposa?
Stephen Leacock, the creator of Mariposa and author of Deverell’s imagined Canada, was himself a one-man embodiment of these incongruous dualities. A political economist who held an appointment in my department at McGill, he was by all accounts beloved by his students and, arguably, the most-read English-language humorist of his time. Lately, though, Leacock has come under fire for too readily manifesting his era’s disparaging beliefs on suffrage, Indigenous cultures, and black immigrants. Sitting in the Leacock Building, as I am now, the challenge is to hold both these facts in mind at the same time.
Those Americans who flee to Canada must come to terms with a similar duality: the national myth that draws them north has blemishes. Their new country has a history, and as both American Refugees and Northern Passage remind us, a country’s history is rarely as rosy as one might wish.
The hardest test of democratic liberalism is a nation’s willingness to probe the dark corners of its past. It is, in fact, a blind spot of liberalism itself. It simply isn’t clear at what point the crisp liberal edicts of John Stuart Mill begin to apply: the appealing principle by which the freedoms of one extend until they reach the rights of another presumes some present moment devoid of any past. Yet that blank slate seldom exists. In most cases, the freedoms of one have, in fact, been encroaching on another’s rights for centuries. Liberalism assumes itself; it is ill equipped to work out how societies ought to deal with illiberal pasts — hence the unease that liberal democracies face in recognizing and coming to terms with historical blemishes. Formal apologies, restitution, lustration? Liberal theory provides no ready answer.
So here may be, finally, the best explanation for Canada’s current call-it-what-you-will exceptionalism. Deverell’s American Refugees explores two sides of our national myth and testifies to our willingness to try that difficult trick of holding contradictory thoughts simultaneously. History books and memoirs take on this task, as does literature: consider Days by Moonlight, the latest wild novel by André Alexis, the Trinidad-born Canadian author, which skewers Canadian multiculti self-conceptions through the story of a road trip that takes a turn toward the grotesque.
That such books are written and read speaks to the Canadian willingness to grapple with revealing dualities. Which is also why Justin Trudeau’s national apology for the firing of “sexually non-conforming” public servants, during the Red Scare, seems relevant. The main effect of such apologies, beyond providing some closure to the handful of directly affected individuals still alive to benefit from it, is to challenge a society to look at itself, warts and all.
The ultimate irony is that the willingness to prod at a national myth ends up contributing to its realization.
Such willingness does not come naturally. In a throwback to the ’50s, those who would try to perform this trick in the United States today are branded “un-American.” It’s no surprise that the promise to “make America great again” requires an uncomplicated view of what America used to be — no room for prodding here. In fact, a recurrent symptom of the illiberal bug currently afflicting so many Western democracies is that those who look too closely at a country’s self-conception are denounced as being not “of the people.”
It isn’t just our southern neighbour. My own homeland is another case in point. Along with Hungary, Poland is the European country that has veered most sharply in a populist direction. The party in power, Law and Justice, has been busy, among other things, shutting down any academic work on the Holocaust that would portray Poles as anything but victims and heroes. These efforts at historical distortion reached a peak in the adoption of legislation threatening prison for anyone who would challenge the official view. The invoked language is telling: those advocating for the defence were “genuine Poles,” and efforts to undermine the national myth by providing a more complicated account of history were denounced as engaging in a “pedagogy of shame.” The result is that history professors have started to fear their work could land them in jail. You know, “To nie Kanada.” But then Canada is quite unique in this respect.
Our true exceptionalism may thus lie in how peculiarly difficult it is to dismiss people as not “real Canadians” because of their efforts to question the self-serving myth itself. And therein may lie another clue to our resistance to the populist bug that has infected other liberal democracies. One of the definitions of populism — a concept with the notable shortcoming of having so many competing meanings — is the pitting of the genuine, “authentic people” against the rest (coastal elites, immigrants, sexual or ethnic minorities, skeptics). To see such a move in action, look at Nigel Farage, the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, who declared Brexit “a victory for real people.” It’s a handy trope from the populist’s routine that doesn’t quite work in this country.
One last wrinkle. More than self-love prevents us from recognizing the complications of our rosy self-view. Yes, the national myth of Canada is self-serving: it makes us feel warm inside. Just as important, it serves others too, and this may be central to its enduring quality. For American liberals, Canada plays a function; it is an often-referenced argument. A functioning society with free health care? Affordable tuition? No crime? Americans rely on the myth of Canada as much as we do.
You may recall a headline that went viral on November 9, 2016, the morning after Trump’s election. As the Electoral College numbers were coming in, the website for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada crashed, presumably under the load of desperate Americans looking to flee a country that had just sent a Mussolini-esque real estate tycoon to the Oval Office. In a much-needed moment of hope — part comic relief, part smugness — word of the crash spread across the Twitterverse like wildfire. Our government’s servers were not up to the task of shouldering the sheer weight of our greatness.
Alas, it later came to light that pressure on the department’s website had begun days before America’s election night and was more likely fuelled by a November 10 deadline for foreign visitors to obtain an electronic travel authorization before entering Canada. In other words, what we liked and retweeted as evidence of our alluring liberalism and abiding openness was actually a reflection of our bureaucracy — a hurdle imposed by our government on foreign visitors, indeed one that caught thousands unaware in subsequent months.
Most Canadians happily remember the first version of the story, the one about how great we are. But so do many liberal Americans. In fact, whenever I tell friends in the United States the alternative explanation for the website crash, they look stricken, like children hearing there’s no Santa Claus. Liberal Americans have never needed the idea of Canada more than they do now.
Call it the Michael Moore Syndrome. The documentary filmmaker has made a habit of leaning on Canada as a pliable rhetorical prop. With Bowling for Columbine, he pointed north as he denounced American gun culture, talking up our peaceful nature and low crime rate, and spreading the delightful notion that Canadians leave their doors unlocked. Canada offered a similar counterpoint in Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore’s indictment of the War on Terror. And most recently, in Sicko, he held up Canada as a utopia of free and plentiful health care, a portrayal that anyone who has waited at the ER for hours (or for a specialist appointment for months) may find bemusing. But that is what we are up against: our own self-love, but also the useful function that the myth of Canada plays for others.
A seed of truth often lies at the heart of national myths, and our own is no exception. Although few of my American friends have made good on their quips to move to Canada (at first if Bush was re-elected, and then if Trump won), the number of asylum applications from the United States has, in fact, risen significantly since 2016. As Deverell’s American Refugees reminds us, migration is weighted toward those most likely to react against oppression and tyranny. The arrival of such refugees might, little by little, push Canada toward actual fulfillment of its myth.
We may yet become what others believe us to be.