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From the archives

Carbon Copy

In equal balance justly weighed

Slouching toward Democracy

Where have all the wise men gone?

By Populist Demand

When urban and rural voters went separate ways

Is Canada Anti-American?

This book says yes; our reviewer says only partly

Michael Adams

American Myths: What Canadians Think They Know about the United States

edited by Rudyard Griffiths

Key Porter

213 pages, hardcover

Anyone interested in Canada and the United States should buy and read American Myths: What Canadians Think They Know about the United States. Editor Rudyard Griffiths, the co-founder and outgoing executive director of the Dominion Institute, has assembled a volume that is both meaty and readable, containing a number of strong essays by important thinkers.

The Dominion Institute’s mission is to build “active and informed citizens through greater knowledge and appreciation of the Canadian story.” Griffiths concedes that producing a book “all about America” does not fall obviously within this mandate, but defends the choice with the argument that “too many of our political discussions and too much of our analysis of how best to tackle the major forces transforming our country are hamstrung by a knee-jerk and unproductive anti-Americanism that permeates our national conversation.”

Happily, most of the essays in American Myths transcend uncritical thinking of any stripe and offer thoughtful comparative analyses of the two countries on a number of dimensions, from justice to environmentalism to policies and practices regarding aboriginal peoples. At a few points, knee-jerk and unproductive pro-Americanism is evident, reminding us that the left has not monopolized the market on uncritical thinking about the United States. Slavering is as unhelpful as whinging when it comes to discussions about the Canada-U.S. relationship. By and large, however, contributors to American Myths (eleven Canadians and two Americans) avoid both traps. (Notably, the two Americans in the collection, urbanist Joel Kotkin and diplomat Jessica LeCroy, are the most pleasantly detached in their tone and analyses.)

Griffiths is correct to say that anti-Americanism is a common Canadian affliction, but it is worth drawing a distinction between the anti-American and the simply not-American. Yes, anti-Americanism has been a fact of life in Canada ever since the northern colonies in British North America decided not to accept invitations to join the American Revolution in the late 18th century. They, and the Loyalists who flowed north, did not want to be American, even if they were not quite sure what they did want to be. But it would be a mistake to imagine that Canadian public policy has always been forged in a crucible of America bashing; sometimes Canadians simply make different choices for themselves because they live in a different context and have a different outlook on the world. An example of each type of policy debate (the anti-American and the merely not-American) is offered in American Myths.

On the anti-American front, health care is a glaring example. Physician and author David Gratzer correctly points out that it is past time for the unctuous and hypocritical left (and centre!) in this country to stop pulling out the bogeyman of “American-style” health care every time a sensible market-based reform is proposed for Canada. While it is justifiable for Canadians to want to avoid some of the obvious failures of the American healthcare system, there is no question that a near-hysterical aversion to any practice employed south of the border has hobbled Canadian discussion of our own struggling system. Our discourse is additionally impaired by misperceptions about the American system, including the idea that government stays out of it. In fact, per capita government spending on health care in the United States is markedly higher than it is in Canada.

In an excellent piece on environmental practices in the two countries, Globe and Mail columnist Neil Reynolds highlights another area in which many Canadians smugly assume they are doing something right, while ignoring the failures of their own country and the successes of their neighbour. While Canadians tolerate rhetoric from Ottawa on the importance of the environment as a national priority, Americans, in the absence of any serious national public policy, are adapting to environmental challenges such as global warming through their favourite tools: state and local action and the market. Guess who’s getting more done? While Canadians sign treaties like Kyoto and assume the work stops when the pen is capped, Americans reject treaties and (at least in some quarters) get busy making real change. On the issue they tell pollsters they care so much about, Canadians are in danger of winning awards for hypocrisy.

The Canadian justice system is a case of distinct practices that have nothing to do with wanting to distinguish ourselves from the United States and everything to do with a less individualistic worldview; our debates about law and justice are not anti-American — they are just not American. Journalist and erstwhile presidential speechwriter David Frum deftly outlines the architecture and ideas behind each justice system, arguing that both systems aim for fairness, with the U.S. seeking to make fair rules and apply them fairly while Canada places greater emphasis on fair outcomes. Frum points out that Canada, “like the social democracies of Europe,” has blended (inappropriately, he argues) the ideas of justice and equality. In Canada, the system is willing to consider the fairness that did or did not exist before someone walked through the courtroom door. In the United States, justice is what happens within the four walls of the courtroom, where rules are supposed to be applied consistently and predictably and the social and economic conditions outside are held as irrelevant.

Frum is correct that Canada and western Europe cleave together here. It is the United States that is the outlier, particularly in matters of criminal justice, incarcerating people (751 per 100,000) at about seven times the rate of England and Wales (151 per 100,000), Australia (130) or Canada (108). With the exception of the gun control debate, it is rare for Canadians to invoke American legal practices in discussions of our own justice system. Our system, with its more ecological, less individualistic thinking, is an outgrowth partly of our British heritage and partly of our contemporary values; it is not anti-American, it is just plain Canadian.

Another instance of not-American behaviour in Canada is well depicted by Tom Flanagan in an essay on North American policies regarding aboriginal peoples. Flanagan sees Canada as responding more symbolically to the social problems of aboriginal people, through constitutional measures and various apologies and compensations for the sins of the past. The United States tends to favour a more pragmatic, economic approach: permission for aboriginals to run casinos, for example, was first granted south of the border. Flanagan traces these differences in approach to the divergent political cultures of the two countries, while maintaining that many of the problems aboriginals face cut across the 49th parallel. Flanagan believes that the solution to these problems also transcends national boundaries: he thinks the answer is for aboriginals to participate in mainstream economic life.

As aboriginal issues in this country assume greater urgency, Canadians need to hear as many intelligent and critical voices as they can find. Some of those voices will be politically incorrect, as in the cases of Flanagan and aboriginal lawyer Calvin Helin, who insists that so-called social “assistance” is as toxic to aboriginal peoples as any abuse by the state. If this country is serious about improving conditions for aboriginal people, we need to have a much more robust discussion than we are having now. Flanagan invites such a discussion.

One case of non-Americanism that is positioned, in my view incorrectly, as anti-Americanism is Canadian multiculturalism. Patrick Luciani argues that “lazy assumptions toward an American melting pot … contribute to a delusional attitude about our own degree of success with multiculturalism.” Canadian multiculturalism was conceived as a response to real demographic conditions in Canada, not imagined competition with the United States. The presence of Quebec inspired the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, and when European immigrant groups insisted there was more to Canada than French and English, multiculturalism was born. This was a Canadian family meeting — not a case of brand differentiation. Perhaps some Canadians today imagine that multiculturalism makes them different from the supposed American melting pot (Luciani offers no numbers on how many this might be). But given the attention our national media has paid to ethnic tensions in Europe and Australia, it seems more likely that Canadians see themselves as engaged in the debates that are facing any number of western countries with large immigrant populations rather than limiting ourselves to comparisons with the United States, with its huge demographic differences regarding African-American and Latino populations.

If we can loosely group many Canadian policy debates into those informed by anti-Americanism (for example, our abysmal healthcare debate) and those informed by mere non-Americanism (for example, our multicultural policy framework), there is one area of our national life where our behaviour has been so schizophrenic and reactive in recent years that it is hard to say definitively where our aspirations, fears, values, interests and influences have lain. Canada’s behaviour on the international stage is certainly touched by both anti-Americanism and self-satisfaction. But it is also shaped by an entirely legitimate and idealistic desire to pursue a course distinct from that of our neighbour and ally. The most regrettable fact about American Myths is that at precisely the moment when it should be offering its most nuanced and critical analysis, in its lead essay, it yields the podium to historian Jack Granatstein, who offers ten pages of Canada bashing with no clear lesson. What is clear is that Granatstein thinks Canadians should feel deeply ashamed of nearly every official action their country has taken and not taken internationally in the 51 years since Lester Pearson embarrassed us by winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Suggestions for what to do next, other than heed Granatstein’s “realism,” are not offered.

According to Granatstein, “some Canadians” took about a day to decide the 9/11 attacks “served the Americans right.” Environics asked Canadians in a poll in late 2001 how upset they had personally been by the terrorist attacks on the United States; 96 percent said they were very (80 percent) or somewhat (16 percent) upset personally. Two percent said they were “not at all upset.” I guess 2 percent counts as “some Canadians” but it is not a proportion likely to define the national mood.

In addition to expressing the most malicious kind of Schadenfreude imaginable over that hideous act of violence, Canadians “jeer and sneer at their neighbours.” We carp “endlessly about Canada’s moral superiority.” We “let someone else pay the bills.” On the rare occasions we have been helpful, we have had to be “begged” by American presidents who understood the need for resolute action. On the many occasions we have been remiss, we have been snickering, miserly weaklings, our leaders “blithely unaware of the realities.” Granatstein writes that “our politicians sought after Nobel Prizes by tilting towards neutrality in the Cold War and by proclaiming Canada’s moral superpower status.” This, of course, is in reference to that lily-livered, better-red-than-dead Mike Pearson who promised in the 1963 election campaign to arm Canadian BOMARCs with nuclear warheads because he believed we needed to live up to our obligations to our Cold War allies.

There is a kernel of reason in Granatstein’s essay: he is hardly the first to suggest that Canadians are locked into a high-stakes relationship with their neighbour and that it is in our interests to treat the relationship soberly and with a minimum of gratuitous nose thumbing. But his portrait of this country is such a contemptuous caricature that it is difficult to swallow whatever medicine he may be offering. The false and offensive idea that Canadians rejoiced in 9/11 is the sort of thing one expects to hear from Ann Coulter, not from an eminent Canadian historian.

In some sense, former Canadian ambassador to the United States Allan Gotlieb makes a version of Granatstein’s case, arguing that active and strategic cooperation with the United States, far from being a capitulation that will damage Canadian sovereignty, is in fact the best way to sustain Canadian autonomy. Gotlieb’s tone is much less shrill and his case more compelling. Just as Canada was able to conclude a free trade agreement with the United States in the late 1980s without the subsequent loss of Canadian sovereignty, so too can Canadians contemplate continental integration on further economic, border and security issues without losing control over things they think important, Gotlieb claims. I would like him to go even further and say that without doing business with the Americans and more business with the emerging economic superpowers such as China and India, Canadians will lose the economic wherewithal that enables them to do the things they think important, like financing their beloved universal healthcare system. A “small country” like Canada can say no to allies when it feels strong and self-confident, not when it feels weak and vulnerable. If, as I have argued elsewhere, Canada is more distinct and more confident in 2008 than it was in 1988, a lot of credit can be ascribed to the government of Brian Mulroney and to Canadians like Gotlieb who advanced the free trade agreement.

One reaches a point in this collection where one feels one has been a very good pupil, absorbing the lessons of the great Republic and dutifully admitting the ignorance and imperfection of our own Dominion. But even as we accept the effort to tame the irrational anti-Americanism that can cloud our national political discourse, we are not left with a strong sense of what (if anything) Canada does right or what value might lie in pursuing a distinctly Canadian path. There are many thoughtful and valid critiques of Canada in this book. There are none of the United States. This is fair, as the volume clearly sets out to perform a balancing of the scales. But if it is true that this balancing is intended to help Canadians pursue a more informed and strategic path forward — alongside the United States in so many ways — it might be worthwhile to acknowledge some areas where Canada should work hard to stay the Canadian course.

On a number of issues — some but not all relating to the border and security — Canada faces pressure to harmonize its practices with those of its neighbour, or at least align itself more closely with American interests and concerns. When should we do as we are told and when should we stick to our guns? What does the empirical evidence say about the effectiveness of Canadian policies versus American ones in areas such as drug use and abuse? In which cases is our resistance to U.S. influence legitimately not-American and when is it illegitimately anti-American? If we can be not-American without being anti-American, then surely there are areas in which Canada can pursue a distinct course without incurring the wrath of Americans or the criticism of contributors to this volume. There may even be areas in which the Americans might learn from us. Fair and balanced, after all, is a two-way street. Perhaps a companion volume is forthcoming from Canada’s Dominion Institute.

Michael Adams is the president of the Environics group of companies, which he co-founded in 1970. He is the author of six books, most recently Unlikely Utopia: The Surprising Triumph of Canadian Pluralism (Penguin Canada (2008).