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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Stars and Swipes

Shared moments and diverging paths

David Marks Shribman

North of America: Canadians and the American Century, 1945–60

Edited by Asa McKercher and Michael D. Stevenson

UBC Press

388 pages, hardcover, softcover, and ebook

This past April, in a lengthy speech at the Sorbonne, Emmanuel Macron asserted that Europe should “never be a vassal of the United States.” In those eight words, the French president inadvertently summed up two centuries of Canadian history, as shown in this fresh look at the complicated tango of two countries, the latest volume in scores — no, hundreds, possibly thousands — of meditations on the special North American relationship.

Just as there always seems to be room for another look at Lincoln, Bismarck, Churchill, Hitler, Kennedy, Macdonald, and Trudeau père, there is always room on Canada’s national bookshelf for an additional examination of the love-hate, romance-resentment relationship that is obsessed over in one country and ignored in the other. So we have North of America, comprising a dozen unusually provocative essays. Think of it as a Laura Secord box of historical perspectives on the early Cold War period or — in the unlikely event that this volume is read by a soul south of the border, where the delights of the frosted mint and the maple cream confections are unknown — as a Whitman Sampler of studies.

The book’s subtitle efficiently sets out both the breadth and the limits of the undertaking: Canadians and the American Century, 1945–60. Put aside for a moment whether the American Century lasted only fifteen years; these sorts of fanciful and facile definitions are rife in the faculty lounge of the history department, where scholars speak easily of the nineteenth century stretching from 1789 (the French Revolution) to 1914 (the outbreak of the First World War). Actually, shove to the sidelines the entire notion of the American Century, the conceit that the publisher Henry Luce concocted nearly four decades after Wilfrid Laurier staked his claim to the coming era in a speech at Toronto’s Massey Hall. There, on October 14, 1904, the seventh prime minister declared that the twentieth century “shall be the century of Canada and of Canadian development” and explained that “for the next 70 years, nay for the next 100 years, Canada shall be the star towards which all men who love progress and freedom shall come.”

Scenes of an unequal partnership.

Blair Kelly

Regardless of whose century it was and how long it lasted, it is incontrovertible that Canadians and Americans were in it together, in sickness and in health, recognizing the wisdom of 1 Corinthians 7:28, which counsels, “Those who marry will face many troubles.” It was never more so than in those early Cold War years, with one country larger in population and power than the other but with both continental cohabitants possessing similar, or at least often converging, security needs and impulses.

This collection of essays furthers Canadian-American scholarship, providing a welcome historical look at how each country stands in relation to the other. It is surprising that it took two decades into the twenty-first century to examine with this depth and breadth the vital decade and a half after the end of the Second World War. What is not surprising is that no such major effort has been undertaken south of the border, nor is one likely to be attempted. That, too, is part of the story. The United States of this period was preoccupied with Berlin, not Brampton, and was worrying about the Soviet bomb, the Chinese Revolution, the Korean War, what Elvis was doing in the army, and how the Baltimore Colts managed to defeat the New York Giants in 1958, in the greatest NFL game ever. Canada? Wasn’t that where Paul Anka was from? (One of his greatest hits opens with “You are my destiny / You share my reverie,” which is an apt description of how Americans believed Canadians felt, then as now.)

The world has few analogues to the North American situation, where a great power and a middle power exist side by side, with romantic notions and deep-seated resentments accompanying the link. France and Germany have no such relationship, as two world wars in the last century attest. Nor, surely, does Russia, whose relations with its neighbours in this period (and throughout history) have been non-consensual and abusive. China and Vietnam fought each other within living memory, and China’s relationship with North Korea doesn’t really count, though it matters greatly.

In page after page of North of America, edited by the historians Asa McKercher and Michael D. Stevenson, there is much emphasis on siding with the United States but not being constrained by American anti-Communism — an effort not to be non-aligned but, instead, to be not too much aligned. This diplomatic position, according to David Webster, a human rights scholar at King’s University College, Western University, “forced Canadian governments to walk a tightrope between criticism of Cold War excesses and the vital need to get along with Washington.”

That was some tightrope. The Duke University historian Susan Colbourn points out that Canada and other NATO countries “faced charges of inconsistency as they championed arms control proposals at the United Nations while also building up their military strength and adding new members to the Atlantic Alliance.” In the same a‑little-of-this, a‑little-of-that vein, Canada sent ships and combat troops to the Korean conflict in support of the United Nations but pointedly not in support of the United States. The challenge, as Timothy Andrews Sayle explains, was maintaining Canada’s independence and identity while being cognizant of the danger of “a US‑Soviet war, with airplanes criss-crossing northern North America,” especially after the Soviet Union’s successful explosion of a thermonuclear bomb in 1953. The University of Toronto historian puts the problem succinctly:

In the atomic age, Canadians could hardly imagine abandoning continental defence (which would mean ceding the responsibility to the United States), nor could they abandon the notion of securing Europe when most officials lived with the haunting memory of at least one world war, and often two, begun there. Nor could they write off their affiliation with the United Nations and the real possibility — as had been demonstrated in Korea — of the United Nations calling for members to provide military forces.

As Sayle points out, the challenge became even more complicated when both countries recognized that there “could be no continental defence without the use of Canadian territory,” even as it was unacceptable for Ottawa “to allow the necessary installations on Canadian territory to be managed by the United States alone.”

Put simply, geography combined with ideology was destiny.

Canada’s historical affiliation with Great Britain was overshadowed in this period by its deepening association with the United States. In the changed dynamic, the threat of military invasion from the south (always previously repelled) was replaced with the threat of cultural invasion (too strong and irresistible to be repelled completely). The important ties created by Franklin Roosevelt and William Lyon Mackenzie King at Ogdensburg (1940) and Hyde Park (1941) have persisted, but “Canada’s subordinate status within the overall war effort” left a legacy too. During the conflict, the editors report, “often Canadian officials felt that their American counterparts had little regard for Canadian sensitivities or interests.”

Resistance to American influence is a persistent theme in this volume, no surprise given a 1961 Gallup poll that found more than a third of Canadians felt the Canadian way of life was influenced too much by its southern neighbour. Norman Hillmer, one of Canada’s shrewdest observers of the relationship — think of him as among the premier political marriage counsellors — remarks in a brief afterword that “the American Century made Canada more like the United States, but it did not make Canadians like America more.” Here’s the conundrum, as the Carleton University political scientist Stephen Azzi puts it: “While many Canadians were worrying about the influence of American commercialism, the United States was playing a key role in the rise of Canadian affluence and in the reshaping of Canadian society.”

Not all American influence is deemed negative in these critiques. François-Olivier Dorais, a historian at the Université du Québec à Chicoutimi, and Daniel Poitras, author of a recent history of the Université de Montréal, examine the complex influence of the United States on postwar Quebec and find fear of the homogenization of anglophone culture but also a “desire among a good number of Quebecers, already distanced from their clerical and traditional past, to participate in the great march of progress embodied by postwar America.” And in an intriguing essay on constitutional culture in Canada, the University of Victoria’s P. E. Bryden speaks of the determination of John Diefenbaker, ordinarily suspicious of, if not hostile to, the United States, “to protect rights in a way that was more American than British.” In truth, Diefenbaker’s Canadian Bill of Rights, introduced in September 1958, was a pale shadow of the American version, but it was, Bryden argues, “a tentative step in the direction of the constitutional protection of rights in Canada and a more certain step in the direction away from the British system.”

In this period, the American experience often provided a baseline for Canada’s own evolution. Jennifer Tunnicliffe, a historian at Toronto Metropolitan University, employs the example of racial prejudice in the United States to illuminate its analogue in Canada, particularly in Dresden, Ontario, which, in a unique plebiscite in late 1949, overwhelmingly failed to support a measure to fight discrimination. “Canadians continue to use the United States, its history, and its contemporary developments as a foil to present Canada as a safer, kinder, and more tolerant place for Black and other racialized peoples,” she writes. “We continue to look across the border with concern — and some air of superiority. Until this view changes, it will be hard for us to acknowledge historical and systemic forms of discrimination and to challenge narratives of Canada as historically, and contemporarily, raceless.”

Bettina Liverant, a University of Calgary historian, points out that Canadian households in the period were generally less prosperous than those in the United States, though expectations were “tempered” by a relatively “limited availability of goods.” Jonathan English, a fellow at New York University’s Marron Institute of Urban Management, contrasts the American mid-century obsession with highway construction with Toronto’s success in building a functional public transit network. (Those were the days!) Eric Fillion, a post-doctoral fellow at Queen’s University, shows how the Stratford Shakespearean Festival celebrated jazz with Canadian style, by demonstrating “artfully how to de-Americanize, or rather Canadianize,” the music of Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson. (It helped that Peterson was a Canadian.) And Emily LeDuc, a doctoral candidate at Queen’s University, characterizes the Canadian cultural scene of the time as “a network of mediums and their communities situated within a valley perpetually shaded by the American mountain.”

At first blush the notion of a call for papers on the Canadian-American relationship in such a circumscribed period may seem curious. (One of the most quoted remarks about the two countries came just after the cut‑off, in May 1961, when John F. Kennedy said that geography made the two countries neighbours but history made them friends.) Especially for older readers, the period between the end of the Second World War and the beginning of the Quiet Revolution may seem arbitrary for an examination of the cross-boundary relationship. But perhaps it’s not. The window offers a plus-ça-change moment of revelation for residents of both countries, where those of the median age today (thirty-nine for the United States, forty-one for Canada) were born decades after the period covered here, in the long-ago time when Ronald Reagan was president and Pierre Elliott Trudeau was prime minister. They began to be politically conscious around the time of the Oklahoma City bombing and the election when Jean Chrétien’s Liberals sent Kim Campbell’s Progressive Conservatives packing.

Surely some of these younger readers are unaware of the findings of another study that examined many of the same circumstances. It noted Canada’s proximity to “a vast and wealthy country to which we are linked not only by language but by many common traditions.” It spoke of “a vast and disproportionate amount of material coming from a single alien source.” It asserted that Canada faced “influences from across the border as pervasive as they are friendly.” And it warned of “the very present danger of permanent dependence” on American culture. 

Those are lines from the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters and Sciences, known as the Massey Report and published in 1951.

David Marks Shribman teaches in the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill University.