December 1, 2004
O CanadaBy Thomas Lifson
All my life I have been an American friend of Canada. As a child, I knew that one branch of my family had fled European tyranny and persecution and found shelter north of the border, where they had prospered and enjoyed the blessings of liberty, tolerance, and a free economy. Visiting relatives confirmed that Canada was a good country, full of mostly good and kind people. Our cousins of the flesh were surrounded by a people who were our cousins of the spirit.
Family trips to Canada confirmed that it was indeed almost indistinguishable from home. The coins were made of sterling silver, the Sunday paper was published on Saturday (because everything closed down on Sunday), and they had a lot of trolley busses. But aside from the mental gymnastics of converting an 'Imperial gallon' into an American gallon, and then calculating the price of gasoline into American dollars (worth less than Canadian dollars back in the 1950s), life for us foreigners was pretty uncomplicated. In Ontario, where we visited, the signs were all in English, and French Canada was remote and given little thought.
Canada's national identity has always been based on the fact of their being not American. This is an inevitable outcome of living next door to a behemoth with ten times the population and little concern for foreign countries, even (or especially) the ones right next door, whose differences with us are popularly regarded as retrograde imperfections. It is also a product of the fundamental fracture in Canada, between French and English Canadians, who have not embraced the concept of a melting pot, and who therefore do not have that much in common, other than being non—Yankees.
The Americans who have decamped for Canada have tended historically to be our dissidents, the dissatisfied, and historic losers — starting with the Tories who opposed the American Revolution, and reinforced by the contingent of draft dodgers during the Vietnam War. They looked back with anger and contempt at their less enlightened former countrymen. In contrast, the Canadians who moved in the opposite direction tended to be the ambitious strivers, like James J. Hill (the 'Empire Builder' railroad magnate) or the current raft of entertainers like Jim Carrey and Martin Short. The exchange generally has not favored the Canadians. While American business and culture are studded with outstanding achievers of Canadian origin, the Americans fleeing to Canada collectively do not occupy a prominent place in the ranks of the accomplished.
Before the independence movement for Quebec became a dominant concern of English Canada, their relative Britishness gave Anglophone Canadians something positive to embrace, as a mark of their difference from Americans. They were a Dominion of the Queen, after all, not just a country. But when the Quebecois assaulted the rest of Canada with an outbreak of terror and assassination in the late 1960s and early 70s, followed by a serious popular electoral movement aimed at independence, the Union Jack had to disappear from the flag, and appeasement of the angry Francophones became priority number one for those who wished to save Canada as a viable nation.
Think of the emotional impact. That very Britishness, which had been embraced as a proud heritage and special difference from the Americans, now became a mark of inhuman domination. Quebec regarded The Union Jack and all that went with it as the lingering wound of an historic oppression with its ancient origin on the Plains of Abraham. This sudden need to discard a former source of pride was a traumatic loss for English Canadians, who take justifiable satisfaction in their inherent niceness. People who live through life—threatening winter weather every year tend to take seriously the obligation to help one another out, provide mutual aid and comfort, and offer a warm smile as the default setting when dealing with each other.
Now shorn of the positive symbols of English Canadian distinctiveness, always fearful of absorption into the overwhelming colossus to the south, and in desperate need of a way to reassure themselves that they were good people (in the face of many years of angry recriminations from the Francophones), Canada had no alternative but to embrace the newly—merging multicultural orthodoxy. This bizarre, murky, and constantly—evolving doctrine has no substance, other than decreeing that virtue is a function of oppression, or if no oppression happens to be available, a pale and lifeless virtue can be salvaged by deference to those who claim oppression.
If virtue requires oppression, then an oppressor becomes a necessity for feeling good about oneself, individually and collectively. As has always been the case, Canada needed to look no further than just south of its border to find a friend ready to supply the essentials which were urgently required, but unavailable at home. America the demon—figure filled a yawning gap in the collective Canadian self—regard.
Europe, with its own historic and multi—cultural issues to absorb, shared common cause with Canada in identifying the United States as a malign entity. Though British influences are regarded as oppressive to Quebec, European influences are another thing entirely. The nonspecific European sense of identity currently under construction, visible in the slightly disconcerting vague symbolism found on Euro notes, is tailor—made for a Canada which must be both French and English. So Canada began to move itself metaphorically to the European continent, yet another way to be different from and better than the Yankees, spiritually trapped in North America.
President Bush is today on the second day of a fence—mending mission to Canada, a necessary move to keep relations acceptably close, mark the replacement of the disastrous PM Chretien with the more reasonable PM Martin, and encourage the underlying historic warmth between our two peoples. The relatively small size of the protest demonstrations in Ottawa is certainly an encouraging sign.
In the long run, there is some reason to be encouraged about the possibility of reconciliation, mostly because of the continuing rise of Western Canada. The centrality of a clash between Anglophones and Francophones seems almost absurd to a visitor to Vancouver, where Cantonese is far more widely spoken than French. If Eastern Canada is metaphorically drifting eastward in the Atlantic, then coastal British Columbia is drifting westward in the Pacific. Europeanness has little allure in a glittering metropolis like Vancouver, moving in the direction of a majority Asian—heritage population.
The economic powerhouse of Canada is now Alberta, whose subsidies to the rest of the country provide the means to finance public works projects and welfare payments keeping Quebec attached to federal Canada, and keeping the Atlantic Provinces alive. Alberta's energy wealth is Canada's greatest source of foreign exchange and economic growth. The optimistic can—do spirit of Albertans is a tonic to the ennui of the easterners.
Albertans are the most pro—American of Canadians, perhaps because so many Americans work in their oil and gas industry, or perhaps because they have more in common with the frontier cultures of Montana (and Texas) than with Montreal and Toronto Europhiles. Nobody bothers to make much of an explicit point about it, but if Quebec pushes too hard for its independence, and Canada begins to fragment, there would be little reason for Alberta to continue making a gift to Eastern Canada amounting to thousands of dollars a year per Albertan household. America, with its far lower taxes, would eagerly welcome Alberta (and the rest of Western Canada, too), and add as many stars to our flag as necessary. In a heartbeat.
Precisely because it could happen, it is likely that compromises, mental and emotional adjustments, and reconciliation will be embraced by Canadians. There will be no need for a national fragmentation. At least I hope so.
For no matter how difficult relations may be at any given moment, we all benefit from a certain diversity on the North American continent. There are some things that Canada simply does better, from which we Americans can learn. Canada's cities are not just a delight to visit, they have created solutions to problems from which we still suffer. It is always helpful to study different approaches to common problems.
So I look forward to many more years of sincere friendship with Canada. We have a good thing going.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of the American Thinker