Oh, Canada

The United States is part of the Americas. Hence not all Americans are citizens of the United States -- and it is a sign of imperial hubris to treat those terms as synonyms.

Or so runs a bit of routine language-policing, as practiced by many well-intentioned people. By many well-intentioned Americans, one should say – meaning "citizens of the United States." I know because I used to be one of them. Then, a few years ago, while on vacation in Canada, my wife and I had an odd conversation with the woman who ran the place we were staying. When she used the expression “you Americans,” our half-baked cosmopolitan reflexes kicked in.

“You’re an American, too,” we insisted. “Canada is part of America!”

Our landlady thought this was crazy. Being Canadian, she was too polite to say so. But no amount of argument could persuade her that a person born and raised in Toronto could be an American. The very idea was absurd. And from paying attention to the news media, we soon learned that she was not being idiosyncratic. On that side of the border, the word “American” applied only to someone from the south. (And not too far south, either. While Mexico is undeniably on the North American continent, the expression norteamericano is not one that Mexicans use to describe themselves.)

So which is the worst case of verbal imperialism? Is it the unthinking use of “American” to mean someone from the United States? Or is it forcing the word upon people who emphatically do not consider themselves Americans? Endlessly absorbing as this miniature paradox of political correctness may be, I’ve found my interest shifting in the course of subsequent trips to Canada. Where is the real line of distinction between the countries -- apart from the border, obviously?

One joke has it that a Canadian can be defined as an American with health insurance and no guns. By that standard, my wife and I are already Canadians, and from time to time we discuss moving there at some point in the next couple of decades. Especially if there is ever a president named “Jeb.”

But even while daydreaming of relocation, you know there is a stronger sense of Canadian national identity than that -- resting on differences in history and culture that are large, but unclear, at least from this side of the divide.

Actually, even that may be a misleading way to put it. In fact, almost nobody here in the States thinks about the difference. Our default outlook is best summed up by “Blame Canada,” a rousing number in the "South Park" movie, which contains the line “It’s not even a real country anyway.”

This is satirical, of course -- a send-up of how fast arrogant indifference can turn to belligerence. But the sardonic and foul-mouthed "South Park" lyricists have perhaps tapped into something that Canadian cultural critics themselves have, by turns, celebrated and deplored: the idea that the national identity is hard to grasp because Canada isn’t a “standard” nation-state. Political power is fairly decentralized, with the provinces retaining a lot of authority, if not autonomy. The legal category of Canadian citizenship only came into existence 60 years ago; before that, one had simply been a British subject living in Canada. The ethnic and linguistic composition has always been heterogeneous. And while its expanse makes it the second largest country in the world, most of the land is very thinly populated.

That’s not quite the same thing as saying “it isn’t a real country anyway,” by any means. But it makes for a relatively ad hoc and open-ended situation in defining the national consciousness. In 1970, Allan Smith, now an associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia, published an influential paper called “Metaphor and Nationality in North America.” (It is reprinted in an interesting collection of Smith's papers.) He contrasted the American idea of the national “melting pot” and the preferred Canadian trope of the “mosaic” of different cultures.

“American nationalists have seen their nation as a vessel containing a single, virtually unblemished way of life,” wrote Smith, “and their language has, accordingly, been confident and assured. They have known who they were and what they believed, and their vocabulary has reflected the pride and security that this knowledge has brought. Canadian nationalism, in contrast, has been less exuberant and more diffident because it recognizes how fragile and uncertain is the structure it tries to celebrate, and how delicate must be the touch of they who would work all of its parts into a cohesive whole.”

While in Montreal last week, I picked up a new book called The Unfinished Canadian: The People We Are (McLelland & Stewart) by Andrew Cohen, an associate professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University, in Ottawa. As one reviewer there said, it “has already become a Canadian best-seller, which means that more than 5,000 copies have been sold.” (Now there's a national trait: the Canadian knack for self-deprecation is quite well-developed.)

One complaint lodged against Cohen’s book is that it merely recycles discussions of national identity that are familiar to any well-informed Canadian. For the clueless American reader, that actually qualifies as a recommendation. Most of us did not know, for example, that one of the major nonfiction books up north during the past few years was called Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values (2003).

The author, Michael Adams, is a well-known public-opinion analyst, and the findings from his polls of Canadians and Americans in 1992, 1996, and 2000 suggested the emergence of a growing gap between the countries. And the fact that his book appeared two months after Canada declined to join the Coalition of the Willing certainly made this a timely claim.

Asked whether they agreed with the statement “The father of the family must be master in his own home,” Adams reported that 49 percent of Americans over the age of fifteen did, while the figure from Canada was just 18 percent. A quarter of Americans believed that “non-whites should not be allowed to immigrate to this country,” while only half as many Canadians agreed. Minivans outsold SUVs by two to one in Canada; the ratio was reversed in the U.S.

“Canada is becoming the home of a unique postmodern, postmaterial multiculturalism,” wrote Adams, “generating hardy strains of new hybrids that will enrich this country and many others in the world.”

Fire and Ice won rave reviews and prizes; and in 2005, the Literary Review of Canada named it one of the top 100 Canadian books of all time. In The Unfinished Canadian, Cohen agrees that Fire and Ice “cast a light on a corner of our national character,” but not in quite the way its enthusiasts believed. It revealed, he says, “our ambivalent and tortured relationship with the Americans, our struggle to understand them, our moral superiority in dealing with them.”

Cohen cites what he calls a “devastating critique” of the book’s statistical methodology by Joel Smith, a professor of sociology at Duke University, in The American Review of Canadian Studies. “At best, this is an op-ed piece spun into a book,” wrote Smith. “Despite its pseudo-scientific trappings, the basic message is only Adams’ personal views on where the two countries are heading.” As for respective sales in the minivan vs. SUV as proof of a deep-seated Green awareness, Cohen cited David Frum’s argument that the minivans probably sold better in Canada because they were cheaper and Canadians had less money. (Frum, who one tends to think of as part of the inside-the-Beltway conservative punditocracy, is himself Canadian.)

Cohen’s argument seems to be that his fellow Canadians are too prone to emphasizing that they are profoundly different from the Americans -- while at the same time neglecting their own history, and otherwise remaining very loose about defining what counts as a Canadian citizen. He complains that students can leave school in most provinces without studying more than a very little of the nation’s history. By contrast, the license plates in Quebec bear the words Je me souviens (“I remember”): a nationalistic slogan of disputed origins, though the Acadian Expulsion in 1755 is doubtless at the top of the list of things not to forget.

“Unlike the United States,” writes Cohen, “which encourages and underwrites presidential libraries as repositories of artifacts and papers, Canada has no such practice.” He quotes a member of Parliament who said, “Visiting Washington, D.C., you would find a plaque anywhere George Washington sneezed, but we’re more modest.” Important prime ministers remain largely unstudied, while the winter 2006 catalog of the University of British Columbia Press lists titles such as Nutrition Policy in Canada, 1870-1939 and The Culture of Flushing: A Social and Legal History of Sewage.

As if monographic torpor did not threaten the nation enough, there is also the policy on dual citizenship. Cohen thinks it has gone from generous to latitudinarian. Late last year, when Stephen Dion became the leader of the Liberal Party -- hence potentially the country’s prime minister -- it came out that he also held French citizenship. “For a day or so,” writes Cohen, “his dual citizenship unleashed a frenzy of teeth-gnashing and forelock tugging in Parliament. Then it went away.”

It’s the culture war, then, under the maple leaf flag. What worries Cohen are “the elements of our character: the failure of memory, the weakness of citizenship, the tolerance of ethnic nationalism, the willingness to compromise one too many times.”

Some of Cohen’s complaints -- about multiculturalist excess, and disrespect for the national founding fathers, for example -- sound to an American ear like rallying cries of the right. But then he calls for taxes on the wealthy to be raised, and for them otherwise to be shamed into generosity. (“We criticize many things in Canada,” he writes, “but we rarely give our reluctant rich a hard time. We should.”) He’s also happy that Canada remains independent enough to be able to tell the U.S. that a war it is contemplating is a terrible idea.

For an American, reading about the national identity crisis there is a little like visiting Canada: A lot sounds familiar, though the accent occasionally falls on an unexpected syllable. But I'm struck in particular by a difference from the cultural polemics down here -- the lack of our usual, almost apocalyptic stridency, which probably echoes the Puritan sermons from generations past.

"Once again," writes Cohen about the future of his country, "Canada will have to find a way to muddle through, whatever its endless existential questions. Every generation has had to face down the forces of disintegration and every one has." This sounds like a tone bred by facing one terrible winter after another for two or three centuries. It is neither wildly optimistic nor bitterly pessimistic; it just chops wood and waits. I can't help wishing we could pick that tone up and make it American.

Scott McLemee
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O Canada

Recently a remarkable development took place in Canadian public life that has implications for American prosperity. Prime Minister Stephen Harper, leader of the Conservative Party, chose David Johnston, an academic, to be the nation’s next governor general.

A strange office by American standards, the governor general serves as the official representative of Queen Elizabeth. It’s mostly a ceremonial position, but that’s why the choice of Johnston, a 69-year old Harvard-educated law professor who was formerly head of McGill University and the University of Waterloo, is significant. President Obama once taught a few law school courses himself, and there’s no shortage of intellectuals in his administration. But the installation of Johnston, a lifelong scholar and teacher, in such a prominent role reflects a Canadian push on higher education – a move endorsed by parties across the political spectrum. That’s quite different from what’s happening in the States, where spending on higher education is a partisan issue and university budgets are being decimated.

Some inevitable belt-tightening aside, Canadian policy makers at the federal and provincial levels are working hard to spare colleges and universities, preserving as much money as possible for research and operating expenditures and keeping tuition costs affordable. The reason? They recognize that a strong higher education system is key to long-term economic competitiveness and a successful society. If the United States doesn’t act soon to shore up its higher education sector, its loss will quickly become Canada’s — and other countries’ — gain.

That American colleges and universities have been hit hard by the economic crisis is clear. Private institutions saw the value of their endowments plummet. Public colleges and universities have fared far worse. The State of California, struggling under a $20 billion budget deficit, cut higher education funding by 6.8 percent in 2009-10, furloughing faculty and staff in both the University of California and California State University systems, reducing the number of slots for entering students, and raising tuition dramatically. Budget shortfalls in New York, New Jersey, Arizona, Florida and elsewhere have likewise meant millions of dollars in campus cutbacks.

Federal stimulus money helped cushion these blows, and an expansion of the Pell Grant program, opposed by many Republicans, has provided some relief to students. But the stimulus money is nearly spent, and with the recovery stalled out, American higher education seems destined for more pain in the years to come. Except at the richest institutions, funds for research may become more scarce, tenure-track faculty will continue to be replaced by cheaper part-timers, faculty salaries are likely to decline or remain flat, and teaching programs will be put on the chopping block. Student learning will suffer, and American scientific and technological prowess, historically tied to the fate of higher education, will edge back.

Here in Canada, we’re hoping to benefit. We recognize that in today’s economy countries and regions that invest in education are at an advantage. While the economic downturn — less severe here than in the States, thanks in part to stringent banking regulations — has naturally constrained these investments, Canada continues to give priority to higher education funding. In Ontario, our most populous province, the government has actually increased higher education spending, planning for eventual revenue gains to help pay down its debt.

Meanwhile, funds from the federal government continue to flow to build new facilities and lure researchers from top universities abroad. (One of us, Gross, previously taught at Harvard, where Toope received his bachelor’s degree. Harvard is the American university from which the largest number of scholars has been recruited with Canadian federal dollars in recent years, followed by Stanford.) We have a way to go before our leading institutions rival American public flagships like Berkeley, Michigan, or Wisconsin in total research output. But we’re moving in the right direction.

In light of current financial realities, government commitment in Canada is all the more striking given that nearly all Canadian higher education institutions are public, and receive a larger share of their operating revenue from government than do their American counterparts. Direct public support for top universities still amounts to roughly 65 per cent of total budgets.

But there is something else distinctive about the Canadian approach. Notions of fairness and equity are built deep into the Canadian psyche, and it is unconscionable to many Canadians, regardless of political stripe, that smart, deserving students who want to go to college should be prevented from doing so because they lack the money, or be forced to take on mountains of debt. While Canada doesn’t subsidize tuition to the foolhardy extent that some European countries do, and while there have been some tuition increases, college and university here remains a bargain — by design. At our institution, the University of British Columbia, a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in our top flight economics department, say, will pay tuition and fees of about $5,200 Canadian (about $5,000 U.S.) for the 2010-11 school year. That’s 30 percent less than at the average public university in the U.S. Tuition prices aren’t the whole story, but they help explain why Canada “now leads the world in educational attainment,” as The New York Times reported last week.

Ensuring that qualified students can afford to go to college isn’t just the right thing to do. It also makes good economic and social sense. You never know where the next Mike Lazaridis, Canadian inventor of the BlackBerry, is going to come from. And besides, admitting students because they’re talented, and not because their parents can afford the tuition payments, means that Canada can live up to its claim to be an opportunity society in which going to college remains a pathway to economic mobility. This helps keep young people invested in the nation’s future.

American politicians and voters have some tough choices ahead of them. But while Canada and the United States may be unshakable allies, Americans should take notice that we’ll be seizing every opportunity to advance on the higher education front. A hard-headed analysis could lead us to conclude that it’s in Canada’s national interest that American higher education should lose some of its luster, as will happen unless a bipartisan commitment is made to turn things around. But as admirers of the American tradition of higher education excellence, we can’t help but wish for a different outcome.

Stephen J. Toope and Neil Gross
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Stephen J. Toope is president and vice chancellor of the University of British Columbia. Neil Gross is a sociologist at the university.

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