Oh, Canada

Americans have no monopoly on crises of national identity. Scott McLemee takes off to the Great White North....

August 22, 2007

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.


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