That Canuck Utopia to the North: Canada in the American Mind

Erstwhile editor Graeme Pente offers a correction to the distorted image many Americans have of his home country of Canada. Despite the idealized view most American liberals have of the country up north, Canada faces a host of its own social and political troubles.



The Canadian Rockies.

Most Americans don’t think of Canada very often. Unless, of course, they’re making jokes. Stephen Colbert once referred to us as the “wet blanket on the party that is America,” while John Oliver described us as “what you would get if America and Britain had a baby and then abandoned it in the snow.” American historians also tend to bound their studies at or around the forty-ninth parallel, though Canada offers the most logical point of comparison for questions of American exceptionalism. Interrogations of the weakness of the American welfare state usually take Britain and Germany as relevant counterparts and then suggest the U.S. was unique because it has a history of diversity through immigration.[1] Canada, like the U.S., is a white settler state with deep and longstanding ties to Britain, having expanded eventually from Atlantic to Pacific coasts and containing an increasingly diverse population in recent history. Thus, immigration is not the unique factor in the development (or lack thereof) of the American welfare state. Whether comedians or historians, Americans have such a simplified image of Canada that the country can serve only as the butt of jokes rather than the subject of serious inquiry. Americans just don’t tend to think of their diminutive neighbors to the north.

Unless something bad happens in America. Then Americans turn from Canada-as-joke to Canada-as-promised-land. But this change of heart does not usually correspond to an increase in knowledge of the destination. In 2015, for instance, the imminence of same-sex marriage legalization in the U.S. prompted some American conservatives to consider moving north—to a country that had recognized the legitimacy of the practice ten years earlier. Last year, when the electoral college elevated Donald Trump to the presidency, American liberals threatened to move to Canada in droves and may have been responsible for the Canadian immigration website crashing. Canada became the antidote to Trumpism—at best a convenient distraction, at worst an overly-idealized refuge for beleaguered American liberals.

American liberals generally have swallowed Canada’s projected image whole: polite, middling power given to multilateralism and peacekeeping with a strong welfare state, little domestic strife, and a commitment to multiculturalism. All of this was in evidence in the American media’s fawning over young Justin Trudeau after his electoral victory two years ago. It is also an image that Canadians love to reproduce, which they did with much self-congratulation for the country’s 150th celebrations this past summer. As the Canadian writer Luke Savage recently articulated in an excellent piece, the image derives from a Liberal Party invention of the 1960s to 1980s. Trudeau’s father Pierre and his predecessor Lester B. Pearson pushed the country to complete its process of independence from Great Britain through the writing of the constitution and Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the establishment of a national flag (the familiar maple leaf). It was under Pearson (and pressure from the left-labor party) in the mid-1960s that the country developed its national healthcare system as well as its role as an international peacekeeper. These were the much-trumpeted qualities Canadians chose to celebrate on July 1st.

Trudeau 1

Trudeau the Elder helped shape the Canadian image in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, which the country continues to project.

The realities of the present tell a much different story. Rather than the “cultural mosaic” of Canadian propaganda, the country is rife with its own racial issues. First Nations peoples have long suffered at the hands of the Canadian government and its white citizenry. In the nineteenth century, government policy sought to kill Native peoples to remove them from western lands. In the twentieth, the government separated Native children from their families and placed them in the residential school system in an attempt to eliminate Native culture. In the present, crises of poverty, suicide, and a lack of access to clean drinking water plague reservations, especially in the north, and Indigenous people make up a disproportionate number of prison inmates. There is also a staggering number of murdered or missing First Nations women; the crisis has  prompted (to the government’s credit) a national inquiry, though it has faced numerous operational struggles. Immigrants have had a similarly checkered history with mainstream Canadian society as the targets of white supremacy and British-Canadian racism. Important studies in the present have uncovered stories of African slavery in eighteenth-century Canada and racial discrimination in current policing.

The realm of politics and public discourse is admittedly better than in the United States, as it is still functional. Canada also operates under the parliamentary system, which in theory allows for more than two governing parties and forces a degree of cooperation between them. However, our system is “first-past-the-post” rather than proportional; the seats are based on a winner-takes-all principle in each riding rather than on the percentage of the popular vote. This means that we have a more or less de facto two-party system, as the progressive vote splits three ways between the Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens and people on the left are forced to “vote strategically” (for the local candidate with the best chance of defeating the conservative) rather than for their first choice. As a result, Canada’s government has only ever changed hands between the Liberals and Conservatives. The best that other parties can hope for is to hold the balance of power in a minority or a coalition government. Add to that the problem of the Senate, the upper house of “sober second thought.” Reminiscent of the US Supreme Court, the governing party appoints senators in a sort of patronage system that, because of the duality of Canadian governance, has packed the chamber with Conservatives and Liberals.

Aside from these structural deficiencies, Canada’s political parties have also been afflicted by the global currents of neoliberalism in the past few decades. Free trade agreements, the loosening of labor laws, austerity, the privatization of public goods and services, and cuts in the name of efficiency are familiar refrains at home as much as abroad. The results, of course, are growing economic inequality and the hardening of class lines. Predictably, the top Canadian CEOs receive the average annual Canadian wage before noon on January 3 each year. Also unsurprising to those on the left is the surge of support this kind of inequality gives to xenophobic parties of the far right. Recently, incidents of hate crimes have increased, from anti-Semitic messages in British Columbia and Ontario to assaults on non-English speakers. The problem is particularly acute in Quebec where establishment politicians warn of the growing power of far-right organizations, the provincial government passed a controversial law regarding religious coverings and public services, and a shooting at a mosque in January resulted in the tragic deaths of six worshippers. Despite a tendency to our own exceptionalism, Canada is not immune to global trends, whether the callous logic of neoliberal governance or the xenophobia of far-right resurgence.


Parliament Hill, Ottawa.

And what has the return to power of the Liberals under Trudeau produced in all of this? As with Canada’s 150 celebrations, reality bears little resemblance to the image. Despite a campaign promise that the 2015 federal election would be the last under the first-past-the-post system, the Trudeau government has abandoned the project of electoral reform. Contrary to the peacekeeping ideal, Trudeau followed Stephen Harper’s lead in turning the country into a player in the international arms trade, recently concluding the largest sale of weapons in Canadian history (to Saudi Arabia, currently embroiled in the chaos in Yemen). In the face of the ecological crisis, Trudeau encourages fossil fuel extraction with the approval of more oil pipelines, and the government is on track to miss its emissions targets. And while the Trump administration’s cruelties make it easy for Trudeau to score political points and cast Canada as a welcoming place, members of parliament and diplomats spent parts of November campaigning in the United States to dissuade asylum seekers.

Much of the foregoing analysis may ring hollow to Americans facing what seem to be threats to the very foundations of the country’s democratic and republican institutions. But I want to make sure that Americans, especially progressives and liberals, avoid fetishizing Canada. Often abetted and furthered by Canadians, the American image of Canada holds only a marginal correspondence to reality north of the border. Besides, things tend to come to Canada later than other parts of the industrialized world. Six years after George W. Bush came to power, we got our own oil-driven hardline conservative in Stephen Harper. After the many hollow promises of change under the neoliberal Obama administration, we got the empty “real change” of our own handsome and charismatic Justin Trudeau seven years later. All of which is to say that despite the idiosyncrasies of its own history, Canada is not immune to global trends, and a dangerous far right riding the tide of growing economic inequality may yet be on the northern horizon.

[1] A recent example is Jefferson Cowie, The Great Exception: The New Deal and the Limits of American Politics (Princeton University Press, 2016), 70.

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