Are Canadians anti-American? The answer seems obvious enough. Of course we are. Historians like me are steeped in the glib patriotisms of the antifree-trade campaigns of 1891, 1911 and 1988, or in John Diefenbaker’s ”œIt’s me against the Americans” tirades in the 1960s. J. L. Granatstein calls anti-Americanism Canada’s state religion. Frank Underhill, a major historian of an earlier generation, characterized Canadians as the ideal antiAmericans, the perfect anti-Americans, the anti-Americans as they exist in the mind of God. He mused that Americans are benevolently ignorant of Canada, while Canadians are malevolently knowledgeable about the United States.
But I am beginning to wonder. Has anti-Americanism been used so indiscriminately and so often, particularly in the recent past, that it has lost all meaning? Isn’t there a distinction to be made between outbursts of fear and resentment, into which we all descend from time to time, and the anti-Americanism often described as a Canadian obsession? Isn’t the history of Canadian-American relations, as they have developed over more than a century, one of convergence, similarity and interdependence? And doesn’t this convergence speak to values as well as interests?
Let’s do a little historical record keeping. Canada’s first foreign policy was the National Policy, a tough nation-building strategy developed during the late nineteenth century as a means of survival on the North American continent. Even that, however, was as much imitation as it was competition. Canada wanted to be another United States " the United States of Canada, a prosperous transcontinental nation bound together by tariffs, immigration and railways, just as the US was. Within that framework, almost everyone wanted freer trade with the Americans.
The first four decades of the twentieth century saw the rise of a North American idea on both sides of the border. Canadians and Americans resolved the many disputes that threatened their relationship and in 1909 invented the International Joint Commission (IJC), which rapidly became a symbol of a New World that worked through its problems peacefully. J. W. Dafoe, the celebrated editor of the Winnipeg Free Press, told a buoyant 1935 Canadian-American relations conference in upstate New York that Canada and the United States constituted a fundamental cultural, intellectual and moral unity, ”œNorth American in character and range.” To that intellectual trajectory were added strong links of culture and commerce. The US became Canada’s leading trading partner and the key investor in the Canadian economy, while (as a contemporary put it) ”œCanadians and Americans attend the same plays, eat the same breakfast food, sling the same slang.”
The period from the early 1940s to the early 1960s was the most favourable to the United States in all of Canadian history, as the two countries built the intimate ties of the Second World War and the Cold War. North Americans shared stances on international issues, and Canadians looked up to US leadership in a dangerous world. In 1943, almost one in four Canadians was willing to join the United States; in 1964, three of every ten were inclined that way. Free trade was enormously popular, favoured by 70 percent of Canadians in the 1940s and 1950s.
A 1963 survey, done in the year of a raucous election that had the United States and its military clout as the central issue, revealed that 50 percent of Canadians believed that dependence on the US was beneficial. The Conservative Party leader, John Diefenbaker, might play the anti-American card, but he was, as historian Robert Bothwell has pointed out, pro-American in the essentials. Bothwell also stipulates that Canadian anti-Americanism was frequently ”œmade in the USA.” Canadians picked up their critiques of their mammoth neighbour from the US itself, in the common way that ideas pass northward across the Canadian-American boundary.
From the middle 1960s until the early 1980s, Canadians indulged in a heightened particularism, an impulse which vibrated at a time when the United States was troubled by adventures abroad and violence at home. Scandals in the US Congress and a presidency weighted down by Watergate reinforced the notion of a corrupt superpower. An emotional nationalism fed on the rich food of American excess, as it does today, but Canada and the United States were steadfast allies, as they are today.
The attractions of American power, consumer culture and example remained powerful in this era of burgeoning Canadian nationalism. Francophone Quebecers felt the same ambivalences toward the US as other Canadians, and the same magnetic pull. As the adman Jacques Bouchard said in 1978, ”œQuébécois assume their Americanness and clearly prefer ”˜the American way of life’ to the European way. Their daily behaviour proves it beyond a doubt.” Jean-François Lisée’s In the Eye of the Eagle describes René Lévesque’s enduring love affair with the United States and the efforts of his Parti Québécois to court American opinion.
The campaign to create distance between Canada and the United States had its concrete policy impacts, but few that were successful and few that lasted. The Mulroney years put paid to the National Energy Program and the Foreign Investment Review Agency and brought a big free trade agreement. By the end of the twentieth century, there were widespread claims that the US-Canada border would soon be irrelevant. Public opinion data suggested sentiments not unlike those of the glory years of Canadian-American relations in the 1950s. Polls also exposed, it is true, a similar attachment to a unique Canadian identity, and a traditional skepticism about the United States.
September 11, 2001, and the George W. Bush world that it hatched brought that skepticism to the forefront. We live in the midst of it. Michael Adams’s Fire and Ice gives eloquent testimony to the mood, both in the book’s chest-thumping message and its best-selling popularity. September 11 made us all, Americans included, more aware of national characteristics, and more anxious to preserve them and trumpet them. While still thinking of the United States a good friend, as we had done since the Second World War, Canadians easily fell back on the bromides that have propped up the national experiment since the days of the Loyalists. The Americans were violent, disorderly, venal. We were their antithesis. We were the tolerant, peaceful, multicultural, bilingual, moral superpower. We put the emphasis on our humanity, peacefulness, compassion and civility, while the US boosted its size, efficiency, power and material prosperity.
Lest that seem immodest, there is a second act in the Canadian play. In that guise, we imagine the Americans to be everywhere and overwhelming. Canada becomes the polite, underambitious underachiever down the block, or next door. Look at our self-deprecating humour. Apologetic Canadians, pleading ”œI’m sorry” after an American steps on them. Forlorn Canadians, thinking that our Thanksgiving is celebrated before American Thanksgiving because Canada has so much less for which to be grateful. Or comedian Dave Broadfoot’s wonderful distinction between passion and pessimism: An American shouts, ”œCast your bread upon the water and it will return a thousandfold”; the Canadian retorts, ”œWhat do I need with a thousand pieces of soggy bread?”
These are counterfeit Canadianisms, both calculated to obscure how little in fact separates Canada and the United States. Sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset, whose book Continental Divide anticipated the argument of Fire and Ice, admits those fundamental similarities when he states that the two countries ”œresemble each other more than either resembles any other nation.”
That creates a Canadian problem. The solution, rooted deep in our history, is to highlight America’s problems and Canada’s strengths. The more the distinctions ”œbetween Canadian and American life and institutions diminished,” Carleton University’s Syd Wise wrote in Canada Views the United States, the more ”œthe need to insist upon them intensified. What Freud termed ”˜the Narcissism of small differences’ became more and more characteristic of the Canadian mentality.” Canadians were a ”œsmall people,” emphasizing because they must their ”œseparateness and distinctiveness” and even ”œtheir intrinsic political and moral superiority.”
The media is apt to parrot the fashion of the age. On the eve of Stephen Harper’s first meeting with President Bush on the margins of a NAFTA summit in Mexico at the end of March 2006, the Toronto Globe and Mail published a poll by Allan Gregg’s Strategic Counsel under the dramatic front-page headline, ”œCanadians Turn More Sour on US.” What Gregg’s findings mainly showed, however, was that Canadians had soured on George Bush since his re-election.
Canadians had come to a more negative view of the president. But so had Americans, as their leader stumbled in Iraq and his popularity plummeted, to a 29 percent approval rating in May 2006.
As for attitudes toward the United States, they remained much as they had been in 2004. Half of the country believed that Canadians and Americans were either ”œessentially the same” or ”œmainly the same with small differences.” Even in an era when commentators were claiming that relations between the two countries were at a historic low, less than one-third thought that the two peoples were ”œmainly different,” with only ”œsome small similarities.”
The United States is the inevitable standard against which Canadians have always measured themselves " nothing less, but nothing more. Canadians will accentuate what differentiates. That is natural and necessary. The great national challenge pits a clumsy groping for identity and independence against an intense integration with a great neighbour’s culture, military and commerce. This makes us paradoxical, even at times narrow-minded and hypocritical. It does not make us anti-American.