Canada’s history has been dom- inated by three great themes: building a nation and holding it together, providing a growing list of services to the Canadian people, and managing our relations with the United States.
At the time of the American Revolution, Canada was a collection of British colonies that remained under the protection of the British crown rather than join the republican experi- ment launched by the thirteen colonies to the south. Thanks to that revolution, we even inherited some American Tories who stood loyal to the British Empire and migrated north.
To put it in a social values context, the American colonists rejected the traditional authority of the British crown while the Canadian colonists deferred to it, or, in the case of Quebec, fashioned a pragmatic compromise between the authority the British won on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 and that of the Roman Catholic Church.
From the late eighteenth century until 1867, the northern colonies remained under British rule, although increasing numbers of colonists demanded that their governments be more responsible to them than to the colonial administrators in Britain and their agents here. Some firebrands even instigated rebellions ”” one in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1837 and another in Lower Canada (Quebec) in 1837 and 1838. These were revolts against an elite of appointed officials, not revolu- tions against the British regime, and in neither case was there significant loss of life. Early Canadians valued a liberty based on order over a freedom derived from the chaos of mob rule, which they believed prevailed in the new republic to the south.
Whereas America was conceived in violent revolution, the Canadian colonists were counter-revolutionaries whose cautious leaders were unable to negotiate the compromises necessary for their reluctant Confederation until 1867, nearly a century after the American colonies broke from Britain. While the Canadian colonies were slowly and laboriously brokering a larg- er union, America was deadlocked over slavery, lurching unrelentingly toward ”” and ultimately embroiled in ”” a bloody civil war that took the lives of 620,000 soldiers representing 2 percent of the population at that time, or near- ly 6 million Americans in today’s terms.
In his Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson dedicated his country to the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Not to be outdone in the evocative slo- gan department, a century later Canada’s Fathers of Confederation could see no higher pursuits than peace, order, and good government.
The early experience of the two countries also differed in a way that haunts America still. The southern colonies had developed an economy based on slavery, an institution the United States retained (with increasing reluctance in a number of quarters) until the Civil War in the 1860s. The Canadian economy had little use for slaves or indentured workers on planta- tions for cotton or any other crop. As a result, the gradual abolition of slavery by Upper Canada’s first governor, John Graves Simcoe, after 1793 and later by the British government was a non-issue for Canada, except to make this coun- try a refuge for American slaves who were able to escape their servitude via the Underground Railroad prior to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863. The American Dilemma, as Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal aptly termed that country’s legacy of slavery in his 1944 book of that title, continues to express itself today ”” often tragically for the large proportion of African-Americans who live in poverty and under threat of violence even amid the affluence of the world’s richest country.
The American Constitution also infamously guaranteed the right of its citizens to bear arms. The Second Amendment was once understood to be a provision granting militias the power to overthrow illegitimate governments through the use of force, but it has recently been recast by Attorney General John Ashcroft as the codifica- tion of the God-given right of every man, woman, and toddler to pack heat. Canada’s Constitution contained no such right, and the consequences for each country are palpable to this day. Americans kill themselves and each other with the use of firearms at ten times the rate Canadians do.
America’s revolutionaries, many of whom were Deists, agnostics, or even atheists, separated Church from State. Their forebears, the Puritans, had departed Britain in search of free- dom to practise their religion. In founding their own communities in the New World, the Puritans were not in turn overly generous to those with dissenting theologies; Tocqueville notes that the criminal codes of some early communities included long pas- sages copied verbatim from Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Nevertheless, 150 years later the U.S. Bill of Rights enshrined the principle of religious freedom for Puritans and all others, declaring in the First Amendment that ”œCongress shall make no law respect- ing an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The Canadian colonies, on the other hand, inherited the British tradi- tion of direct state involvement in reli- gion. After the British conquest of Quebec in 1759–60, the British not only allowed Roman Catholics to practise their religion, but, with the 1774 Quebec Act (designed to keep Quebecers loyal as the American colonies threat- ened open revolt), ceded to the Church the responsibility for the education of Catholic children. Meanwhile in Upper Canada, Governor John Graves Simcoe attempted to implement Anglicanism as the state religion but failed in the face of religious pluralism in the colony. The British North America Act of 1867 entrenched in Canada’s Constitution the Catholic Church’s control over the education of Catholics in Quebec and elsewhere in the country. This provision sought to reciprocate similar rights granted to Protestants. America’s constitu- tional separation of Church and State and its more market-driven approach to religion has contributed to much higher rates of reli- gious belief and practice than we now see in countries like Canada and the UnitedKingdom.
Another difference in the founding ideologies of the two countries was the orientation to citizenship. The American revolutionaries envisioned their country as the Biblical ”œCity upon a Hill,” a shin- ing beacon for all who shared the Enlightenment ideals of free speech, reli- gion, and commerce as well as progress, science, and rationality. People from all nations of the world would be welcome to cast off the chains of feudalism and migrate to the home of the brave and the land of the free. Out of many, there would be one, E Pluribus Unum, a proud American living in one nation, and, since the 1950s when the Pledge of Allegiance was updated, ”œunder God.” Some might argue that this ideal of unity and ultimate sameness has not been honoured from the outset, beginning with the exclusion of all but property- owning Caucasian males from the vot- ers’ list in America’s first presidential election in 1789, a group that formed less than 10 percent of the population.
In spite of many gaps between the ideal and the reality that seem obvious to us today, Americans have generally honoured their self-evident truths by welcoming migrants from around the world to join their melting pot, to become unhyphenated Americans willing to join the struggle for success and to send their sons to fight and if necessary die for their new country even against their former homelands.
Canada, by contrast, had no aspi- ration to mould an archetypal Canadian out of its three founding nations ”” French, English, and Aboriginal ”” or subsequent waves of newcomers from every corner of the planet. Each of the founding groups found themselves in their own enclaves. In the case of the Aboriginals, relocation was often forced and to be followed by various abuses; in the case of the French in Quebec, the enclave has always enjoyed considerable sovereignty. Sociologist John Porter characterized Canada in 1965 as a Vertical Mosaic, with the descendants of the English and the Scots at the top of the socio- economic hierarchy. According to Porter, all groups lived more or less peaceably in their communities, what- ever their position in the pyramid, but had little to do with one another ”” a place for everyone and everyone in his or her place. In 1945 novelist Hugh MacLennan characterized English- and French-speaking Canada as Two Solitudes; this even in his native Montreal, where each comprised about half the population of what was then Canada’s largest metropolis. The eth- nic hierarchy of Canada today bears little resemblance to the descriptions of 1945 or even 1965, and the ideolo- gy of multiculturalism has promoted more positive attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities north of the bor- der than the melting pot creed has in the republic to the south.
The seeds of this compartmental- ized but generally peaceful society are to be found in large part in the gradual decision by the British after their defeat of the armies of France on the Plains of Abraham in 1759 to allow 60,000 French habitants to retain their language and religion rather than attempt their assimilation into what were then very small Anglo-Saxon colonies in Canada. By the mid-nine- teenth century, when the English- speaking Canadian provinces were more populous, so too, thanks to the ”œrevenge of the cradle,” was Quebec’s French-speaking minority, which was able to successfully resist further calls for assimilation (most famously that of Britain’s Lord Durham in 1839, who saw the absorption of the French as a solution to the ”œtwo nations” that he found ”œwarring within the bosom of a single state”). The subsequent union of Canada East (Quebec) and Canada West (Ontario) ultimately proved unworkable. But the Confederation of those two colonies, as well as New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in 1867 and subsequently six others, has proven more lasting (although certain- ly not without its shaky moments).
When Quebec awoke in the 1950s from its traditional deference to the Church and Anglo-Saxon commer- cial hegemony, it launched a ”œQuiet Revolution,” with the election of Jean Lesage’s Liberals in 1960, to assert greater political control within its own borders. The response by the federal government was a Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, the latter concept soon extended to Multiculturalism when the one-third of Canadians whose ancestors had come from countries other than France and the United Kingdom demanded acknowledgement. The result was the official recognition of Canada’s linguistic duality and multi- cultural heritage ”” the political birth of modern Canada ”” and the formal entrenchment of one of the most sig- nificant differences between Canada and the United States, one that has become more, not less, important over the past half-century. No government in the United States has ever adopted a policy of bilingualism (except the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, where English–Spanish bilingualism was imposed through military force in 1902), even though up to a third of the population in states like California, Texas, and Florida are Spanish-speaking. Nor is it conceivable that a state could negotiate separation from the other forty-nine. Canada, like the former Soviet Union, has acknowledged in its 1999 Clarity Act that a province can legally secede under certain conditions.
Federalism is the political institu- tion that accommodates the centrifu- gal forces of Canada’s regions, allocating responsibility for education and the delivery of social and health services to the provinces. In contrast, the parliamentary system that Canada inherited from the British has become hierarchical and quasi-authoritarian. Canadian governments rarely get a majority of the votes, but our first- past-the-post, single-member district electoral system usually gives the party with the most popular support across the country the majority of the seats, and a majority government can pretty well do what it wants: increase taxes, negotiate a free trade agreement with the United States, put in place a tax on goods and services, privatize Crown corporations, implement strong gun control legislation, legalize abortion, establish a national medicare program.
Canada now spends 45 percent of its gross domestic product on govern- ment services, which is close to the average for the countries of the European Union. The United States, by contrast, spends 35 percent ”” includ- ing double the amount spent by the entire European Union on defence.
Part of the reason Canada has more activist government than in the United States is our governments’ abil- ity to act decisively within their areas of jurisdiction when they have parlia- mentary majorities ”” which is most of the time. Canada’s British parliamen- tary system gives majority govern- ments the power to do things that are popular, but more importantly to implement policies they believe to be necessary but unpopular ”” policies that may cause their defeat in the next election, but that are rarely reversed by the next government. The infamous Goods and Services Tax imposed by the Conservative government in 1990 was a major factor in its defeat in 1993, but the Liberals elected on the promise to rescind the tax recanted and were rewarded with re-election in 1997 because the voters had become inured to the new tax on consumption.
The Americans, in contrast, devised a system of government designed to bal- ance power among the executive, legisla- ture, and the judiciary so as to limit government. In times of national crisis, the president and commander-in-chief could wage war, but for the most part the government of the United States operates by consensus and compromise. It takes an extraordinary domestic crisis like the Great Depression of the 1930s or a reform-minded surge of idealism as in the 1960s for the country and its institu- tions to coalesce around national pro- grams like Social Security (income support for the elderly), the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Medicare (health care for the elderly), and Medicaid (health care for the poor). Often in America it is the judi- ciary that initiates significant change, as in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), which desegregated schools in Topeka, Kansas, and Roe v. Wade (1973), which guaranteed a woman’s right to abortion. Much of the rest of the time, the country seems content that politics be a game played in an opaque world of behind- the-scenes tradeoffs between politicians who are constantly running for re-election and the lobby groups who fund their campaigns.
Canadian democracy is cer- tainly vulnerable to the charge of elitism, even authoritarian- ism, but it is more democratic than the U.S. system if judged on the basis of predictable poli- cy outcomes. Despots too can deliver predictable outcomes, of course, but with no democratic recourse. In Canada, majority govern- ments can quickly adapt to reflect pub- lic opinion, or can dare to resist public opinion, making unpopular decisions in the hope that their judgments will prove wise over the long term ”” and that today’s risky policy initiative will be the seed of tomorrow’s public con- sensus (and hopefully ”œtomorrow” rolls around before the next election). If a government makes an unpopular deci- sion that remains unpopular for long enough to bring about its electoral defeat, a subsequent government can always rescind the decision. The Canadian system of government, I would claim, does a better job of reflecting the considered judgment of the people and therefore keeping them engaged in the political process than does that of the United States.
Take, for example, voter turnout rates, the broadest measure of citizen engagement in any democracy. Voting tells us whether people believe it is worth being informed about public affairs and whether they believe their vote will make any difference. Canada has had consistently higher turnout rates than the United States, although Canadian rates have been declining over the past decade as Liberal party victories have been seen as inevitable and no big issues divided the electorate. Still, in the 1997 Canadian federal elec- tion, 59 percent of Canada’s voting-age population turned out to vote, whereas only 49 percent of Americans did so in the 1996 U.S. presidential race.
The United States is renowned for the direct democracy that the Progressives inspired at the turn of the twentieth century and that is given expression in the myriad plebiscites and referenda we see on state-wide bal- lots every two years. But these forms of democracy have not proven them- selves to be superior to or more demo- cratic than representative democracy; they overly simplify political choices (forcing yes/no binaries) and are often preceded by impenetrable preambles that are so complex voters turn off and don’t vote at all. Furthermore, plebiscites and referenda tend to align majorities against minorities and invite private corporations and interest groups to spend lavishly when their self-interest is threatened. Such direct democracy looks to me more like mob rule than the considered judgment of the people that one would hope for in a democracy. American practice is a far cry from the occasional use of referen- da in Canada on major constitutional issues like secession.
Canadian parties have platforms and policy positions that they usually try to implement once in office. The Mulroney Conservatives ran for re-election in 1988 on the sin- gle issue of implementing the historic free trade agreement they had negoti- ated with the United States. They were re-elected, albeit with only 43 percent of the popular vote, and then proceed- ed to carry out one of the most impor- tant policy initiatives, certainly from a symbolic point of view, in modern Canadian history. Can there be a bet- ter case for the legitimacy and effec- tiveness of Canada’s system of representative government than the election of 1988, an election that truly represented the future to the present? By the mid-1990s, three-quarters of Canadians told pollsters they support- ed North American free trade that by then included Mexico.
I remember being interviewed during the 1988 federal election cam- paign by PBS’s Charles Krause, a corre- spondent for the then MacNeil-Lehrer News Hour. After capturing my poll- ster’s wisdom on tape, Krause expressed his astonishment that a national debate on an issue of such moment would be decided in an elec- tion. He contrasted this process to business as usual in Washington, in which Congress members are not elected on the basis of a platform shared by members of their party, but on the basis of their bringing pork bar- rel goodies home to their districts. No wonder voter turnout rates in the United States have historically been one-third lower than in Canada. There is much less incentive in the U.S. to participate because there is so little relationship between an individual’s vote for president, senator, or Congress member and outcomes in public poli- cy. There are just too many vested interests to hijack elected politicians on their way to Washington.
Limited government is a corner- stone of America’s political institutions and is tightly yoked to the country’s founding ideology. The periods of activist government ”” at the turn of the twentieth century, in the 1930s, and in the 1960s and early 1970s ”” should be seen as aberrations. The neo-conser- vatism of the past two decades, begin- ning with Ronald Reagan’s inauguration, should be viewed as a return to the norm. ”œNew” Democrat Bill Clinton was least successful when he tried to be a lib- eral activist, as in the case of gays in the military or when pushing his wife’s left- ist notions of universal health insurance. He was at his zenith when, in league with ”œmoderate” Republicans, he dis- mantled ”œwelfare as we know it,” the 1996 reform reducing American welfare rolls by one-third ”” a literal triage of America’s poor. Americans have far less tolerance for state-sponsored depend- ence than do Canadians and Europeans, with the curious exception of the elder- ly, whose Social Security entitlement (kept cozy in its much ballyhooed ”œlock box”) is a sacred cow that even the most right-wing conservative Republican dare not question.
Orientation to religion, govern- ment institutions, and founding ide- ology. These three factors fundamentally differentiate Canada and the United States, and this has long been the case. But these founda- tions have expressed themselves in the latter part of the twentieth centu- ry in some unanticipated ways. First let us look at the present realities that we or a French count might have anticipated 200 years ago. The United States has become the greatest nation on earth. It is the world’s dominant economic and military power, and the leading innovator in the new information and biotechnologies. It is still the only nation on earth capable of mounting a concerted effort in exploring at the same time the human genome and the solar system. Its citizens have, on average, the highest standard of living on the planet, nearly half of the world’s bil- lionaires (242 out of 538 cited by Forbes in 2002) even after the dot- com/telecom implosion, and 60 per- cent of its millionaires, the largest elite ever known in history.
Certainly the growing gap in social values between our two countries dur- ing the 1990s must be at least partly attributable to America’s emerging, after the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, as the world’s only superpow- er, perhaps the most powerful ever to have existed on earth. This unique new status reduces America’s need to forge multilateral alliances against a powerful and threatening adversary and encour- ages the U.S to revert to the more aggressive unilateralism it demonstrat- ed in its conquest of the American West and in President Monroe’s nineteenth- century doctrine proclaiming America’s right to control affairs in the western hemisphere, a doctrine now implicitly writ large over the entire planet. In this century, American exceptionalism becomes the realpolitik of globalization, something I believe will act to further differentiate the values of the United States from those of the rest of the developed world.
Canada and the countries of Europe try to balance market forces with public policy, to reconcile the tendency for the rich to get richer and create an all but impenetrable elite with a social welfare state and policies to redistrib- ute income from the haves to the have- nots. Such countries recognize individual rights but try to balance them with the rights of collectivities. These societies are more likely than Americans to realize that individuals can have too much freedom and that freedoms can be exercised irresponsibly by individuals to their own and others’ detriment. Canadians put greater value than Americans on peace, order, and good (read activist) government. This is the aspiration of a conservative people, as opposed to the eighteenth-century liberalism that appealed to the American revolutionaries.
The diseases of an all but untram- melled individualism are, of course, not without their desirable counter- points. America is a more dynamic society than Canada, more creative, more innovative, more exciting, and more fun. According to The Economist 700 of the world’s 1,200 leading scien- tists work in the United States; these are the people we rely on to find the cure for cancer, the antidote for AIDS, and the key to Alzheimer’s, and to best the long list of diseases that afflict peo- ple in every part of the planet.
Some of the sites at which Canada’s difference from the U.S. is most apparent are, somewhat surpris- ingly, our cities. In examining the size and density of the communities in which we live, we find that a counter- intuitive evolution has taken place. Canada, as any schoolchild knows, is the world’s second largest country after Russia, but in terms of population contains a modest 30 million or so. The U.S. is a large country too, the world’s fourth largest, but numbers roughly 280 million people.
What is astonishing is that in spite of all this vast northern space, Canadians are huddled in relatively few large urban centres, mostly a few kilometres north of the Canada–U.S. border. More than a third of Canadians live in one of three metropolitan areas: Toronto, Montreal, or Vancouver. In contrast, America’s three largest metro- politan areas, New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, represent only 16 per- cent of the United States population.
Canada is a more urban country than the United States. It is also more multicultural. Whereas 11 percent of Americans are foreign born the figure for Canada is 18 percent. Moreover, a large proportion of America’s foreign born are from Mexico; in Canada they are drawn from virtual- ly everywhere on the planet, with very large populations being East and South Asian.
As in the United States, first- and second-generation immigrants tend to congregate in cities where entry-level jobs, now often in the service sector, are located and where they are more likely to find support from previous waves of immigrants from their homelands.
What is fascinating about Canada’s cities is their cosmopolitan livability, their relatively low rates of crime and interracial and inter-ethnic conflict. Toronto is arguably the world’s most multicultural city, but has a murder rate only slightly higher than fifty years ago when it was pre- dominantly Anglo-Saxon. The homi- cide rate in Metro Toronto has increased slightly from 1.4 per 100,000 in the 1959–61 period, when its popu- lation was approximately 1.5 million, to 2.2 per 100,000 in the 1999–2001 period, when its population had grown to approximately 2.6 million. Compare this with murder rates in major U.S. cities: in 1999 rates per 100,000 in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles were 8.9, 22.7, and 11.6 respectively. In the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C., the rate was a whopping 46.4 per 100,000, in con- trast to only 0.36 ”” three murders ”” in 2001 in Canada’s capital of Ottawa where, thankfully in this case, nothing much ever happens.
Canada’s history of multicultural- ism and the pattern of development that led to its urbanism have rendered its three great cities as models of vibrant and peaceful multicultural coexistence throughout the world.
It is interesting indeed that these two New World nations have each won the sweepstakes in two interna- tional competitions: the Americans for the highest standard of living on the planet and the Canadians for the best quality of life. The Americans have done this by being motivated by the notion of individual achievement; the Canadians by balancing individual autonomy with a sense of collective responsibility. We are each twenty- first-century expressions of the ideas of our ancestors and the institutions they built. America honours traditionally masculine qualities; Canada honours qualities that are more traditionally feminine. America honours the lone warrior fighting for truth and justice, the father who is master of his lonely house on the prairie, and a few good men planting the Stars and Stripes on a distant planet. Canada honours compromise, harmony, and equality. Americans go where no man has gone before; Canadians follow hoping to make that new place livable.
The founding ideas and institutions of each country have given rise to unanticipated consequences. I have found Americans to be more deferen- tial to institutions than Canadians. This is counterintuitive. I have found Canadians to be less anomic, aimless, and alienated from their society than are Americans, who are nominally a more religious people. This too is counterintuitive. And, perhaps most surprising, I have found Canadians to be a more autonomous people than Americans, less outer-directed and less conformist. This too is contrary to the stereotype of Americans as a nation of individualists.
Canadians, however, have found themselves throughout their history to be in an interdependent world. After the Conquest of the French by the British army on the Plains of Abraham in 1759, it was decided by the authori- ties not to vanquish or assimilate the Quebec colonists but to accommodate their collective aspirations to preserve their religion, language, and culture. In the nineteenth century when America suffered a bloody civil war over slavery, Canada experienced a few rebellions, but in the end negotiated compromises that eventually led to Confederation in 1867. Good never triumphed over evil in Canada. Rather, opposing forces, often more than two, fighting over geography, religion, lan- guage, or the spoils of power, eventu- ally came to some sort of accommodation ”” usually with little loss of life, especially when compared with the U.S. Civil War and the near annihilation of Aboriginals as Americans settled the West.
Our founding ideas, our institu- tions, and then the experience of building our two nations have been very different: one by conquest, the other by compromise. This Canadian penchant for going halfway rather than fighting it out to see who’s left standing expressed itself in the twenti- eth century with the recognition that Canada was not only bilingual but also multicultural. And now, with the establishment of the new northern jurisdiction of Nunavut (one of whose official languages is Inuktitut), Canada is formally recognizing multi- lingualism as well.
Thus, in Canada, the culture of accommodation that has been our socio-historical tradition expresses itself today as social liberalism, multi- culturalism, multilingualism, multiple faiths and spiritual paths, and some- times even as cultural fusion or hybridization. In its most postmodern form, it can exist as an openness to flexible, multiple expressions of indi- vidual personality, the leading edges of which are the flexibility of gender, age, and cultural identities. Demography as destiny is the vestige of a bygone era.
It is fascinating to see a country evolve from such deep deference to hierarchical authority to such wide- spread autonomy and questioning of authority ”” yet in the process not descending into chaos. Canadians are no longer motivated by duty, guilt, noblesse oblige, or fear of social sanc- tion if they do not conform to group norms. Their kinder, gentler balance of freedom and equality, and of the pub- lic and the private domains, has creat- ed a tolerant, egalitarian society that enjoys freedom from potential catas- trophe, danger, and violence that many on this planet envy, including many Americans.
In my nightmares, I may see the American fire melting the Canadian ice and then dream of the waters cre- ated by the melting ice drowning the fire, but this will not happen ”” at least not in our lifetimes. The two cultures will continue side by side, converging their economies, tech- nologies, and now their security and defence policies, but they will contin- ue to diverge in ways that most peo- ple in each country, I believe, will continue to celebrate.
Reprinted by permission of Penguin Canada. The author would like to acknowledge the assistance of histori- ans Janet Noel and Murray Barkley in the preparation of the chapter from which this excerpt is taken.