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SaltWire, mostly via its Chronicle Herald publication, has been kind enough, from time to time, to publish some of my letters to the editor and, more recently a nascent column.
Most of these submissions have been in the mould of the expat opining on why Canadians may want to consider alternative perspectives on U.S. events, principally in the political arena.
This column takes a step back, theorizing as to why such close neighbo(u)rs, separated by a common language, can have such different national psyches and views of each other.
I am not proposing that either is better or worse than the other — simply different. I am neither a historian nor a political scientist and my observations within those realms are simply that, not disciplined scholarship.
Differences between nations, not unlike between individuals, start at birth. The U.S. was born at the business end of a musket, Canada at the nib of a pen. One rose from the ashes of a revolution, the other as a creature of peaceful political evolution. It would be hard to conceive of more disparate beginnings. And beginnings have a huge influence on paths later taken on the road to a national identity.
The principles and precepts of government are very different on each side of the 49th parallel. Canada’s parliamentary democracy is a natural extension of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, which itself began as an absolute monarchy. Over time, often under threat of having their heads separated from their shoulders, monarchs grudgingly doled out certain rights and powers to their subjects. Today’s Canadian government is light years removed from that history, but at its root has centralized government powers meted out to citizens as required.
In 1783 in the American colonies, the Continental Army vanquished the forces of George III. They wanted little or no part of the system of government they had just defeated. With the delicious vision of a tabula rasa before them, the founders set out to define a government whose basic premise was that power rests with the people and would be parsimoniously meted out to various levels of government. To quote the Tenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
These very divergent beginnings speak to many differences in national psyche and behavio(u)r, from swagger to entrepreneurship, to what is sometimes seen as jingoistic patriotism. To overgeneralize, one group tends to be accepting of government actions while the other tends toward suspicion and skepticism of same.
Another indicator of divergence is the way each country's foundational documents begin. Actually, the preambles of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms set out similar aspirations. Both speak of “life and liberty,” but thence comes the fork in the national philosophical road. The third aspiration in the U.S. document is “the pursuit of happiness.” For Canadians, it’s “the security of the person.”
Safety vs. achievement? Maybe not. Canada has achieved brilliant successes over the decades, not the least of which was carving a nation out of a vast and often hostile geography. It was just quieter about it. Less swagger, more sweat?
Then there's the whole “sleeping with the elephant” thing. Two personal anecdotes to illustrate:
About three years after moving to New York City in 1986 (transferred there by one of the Big 5 banks), I was in Toronto on a combo business and personal trip. On a Friday, I joined three Canadian pals for what is euphemistically called a “liquid lunch.” One my friends, whom I’ll call Fred, is a serious Canadian nationalist. The late 1980s was a period of deep concern in Canada over cultural imperialism from the U.S. Fred could have been president of the Sheila Copps Fan Club, had there been one. Those of you under 50 can Google “Sheila Copps.” About an hour and two Bloody Caesars into the lunch, Fred leaned toward me and seriously intoned: “Boo, you’ve been down there a while; what do the Yanks REALLY think of us?” My answer didn’t please him: “Fred, they don’t. No disrespect, it’s just not part of the consciousness, and if they do they think of you, it’s that Canadians are really nice and Canada is really cold.”
We ordered another round and talk turned to golf.
Much more recently, I arrived to spend some time at my lakeside Cape Breton cottage. After unloading the car and popping the top on a Moosehead (Americans don’t make a proper beer), I walked over to my neighbo(u)r’s place. Conversation turned to a political sujet du jour in the U.S. My friend opined that the U.S. Constitution was a piece of crap and should be burnt. When I inquired if he had ever read the document, at least he answered truthfully and said, “No.” I happened to have a couple of pocket-sized texts in the cottage and gave him one. Hope he has read it by now.
Knowledge is power; he may arrive at the same conclusion, but at least he'll know why. And yes, most Yanks know less about Canada than about their own country’s history — which, sadly, can often be precious little — so they could benefit from some cross-border homework, too.
One final observation, perhaps against self-interest. Having lived and worked both East (Toronto, NYC) and West (Calgary, Los Angeles) in both countries, I believe the border may be off-kilter by 90 degrees. Toronto thinks and acts more like New York than Calgary, and likely Vancouver. Similarly, the Western cities have more in common with their geographic than national counterparts. So maybe timing of migration patterns has more to do with attitudes than historic political science?
I have had the privilege to spend approximately half of my 67 years in each of the U.S. and Canada. A Canadian by birth and an American by choice, I proudly carry both passports. I take pride in my association with each country and its accomplishments. I look at each a little like a parent with two very different offspring. Both successful. Both loving and endearing. One tends to present very few parenting challenges. The other can be more than a handful at times. But they are siblings with more in common than not. Love ’em both. And, down deep, they each other.
Bruce Evans was born, raised and educated in Atlantic Canada — Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia. After a Dal MBA, he had a career in project finance in several cities — Ottawa, Toronto, Calgary, New York and L.A. — with a variety of international (Canadian, Japanese, French and Australian) financial players. He is happily retired in Arizona, volunteering, walking a dog named Charli and working to get a golf handicap moving south.