United North America - Helping Canada's Provinces Join The USA
 

 

Nationalism

"If we wish to prevent the extension of this (US) influence, it can only be done by raising up for the North American colonist some nationality of his own; by elevating these small and unimportant communities into a society having some objects of a national importance; and by thus giving their inhabitants a country which they will be unwilling to see absorbed even into one more powerful." - Governor General of British North America Lord Durham (1839)

Published: August 8, 2005
By J. Wheelwright


Nationalism unites people of different classes and ideologies. It can create harmony, link our past to our present and give a people a sense of identity. But nationalism is also a tool used by dictators, despots and power-hungry politicians alike. It can create violent and mighty forces as well as divide people from different geographies. It is used to exaggerate differences, foster generalizations and cause discriminatory thinking. These two halves of nationalism can perhaps best be viewed in the context of World War II. Churchill, Roosevelt and King used nationalism to unite their nations against brutal enemies for the preservation of democratic civilization. Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo exploited nationalism to fuel an expansionist voracity the likes of which the world had never seen before. Therefore, we observe from history that nationalism can be a force for self-preservation, heroism and honor, or for vengeance, conquest, enslavement and dishonor.

In the context of today's North America, such polarized comparisons are silly. There remain positives and negatives of nationalism in North America that can still be analyzed, but certainly nationalist issues do not rise to the level of real life and death. They are more aptly described as a matter of taste. While nationalism is a strong force in both the US and Canada, the expression of it is quite different on people divided by the arbitrary border line. The difference is not due to ideology or culture, but should be understood in historical and psychological terms. In many ways, the imagined differences are more powerful and divisive than any true realities.

Although Canada did not come into existence as a sovereign state until 1867, what shaped the creation of the country dates back to the American Revolution. If it can be argued that the United States was created out of angst with the British Empire, then it may also be further argued that Canada was created out of angst of that angst. Simply put, Canada was designed to be a "non-American" nation. This design was largely crafted by the British, like Lord Durham, who sought to stem the natural integration of North America. But it was also fully embraced by the Tory Americans who, fleeing from the American colonies of their birth, sought to define themselves as something other than as the Americans that they were. Remarkably, this search for identity that could unite a diverse people divided by language and geography has spanned the centuries right down to our day. Although the Canadian sense of nationalism has changed a great deal over time, it remains essentially a "non-American" sentiment. Ironically, a reason why Canadian nationalism has always seemed so undefinable beyond being "not American" is that Canada still is today, as it was at its birth, a nation of people in denial of their own Americanness.

This non-American attachment and even pride is described by some as an inferiority complex. Dr. Mark Snyder, a Canadian psychologist, puts it this way:

"If you step back, it's very hard in objective terms to plot out what are the true differences between Canadians and Americans... Humans have a strong capacity to construct identities for themselves. It's largely a social process of construction. Some of it is taking small differences and making them seem bigger. A lot of it comes not from the differences, but from feelings of a sense of identity. It's tough to find things on which to hang an identity for all the English-speaking Canadians. It's not really a language that makes them distinct. It only makes them distinct from French-speaking Canadians. It makes them more like the U.S. to focus on language. Food doesn't work very well because, by and large food in Canada is the same as in the United States. What are you left with? Well there's geography. It's clear that if you live in Canada as opposed to the U.S., there's a border between the two. There aren't a lot of things onto which you can pin a distinctively Canadian culture, other than growing up and learning that you're Canadian and not American. It's identity by negation rather than affirmation."

So, in most recognizable ways, in spite of themselves, English Canadians are very much American; from the language they speak, the food they eat, the sports they play, to the philosophies they believe, and ideals they uphold. And besides language, there is little that separates French Canadians from English Canadians or USAmericans. Geographically (by virtue of residing in the same North America), historically and culturally Canadians are American. There are of course many differences between Canadians and USAmericans, but there are few, if any, national differences that one can point to beyond the psychology of understanding that you are Canadian or USAmerican. As noted Canadian journalist and author, David Frum has pointed out:

"What we have here is one large, English-speaking North American culture with a number of components, of which Ontario is one, Western Canada is another. It's true that you can get in a car at Anchorage and drive diagonally southeast until you hit Miami and speak the same language, use the same credit card, pump gas the same way. I think you'd be struck much more by the similarities than the differences. And the places where you would notice dissimilarities would not match the border."

While Canadian nationalism can often be described in these reactive terms, as largely an identity based on non-Americanism, the reverse is not true in the United States. As Canadian poet Margaret Atwood once said, this leaves Canadians looking through a one-way mirror into the United States, with USAmericans largely blind to on goings behind that mirror. USAmericans are far less likely to compare and contrast themselves and their country to Canada and Canadians. If they do, they are even less likely to look at Canada with contempt and righteous indignation. USAmericans largely look towards Canada with friendly feelings, and see Canadians as cousins or even as brothers and sisters, which of course was literally the case before the American Revolution. On the other hand, Canadians are often hesitant to remember the fact that Canada was forged by Americans, and they certainly do not consider themselves as part of the American family today, in spite of shared history. Doing so would force many to view themselves as simply being Americans without US citizenship. Canadians are acutely aware that when they enter the United States, that while they can pretend to be USAmericans, they do not have all the rights of US citizens, including the right to live, work and travel in the United States without restriction.

Since this second-class citizenship is undesirable, and since Canada could never match the United States in measurable terms due to relative size of populations, many Canadians often describe themselves as more civilized, peaceful and kind. Canadian historian George Woodcock notes it in this manner, "Canadians make up for their physical weakness by assuming an air of moral superiority towards the Americans, not unlike that which Scots assumed towards the English". One example of Canadians acting out this idea is the strong Canadian belief that Canada is a nation of peacekeepers. According to the UN, Canada ranks 38th in UN peacekeeping, with 233 peacekeepers abroad working in UN peacekeeping missions as of Dec 2003, supplying less than 1% of international peacekeepers. Ghana commits about ten times the number of peacekeepers, at 2,306 while only having 60% of Canada's population. Many will then go on to contrast their imagined leading role in international peacekeeping against the world policing of the United States. Even though Canadian soldiers have stood side-by-side with USAmericans in nearly every military action (UN-mandated or not) the US has taken. The only two notable exceptions being the Vietnam War and the recent Iraqi conflict, both of which were highly debated in both countries. Many other Canadians have attached themselves to the belief that Canada is "a kinder and gentler nation" (ironically a phrase taken from President George H. W. Bush). Yet, when put to the test in terms of philanthropy "Americans give over two-and-a-half times more of their income to charity than do Canadians", according to a Fraser Institute of Dec 2003 report. The average value of charitable donations in the United States is $3,494 US; the average value of donations in Canada is $998 CDN ($760 US). An argument could be made that this difference is largely due to higher levels of disposable incomes in the US coupled with a less demanding tax burden. However, little can be shown to prove that in contrast to the United States, Canada is a nation consisting of kinder gentler individuals. Finally, United Nations ratings in Human Development have often been used in the past as a basis for Canadians to point out their superiority. Since the most recent report ranks Canada one spot below the United States, this sort of talk has subsided into sullen silence. However, it was not that long ago that many argued loudly that this mere collection of three basic indicators: Life Expectancy, Literacy/Enrollment and PPP, determined which was the greatest nation on earth. The same individuals who trumpet this sort of thing usually ignore reports done by other institutions that put Canada beneath the United States. Of course, this is not a phenomenon unique to Canada. Comparisons such as these, which match up countries often, help fuel nationalism everywhere.

Some Canadian nationalists will point to differences in medical care, gun control, capital punishment, drug laws and more recently gay marriages. But these differences are in governance, not culture. British Columbia and Alberta have made moves to offer privatized medical care, but this makes them no less Canadian. California and Oregon have tried moving towards more universal healthcare programs, but they do not become less USAmerican by doing so. Gun control, while heavily favored by urbanites in Toronto, is widely disapproved of by rural Western Canadians. Likewise, gun control is far more popular in Chicago and Washington DC, where handguns are banned altogether, but detested by people in rural States. Penalties for small amounts of drug possession have been eased in Canada (and increased for large amounts) by federal legislation. However, in the United States, where individual States have power to legislate, there are a wide range of penalties and enforcements. One of the loosest marijuana possession laws in North America exist in Nevada where a simple fine is given to first time offenders. Gay marriage, while recently legalized in British Columbia and Ontario, is still very much illegal in Alberta (which has threatened to override any federal legislation allowing such) and other Canadian provinces. Civil unions between same-sex partners have been legal in Vermont since 2000, and gay marriages are set to become legal as early as May 2004 in Massachusetts. Finally, while many States employ capital punishment, many others have disallowed it. Capital punishment is not an option for any Canadian province due to federal law.

Another argument offered by those who believe that imaginary lines draw real differences, is that Canada is more left wing than the United States. Although a large number of liberals reside in northern North America, describing Canada in ideological terms offers at best a momentary snapshot of an evanescent state of affairs. Just as in the United States, Canada has experienced several shifts from left to right and back again over the course of its political history. Indeed, Canadian politicians in the late 1800s touted Canada's lower taxes in contrast to the tax-and-spend USAmericans. Nearly all the lavish social programs in Canada, that some say define Canada today, were first created by the United States. Still, it is hard to dispute that today there are small differences between the attitudes of average Canadians and USAmericans. To some, these slight differences justify the Canada/US border, and they are able to validate these claims by use of polling data. For example, certain polls have suggested, "USAmericans visit church more regularly than Canadians", "USAmericans believe in a more patriarchal society than do Canadians", etc. These small sample surveys, hardly generated or delivered in an unbiased manner, merely illustrate preconceived notions. Interesting as they are, using them to define Canada is akin to defining the word "Canada" as Canada. They fail to dig deeper by, for example, comparing the diverse regions of North America against one another. Undoubtedly, the southern US skews the polling results to one side, since Canada has no analogous region. Similarly, central Ontario and Quebec are much larger factors since the population of the area that left us the historical accident of Canada is so heavily centered there. A better justification of the border might be possible if one were able to prove the largest differences between populations in North America lay at the 49th latitude as opposed to 99th longitude or any other arbitrary line that could be drawn on the map. For example, it could be argued that, both demographically and ideologically, Northeastern USAmericans share more common values with Southeastern Canadians than either do with Southern USAmericans, or that Western North Americans have more in common with each other than they do with Eastern North Americans.

All the major differences we find between Canada and the United States are regional. For example, the people of Arkansas when compared with the people of British Columbia are vastly different (in North American terms). They speak with a different accent; they have slightly different customs, cuisines and cultures. In short, if you put the average British Columbian in the middle of Arkansas, everyone would know that he/she wasn't from there. But put that B.C.er in Washington State and it would difficult for a native Washingtonian to know he/she wasn't a Washingtonian. One might argue Seattle and Vancouver are virtually identical, especially when compared to Little Rock. The same could be said when comparing Manitoba and Minnesota to Newfoundland, Ontario and Michigan to Wyoming, the Maritime Provinces and New England states to the Yukon, etc. Overall, the differences between the United States and Canada are best seen regionally, not nationally. We do not have thousands of years of differing histories; we do not have generations upon generations brought up to believe completely different societal values; and we do not speak different tongues or exist within confined communities unable to travel outside our own borders.

One such region that does speak a different tongue, and one that some would describe as a nation unto itself, is Quebec. Quebec nationalism is perhaps the biggest irritant to Canadian nationalists, because without Quebec, Canada would be much smaller and much less culturally different from the United States, overall. Quebec is also often used by Canadian nationalists as an example of what makes Canada unique. Although most Canadians outside Quebec know little French, there is a strong tendency for English Canadians to attach themselves to French Quebec as a means of distinguishing themselves from USAmericans. This is directly related to the anti-American sentiments that many have. From time to time Quebec has risen up and attempted to separate from the rest of Canada, but each time the rest of Canada (and in the past Britain) has managed to quell the movements. English Canadians will vehemently argue that Quebec belongs in Canada. Yet, they do so somewhat hypocritically. They rally and cry that the differences between Quebec and English Canada are slight and we ought to be together, yet the differences between Canada and the US are too great, and we ought to be separate. It would appear that based on this view the true defense of the sovereignty of the political entity known as Canada is defined by "the narcissism of small differences" as Sigmund Freud would say.

Indeed, there are many examples of behavior that exude this quality. For example, many are quick to point out things such as "We pronounce Z as zed not zee", "Hockey is our national sport", "We spell color with a U", "Canadian beer is better than American beer", etc...
Ultimately, many of these Canadians are unable to see past the glass itself, and imagine how rivaling self-interests can become common-interests within a stronger Union. As Pablo Casals once said, "The love of one's country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?" In the case of Canada and the United States, what divides us is artificial, what unites us is real.

Some of the positive aspects of Canadian nationalism include ideas such as freedom, democracy, peace, good government and multiculturalism. Of course, the same ideas also define the United States. Canadian multiculturalism is sometimes distinguished from US multiculturalism as being diversity vs. assimilation. This is reinforced in Canadian minds by the USAmerican habit of describing the US as a melting pot. To many USAmericans multiculturalism and melting pot are interchangeable. Certainly, there is quite a bit of assimilation within US culture. People are encouraged to learn English, and often find it most convenient to conform to North American norms. This isn't really any different from Canada, where the government also awards learning English (and French) and helps people acclimatize themselves to North American lifestyle. A Farsi-speaking Iranian cannot move to Canada, work there and live a normal life without adapting to his surroundings, just as he would have to if he moved to the United States. Both countries welcome diversity. Indeed, the inscription at the foot of the Statue of Liberty says it all: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door."

The more double-tongued aspect of this Canadian praise of multiculturalism is an openness and tolerance of all peoples and cultures, except if they are USAmericans. This is largely defended by the belief that without some restriction on the 900lb gorilla, Canada would be "swallowed whole". As such, the government has instituted restrictions requiring minimum levels of Canadian ownership and Canadian content in television, radio and print. Subsidies and tax deductions are also given to certain programs, publications and productions in order to (in the words of the Canadian Heritage Department) "promote Canadian culture" and a "national identity". According to C.D. Howe Institute, the Canadian federal government spent $1.6 billion CDN on direct subsidies in 1996. The CBC alone receives approximately $1 billion CDN annually for operating expenses. This situation only exists because Canadians themselves do not watch or listen to enough Canadian content (in the eyes of the government) to make such stations commercially viable in the free market. Producers and artists that receive such monies earn a significant portion of their income through government subsidies. In essence, the government makes up for the perceived lack of viewership by forcing the population to pay, through taxes, what it doesn't watch enough of.

Despite the large overall commonalities of North Americans, when contrasting USAmerican nationalism against Canadian nationalism, few parallels can be found. As mentioned previously, these are largely self-made identities created by the human mind. If one accepts this notion, it would be safe to assume that, for example, a US-born flag-waving US nationalist who has a propensity to embellish the greatness of his native USA, if born in Canada, instead would be a flag-waving triumphalist Canadian nationalist, and vice versa.

Growing up and understanding that you are a USAmerican makes one much less likely to compare and contrast themselves to Canadians or denigrate Canada as a whole. Indeed, it may be argued that USAmericans do not even have Canada on their radar screen, despite the close geographical proximity. Some argue US nationalism generally involves a much more introverted outlook on the world, due to the vastness and importance of the United States. Many would point to the US tenancy to seek unilateral solutions in foreign affairs. This can be partially explained by the fact that the US does not require other nations to assist it in many cases, while smaller nations in many instances do require multilateralism. As in Canada, there are those in the United States who are fearful of the loss of cultural identity and cohesiveness, but the United States does not attempt to counter this by enforcing US content rules in TV, radio and print.

Both the US and Canadian identities have changed a great deal since their inception. However, today the Canadian identity remains largely identity by negation. For good or ill, nationalism also remains a powerful force in both countries. What Canadians should perhaps realize, is that they could create a new era of progress for our continent and civilization without having to abandon their cultures or what makes them individuals. Canadians can retain all the positive aspects of the Canadian identities that exist across the land, and move beyond the rather negative ones that have been constructed to contrast themselves from USAmericans. In simpler terms: They can retain regional differences while losing the chip on their shoulders. One might argue, by doing so they will have collectively and progressively dealt with the issues that have defined the national psyche of identity by negation for so very long. For the USAmericans part, they perhaps ought to realize what a united continent could achieve, and recognize Canadians as fellow citizens lost on the road of history.


 

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