Canada and the United States: Different Peas in a Pod
Canada and the United States: Different Peas in a Pod
During these surreal times, there have been increased tensions between the United States and Canada, the country of my birth.
There has been growing unease expressed by Canadians about their southern neighbors (neighbours in Canada!), especially since Donald Trump became President. As a “dual citizen” of both countries, I’ve been asked about my perspective on their similarities and differences.
I was educated in Canada and the United States, have lived decades in each country and have close family, social and professional ties in both. I’m immersed in their social and political issues, and their relationship affects me personally.
There are indeed similarities in these beautiful and bountiful sovereign countries located in North America. Both were originally populated by indigenous peoples who were largely supplanted (or worse) by Caucasians who emigrated to these shores centuries ago.
The early immigrants introduced features of their home cultures, like languages, customs, products and enterprises. They brought different foods and libations, guns and advanced weaponry, and inadvertently, new bacteria and viruses (for which there was no immunity).
They also brought fervent religious beliefs and attempted to convert the “heathen” natives to their Christian God. The newcomers were convinced of their intellectual and moral superiority, the supremacy of their laws, educational precepts and systems of justice. These were often cruelly imposed in the name of “improving” the lives of the native populations.
Canada and the U.S. have lived in relative harmony for over two centuries, and share the longest and contiguous international border in the world.
There are salient differences between these countries. They have distinct histories, cultural figures and leaders, two official languages (English and French), and different systems of government: Canada has a parliamentary system headed by a Prime Minister, and the US is a republic headed by a President. Canada is a ‘Social democracy,’ which some Americans call “Socialism.”
Canadians see themselves – and are seen by many abroad – as more socially progressive, communal and courteous than Americans. These and other benevolent traits like kindness, tolerance, humility and decency are proclaimed as stereotypic traits of Canadians.
Canadians take great pride in their National Health care system (contrasting their success with the coronavirus), strong social support systems, low-cost preschool, elementary, high school and college education, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and other federal institutions.
Harsh winters are emblematic of Canada but they are also beautiful, and Canadians enjoy sports like skiing, sledding, curling and of course the primal worship of hockey (northern States also partake in these delights).
Canada has “produced” many famous artists, scientist, authors and athletes, but there is no denying that the artistic, commercial and scientific achievements of the United States have dwarfed its contributions. This is not surprising as Canada’s population is less than ten per cent of its southern neighbor, although its land mass is larger.
The community of Canada’s citizens has been described as a “vertical mosaic,” extolling the diversity and differences in its multi-cultural composition, as opposed to the American idealized model of a “melting pot,” where the goal was to subsume ethnic differences into a common set of ideals. In actuality, both models are still ‘works in progress,’ not fully achieved.
Living adjacent to the United States can feel oppressive: Fifty years ago, the then-Prime Minister of Canada Pierre Elliott Trudeau (father of current Prime minister Justin Trudeau) described this relationship, “Like a mouse sleeping with an elephant…rather dangerous,” and “When the United States sneezes, Canada catches a cold.”
The “American Dream” was until recently an inspiring beacon to the world, its ideals expressed in The Declaration of Independence (“…self-evident truths…all men(sic) created equal…inalienable Rights…Life, Liberty, Pursuit of Happiness”), the Bill of Rights (“Speech, Assembly, Religion, Press”), and the words of poet Emma Lazarus on the iconic Statue of Liberty (“Give me your tired, your poor…”).
But Canadians have long had a complicated relationship with their continental neighbors. While they are proud of their national health and social programs and the relative absence of guns and violence, they are fully aware that many conservative Americans see these progressive programs as dangerous and “socialistic.”
There are varying degrees of jealousy and awe at American brio and accomplishments, and its power and position on the world stage, but that jealousy and awe have often been accompanied by derision and hostility. Many Canadians are critical of America’s historical relationship with violence (the Civil War, slavery, taming of the West, gun ownership, school and other shootings) and with extremism (militias, xenophobia and other prejudices).
While America is supposedly engaged in evolving a “more perfect union,” this idealism has been confounded by the perpetual struggle between its citizens’ “better angels” and their “worst instincts.”
Especially in these stressful times, people adopt stereotypes, exaggerated personality traits of “the other,” depending on whether the beholder is drawn to or repelled.
Americans have been positively described by Canadians as outgoing, confident and assertive, or criticized as bombastic, selfish and aggressive (particularly during the Trump administration).
Canadians have been positively described by Americans as modest, respectful and tolerant, or negatively, as boring and withdrawn.
In reality of course, there is no predictive validity of national stereotypes or of an individual personality traits. Neither country is without its problems, but citizens of each are like people everywhere: They enjoy and elate in good times, worry during difficulties, love their families and friends, and are for the most part cooperative and resilient, kind and trustworthy.
There are certain areas of concern which particularly challenge the United States:
There are greater demands on individuals and families (in contrast to Canada’s health, social and educational supports).
Repetitive experiences with aggression, guns and violence threaten the social fabric and sense of belonging and community.
The brutal effects of slavery still linger, while prejudice, racism and extremism undermine the foundational ideals.
Disparities between the ultra-wealthy and the needy contribute to polarization, demoralization and authoritarianism.
In spite of the litany of contrasts, living in both countries has been instructive, enhancing and even inspiring. The different depictions in perceived national stereotypes do a disservice to the majority of citizens of both countries.
I am deeply moved by the remarkable roles of immigrants to both countries and the diversity of races, ethnicities, languages and beliefs which contribute to their robust cultures.
Canada and the United States have their share of weaknesses and problems, but there are constant attempts to rectify and improve. There are as many differences within each country as there are between the countries themselves, which serve to enhance their cultural richness.
Both countries are living demonstrations of human advances in human communities and the arts and sciences. Both are evolving (over time) in beneficial directions, their trajectorial arcs bending towards progress and justice.
I have worked with, learned from, taught, and communed with many fine people in each nation. I admire and feel personally close to the kind, creative and honorable (honourable as well) people of both extraordinary countries.
We are all the better for their uniqueness, which enhances and ennobles both nations.