Northern exposure

What a Bush sequel means for Canada

The relationship between Canada and the United States is complicated and convoluted, yet in a sense simple. Depending on whom you ask, we are family, friends, neighbors, business partners, or simply an accident of history. We are each other’s largest trading partners. We share, or did share until 9/11, the world’s largest undefended border. We have a common political and legal heritage, and for better or worse, your culture is ours. Ultimately what spurs our obsession, and we are obsessed, is the knowledge and fear that what happens in your country tends to eventually happen in ours. We have a saying: You sneeze, we get pneumonia. So, when America votes, we watch avidly. While it is true that the November election was watched by the world, Canadians were your most consistent and attentive viewers.

Before the election, Canadians were overwhelmingly in favor of a John Kerry win, even though some observers predicted that a Kerry victory would be bad for Canada on a number of fronts. Trade with the United States, for example, would have been restricted under a more protectionist Kerry administration. Still, Canadians seemed to believe the world would have been better off without four more years of Bush. We put our faith in international bodies like the International Criminal Court and would support the war in Iraq only with UN approval. On Election Day, we wanted Americans to vote for the world even if it meant we would take a hit economically.

After the election, op-ed pages across the country were filled with essays admonishing Canadians to get their act together and make up with our neighbors to the south, or warning that the right-wing agenda of the Bush administration is out of control and we should be very worried. Prime Minister Paul Martin was forced to instruct his caucus to stop making negative comments about Bush after one member of Parliament, Carolyn Parrish, observed that she was “dumbfounded” that the “warlike” Bush was re-elected. Martin later removed Parrish from the caucus after she was shown on a satirical news program stomping on an action figure of Bush.

This kind of frustration and anger can also be found among ordinary Canadians. When I visited my local bookstore shortly after the election, the clerk greeted me with a sigh and a soft-voiced observation: “I feel like I am living in Austria in 1933 watching the Nazis rise to power in Germany.” It is an extreme position, but one shared by more than a few Canadians. It reflects a fear common among citizens and politicians alike: the political reality of the United States is contagious.

This fear is not unfounded. Since the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, our two countries have become economically intertwined. We are now more alike than different. Over the past ten years, U.S. business practices have become the dominant model in Canada. When business executives tell the Financial Post that we should abandon our plan to decriminalize marijuana, they are really saying that in order for business to function smoothly we need to avoid doing anything to irritate the Bush administration. If we want our beef to flow south, if we want to resolve the ten-year dispute over softwood lumber, if we want to make sure that our trucks still move quickly across our shared border, then perhaps we should reconsider gay marriage, our policy on drug prices, and conform to the demands of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

And therein lies the rub. Close as we have grown economically, we have drifted apart on other issues. Michael Adams, the dean of Canadian pollsters, in a book surveying Canadian and American differences, Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada, and the Myth of Converging Values, argues that we are growing apart on almost every significant social issue. Still, others worry that this difference will be erased by the weight of U.S. influence.

Indeed, already our politics has changed to be more like yours. We have war rooms, American-style negative advertising, an escalating influence of money in politics, and a language of rights better suited to the land of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” than to a country where the overriding principle is “peace, order, and good government.” During our last political campaign, in June of this year, our arguments were about whether our health-care system should be more like the U.S. model; reopening the settled abortion debate; joining America in the continental missile shield; gay marriage; whether we had made the wrong decision over the war in Iraq; and which party was better positioned to improve our relationship with the United States. For a moment, even religion, which normally plays a minor role in Canadian politics, became Americanesque. During the election, Catholic Bishop Fred Henry of Calgary-arguably the most American of Canadian cities-told the Catholic prime minister that the government needed to rethink its policy on abortion.

So Canadians worry. Worry that we don’t quite get what U.S. voters did on Election Day, and worry that the results will become more extreme with the passage of time. In the meantime we chuckle over Web sites like www.marryanamerican.ca (which seeks to match Canadians with “single, sexy, American liberals” desperate to leave the United States), and e-mails suggesting that most of the United States has become Jesusland. But it’s a nervous chuckle. 

Published in the 2004-12-03 issue: 
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Peter Kavanagh is a senior producer on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program, Current Affairs.

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