The Semi-detached Relationship Between Canada and the U.S.

The Semi-detached Relationship Between Canada and the U.S.

Are there any examples of two countries that share a border and that have so much in common and yet are so different, than the relationship between Canada and the U.S.? Given the disagreements between different provinces or between provinces and the federal government, and with emerging talks of provinces breaking away and doing their “own thing”, there may not be a better time to remind ourselves about what historians have said about Canada’s unique history.  But not before examining the semi-detached relationship between Canada and the U.S..

Perhaps the best overview of our two countries is served up in Robert Bothwell’s book, “Your Country, My Country: A Unified History Of The United States And Canada”, and how we converge and diverge like needles that weave in and out as they knit a blanket of shared history.  The book highlights the past 300 years of North American history and how there is a close resemblance between Canadian and American society on almost every level.  Yet, resemblance is not to be mistaken with identity and closeness is not to be confused with harmony.  Despite our similarities we are still two separate nations, and despite our closeness we do not always agree on everything.

The early days of the post-WW2 world.

Some aspects highlighted of our shared history that many people are likely unfamiliar with include how, during WW2 and post-WW2, the U.S. had directly contributed to building roads, airfields, and pipelines across Canada, or how Prime Minister Mackenzie King was the last foreign visitor to visit President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would end up passing away weeks later, and how he was the only foreign head of government to attend the president’s funeral.  After that, then-Vice President Harry S.  Truman would inherit the presidency, but though he was seen in a less-than-desirable light and his cabinet was viewed as being inept at times, this criticism did not take away from how the U.S. had better labor laws, social security and government-sponsored systems, even education, while Canada was credited with a distinct baby bonus program that helped to redistribute income, and a more robust old-age pension and unemployment insurance program.

As it relates to the post-WW2 world, there was a time when the British could not afford to buy Canadian products unless Canada lent them money to buy them, and we did.  Canada was the first nation to offer various aid schemes, followed by the U.S.  with its Marshall Plan that transferred large sums of U.S.  dollars to Europeans to kick-start international trade and return the world back to stability.  Given Canada’s small size and limited pockets of economic activity across the country, it was not the financial hub that the U.S.  was, so it had limited funds it could lend.  Luckily enough, the American Export-Import Bank provided Canada with favorable terms for money it would borrow, with the leading reason being that the U.S.  did not want to be the sole solvent economy in the world, and that it would help better stabilize Canada’s currency.

Trade between countries in a post-WW2 world was extremely low and resulted in dividing the world’s countries into either “hard currency” or “soft currency” countries. Hard currencies could be traded at a bank for other currency while soft currencies were artificially supported by strict rules around what could be traded and with whom.  Additionally, out of all the devastation of WW2, governments would go on to improve treatment of veterans, offer free education through university, and eventually provide other forms of assistance.  The economic boom at the time coincided with the baby boom and  a consumption boom.  During this period of time, post-WW2 Canada was identified as having lower taxes than the U.S., and it was the leading driver behind the boom in foreign investment as well.

With emigration patterns, both Canada and the U.S.  were dominated in post-WW2 by English-speaking and with English language based political and economic culture because of the uncertainty that Europe’s future posed.  There would also be a period where both countries would struggle with labor scarcity and where workers were viewed as being commodities, and it was the arrival of large-scale strikes, something that was largely exclusive to Great Britain and Europe, that caught the attention of everyone.

The United Auto Workers union, organized around GM, Ford, and Chrysler, were responsible for North America being seen as the best paid industrial force in the world, thanks to the cyclical ritual of bargaining, strikes, and concessions.  But, the origin story behind why American car manufacturers decided to open up factories also had to do with the U.S.  realizing that there was a significant disparity between the two countries and it was thought that having good paying manufacturing jobs in Canada would kick-start the economy and would reduce the disparities.  It might be the single greatest strategy to offset the encroaching of Communism, which was threatening to consume all of Europe as well as the rest of the world.

Post-WW2 Canadians developed a reputation for being independent thinkers and doers.

Imagine being sandwiched between the U.S.’ right and Great Britain’s left, being the rope in the game of tug-of-war, and somehow still managing to create identity-defining moments.  Then imagine having a person walk in the footsteps of someone who would go on to be known as one of the greatest Prime Ministers ever.  Then that this person would manage fill those shoes despite outside influences trying to limit their ability to do good, but that they would still go on to have a world-altering impact.  Well, that is the story of Lloyd Axworthy, a Canadian who had a significant international influence, and who should be viewed as driving force behind two of the most significant peace promoting international policy developments: “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), “Mine Ban Treaty” (Ottawa Treaty).

The R2P is best described as an approach, actionable by the international community, to dealing with the bad behavior of tyrants that were a threat to world peace to avoid the global disruption that was brought about by the two world wars.  The Ottawa Treaty was a resolution that was championed by Axworthy to ban the use of land mines around the world.  Although these two ideas are now commonly accepted, that was not the case in a post-WW2 world where nations would resort to anything to protect their borders from invasion.  These efforts also resulted in Axworthy playing an instrumental role in the development of the constitution of an international criminal court as well.

In the face of opposition, Axworthy became known for having no hesitation in getting in front of issues, sometimes even if it meant exposing Canada to criticism from the U.S..  And yet he was also known for being open to ideas that were not always Canadian in origin.  When Axworthy was pressed by his international peers about his mine ban, he was strict about having a no exception rule, because if the two Koreas were allowed to mine their borders, then other countries like Russia could do the same given their tension with Chechnya, and that it would be setting a dangerous precedent.  In the end, the treaty was signed by 122 countries, not including the U.S., China, and Russia.

After all his contributions to global security and safety, Axworthy did not receive the Nobel Peace Prize. That ended up being jointly awarded to an organization that advocated against landmines and to an American activist.  This was one of the rare instances that the Nobel awarding committee really screwed the pooch when determining who would receive recognition and for what, and it was believed that political pressure played a significant role.  The path that Lloyd Axworthy walked seems to suggest that he would have also lived up to the incredible standard set by Prime Minister Lester B.  Pearson too.

The differences between provinces are not everything they are made out to be.

Perhaps the most intriguing idea about the similarities between Canada and the U.S. is how the unique identity of Quebecers in Canada can be seen reflected in Hispanic and Latino communities across the U.S..  However, Quebecers were described as having social and political attitudes that were quite distinct within Canada, a Catholic bastion that made up 25% of Canada’s population, as well as being socially and ideologically liberal and promoting the spread of free thought and secularism.

Michael Adams, a Canadian pollster and sociologist, is quoted as saying that Quebec is less different than Alberta from the U.S.’ New England region, with similar socio-cultural attitudes erasing the notion of Albertans being the long-lost brothers and sisters of Texans.  So, while Canada and the U.S.  share transborder intellectual, professional, social, and economic links, which will vary from generation to generation, region to region, there will always be some form of connection.  But the connection between us will always be a little stronger.

Spoiler Alert: President Barrack Obama, Hollywood culturati, and the power of hope.

What might catch most readers by surprise is not the reference made to President Barrack Obama, near the end of the book, and how he was acknowledged as being more popular, respected, and inspiring than any Canadian at the time.  Instead, it is reference to how Canadian elected officials at the time of Obama viewed him as representing the characteristics they disliked most: An oratorically gifted Harvard Law grad embraced by the Hollywood culturati and preaching the politics of hope.  Somehow, it sounds more like insecurity than any real criticism.

Having watched the televised visits that President Obama has made to Ottawa and his interactions with high-ranking elected officials, disliking someone like him for his learned skills and having respect for the potential within all people was the last thing I thought I would read.  Reading that, however, might give the impression that Canada was a place that ‘championed’ non-education and tension across the socio-economic spectrum, and that it was a place of despair, if those were the kind of leaders, we elected to represent us, when it is anything but this.

Perhaps the missed opportunity lays in pop culture references that could have been leveraged to depict how Canadians preferred to be portrayed compared to Americans, at least on the big screen.  First, there is the quote from Henry Hill in Goodfellas (1990), “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.  To me, being a gangster was better than being President of the United States.” Second,a single lyric in 50 Cent’s song Hustlers Ambition (2005), “America got a thing for this gangsta ish.” Last, there is quote from Frank in The Gambler (2014), “A wise man’s life is based around F you.  The United States of America is based on F you.” And while it all may be true, there may not be a more accurate depiction of Canadians then in Canadian Bacon (1995), “Canada known for ages as a polite and clean country…”.  Because in these four pieces of popular culture is all anyone needs to know about our two countries.