Why can’t US Americans be like Canadians?

The bond of unity of most nations is the idea that they are one family, a family of common lineage usually speaking a common language and adhering to a common religion. Sometimes this is cemented by having a hereditary monarch as a symbolic national father or mother.

We US Americans lack a common lineage.  We consist of all kinds of people—descendants of the original white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, African slaves, native American peoples and Spanish-speakers acquired by conquest, plus immigrants from literally every continent in the world.

So maybe we need an American creed, or an American myth, to bind us together.

But wait a minute!  Canada, our good (and often better) neighbor does all right, without any obvious sense of Canadian exceptionalism.  How do they do it?

A Canadian friend of mine summed up her idea of her nation this way:

Canadians suffer from boredom and blandness.  Even the most conservative politician in Canada believes in universal health care run by the government.

There were some differences here concerning the role of the private sector in healthcare, but in general those differences were worked out years ago.  Canadians put up with high taxes.  Doctors are basically civil servants.

What myth warms our hearts?  Fairness and multiculturalism? 

Refugees and immigrants in Canada are enjoyed.  Their story adds a little spice to the Canadian meat and potatoes.  They are not pushed to become CANADIANS.  What would that even be?  It would be very unusual in Toronto to walk down the street for one block and not hear 3 or 4 languages spoken.

One very common problem is people in their 40s who have parents who came to Canada 30 years ago and never learned English.  I know a lot of people in that situation, who feel an obligation to be their parents’ interpreters at a moment’s notice (even though they have demanding careers and young children to raise).

There are no illusions that Canada is the leader of the Free World, no sense that we are shining beacons on a hill, no sense that we set the world’s agenda.  We try to do our fair share of the world’s peacekeeping. 

This makes Canadians a bit like children. We put the government in charge and then complain mightily about everything they do.

What made the USA and Canada different?

The USA had to fight for its independence.  Canada never had to.  The leaders of the USA in 1776 were mostly descendants of the original British settlers, but they had to figure out a rationale for independence not based on lineage. 

The rationale was that we US Americans stood for the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

The rationale had the important merit of being true.  US Americans had developed a society in which ordinary people governed themselves. 

Our success had world-historical significance.  It was perceived, correctly, as a threat to the legitimacy of all the governments based on aristocratic privilege and the divine right of kings.

The next US national crisis was the conflict over slavery.  Canada never had such a problem because its climate was not suitable for plantation agriculture. 

The South seceded in order to protect and defend the institution of slavery.  If that was wrong, why was it wrong?  Wasn’t the USA itself the product of a war of secession? 

The justification of the war to preserve the Union was that was a war to assured that the government of the people, for the people and by the people should not perish from the earth.

As the South was to the USA, so Quebec has been to Canada.  But Quebecois nationalism was not based on slavery or lynch law.  Canadian statesmen have been wise enough and pragmatic enough to accommodate Quebecois nationalism within overall Canadian multiculturalism, inconsistent as this may be.

Canadian intervention in World Wars One and Two was inspired by loyalty to the Mother Country.  There were many reasons for U.S. intervention, but the justification was that we were making the world safe for democracy.  (Untrue in 1918, largely true in 1941)

Finally, we US Americans have been tempted by the possibility of world power, or even world domination, which our leaders justify by the notion that we embody freedom (even when we don’t). 

Canadians never had the possibility, and don’t aspire to it.  They sensibly strive for peace, order and good government.

And of course they have another bond of unity.  They define themselves by being unlike US Americans.

All of us are what history made us, plus what we do about it.


The Canada experiment: Is this the world’s first “postnational” country? by Charles Foran for The Guardian (2017)

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2 Responses to “Why can’t US Americans be like Canadians?”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    “We consist of all kinds of people—descendants of the original white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, African slaves, native American peoples and Spanish-speakers acquired by conquest, plus immigrants from literally every continent in the world.”

    That is what makes America exceptional. All that and still not being in perpetual civil war. It frightens me to think of the possible results of changing from a melting pot to a salad bowl.


  2. Lesley Says:

    I find this most interesting. I live in England and there are many differences between us and the Scots, even though the geographical vastness is not as great as that between the U.S. and Canada. We even have many, many regional differences. 😀


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