Myth America: Canadian Exceptionalism and Representations of the American Other

Canadian Exceptionalism

Canadian Exceptionalism

I have been reading the comments sections of CBC News reports of the ongoing Idle No More protests in Canada lately. It hasn’t been easy.

Before I moved to the United States in the summer of 2005 (to pursue a PhD in history at Rutgers University), I was one of those insufferable, sanctimonious Canadians who viewed Americans as our energetic, creative, though somewhat pathetic, immature and problematic cousins south of the World’s Longest Undefended Border. Sure, the United States pretty much runs the world. Sure, the best movies and TV shows (remember Coming Up Rosie? The King of Kensington?) were all American. Sure, Rock and Roll, Jazz and baseball were all American innovations…

… At least we Canadians were more civilized, tolerant and peaceful than the Yankees. (And we had hockey, but more on that some other time.)

Canadians have long produced themselves as the kinder-gentler-Americans. We are those peace-loving, honest-brokers who everyone loves when we’re backpacking across Europe (maple-leaf flags on our backpacks); who hug trees and cuddle bunnies and admire David Suzuki; who don’t invade other countries but invented UN Peacekeeping, and never pursued a policy of genocide against aboriginal people (“you call them ‘Indians,’ we call them ‘First Nations'”). American liberals have, for the most part, bought into the story for years. They look North to our national healthcare system, relatively uncontroversial abortion rights, and universal marriage equality as models for a more civilized (we’d like to think more Canadian) America.

Canadians were civilized and peaceful because Americans are not. That’s what the Molson Canadian ad told us. Canadians are intelligent, thoughtful and well-informed because Americans are not. That’s what Rick Mercer told us in Talking to Americans.

However, one need only look at the CBC News comments to see that there is a sharp disconnect between the representation and the reality. The level and virulence of anti-First Nations racism on display is really amazing, even worse that the kind of Tea Party crypto-fascism that CBC viewers and readers spewed all over reports of the Quebec student protests last winter and spring.

It’s really quite dismaying, but it’s not surprising. Even when triumphal Canadian exceptionalism was one of the most dominant elements of my national identity, I always had a sinking feeling – that sort of sinking, inchoate, inarticulate queasiness that you try to ignore – that it really wasn’t quite just so.

It was easy to ignore. My circle of friends and colleagues in Canada was made up mostly of well-educated, progressively-minded academics and journalists. They all fit the representation – intelligent, tolerant, queer, queer-friendly, feminist, lefties – so I never had to interrogate the discontinuity between representation and reality. Then I moved to the United States. I married an American. My Canadian exceptionalism had been constructed on my knowledge of the United States as the anti-Canada – the land of guns, violence, racism and imperialism. Yet I see none of that among my circle of American friends and colleagues, who are mostly well-educated, progressively-minded academics (and a few journalists). They are all intelligent, tolerant, queer, queer-friendly, feminist, lefties, none of whom fit the representation of the American Other.

Something had to give… And it did.

At no time has this been more apparent than during the last few months. Most of my Canadian friends, and much of the Canadian media, have been rhetorically going to town over the agonizing gun-control debate now raging in the US. The narratives are complex, but they mostly boil down to a frequently-expressed sentiment that can be characterized as: “We (Canadians) have gun control, and are therefore civilized, while they (Americans) do not, which is evidence of their lack of civilized rationality.” Setting aside for the moment that it’s not quite true – Canadian gun control laws are not that much more restrictive than those in the US, and the sitting Canadian government is in the process of dismantling what does exist – it does reflect the persistence and pervasiveness of the Canadian myths of the United States and American society that are so central to Canadian exceptionalism.

These narratives were crystalized yesterday in a post that one of my Canadian friends made on Facebook yesterday. I have nothing but the greatest respect for Pete. He is a brilliant journalist, editor, blogger, comedian and commentator on the foibles of Quebec politics. In the thirty years that I have known him, I have learned a great deal about journalism, the craft of writing (he was one of my first editors) and progressive politics. I find that we agree on most political questions and, even in those rare instances in which we don’t, I am virtually always impressed by his humanity, compassion and clear-headedness.

But yesterday, he posted the image of a T-shirt with a logo that reads “CANADA: living the American Dream without the violence since 1867.” I protested. Quite apart from its factual inaccuracy – I’m sure the Metis who were violently suppressed in 1870 and 1885, the Inuit and First Nations people who were forcibly relocated, kidnapped and controlled from Grise Fjord to Alert Bay and many, many other Canadians might comment on the violence in Canadian history – I found its smug exceptionalism frankly offensive.

Pete responded by posting links to recent opinion polls that have found that a disproportionate number of American respondents believe that President Barack Obama was not born in the US and that Saddam Hussein was stockpiling weapons of mass destruction. Hell, Pete noted, most Americans believe that they won the War of 1812!

Though not directly germane to the question of violence, the polls reinforced the notion that Americans are dumber than Canadians – and thus presumably culturally inferior – which, I presume, explains their inability to be as rational and civilized as their northern neighbours.

One of the problems with polls is that they only provide answers to the questions you ask. Due to the expense and resources required to take polls, moreover, which questions are asked is dependent on the instrumentalities of the people who commission polls. I suspect that’s why there aren’t any polls (that I’ve seen) that ask Canadians about their opinions of the US President’s background or whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. These are not significant questions in Canadian public and political culture. Consequently, mobilizing poll results about what Americans believe about President Obama’s birth or the justifications for the American invasion of Iraq as evidence of Americans’ ignorance or violent proclivities relative to Canadians’ is specious.

There are, however, some interesting polls about Canada, like the recent Ipsos Reid poll that indicates that the vast majority of Canadians (something like 2/3) believe that the Canadian government spends too much on the First Nations, and that aboriginal Canadians are “treated well.” The obvious corollary, since many aboriginal Canadians are currently involved in a political struggle with the Canadian government over treaty obligations and land claims, is that the vast majority of Canadians believe that First Nations people are spoiled, coddled malcontents. This certainly seems to be confirmed by the comments sections of CBC reports on Idle No More.

So… One could conclude from this that “Canadians are racists,” certainly with regard to First Nations people.

One could argue, in fact, that Canadians are deeply racist people. I remember a poll from a few years ago that found that a majority of Quebecois admitted to being racists (and about half of all Canadians). It is certainly possible to narrate Canadian history that way. Canadian Chinese exclusion policies (like the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923) were far more restrictive and explicitly racist than American policies of the time (see the National Origins Act of 1924). The Canadian government began the internment of Japanese Canadians a full month before the US government imposed internment on Japanese Americans in 1942. Indeed, the internment of Japanese Canadians was, if anything, more restrictive and more explicitly racist than the internment of Japanese Americans, and the conditions in the internment camps were far worse.

And there are many other ways that we can compare the racism of Canadian society to the United States:

1. There has never been a non-white Prime Minister of Canada. The United States has elected an African-American president twice. There has never been a Black premier of a Canadian province. The first African-American governor in the US was P.B.S. Pinchback in Louisiana in 1872. There has never been a non-white Canadian in a senior cabinet position, while Patricia Roberts Harris served as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the US in the 1970s, and more recently, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice served in the portfolio of Secretary of State, arguably the most senior cabinet post.

2. Canadian historical memory has never admitted – let alone come to terms with – the sad history of slavery in Canada. Canadians prefer to represent their history as one of multicultural benevolence. The mythology of the Underground Railroad elides the narratives of Canadian slaves. (My ancestor owned slaves in the US and brought them with him when he de-camped to Halifax during the American Revolution.) Sure, slavery was abolished in Canada in the 1830s (a generation or more after it had been abolished in most of the United States), and it was never as pervasive as it was in the southern United States. But it’s something we never talk about. I can’t teach American history without discussing slavery or racial politics, but the topic never came up during my education – grade school, high school, CEGEP, BA and MA – in Canada. The last segregated school in Canada only closed in 1983, forty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision in the US.

3. The Canadian Immigration Act of 1910 was adopted 14 years before the US National Origins Act, and was, unlike the latter, explicitly racist. It formed the basis of the so-called “White Canada Policy” that prevented the admission of Jewish refugees from Europe during the Holocaust.

4. There was a higher rate of membership in the Ku Klux Klan in Saskatchewan in the 1920s than anywhere in the United States during its entire history.

If you look at the polls, and the historical record, then once could easily conclude that Canada is a far more – and unrepentantly – racist society than the United States. Hell, if you look at the polls, you might even conclude that Canadians – 75% of whom have no idea who their head of state is – are also a bunch of politically-ignorant simpletons.

But that’s not my point. My point is that it’s all bullshit. Polls are interesting, and useful for journalists eager to fill in the space between advertisements (it’s a tough job, but someone has to do it) but they don’t really say anything outside of the very narrow parameters of the questions they ask, who asks the questions and who answers the questions.

My point is also that constructing exceptionalist narratives like “living the American Dream without the violence since 1867” is a specious project. One could produce similar anti-Canadian, American-exceptionalist narratives just as well. How about, “America – yeah, we have a gun problem, but at least our murderers aren’t perverse sexual predators who take pleasure in raping, mutilating and dismembering their victims – including their own sisters! – before burying their remains in pig farms like those sick Canadians.”

I have to say… I find the kind of sanctimonious Canadian exceptionalism that has been on display lately pretty offensive. I understand the Canadian knee-jerk reaction; the desire to produce a more humane and civilized Canadian self-representation opposed to the great Other south of the border. It’s the consolation prize for Canadian insecurity, the Canadian inferiority complex and the recognition that, in the final analysis, Canada is largely impotent in global geopolitics and economically little more than a vassal branch-plant of the American Empire. I get it.

But I think that informed, educated people on both sides of the border need to step back a bit and resist the urge to trade in this kind of frankly chauvinistic exceptionalist rubbish.