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Canada’s New Assertiveness

Is Canada asserting its identity when it criticizes the U.S. foreign policy?

January 15, 2003

Is Canada asserting its identity when it criticizes the U.S. foreign policy?

I bet you won't be going back to Canada any time soon," quipped a U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service official handing back our passports — after we had spent over an hour waiting on the long line of returning U.S. cars on the Canadian side of the border.

Evidently, the United States government is very, very angry at Canada. According to Washington, Canadians have been tremendously lax about the kind of people they let into their country — especially from the Middle East.

Since September 11, 2001, Canadians who had the misfortune of being born in a Muslim country — or just looking like it — have been singled out for thorough checks whenever they want to visit the United States. This has triggered protests from the Canadian government.

To add fuel to the fire, just before the end of 2002, the Federal Bureau of Investigation claimed that a number of Middle Eastern men slipped into the United States illegally from Canadian soil — apparently, in order to carry out terrorist acts.

However, the real "evidence" against Canada does not stand up to much so far. After all, none of the September 11 terrorists came to the United States through Canada.

In addition, a number of subsequent dire warnings from U.S. law enforcement officials about imminent terror attacks have all come to nothing.

And yet, despite it all, tensions between the two neighbors flared up anew. As a matter of fact, at the border, INS officers are doing their best imitation of the late, unlamented East German border guards.

They open trunks and even check under the chassis — lest some illegal alien had taped himself to the bottom of the car.

But all of these quibbles are only the latest spate in a steadily deepening dispute between Washington and its Northern neighbor.

In a broader perspective, even though they share a continent, Americans and Canadians don't see eye to eye on much of anything.

War against Iraq, peacekeeping in Afghanistan (where several Canadians were accidentally killed by U.S. bombs) and the Kyoto Protocol are among the issues that have divided two close allies.

In fact, relations between Washington and Ottawa may now be at their lowest point since the war of 1812. At that point in time, the United States tried to evict Britain from North America — and many of Canada's military installations were first built, trying to provide a lasting base for British military power on the continent.

Americans tend to dismiss Canadian objections to U.S. policies in a rather sweeping fashion. They often claim that the points of view raised by Canadians are merely part of a futile attempt by Canadians to be different from the United States.

Little wonder, then, that generations of American stand-up comedians — especially in the northern parts of the country close to the Canadian border — have been making fun of such Canadian attempts for decades.

Indeed, although many parts of Canada look very much like the United States, Canadians go to great lengths to assert their Canadian identity. And, even for a neutral observer, much of it seems naïve.

For example, what good does it do to require the addition of the Canadian flag to the logos of McDonald's, Sears and other famous U.S. brand names that are ubiquitous in Canada — as they are everywhere else in the world?

Or the dogged use of the metric system, which mystifies visitors from the United States and causes them to get speeding tickets when they try to go 100 miles — not kilometers — per hour on Canadian highways.

Or French language signs in Western Canada, which are posted thousands of miles away from the nearest French-speaking Quebecois village.

But it would be a mistake to think that all those Maple Leafs that liberally decorate Canadian buildings are a mere fig leaf for an otherwise thoroughly Americanized society. Far from it. Canada has its own culture and deeply held political belief. And, moreover, Americans might want to pay attention to Canadian criticism.

And not only because Canadians — still America's closest soul mates — often express what the rest of the world thinks of the United States.

The truth is that history is on Canada's side. In the past, Canadian ideas all too often were adopted by their U.S. neighbors — except after a long and painful time lag.

Take the anti-smoking campaign, for example. Americans like to point out that they are miles ahead of Western Europeans in combating smoking.

Yet, Canada was the first to raise the price of cigarettes in the late 1980s. The experiment was a failure — but only because Canadian smokers chose to purchase their poison on the U.S. side of the border, where cigarettes were still cheap.

Most states in the United States have now jacked up the price of cigarettes as well, realizing that if smoking is less affordable, fewer kids and poor people — the two most vulnerable groups — would take up the habit.

But while New York City is only now moving to ban smoking in bars — and other U.S. cities are even farther behind — major cities in English-speaking Canada have been effectively smoke-free for years.

Moreover, the United States now plans to adopt the Canadian idea of printing vivid anti-smoking warnings and cautionary photographs directly on cigarette packs.

The only exception to Canada's anti-tobacco campaign is plentiful advertisements of Cuban cigars. Those, of course, are meant to attract U.S. tourists who, alone in the world, still can't buy authentic Havana cigars at home.

No surprise, then, that Canada has taken the lead in building commercial and political bridges with Cuba. It realized only too well that constructive engagement is the best way to deal both with Cuba's current communist regime and with the post-Fidel future.

The United States, in fact, is slowly, but surely coming to accept this point of view. Just ask the top officials at the — very Republican — U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.

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