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In Search of the Canadian Dream

Is Canada a more civilized version of America? Articles from 1923 to the present take up the question of Canadian national identity

Over the past four years, liberal Americans have occasionally talked among themselves about moving to Canada if George W. Bush were to win a second term in 2004. After November 2, their idea became national news: Salon, The New Yorker, and Harper's, among others, published pieces about how to emigrate to and what to expect in the land of socialized health-care, legalized gay marriage, wide-open spaces, few guns, and no electoral colleges or winner-take-all elections. (In Canada, the loser of the race for Prime Minister still gets to lead the opposition party.)

A utopian view of Canada, in which the ways the country differs from the United States are enticing to disenchanted left-wingers, has a recent heritage. Americans often think of Canada as an extension of their own country. (We all speak English in roughly the same accents, so aren't we the same?) Or they refer to Canadians as George Bush has—as "our most important neighbors to the north." In other words, not so important at all.

Americans can hardly be blamed for not really knowing what to make of Canada; Canadians themselves still openly ponder the question of their identity. During the past century The Atlantic has published several articles on the subject. In "The Canadian Type" (June 1923), Scottish immigrant Ramsay Traquair wrote that as a newcomer, he found Canadians reserved, conservative, and defensive. "Canada," he wrote, "assumes a protective armor against both Englishmen and Americans." Though at that time the country was still a British colony, it was seeking increasing independence from Britain. And though Canadians could not help but be influenced politically and culturally by the United States, "there are few things they dislike so much," Traquair wrote, "as being taken for 'Americans.'" But if Canadians aren't British or American, he asked, what are they?

There are 'Sandys' in Scotland, 'Heinrichs' in Germany, gentlemen with pointed moustaches and hair à la brosse in France... But what is Johnny Canuck like? For him the Canadian cartoonist has produced a singularly colorless type—a gentlemanly but resolute personage in riding-breeches, leggings, and scout hat. He appears to be an idealized farmer of the prairies, but has so little real character that he must be labeled 'Canada' on his hat-band. Compared to that virile personage, Uncle Sam, he is simply 'not there,' for no one ever needed a label on Uncle Sam.

More than forty years later, The Atlantic published a sixty-two-page supplement on Canadian arts, politics, and education. In "What is Canada?" (November 1964) John Conway, a professor in the division of humanities of York University in Toronto, expressed concerns that echoed those of Ramsay Traquair: how could Canada define itself as a nation? Politically, Canada was a nation. The country had nearly severed all ties with Britain when it signed the Statute of Westminster in 1931. But it was still under the Queen's auspices. Canada wouldn't get its own charter of rights and freedoms until 1982. And in 1964 it had no national flag. (The maple leaf was born a year later, in time for Canada's hundredth birthday in 1967.) Was Canada a variant of the United States? No, wrote Conway. Though some people had been suggesting since the eighteenth century that the U.S. should annex Canada, Conway claimed that this would have happened long before if the two countries were not so different.

Unlike the United States, Conway observed, Canada did not have a founding creed by which to define itself. Immigrants who arrived in Canada were not there to reject Europe and its values. The first British to move to Canada, rather, had fled from the thirteen colonies, refusing to accept the outcome of the Revolutionary War. "Their strength in molding Canadian attitudes cannot be overestimated," Conway wrote. The French, who arrived in the seventeenth century, weren't refugees from France but rather devout Catholics dedicated to community over the individual. They were wary of the secularism and materialism they saw growing in the States. Though British and French Canadians did not agree on much, they both believed in monarchical government, and, "in the equation between freedom and duly constituted authority," Conway explained, "their emphasis tended to be on the side of duly constituted authority." Still, agreement is not the same as national identity:

We Canadians have so far failed to enter fully into our legacy, and this is our one great, over-reaching problem as our centennial approaches. On its solution everything else depends… A nation, like an individual, can achieve integrity only out of its own experience and not derivatively from a parent… Our identity cannot emerge clear and dominant until sovereignty, both real and symbolic, is brought to rest in ourselves.

In "Why Young Men Leave," another article appearing in the same Canada supplement [due to copyright issues, this article is not available online], the writer Brian Stock made clear that he was not about to wait around for Canada to come into its own. Stock wrote his piece from Cambridge, England, where he had moved after graduating from Harvard. He explained that though he occasionally felt a pull toward his homeland—to the "red October leaves on the shores of Lake Simcoe" and the smell of "wild roses in the springtime"—what he felt more strongly was a sense of betrayal, because his country had failed to give him a sense of "patria"—of Canadian identity. "It is an odd paradox," he wrote, "that the standard of physical living in Canada is almost the highest in the world, but that the standard of spiritual living is the lowest on earth." He went on,

Canada is a land which possesses only raw earth, and therefore she can only nourish the body; she has no Zeitgeist, and therefore she cannot nourish the soul. There is no point in speaking of poetry or art in Canada unless it is derivative; for although she has been graced from time to time with gifted men, the country is incapable of poetry.… Canada is incapable of producing a Mann or a Chekhov, for she lacks the spiritual nourishment which might produce such an artist. The Canadian heritage is therefore schizophrenic: Canadians must read two literatures, American and English, without ever participating in either.

Stock's article provoked several readers to respond, and their letters were included in the January, 1965, issue. A Canadian scientist living in the United States thanked the magazine for publishing Stock's piece, which "in a very eloquent way, spoke for many of us." He disagreed, however, with Stock's claim that Canada had betrayed its people. "Had Canada some kind of idealistic basis for existence (comparable, say, to the Declaration of Independence), then perhaps that could have been betrayed, but there is no such thing." Other letter writers called Stock's position "wooly and precious," "pathetic," and "the drunken intellectualizing of an undergraduate."

Three years later Stock wrote an update for The Atlantic on Canadian culture and politics on the occasion of Canada's centenary. Near the beginning of the piece, he mentioned his earlier article, writing, "The discernible changes in Canadian sentiment have led me to reassess an earlier, almost totally pessimistic, set of observations I wrote for The Atlantic on national culture in order to take account of the positive elements I have seen taking shape in the centennial year." He noted that "gifted" Canadians were no longer leaving the country in droves as they once had and that they were openly annoyed with Americans who were ignorant about the country. Stock viewed Expo 67, that summer's international exhibition in Montreal, as Canada's chance to show that it was taking on a new role in North America as an active member of the culture it shared with the United States. The danger for Canadians, he wrote, was that they might not keep moving forward. "After Expo is finished," he warned, "they may relapse into isolation and provincialism."

For some Canadians, a move forward could, ironically, mean a move away from looking for national identity. In "Travels Into America's Future" (August 1998), Robert D. Kaplan visited Vancouver, British Columbia, where he was told it wouldn't take much for the city—a bustling urban center with a large racially mixed population, a major shipping port, an international airport, and a thriving rail system—to leave the Canadian federation. An organization Kaplan spoke with called the Cascadia Planning Group was, in fact, counting on it. The group claimed the city could become part of a high-tech trading bloc in the Cascadia region stretching from Portland, Oregon to British Columbia. "With a dynamic and highly educated population and strategic transport links, this is all you need to be sovereign in the phase of history we are entering," an urban geographer at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver told Kaplan. He continued: "The miracle is that Canada has lasted as long as it has. It makes no sense. Oh, yes, I'm fond of Canada. Canada is something you're fond of, like a drunken old uncle. And I'm proud to be a Canadian. We all are, in the sense that Canada is more aesthetically pleasing than the United States. It's cleaner and less unruly. But the nation-state is gone in Vancouver."

"Nationality," wrote Ramsay Traquair in 1923, "is created by opposition." As a less powerful, less vocal people, Canadians may continue to define themselves for years to come in terms of how they are unlike their southern neighbors. But this is not to say that they're not in many ways proud of those differences. In November 2004, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation held a nationwide vote to select what they referred to as "The Greatest Canadian." After more than a million people voted, a winner was declared—Tommy Douglas, the father of universal health care.