journalism that swims
against the current.

Look North with Envy

An American reconsiders the common U.S. view of Canada as an unremarkable, hidebound, spineless country with a gloomy future.

David Morris 14 Apr


Four years ago, Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post wrote a long essay to end his tour as Canadian correspondent. His gloomy assessment of Canada's future as a self-governing, independent country contained a remarkable reflection on its past.

"Over the years, Canadians might have coalesced around a shared sense of history but for the fact that they have so little of it they consider worth remembering," he wrote. "The country never fought a revolution or a civil war, pioneered no great social or political movement, produced no great world leader and committed no memorable atrocities -- as one writer put it, Canada has no Lincolns, no Gettysburgs and no Gettysburg addresses."

To which Carleton University history professor Blair Nearby responded with customary Canadian restraint, "If history is wars and confrontation and winner-take-all decisions, then we don't have very much of that…. But if you think that history can be a record of individuals arriving at decisions through consensus, negotiation or through the political system then we have a pretty long and commendable record."

Indeed they do.

The U.S. and Canada share a common border and much else. We are alike ethnically and economically. We eat the same foods. We watch the same movies. We speak the same language. But we think and act differently. And this difference has become more and more evident in recent months.

Gap begins with independence

Both the United States and Canada uncoupled from Britain. We did so rapidly and violently. Canada did so gradually and peacefully. Canada did not achieve sovereignty until 1867. One might argue that in this case haste made waste. Our initial attempt at nation-building proved catastrophic. From 1861 to 1865, more than 600,000 Americans lost their lives in the Civil War, a greater number of deaths than occurred in all the other wars we have fought put together.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, it appears that Canadians, not Americans, are more willing to innovate and take risks, at least in public policy. Consider the different strategies our two countries have embraced to provide health care to our residents.

Americans and Canadians began debating the idea of universal health care in the 1930s. On this side of the border, President Roosevelt abandoned the idea. Thirty years later President Kennedy raised the idea again only to abandon it under pressure from critics like Ronald Reagan who called it "Marxist." Thirty years later, President Clinton refused to allow national health insurance to become a part of his health care initiative. Reportedly, he and Hillary concluded it would amount to political suicide.

Universal care's advantages

On the northern side of the border, Canadian provinces began creating pilot universal health care systems in the 1930s and 1940s. The insurance plans first covered hospitals and then doctors. In 1965, the entire country embraced a health care plan that was uniquely Canadian. Authority over the kinds of services provided was left in the hands of the provinces. Private hospitals and doctors delivered the services. Patients could choose their doctor. The system was non-profit.

At the time Canada embraced national health insurance, total health care costs were comparable to the U.S. Today Canada spends a third less. And while all Canadians are covered, in the U.S. some 45 million Americans lack health insurance.

National health insurance allows Canadians greater freedom and latitude to plan their lives. No one in Canada takes a job or remains in a job because of its health benefits. Canadians do not strike over lack of health coverage.

By not tying health insurance to the job, Canadian businesses have become more competitive. In the U.S., automakers spend about $1,200 per car on health insurance. In Canada, the cost is about $120 per car. In November 2002, officials from Ford, GM and DaimlerChrysler wrote Canadian policymakers urging them to maintain and strengthen their national health system. "The public health system significantly reduces total labour costs...compared to the cost of equivalent private health insurance services purchased by U.S.-based automakers."

Canada respects personal liberty

Canadians make different decisions than we do about the importance of privacy and public access. In the U.S., life can be patented. Last year the Canadian Supreme Court ruled that in Canada it cannot. Life is not property north of the border.

Last month a Canadian federal judge ruled that the sharing of music via the Internet isn't theft and doesn't violate copyright laws. The same day the judge handed down that decision, the U.S. House judiciary committee approved the Piracy Deterrence and Education Act of 2004. The Act imposes fines of up to $250,000 and three years jail time for anyone sharing music.

In 1969, Canada liberalized its abortion law at the same time as a growing number of U.S. states were doing so. Initially the procedure required approval of a Canadian hospital's Therapeutic Abortion Committee. But when that process resulted in unequal access the Canadian Supreme Court threw out the entire law. Efforts to recriminalize abortion failed.

Meanwhile American legislatures and courts have made it increasingly difficult for poor and rural women to have access to this procedure. Interestingly Canada's abortion rate is much lower than that of the U.S. Its rates of abortion-related complications and maternal mortality are among the lowest in the world.

The debate about same-sex marriage is occurring in both Canada and the U.S. but the intensity and nature of the debate are very different. Just as Massachusetts recently declared gay marriage legal in that state so have the Canadian provinces of Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec. In Canada, there's no move to alter the Canadian constitution to prohibit gay marriage. Indeed, half of all Canadians back the Prime Minister's support of a federal law legalizing some form of gay marriage. Revealingly, there does not appear to be a rush to the altar by Canada's same sex couples. They're sure they have time.

Multilateralism rules

There's one more issue on which Canada and the U.S. take dramatically different positions: internationalism. After Canada refused to join the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, radio talk show hosts maligned Canada in a tone almost as disrespectful and colourful as the one they used to criticize France.

Canadians responded that they were not afraid to fight. Indeed, they noted that unlike the U.S. Canada did not have to be attacked before it sent troops to defend democracy against Hitler and Mussolini.

It was not military action per se but unilateral action that Canada opposed. The U.S. sees coalitions as weakening its influence. This is why we rarely join international organizations unless we have veto or dominant power (e.g. World Bank, IMF, United Nations). Canada, on the other hand, believes that coalitions multiply capacity rather than weaken it.

Canada has been a leading advocate of the landmine conventions and International Criminal Court, neither of which the U.S. has joined. The names of the Canadian cities that hatched the plans to reduce ozone formation and greenhouse gas buildup are etched into the history of several of the key treaties themselves; the Montreal Protocol, the Toronto Atmospheric Accord.

Under President Clinton, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution 98-0 declaring our unwillingness to sign the Kyoto protocol. In one of his first acts in office, President Bush formally withdrew from the negotiating process itself. A little more than a year later Canada became the 100th country to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Jean Chrétien, then Canada's Prime Minister, gave this advice to Environmental Minister David Anderson who was to present the documents to the United Nations. "You say to them, Canada is a good citizen of the world."

Debate affirms democracy

Canadians march to a different drummer. Which doesn't mean they march in lockstep. Debates can be as stormy north of the border as south. After Parliament's decision to ratify Kyoto, Alberta, the Texas of Canada, spearheaded national opposition. Gay marriage has come under attack by various religious groups. There is a determined effort in several provinces to privatize parts of the Canadian health care system.

Vigorous debate simply affirms that democracy is alive and well in our northern neighbour. We are a democracy too. But perhaps less thoughtful and deliberative than Canada's.

David Morris is vice president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He's not the only Canadian looking north with envy as Flight Versus Fight reveals.  [Tyee]

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