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Happy Birthdays!

Too bad our marriage of convenience is on the rocks, eh.

By Garry Gaudet 30 Jun 2006 | TheTyee.ca

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Bickering beaver and eagle.

With this week's two national birthdays, Canada begins its 140th year of existence and the U.S.A. heads into its 230th year of independence. We sleep together in the North American bed, spooned in a 5,000-kilometre embrace, but resemble an increasingly fractious, cranky couple that could benefit from a few visits to the marriage counsellor. Over the decades of our marriage of convenience, one partner has grown ever more contemptuous of the ill-mannered boor hogging the covers, regarding that spouse as a self-obsessed Peter Pan, engrossed with toys and the high life. Despite the history, the relationship is on the rocks. Can it be saved?

Canadians and Americans don't know a whole lot about each other, despite the profile of Thunder Bay native Paul Shaffer on the Late Show with David Letterman. For example, no top-10 list has ever mentioned that Canada has about 250,000 more square miles in landmass than the U.S.A. (I use square miles because no American, and very few Canadians, really knows how big a hectare is. Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan effectively killed metric off in the U.S. by simply refusing to appoint a chairman to their Metric Commission. Or maybe he just forgot.)

But great big Canada has less than a 10th of the population of the USA, and not even one 20th the confidence. Why? Here's my occasionally embellished review of our history, symbols and myths that might point the way.

The critters

America's symbol is the eagle -- which distressed the main author of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin, who called the eagle a "predatory bird, noisy, foul-smelling, and much given to sharping." Amen. But let's not be smug. Canada, too, has quite an eagle population.

Canadians settled on the beaver. Why not? As a renewable resource, beaver pelts fuelled Canada's early export economy. French runners of the woods, the coureurs de bois, and the gentleman adventurers of the Hudson's Bay Company, made us big-time international pelt peddlers long before we achieved nationhood. Beaver hats, high fashion in Britain and Europe, made us mega-beaver-bucks and put us squarely on the world's trade routes. Eagle hats never really caught on.

Now, the beaver has been called a "slow witted, toothy rodent, known to bite off its own testicles, or to...stand under its own falling trees" by June Callwood in Portrait of Canada. Beavers gnaw at tree trunks, plodding along at the job day and night. At the first hint of trouble in the pond, the beaver slaps the water with his broad tail -- and everyone dives for cover. Hmm, any similarity?

Our flags, psychoanalyzed

The American flag represents each state with a star. Stars are very distant from us and from each another. They're scorching hot, and represent the unattainable. "Reach for the stars", the saying goes. You know you'll never actually get to one, but you will get somewhere other than where you are -- who knows -- maybe even somewhere better. The verdict? America portrays its collection of 50 states, and its individualistic culture, as distant stars.

But Canada's maple leaves are all too attainable. They tumble and flop to the ground in various parts of the country from September to February. There they lie, sodden and heavy in the morning dew. They're organic and tangible, like the Atlantic and Pacific, represented by those hefty red bars at each side of our flag. The verdict? However inaccurately, Canada represents itself as a unified whole -- one with earth and sea.

Our births and other (mis)conceptions

Disgruntled rugged individuals, political mavericks, freewheeling capitalists and religious puritans settled the American colonies. But arguably, right from conception, economics and economic opportunity -- not ideology -- drove the birth of the nation. The Boston Tea Party touched off a violent severing of colonial apron strings and the King's right to tax the colonies.

Canada still clings to ancestral apron strings, both English and French. Even now many of us colonials suffer a quaint tendency to revere royalty. Our government is known as "the Crown." We still gawk and gossip over royal family weddings and shenanigans. No latent republic here, even though our Australian siblings appear to have had enough of our antiquated British mummy.

Our myths

American historic folklore features the cowpoke, the gunslinger, the circuit-riding preacher and the gold-hunting prospector. Private and hired guns roamed the American plains long before the law arrived.

Canada's early historic figures and symbols are fur and whisky traders, Jesuits, wheat farmers and Mounties. In Canada, the Mounties were in the vanguard, or just a step behind, with every westward move.

America was founded on the overriding principle of individual freedom. Any piece of land a man could plow in a day, and defend with his guns, was his to have and to hold. Many had to wrestle bits of arable land from the cattle barons who grazed their herds on open land. About the only collective activity early Americans would stand for was the care and feeding of an army. In fact, until the Civil War ended they had two of them. Hoping for a future payback, individual neighbours would sometimes pool their energies -- but once that new barn was raised, everyone went back to his own land.

Collectivist Canadians developed canals and railroads with government funds and developed agricultural co-ops and credit unions, and were content to be ruled from London, with finances brokered by cronies.

The constitutions

The U.S.A. was designed to have strong states and a weak federal government. Over time, though, state rights eroded and the national government has gained the major clout.

Canada was designed as a paternal, central state, with almost all the power of taxation. The provinces had responsibility for business, education, health care and property transactions -- but extremely limited taxing powers. Oh, just look at us now!

Canada's founding principle is that the greater good of the society takes precedence over individual rights -- a principle that pretty much held until the Charter of Rights and Freedoms was adopted. The British North America Act speaks of "peace, order and good government." We're "POGs." Even our Charter of Rights and Freedoms is somewhat limp in protecting individual freedoms. It can be overridden by the notorious "notwithstanding" clause -- sugar coating that made Trudeau's Charter pill palatable to the provinces, and the premiers. Canadians still defer to authority and the law, tugging our forelocks as governments regulate our lives by order-in-council and special spending warrants.

Americans adhere to individual rights, reflected in the phrase, "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." And they're feisty about fending off any threat, real or imagined, to those rights. The right to own as many guns as you want of almost any type, is embedded in the constitution. Americans sometimes feel quite justified in shooting at one another, and at their own law enforcement officers.

Key quirks

Canadians talk more on the phone than any other people, including Americans. We buy more insurance and historically have hoarded our money in savings and guaranteed investments. A prominent U.S. economist once told the Conference Board of Canada: "There are two things you have to understand about Americans. One is we just don't save money. We'll go out and spend it, or invest it. The other is that most Americans think the world ends at their borders. They really don't know there's a world out there, unless something happens outside to directly affect their lifestyle."

Thousands of Americans each year are financially ruined by health care costs, while hypochondriac Canadians overuse and abuse our cheap, universal medical care system.

Tread on a Yankee's toe and he's likely to sue you or shoot you. Do it to a Canadian and he'll say "Sorry -- excuse me."

Even though visiting Americans get $2.25 worth of Canadian stuff for $2 in their own currency, very few Americans come north for the winter.

Canadians and Americans view each other with a mix of pity and scorn.

So here we lay, side by side -- the libertarian, rugged individualist lion, and the meek, placid Canadian lamb that has elevated consensus wheeling and dealing into a national way of life. The eagle soars and snatches lesser prey out of the air, while the plodding, amiable, timid beaver slaps the water and dives for cover.

Can the marriage be saved?

Garry Gaudet is a writer in Lantzville, B.C.

Related stories: Will McMartin nominates Pamela Anderson for Governor General, Mark Leiren-Young rounds up Canadian and B.C. news in May's fast rewind, and Mel Hurtig argues we should resist the U.S. weaponization of space.  [Tyee]

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