The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Inevitable, perhaps

It may be smart election-year politics to thump your chest and constantly criticize your friend and your No.1 trading partner. But it is a slippery slope and all of us should hope that it doesn't have a long-term impact on the relationship. It's a toxic attitude that I fear can't help but hurt the relationship unless all of us make a concerted effort to simply tone it down. ... What if one of your best friends criticized you directly and indirectly almost relentlessly? What if that friend demanded respect, but offered little in return?
- David Wilkins, United States ambassador to Canada

Congratulations, Mr. Wilkins. From Alberta to Qu├ębec, from hard-core Conservative to socialist NDP, Canadians have finally unified: and agreed (by on average a 4:1 margin!) that you should "keep [your] nose out of the federal election".

I realise the United States administration doesn't mean to force other countries into an ever-deepening anti-Americanism (against the American government, not the American people). I am as certain as I can be that Wilkins' intent was to try to undermine any political candidate in the Canadian election whose platform was even slightly critical of the United States ... and let's face it, that would have left just one major one.

What Wilkins -- and the administration he represents -- seems not to recognise at all is that
  1. the frustration being expressed here is not just electioneering; and
  2. his words have almost certainly forced every political candidate, including the one who the United States would much prefer to deal with, to state unequivocably that foreign nations have no business interfering with domestic politics.
In other words, just as had happened once before with the strong pressure brought to bear over the missile shield, once again a representative of the United States has backed a Canadian politician who might have wished to be much more supportive of United States global policy into an anti-American administration corner.

But the words are in their way fair: much of Canada has been extremely critical of some of the policies of the United States, that criticism is growing in degree and scope, and I don't see signs of of that growth slowing down any time soon.

Some part of it is the reactionary sniping of a relatively minor power which lives not only in the shadow of the elephant, not only in the constant awareness that there isn't all that much space in this room if the elephant starts flexing its muscles, but in the constant awareness that, based on its actions over the last few decades, this has also become an increasingly belligerent elephant which doesn't know exactly where and how to throw its power around (but seems to think that if it doesn't, the world will somehow go to hell in a handbasket). We have some serious concerns about its physical health and mental stability as well -- not any individual person, but the nation as a whole -- because when an elephant sickens, those around it tend to get squashed first. Most of us prefer not to get squashed at all.

Some part of it is reaction to the seemingly unilateral imperialistic path the United States is trailblazing: where "friendship" by the United States is invoked only when Canada does not roll over and do as it is told. A very uneasy balance here: I suspect most of us realise in the secret depth of our hearts that we are one of the subject powers of the United States, our sovereignty existing only so long as we don't thwart the primary goals of the United States ... which is why no Canadian federal party leader can allow himself to be seen to bend to words such as Wilkins'. (Can't help but notice, in this context, that the oil in Canadian lands is considered "domestic" by the United States president.) A second aspect to this same general uneasiness might be explained by our demographics: some 17% of all Canadians don't have either French or English as a mother tongue; and most are third-generation immigrants or less. Global policies to the south of us which seem to target specific cultural or racial groups are thus of concern to us all. We remember what happened to Mahar Arar; we know that the United States is willing to use extraordinary rendition on anyone even vaguely suspect; we know that information flows freely across borders; and now we know as well that anything residing in United States databanks can be seized at will. Some two million new Canadians joined the country as displaced persons after the second World War: ten percent of the entire population then. They remember the early symptoms of a police state.

Finally, some part of it is resentment due to individual and personal loss. We try to recover from the recent devastating economic blow due to border closures to Canadian cattle, and watch helplessly as a United States cattleman's coalition institutes a lawsuit against the border re-opening -- while at the same time buying into Canadian cattle at the cut-rate price. This strikes us as, er, not quite fair. (Yes, we Canadians are naive enough to believe that at least some degree of fairness should be a factor in social and economic policy.) The effects of NAFTA constituted globalisation on a small scale even before globalisation became a buzzword. It took us decades to recover from the initial wave of job losses and re-organise industry and trade accordingly -- not certain we are there even yet -- but the person who has just seen his factory close and his job go south is not going to care about industry re-balancing on a large scale. It is a matter of some debate whether Canada as a whole has lost more than gained due to NAFTA: but many individuals certainly have lost, and many of those live in the population-dense strip within 200 kilometres of the Canada-United States border. Yet we continually watch the United States flout the terms of NAFTA whenever the regulations don't benefit them. Largest trading partner yes, definitely: yet we have come to see the pitfalls of that arrangement, and almost every one of our politicians are seeking to diversify our trading arrangements just a bit, so we won't continue to be so vulnerable. We had been okay with the previous arrangement. It was the United States who taught us differently.

I suspect that one of only two types of power the United States administration would recognise -- and thus the only true foundation for that "respect" mentioned in the quote -- is military. (The other is economic.) It is not an arms race we could win -- or even want to enter, for several reasons:
  • a strong military not in lockstep with that of the United States must be suspect
  • few things send a federal budget out of control faster than an arms race
  • and we really don't want a powerful army (in the same way as we never pursued nuclear weapons though we had and have the technology and resources: the only such country in the world).
Yet at the same time we want to be able to pretend at least that we are fully sovereign, that United States could not squash us like a bug any time it wishes, economically, culturally (I mean here in the sense of mass media inundation), or militarily. The Monroe Doctrine and manifest destiny still lurk quietly in the background of every North American squabble. Quite bluntly, if Canada were a force on a parallel with the United States and not for all intents and purposes a satellite state of the United States, we would no longer be tolerated as an independent nation-state by the United States.

The simplest way between the horns of this dilemma is to not let ourselves become powerful enough to be seen as a potential threat.


Oh, this feuding just ain't friendly,
Though you've got to admit it's trendy
But we're still neighbours, so
Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow.

Oh, this clashing just ain't stopping,
So I brought some corn for popping,
With the flame war turned down low,
Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow.

When we finally call a truce
(For a time, we'll agree to release)
But really, what's the use?
The slippery slope is still greased!

Who knows the long-term impact?
We're still feeling mighty bushwhacked,
But we'll always be neighbours, so
Let it blow, let it blow, let it blow.

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