Too close? Too far? Just right? False dichotomies and Canada-US policy making.

AuthorStuart, Reginald C.


Are Canada and the United States getting closer, or farther apart? Are Washington and Ottawa policies converging or diverging? Over the past half-century such dichotomies arose repeatedly in Canadian commentary on cross-border relations. This dichotomy has had pejorative connotations when expressed by liberal intellectuals and politicians. Getting close is bad; farther away is good. On the other hand, get too far away and the national interest will suffer. Largely mute clusters of Canadian opinion lie between these extremes, although in recent years pollsters have tapped them with greater frequency. But how close is too close? How far away is too far away? Do we have an accurate "close-ometer?" Where do we draw the line between cordiality and chumminess, agreement and obsequiousness, aloofness and hostility? Such views reveal more about the observer than the observed. Moreover, those who insist on distinctions and divergences rarely analyze how much Canadians and Americans share in their national identities, as World Values surveys have disclosed. Those who insist on economic independence (with a hint of autarky) denounce those who promote the benefits of integration. Analytical judgment, not rhetorical assertions, and a sense of the perils of false dichotomies are required for Ottawa to navigate Canada's complex and ever-shifting place in upper North American affairs. Too close or too far? It depends upon what we are talking about and when. Given Canada's complexity, geographic location and vital interests, diverging opinions are to be expected. That aside, Americans and Canadians are upper North Americans by history, outlook, and interests, as well as temperament. (1)

Ottawa-Washington policy analysis and development rest upon four coequal constants that shape upper North American affairs. First, geography is central. Furthermore, whether in colonial or global eras, landforms, climate, and the distribution of natural resources have defined the mechanics of the relationship. Images of Canada as a northern nation have romantic, evocative, for some mythic connotations. But they divert attention from the inescapable upper North American interaction when over 80 percent of Canada's population has always lived within 100 miles of the U.S. border.

Second, proximity, a corollary of geography, has cultural, social, and economic connotations. When continental time zones emerged in the late nineteenth century, proximity and regional cross-border interlinkages meant that Canada's provinces aligned with U.S. divisions (except for standard time-only Saskatchewan). Washington recently shifted changeover dates from Standard to Daylight time and back again. Proximity and the intimacy of the interlinkages led all provinces but Saskatchewan to follow suit.

Third, asymmetry has always characterized the cross-border relationship. By any meaningful quantitative ratio--population size, economic output, opportunities, power, and international influence--the United States has far and away outweighed Canada. Asymmetry also cleaves in other ways. Take attention, for example. Canadians often lament how little attention Washington pays to them. Meanwhile, Washington copes with crises. High U.S. officials spare little time for Canada because mostly minor problems arise in the relationship. Canadians, however, are endlessly aware of, and pass judgment on, the United States, its culture, society, woes and triumphs.

Fourth, the border, the 49th parallel of latitude, is the metaphorical international boundary between the two sovereign nations. The border is also a psychological and emotional divider, and a shared zone of interaction. Time and circumstance determined how the two governments defined and managed that border. The events of 9/11 led Washington to transform it into a defensive line that overturned Ottawa's inherited assumptions captured on the Peace Arch at the West Coast Blaine crossing: "Children of a Common Mother; may these gates never be closed." (2) September 11 also generated a conflict between security and access that threatened upper North American economic prosperity and overturned the lives of millions of people in communities strewn along and even athwart the border. U.S. and Canadian reporters who toured the border soon after 9/11 betrayed different national perspectives. The American saw a national frontier to be secured. The Canadian lamented the loss of freedom of access. Both over-generalized. Children of a common mother or not, the gates appeared to be swinging shut, more so because the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative's implementation meant classifying Canadians as the foreigners they were in U.S. law. (3) September 11 forced Ottawa to adapt to Washington's border policies, but cultural, social, and economic perceptions remained the same. Canadian commentators, politicians, and policy makers also injected fresh life into such false dichotomies as being cozy or aloof, convergent or divergent. Such observations depended not only upon what was under discussion and when, but also who spoke and what was at stake. Such dichotomies seem straightforward, but they mask enormous complexity in the dispersed ways upper North American affairs have unfolded. Once the false dichotomies are clear, however, policy makers should be able to relegate them to a rhetorical holding pen. Then they can focus on pragmatic management of the relationship to serve interests rather than the preferences and prejudices of ideologues.


    Nationalists wield false dichotomies to assert divergence and insist on Canadian distinctiveness. They wear ideology on their sleeves, but often seem insecure, as though any admission of similarities or shared values accepts homogenized upper North American culture and U.S. domination. Scholars offer a more useful insight when they note that globalization has made societies more alike in diversity, not components of a homogeneous mass. (4) In upper North America, cultural values and norms have derived from a shared Western European heritage, with English as a common working language. Over time, upper North Americans built societies on a base of shared Anglo-Saxon values such as individualism, freedom of speech and the press, family and community orientation, and religious pluralism with streaks of self-reliance, optimism, and idealism. Individualism, libertarianism, democracy, a universal franchise, and governments held responsible by electorates characterized both countries. Successive waves of immigrants brought folk cultures into permissive, albeit not always tolerant, multicultural arenas. Local, regional, and national economies intermingled as they developed.

    As the two political systems matured, they became more distinct. The national economic systems betrayed variations on themes rather than sharp differences. Canadians have judged Americans overly patriotic, unabashed flag-wavers at annual July 4th celebrations and picnics. Yet they have adopted similar behavior on July 1st Canada Days. The World Values Survey found that through the 1990s Canadians and Americans, along with Mexicans and Irish, moved into a statistical quadrant centered on tradition and self-expression. Such reports challenge Michael Adams' popular assertions of increasingly distinctive Canadian and U.S. cultural traits as well as Philip Resnick's argument that Canadians are more European than American in their traits and values. (5) It is more useful to see Canadians and Americans as cultural upper North Americans than as mutually exclusive peoples.

    In cultural terms, Upper North American tastes sort out into high, middle, and popular cultural levels. Individuals may combine these levels. Increasing literacy in the early Twentieth Century created a mass markets for newspapers, magazines, and books, but asymmetry meant Canada had a smaller market. Anglo-Canadian elitism also led Toronto and Montreal publishers to discount native-born writers such as Lucy Maude Montgomery and Bliss Carman who developed domestic themes in their stories and poems. Most Canadian writers could neither publish nor make a living in their own country. So they moved to U.S. publishing centers, New York and Chicago. There they formed expatriate communities, but they never lost their Canadian sensibilities. (6) As a result an upper North American literary world emerged where readers chose material according to interest and taste, not national origin. Dwindling Anglo-oriented elites were blind to this development and so failed to grasp how Canadians progressively became upper North Americans. As late as the 1949-51 Massey Commission on the arts and culture in Canada, Anglo-elites and intellectuals wanted to build a British-Canadian culture. But popular tastes had become upper North American. Moreover, books and articles had become both commodities and forms of mass entertainment. (7) Cultural nationalists insisted, however, that widespread domestic preference for U.S. music, magazines, movies, and other forms of entertainment equalled Americanization.

    Policies based on such false dichotomies led Canada's federal officials into both pitfalls and pratfalls. The first occurred in the 1920s when British Canadian intellectuals and publishers recoiled at the U.S. periodicals on domestic stands. Without protective legislation the embryonic Anglo-Canadian culture was doomed. So Anglo-elites rejected realism in modern writing, ignored the shared upper North American culture, and overlooked the inability of domestic publishers to satisfy domestic tastes. Policy discussions revolved around protective subsidies for a favored few publishers, focusing on production, not consumption. Through World War II the British link withered. When publishing revived after 1945 Canadians once again bought U.S. magazines and books. Ottawa later regulated Time and Reader's Digest editions, but their powerful New York publishers lobbied...

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