The Eagle and The Beaver

In the late 1990s, I asked an American who had lived in Canada what it was like to reside on that side of the border.

“Well,” she stated, pausing to think about it.  “Americans have almost no views on Canadians.  However, Canadians have very definite opinions about Americans.”

My years of living at the border and traveling within Canada have affirmed this wisdom.

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POP QUIZ FOR AMERICANS

  1. Name Canada’s current leader (hint: he is the Prime Minister).
  2. Name Canada’s two main political parties.
  3. Name at least one Canadian Football League (CFL) team.

(Answers are found at the bottom)

Yanks, you don’t know any of these, do you?  But, virtually all Canadians can answer these questions about the United States of America

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My favorite Canadian sign. Each time I see one of these, I feel like I've won a race.

At first glance, Canada is just like “The States” (as Canadians like to call the US).  Much of the country speaks English.  The products are nearly the same.  Both societies have a similar standard of living.  Looking out the window of my office to the land across the river does not reveal any sign of “otherness.”

Indeed, crossing the border (a much bigger deal now than it was just a few short years ago) into Canada does not yield great revelations as to the differences between the two nations.  Other than the ubiquitous maple leaf flag, road signs marking distances in kilometers and a few differences in spelling, there are no gob-smacking, signature elements that scream “I’m in a foreign land” [except if you enter Quebec].

When Americans converse with Canadians, no huge cultural chasms open up.  Sure, their accent and mannerisms are different.  There is a frankness about Canadians that I find refreshing.  They are polite to a fault (I like to joke that they say “thank you” to the ATMs).  In general, Canadians dress a WHOLE lot better than Americans (but this is not saying much, is it?).

However, it took years of living here before I perceived the real cultural differences between the two nations.

I first noticed signs of it when the Canadian dollar started to rise in value vis-à-vis the American dollar.  Then they started to really come over.  Our local Galleria Mall became what we jokingly referred to as “greater Ontario.”  White license plates with blue lettering filled up the parking lots, and inside the mall one observed a sea of shoppers with mod glasses and expensive footwear.

The Golden Horseshoe

At first, all was bliss.  Erie County’s financial troubles were over — sales tax receipts jumped to record highs.  Our somewhat sleepy airport became a major player for travel among residents of what is called “the golden horseshoe” (a densely populated area that bends around Lake Ontario from Toronto to the Buffalo border.  Its 6.5 million people comprise 19% of Canada’s population).

One often heard sentences completed with a lilting “eh?” on the ski slopes of our region.   Maple leaf flags were omnipresent, as well as signs announcing an “at par” currency exchange.

All was great.  Until it wasn’t.

First came the piles of clothes in the parking lots.  Canadians shoppers wishing to avoid paying duty at the border upon returning home began the not-so-endearing custom of abandoning their old clothing in the parking lot, ripping off the tags and wearing the newly-purchased togs on the trip back.  Kind of piggy, eh?

This problem was remedied by American retailers placing large bins for clothing recycling in the parking lots.  Our neighbors to the north responded appropriately by “donating” their apparel to the less-fortunate.

Next came the retail aggression.  The Toronto Star urged its readers to borrow physical tactics from one national sport (hockey) to enhance another (shopping).  “Go into those American stores with elbows flying.  Don’t let Tina from Tonawanda beat you out of that $350 flat-screen TV.”  Comments like these were reprinted in The Buffalo News.  Fore-checking in the aisles of Best Buy ensued.

After getting over the initial shock of this brazen overture toward physicality, I came to realize that Canadians had taken to engaging in tactics that they found so appalling when Americans came to Canada to shop when the U.S. dollar was king.  The bullied took on the characteristics of the bullies.

The latest flashpoint is The War of 1812.  Long-ignored by its actual combatants, America and Great Britain, Canada has apparently chosen to use this 200-year old conflict to burnish its national identity.  And judging by a cover story in one of Canada’s largest news weeklies, they are not afraid to use inflammatory rhetoric against their long-time ally to do so.

Maclean’s Magazine is comparable to Time  or Newsweek in the U.S.  In the October 17, 2011 issue, Peter Shawn Taylor writes “As plans are made to commemorate the War of 1812, the U.S. tries to steal our victory.”  That got my attention.  Reading on, I encountered:

Our former adversaries, those rebellious and aggressive Americans, are planning their own commemorations, and with a different take on the war.  They think they won.

If Canada intends to claim victory in the War of 1812 we’re going to have to fight for it.  All over again.

Taylor also reports that the Canadian Heritage Minister (in charge of a $11.5 million budget to commemorate this conflict) does not intend “to rub it in” (Canada’s alleged victory over the U.S.) “for fear of antagonizing our sensitive southern neighbours.”

That last bit is rather telling of how Canadians view Americans.  Admittedly, it must not be easy living in the shadow of the world’s last remaining superpower.  I wonder if Mexicans have similar feelings?

1812 is a complicated war.  It was fought on land and sea in hundreds of locales from Toronto to New Orleans.  It involved many different interests, and its causes are too numerous to list in this post.  But, the commonly-taught, easy explanation is that America went to war with Britain over its former colonial master’s capturing of American ships and impressment of sailors into the British navy.  This is the only explanation for the war that Taylor offers in the Maclean’s article.

It turns out that impressment of sailors is a facile explanation that tends to ignore one of the less-than-attractive reasons why Americans hungered for war against their former rivals in 1812:

All along the [American] boundary, from Vermont to the Georgia Piedmont, white Americans wanted to push the boundary of white settlement ever farther into Indian country…Earlier [American history] textbooks simply repeated the pretext offered by the Madison administration — Britain’s refusal to show proper respect to American ships and seamen — even though it made no sense.   After all, Britain’s maritime laws caused no war until the frontier states sent War Hawks — senators and representatives who promised military action to expand the boundaries of the United States — to Congress in 1810.  Whites along the frontier wanted the war, and along the frontier most of the war was fought…The United States fought five of the seven major land battles of the War of 1812 primarily against Native Americans.

“Lies My Teacher Told Me” by James W. Loewen.  1995, 2007, Touchstone Books.

According to Peter Shawn Taylor in the Maclean’s article, Canadians have chosen to celebrate 1812 as the war that shaped Canadian national identity.  They view the conflict as a zero-sum game:  Canada 1, U.S.A. 0.  And now Canadians are apparently bristling that Americans refuse to acknowledge this “defeat.”

It’s just not as simple as that.  As Loewen indicates in Lies My Teacher Told Me, the key outcome of the war was this:

In exchange for America’s pledge to leave Canada alone, Great Britain gave up its alliances with the American Indian nations in what would become the United States.   Without war materiel and other aid from European allies, future Indian wars were transformed from major international conflicts to domestic mopping-up operations.

Thus, the American Indians were the only real losers of the War of 1812.

Canada’s need to spin the result into a defeat of its larger neighbor is really kind of sad.  But, it is consistent with the largest component of Canadian national identity.  Although Canada likes to define its own sense of Canadian-ness as a distinct culture that celebrates hockey, beer and shopping, the real motivating factor is differentiation from its neighbor.  We are not Americans! We are not like them at all!, Canadians are wont to shout.

Molson Beer used this advertising concept for years -- until the company merged with American brewer, Coors. Note the Canadian's need to set himself apart from Americans.

Yet they watch our television programs.  Yet they drive our cars.  Yet their finest actors and comedians come to Hollywood and New York to “make it.”  Yet they prefer American football to their own three-down version of the game.  Yet Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Home Depot, and many other American chains litter the Canadian countryside while virtually no Canadian chains have made inroads into America (with the limited exception of Western New York’s beloved embrace of Tim Horton’s).

Lookit.  I’m not trying to bash my neighbours (note I have adopted their spelling of the word as a sort of olive branch).  I love Canadians.  I think they’re fun-loving, open-minded, talented people.  I treasure the fact that Running Girl and I are raising our family on the border with this great nation.  It was one of the reasons we chose Buffalo when we were looking for a place to settle down after my discharge from the Army.

All I’m saying is, we’re two great nations.  Canada shouldn’t have to resort to passive aggressive slams of The States to enhance their own self-image.

Eh?

— The Major (answers to quiz below)

Answers to POP QUIZ:

  1. Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
  2. The Conservative Party and the Liberal Party
  3. Montreal Alouettes, Toronto Argonauts, BC Lions, Hamilton Tiger-Cats, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Calgary Stampeders, Edmonton Esquimos, Saskatchewan Roughriders.
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