September 15, 2009 | Newsweek
Canada Grows Up
Anti-Americanism has been Canada's defining intellectual ailment for generations. Not the fire-breathing hatred felt in some parts of the world, or even the elitist sneer directed westward from across the Atlantic; it was always a more neighborly, eye-rolling disapproval that reached its zenith under George W. Bush. In 2003, Canada rejected American entreaties to join in the invasion of Iraq, and the Canadian press bristled with shrill attacks on the neocon agenda. Meanwhile, Canadian activists spread conspiracy theories about supposed U.S. plots to steal fresh water and undermine Canada's public-health system. At a climate-change conference in Montreal, then-prime minister Paul Martin personally called out the United States for thwarting the “global conscience” by rejecting Kyoto. The worst arguably came in January 2004, when a prominent Toronto Star op-ed columnist ticked off the various ways in which the U.S. president resembled Adolf Hitler.
That was then. Suddenly Canadian attitudes have matured at a breakneck pace-and not just because Americans elected Barack Obama (though of course that's a part of it). As Prime Minister Stephen Harper prepares to visit the Oval Office on Wednesday, Canada's chronic anti-Americanism has entered a period of remission.
Bush's meetings with prime ministers were obsessively scrutinized by the Canadian media for signs that Canada was getting too close to Uncle Sam. What “too close” meant was never properly defined. But the general sense was that an appropriately nationalistic Canadian leader should seize any available opportunity to hector the Americans about . . . something-missile defense, Iraq, free trade, foreign affairs-if only as a symbolic demonstration of Canada's pluck and moral superiority.
On Wednesday, however, the atmosphere is expected to be friendly. Even as he prepares this fall for a possible election-the traditional Canadian season for anti-American demagoguery-Harper won't be looking to pick a fight. Yes, Obamamania plays a small role: while it has cooled in the United States, the president remains a rock star in Canada: After all, most Canadians like universal health care. Earlier this year, when Obama visited Ottawa, the same left-wing Canadian politicians who once badmouthed any leader who cozied up to Bush were openly coveting their own photo ops with the new U.S. president.
But there are other factors at work. For one thing, in late 2006, the opposition Liberals-who, under Prime Minister Martin, adopted a more-Canadian-than-thou propaganda campaign against the supposedly pro-American Conservatives-elected as their new leader Michael Ignatieff, a man who'd spent most of his adult life outside Canada (most recently as a professor at Harvard University). In the U.S. press, Ignatieff was known to address Americans with the pronoun “we.” He also originally supported the Iraq War, championed harsh interrogation techniques for accused terrorists, and generally helped provide liberal cover to Bush during the early post-9/11 period. Not surprisingly, Ignatieff has sealed up the Liberal Party's anti-American propaganda spigot.
For another, Canadian anti-Americanism is fueled, fundamentally, by envy and fear. But over the past year, the United States has been laid low by a devastating financial collapse, a crash in home prices, and a worsening jobs crisis. Canada's economy, on the other hand, has escaped relatively unscathed. Its banking and real-estate sectors, in particular, have been models of well-regulated stability compared with their American counterparts. In October 2008, in fact, the World Economic Forum proclaimed Canada to have the soundest banking system on the entire planet. (The United States came in 40th on the global list.) And going into the recent mortgage meltdown, Canada's subprime mortgage market represented only about one in every 20 mortgages. In the United States, the peak figure was about one in six. Whatever Canadians think about the direction of the United States under Obama, few of them are still worried about American billionaires buying up their country lock, stock, and barrel.
Finally, America has long been lampooned by Canadian social critics as a throwback to a cruel, bygone era of laissez-faire capitalism. But under the Democratic Congress and White House, the government's role in the economy has surged-a trend that will only continue if the president delivers a public option in this year's health-care bill. In Canada, meanwhile, the Conservative government has kept taxes low (by Canadian standards), and the size of the federal stimulus has remained modest. (The U.S. federal deficit is now about 13 percent of GDP, compared with just 3 percent in Canada.) The overall result is that the Canadian and American approaches to the size of government are beginning to converge.
Of course, policy differences remain. Many Canadian business leaders are rightly angry, for instance, over the “Buy American” provisions contained in Washington's stimulus package. A dispute over fishing rights is brewing in the Beaufort Sea. And Obama may ramp up the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, even as Canada is set to pull back its own troops in 2011. But these are normal disagreements between mature democracies. Harper and Obama will debate them in a sober, rational manner-without any of the posturing, nationalistic baggage or overzealous Canadian press coverage that have attended this sort of meeting in the past. This healing trend comes primarily as an unintended effect of recent developments in Washington and on Wall Street. But it's also a sign that Canada has grown up.
Jonathan Kay is managing editor for comment at Canada's National Post Newspaper.