VANCOUVER — A curious side effect of American political polarization may be the decline of Canadian anti-Americanism.
Though conceptualizing Canadians as a people who are, before anything else, “not American” is a centuries-old tradition, over the past 40 years this contrarianism has congealed around a narrower notion that Canadian not-Americanness is (or should be) defined through Canada’s embrace of policies and politicians to the left of American norms — stricter gun control, government-run health insurance, etc. It’s a conclusion assuming a high degree of national homogeneity — that Americans all basically think one way and Canadians another. If 2017 has demonstrated nothing else, however, it’s that neither nation is so easily generalized.
2017 saw Bernie Sanders travel to Toronto and lavish praise on a Canadian health-care system that polls suggest the majority of Democratic voters want to copy. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau became a global celebrity thanks to a giddy fan base of American progressives. Canadian liberals are used to being fetishized by a certain sort of American, but 2017 proved that the love is becoming far more mutual, as when thousands of Canadian women joined street protests against a freshly inaugurated President Donald Trump. I grew up hearing smug Canadian leftists sneer that the “most liberal Democrat is still to the right of a Canadian Conservative.” No one says that much anymore.
More significant, however, is the fact that so much of North American political debate now focuses far less on government policy and programs than social-cultural trends, most of which are not exclusive to one side of the continent. Canada’s American-bashers have traditionally made their case playing up weirdness in American government because it’s the easiest distraction from the vast cultural similarities of the two nations. That task is much harder when politics becomes less about congressmen and prime ministers, and more about lived experiences that transcend country.
The #MeToo movement, for instance, which Time magazine declared the most newsworthy phenomena of 2017, can hardly be regarded by Canadians as some exotic “American” thing. In a recent poll, a majority of Canadian working women reported that they had experienced sexual harassment, at rates little different from those found by American pollsters. Though not part of the domino effect that followed the Harvey Weinstein allegations, recent years have seen the standing of once-powerful Canadian men toppled overnight by allegations of misconduct, most notably radio host Jian Ghomeshi, two members of parliament, and, last fall, the head of Montreal’s acclaimed Just for Laughs comedy festival.
When Canadian-born Hollywood stars such as Rachel McAdams, Ellen Page and Sarah Polley spoke publicly about harassment, they spoke only as women — with no attempt to frame their experiences as something foreign. The Canadian entertainment industry, for its part, has promised to create an industry-wide code of conduct to fight what the president of the Toronto actors’ union called a “prevalent” problem.
The United States’ renewed interest in racial justice has been similarly mirrored across the border. All big Canadian cities now have their own branch of Black Lives Matter, and viral phenomena, like Kendall Jenner’s tone-deaf Pepsi commercial or football players taking a knee, reliably provoke national conversations in Canada as well. “Racism is not just an American problem, it’s a Canadian problem too,” concluded a local story on Black Lives Matter Calgary. But the backlash to all this has also transcended borders.
University of Toronto psychologist Jordan Peterson was easily one of the most prominent Canadian celebrities of 2017, earning continentwide acclaim in conservative circles — and disdain in progressive ones — for his passionate denunciations of contemporary left-wing causes, particularly gender fluidity. When Google employee James Damore was fired last August after his infamous memo on gender differences, it was to Peterson’s sympathetic ear that he gave one of his first extended interviews, recognizing the professor’s reach.
Legions of young Canadian men blog and meme-war about Trump with little sense that it’s a foreign fight; the president’s crusade against his stock enemies — political correctness, “globalists,” the “fake news” media — is one in which they find common cause. Canadians such as Stefan Molyneux, Faith Goldy and Lauren Southern have become major figures in the immigration-bashing alt-right counterculture, a movement that, paradoxically enough, tends to demonstrate its “nationalism” by elevating transnational concepts like “whiteness” or “the West” above patriotism for any particular nation-state.
The pervasiveness of Canadian anti-Americanism has always been one of history’s more unlikely phenomena, given the two countries have always been deeply integrated at the cultural, economic and familial level, while bigotries tend to be fuelled by ignorance and isolation. The most common explanation has been that Canadians crave a distinct sense of self, but as the most powerful identities of North American life become more personal and tribal, expect this motive to fade as well.
• J.J. McCullough, a political commentator and cartoonist from Vancouver, is a columnist at Loonie Politics.
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