With less than a week left until the election, as Joe Biden supporters frantically click “refresh” on FiveThirtyEight’s forecasts, they’re also engaging in a quadrennial American tradition: grimly joking about “moving to Canada.”
Journalists practically have their copy prewritten. The Guardian waggishly suggested that the first Trump-Biden debate was bad enough “to trigger a potential mass exodus” based on an uptick in Google searches for “How to apply for Canadian citizenship.” An Australian news site cataloged Americans’ tweets threatening—or promising—relocations to the queen’s northern dominion. Quartz put out a helpful explainer listing the occupations that help Americans get Canadian work permits fastest.
One could dismiss partisans’ threats of moving to Canada as just cheap talk or frustration. That would be a mistake. The casual nature of the threat to emigrate reveals something about what we international relations scholars call the “taken-for-granted” assumptions that underpin Americans’ imagination about the world.
Far from being harmless or innocent, the remark shows that Americans, even ostensibly cosmopolitan and liberal ones, really don’t grasp the pervasiveness of U.S. power. It relies on the assumption that American politics is a local, parochial problem that someone can simply escape the way you’d move to avoid a noisy corner of a restaurant, and that escaping American power just requires a little social distancing—a jaunt over the border.
In reality, American politics isn’t something you can opt out of any more than you can choose to be affected by gravity. The United States is a hegemon, a country so powerful that it can shape the rules of the international system. It routinely applies pressure to countries, especially those that most closely orbit its power, as when Washington recently pushed Canada to detain a Chinese executive accused of violating U.S. sanctions in Vancouver.
In one sense, it’s not surprising that Americans don’t know much about how hegemony shapes other countries’ politics and societies. As University of Virginia political scientist Brantly Womack explains in his book Asymmetry and International Relations, hegemonic powers like the United States have the privilege of treating their relations with weaker countries more or less as hobbies simply because there’s rarely much at stake for them.
Weaker powers, however, have no such luxury. Their relationships with great powers, even friendly ones, carry the potential for great danger. Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau (father of the current Canadian leader) put it best five decades ago: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly or even-tempered is the beast—if I can call it that—one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
Trudeau’s jest remains just as accurate today. Americans tend not to notice the disruptions their politics cause for Canada.
Consider trade. Canada is the second-largest trading partner for the United States, while the U.S. is Canada’s most important trading partner. That imbalance means that American twitches and grunts can whipsaw entire Canadian industries.
“Every tariff Trump has thrown on goods has caused a panic up here, because it means we have to find alternative buyers for goods,” Jordan Carlson, a Ph.D. student in geography at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, told me.
For Carlson, like many Canadians, exposure to the U.S. economy isn’t academic but personal. He grew up in British Columbia, where pulp and lumber mills form a big part of the local economy. U.S. tariffs on softwood lumber disrupted the industry, causing his family to move repeatedly during his childhood.
Canada’s close relationship with—even dependence on—the United States means informed Canadians follow American politics closely because news from a foreign country can portend significant domestic repercussions. “When the stories coming from America are as big as they are, they just overpower everything,” said Jennifer Bonder, a junior fellow at the Munk School at the University of Toronto.
American political news can even overpower major Canadian stories. For example, within hours of the first Trump-Biden debate on Sept. 29, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government survived a confidence vote and passed coronavirus relief. “Which story had more relevance to Canadians—and which story do you think got all the coverage?” Bonder said.
Bonder observes that a poll of Canadians in the leading newsmagazine Maclean’s showed that 72 percent would support Biden over Trump, who polled 14 percent. “But I can’t find any polling that’s been done on Americans about which prime ministerial candidate they think should win,” Bonder said. “Because why would they?”
In other words, Americans joking about fleeing to Canada to escape American politics are in for a rude awakening. American politics and how to respond to them occupy practically as central a place in Canadian discourse, especially under Trump. The Canadian political scientists Philippe Lagassé and Srdjan Vucetic recently argued that a second Trump term could force Canada to “confront its dependence on the U.S. more directly and with greater urgency.”
The Canadian journalist Doug Saunders pursues similar themes in his book Maximum Canada, which urges Canada to boost its already sky-high (by rich-world standards) immigration levels in order to develop a larger internal market and cultural sphere that would help balance America’s unthinking domination.
(By the way, Saunders notes in passing that traditionally most migration between the United States and Canada has flowed the other way, with Canadians attracted by the greater opportunities afforded in the larger markets to the south. That pattern persists even today, albeit at lower levels. In 2018, official statistics show, 10,907 Americans achieved permanent residency in Canada, while in the same year the United States admitted 14,337 Canadians to that status.)
In the very long run, such options might bear fruit. Ironically, a continuation of Trumpian policies might even help Canada accomplish it, since his zealously xenophobic immigration policies have redirected the global flow of talent to the north, as the CBC noted a few weeks ago.
To be sure, there have been times when escaping to Canada has been a good choice for Americans facing serious persecution. From the American Revolution until the Civil War, for example, many Black Americans found Canada to be a comparative refuge from enslavement and other violations of their human rights.
After the American Revolution, several thousand formerly enslaved people found freedom in Nova Scotia and elsewhere thanks to British Governor General Guy Carleton, who refused George Washington’s demand for the return of slaves who had supported the British. A similar story brought thousands more freed people to Canada after the War of 1812, while even more enslaved people escaped slavery by moving to Canada through the Underground Railroad. Later, up to 40,000 Americans moved to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War draft—and many stayed.
Yet those circumstances are unlikely to be repeated. And, for what it’s worth, it’s not that easy to move to Canada anymore—even for an American. Even setting aside the closure of the U.S.-Canada border due to COVID, immigration restrictions are tough, even if you have an American passport. As the American comedian Hari Kondabolu put it back in 2011, “I hate to break this to you, but Canada doesn’t have a special visa for American liberal cowards.”
Americans might be better off in a lot of ways if they stopped treating Canada as a joke and started taking it seriously. Canada scores substantially higher than the United States on the Varieties of Democracy indexes, which measure the quality of each country’s government. It scores almost 30 spots higher on the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Its infant mortality rate is 25 percent lower than that of the United States.
The point isn’t that Canada is perfect. It’s not. It has its own histories of nativist and racial persecution, and the ongoing condition of its Indigenous First Nations is a scandal. (The CBC podcast The Secret Life of Canada extinguishes the myth of Canada as a “nicer” country.) It has seen its own violent attacks on women and Muslims. Given that Canadian politics faces its own instabilities and has a right wing of its own, Americans fleeing Trump might even end up ruled by politicians who resemble less the crunchy stereotype of the polite Canadian and more people like Ontario Premier Doug Ford who are more or less standard-issue American conservatives.
The point is that Canada is a real place, with its own history, society, and politics. And, like billions of people around the globe, Canadians’ lives are deeply shaped by the United States, even though they have no way to vote in U.S. elections.
Dreams of escaping U.S. politics reflect a desire to deny facing up to the fact that American power and American politics are inescapable—a structural condition, not a consumer choice.
Americans can’t avoid that responsibility, no matter where in the world they try to flee.
“Where could one go that would be free from, inter alia, U.S. influence on the trajectory of climate change, global trade policy, or liberal democracy and global institutions?” Will Greaves, a professor of international relations at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, told me. “If such a place exists, it definitely isn’t the country right next door where public policy, national interests, and general culture are intimately wound with those of the U.S.”
Despite calls like Vucetic and Lagassé’s for distancing between the two countries, Canada’s fate will remain entwined with America’s for a very long time to come. Taking that relationship—and responsibility—seriously stands the jokes about fleeing northward on their head. The way for Americans to be responsible neighbors isn’t to leave but to stay. If hegemony can’t be escaped, maybe we can at least fight to improve it.