It was quite by chance that I found myself in Canada on June 2, federal election day. It turned out to be an election that satisfied no one, and that may indeed mark one further step on the road to national dissolution. The ruling Liberal Party maintained its majority in the 301-seat Parliament, but by a diminished and now-narrow margin; the separatist Bloc Quebecois lost its position as official opposition; the populist conservative Reform Party came in a distant second to the Liberals and could not extend its western base into central or eastern Canada; and the remaining Progressive Conservative (PC) and New Democratic (NDP) parties, while improving on their near annihilation in the 1993 elections, made only modest gains.

The most ominous result of the election is that the Liberals, under Prime Minister Jean Chretien, constitute the only national party, and their representation in the west (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia) is spotty. The maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland) are divided among the Liberals, Progressive Conservatives, and New Democrats. Elsewhere, the Bloc Quebecois holds an almost two-to-one margin over the Liberals in Quebec, the Liberals have a stranglehold on Ontario (101 of 103 seats), and Reform dominates the west.

Nationalist sentiment has declined steadily over the years. It remains strong in Ontario and the Maritimes”in the former because, as the most populous province, it dominates federal politics; in the latter because they fear that national break-up will mean disaster for their fragile, heavily subsidized economies. French-speaking Quebecers feel estranged from English-speaking Canada, which is leery of granting their province special constitutional status, and they are increasingly persuaded that maintenance of their culture requires separate existence as a nation. (English-speaking Quebecers, a slowly dwindling minority, contemplate their fate in a separate Quebec with fear and trembling.) Westerners, for their part, are fed up both with Ontario, which they have always thought arrogantly indifferent to their interests, and with Quebec, which they consider ungrateful and unappeasable. If Quebec, despite extensive federal efforts to spread bilingualism and biculturalism across the country”efforts the west has always resented”still wants out of confederation, then, many westerners say, good riddance.

All this is quite different from the situation that prevailed during my years teaching at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, from 1964 to 1981. Sectional tensions existed, to be sure, but in what then seemed manageable forms. The Liberals”under Lester Pearson and Pierre Elliott Trudeau”held office through most of that period, but they were seriously challenged, coast to coast, by the PCs and, to a lesser degree, by the NDP. (That three-way competition seemed the natural way of things, but in 1997 it occurred only in the Maritimes.) Separatist sentiment grew during the 1970s, but the first Quebec referendum on independence in 1980 lost decisively. (The most recent one, in 1995, was very narrowly turned back, and gained a clear majority among French-speakers.) The west was restive, but not rebellious.

The great national preoccupation in those days was not national unity but national identity. (Not in French Canada: they knew very well who they were and had only contempt for what they took to be English Canada’s perpetual navel-gazing.) I understood the country’s concern for identity, but it made me very nervous. Soon after arriving in Canada it dawned on me that for English Canadians concerned to preserve (or establish) a distinct culture in North America there was just one obstacle: the Great Leviathan to the south. How could English Canadians, in a country with one-tenth the U.S. population, most of them living within one hundred miles of the American border, withstand the onslaught of Yankee culture? The answer was, They couldn’t. But they didn’t have to like it. Nothing drove Canadians to greater distraction than to be told by visiting Americans, who of course meant it as a compliment, that Canada was “just like the U.S.” There followed, for an American newly arrived in Canada, a forlorn but inescapable conclusion: Anti-Americanism is at the heart of Canadian patriotism .

It had not always been so”or at least not in the same way. Much of English Canada was first settled by United Empire Loyalists, those who, for a variety of reasons, took the losing side in the American Revolution and fled north after 1783. Their anti-Americanism had a substantive ideological base: they had rejected American liberalism (even if, in some cases, only after the fact) in favor of English conservatism. Not for them “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”; better to cling to the homelier but sturdier virtues later proclaimed in the British North America Act (1867), “peace, order, and good government.”

This ideological preference had an objective correlative: the British connection. Until after the Second World War Canadian patriotism was not just anti-American but pro-British. Canadians were proud members of the British Empire. Every day in my early years at Queen’s my walk to campus through a downtown park took me past a statue of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister and its premier nineteenth-century statesman. It bore the inscription: “A British subject I was born; a British subject I will die.” That sentiment, once central to Canadian identity, has today for most Canadians only historical significance.

Only the negative remains: Canadians are not Americans. Except that, in so many ways, they are. The ideological distinctions have eroded: Canadians are now politically more liberal, at least in the modern sense, than Americans. English Canadians, who are of necessity close observers of all that occurs south of the forty-ninth parallel, heavily favor Democratic politicians and causes over their Republican counterparts. Indeed, some Canadians, especially intellectuals and academics, have long dreamed of establishing socialism as the thing that distinguishes Canada from the United States, just as Toryism once did. But the democratic socialist NDP has never made the breakthrough to major party status on the federal level that so many of my colleagues at Queen’s were always sure was just around the corner.

More important, Canadian culture is saturated with American influences. Despite government efforts in recent years to put up barriers to American cultural imports and to establish “Canadian content” rules wherever possible, the American presence is ubiquitous. Canadians read American books, watch American movies, sing American songs. English Canadian culture is not nonexistent, but its condition is perpetually fragile. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the National Film Board, and Hockey Night in Canada all make a difference, but not a defining one. It is difficult to imagine how things could be otherwise.

Most Canadians have mostly resigned themselves to the situation. They are not happy with it, but they have learned, with varying degrees of good grace, to live with it. (And with the Americans in their midst. In my seventeen years in Canada as an American teaching American history I only on the rarest of occasions was made to feel awkward on that score.) Many Canadians hold their anti-Americanism in check by the ironic recognition that it could develop into the chauvinistic nationalism that, in their view, is one of America’s least attractive attributes. Canadians, as a senior colleague informed me early on, take what comfort they can in their necessarily complicated attitudes toward the U.S. by focusing on what Freud called “the narcissism of small differences.” They consider themselves more decorous than their southern neighbors, less given to aberrant enthusiasms, and also (though they try hard not to say so) simply . . . well, nicer.

The greatest restraint on anti-Americanism these days is the overriding concern with national unity. English Canadians can indulge only so much preoccupation with cultural identity when confronted, as they are, with the possibly imminent break-up of the nation. The priority for English Canada today is to keep Quebec in, not to hold American influences out. It used to be that Canadian nationalists looked with scorn on the Liberal Party because of its presumed “continentalism” (i.e., softness towards the U.S.). Today many of those same nationalists have concluded, however reluctantly, that as the last remaining national party only the Liberals can preserve confederation. Anti-Americanism will never disappear from Canadian life and politics, but it is not now, I suspect, nearly as potent as it was during my years there.

My experience in Canada was, on the whole, a pleasant one. I found Kingston an attractive city and Queen’s an excellent university. My students were first-rate and my colleagues (mostly) congenial. But life was shadowed by the nagging reality that I, an instinctive American patriot, lived in a culture marked by a polite but pervasive antipathy to the U.S. Most of my American colleagues resolved the dilemma for themselves by gradually shedding their American identities and, sooner or later, taking Canadian citizenship. I knew from the beginning that I could never do that.

And that is why on June 2, 1997, I once again experienced a Canadian election as I always had in the past”not as a participant but as a well-disposed, but finally quite distant, observer.

Articles by James Nuechterlein

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