OUR FRIENDS IN THE GREAT WHITE NORTH
by Chris R. Morgan
I can tell you the exact moment when The Daily Show had lost me. It was seven years ago when correspondent Jason Jones travelled to Arizona State University. His aim was to mock the school that denied the nascent President Obama an honorary degree for an apparent lack of achievement. The stunt on ASU’s part looked as patently stupid then as it looks now, and Jones needn’t have broken a sweat lamenting the apparent shame of being snubbed by what he called “the Harvard of date rape.” But a comedic meal so rich in calories was still insufficient for Jones’s appetite. He needed a side dish, a gravy-soaked humor biscuit, which came in the form of Kim Campbell, whom Arizona State honored for her service as Prime Minister of Jones’s native Canada for five months. For the minute she was given, the game Campbell defended herself. “I was the first woman Prime Minister of Canada, I was the first woman to be Defense Minister of a NATO country,” she insisted over audience laughter. But Jones was unmoved, and his point was made.
The Daily Show’s humor tends to work under the assumption that few if any of its viewers will inquire about its subjects beyond the context in which the show frames them. This seems to have served the show well in this case. Jones’s summary of Campbell serving 142 days as Prime Minister before being “voted out of office” is accurate. What it oddly overlooked, however, is that not only was Campbell voted out, but so were 153 other members of her party, leaving just two Conservative seats in Canada’s House of Commons. It is perhaps the most devastating defeat of a ruling party in the history of constitutional democracy. The Conservatives were in fifth place behind The New Democrats, the Reformers, the Bloc Quebecers, and the Liberals. Perhaps Jones thought he was airing on the side of politeness by this omission, but then why parade her on Comedy Central at her expense at all? More likely it was a matter of expediency. The broad concept would assuredly deliver. To Arizona State University, the bar for Canadian achievement was low; for The Daily Show, Canadian achievement in itself was cannon fodder.
Canada’s land area is some 3.8 million square miles holding over 30 million people compared to the 3.7 million square miles of the United States and its over 300 million people. I could spend an inordinate amount of time superficially comparing these countries. But our geographical and historical conjoining seems pointless to explore compared to the symbolic conjoining that entrances us far more so. Canada is vast, almost imposing over us, but Americans below see it in diminished terms. For most it is little pondered, a quiet house in the neighborhood occupied by quirky but friendly enough people who don’t call the police when our parties get out of hand. A dismissive attitude certainly but preferable compared to others who see Canada either as an empty cultural frontier in need of pioneering or as a safe house when the atmosphere in America becomes too suffocating.
If the former was evident on The Daily Show the latter was on full display, as it so often is, during election season, wherein a notably irksome office-seeker causes the citizens he or she irks to declare that they will “move to Canada” if he or she is elected. This happened in 2004 and 2008, but the desire in 2016 seemed so heated that Canada’s immigration website crashed as Donald Trump’s succession to Barack Obama became inescapable. Lena Dunham, Bryan Cranston, Chloe Sevigny, and others all pledged to emigrate north once that came to pass. Canadians themselves have been graciously affectionate in this ordeal, praising us for inventing the internet, our cultural contributions, our disability laws, and our apparent destiny to land humans on Mars. But to be the continuous butt of anxious jokes of a financially flush, globally active creative class seems an odd thing to tolerate. Perhaps they don’t need to hear it. Perhaps their knowing what Americans don’t about their country is enough to brush it off. Or most Americans anyway.
It is surely a source of great perplexity to those who maybe halfway know me that my knowledge of Canada is as wide—if not quite as deep—as it is. No less so to actual Canadians. And while all three of my brothers have been to Canada on separate occasions—one of them was even in a band that had moved to New Jersey from Vancouver—I have not set foot on its soil, and have no intention to (more on that later). My interest came from a few sources, but primarily from the 1993 edition World Book encyclopedia set my mom had given me, because I wouldn’t stop reading a 1975 edition at school (and that is why I still use Czechoslovakia). The set was likely meant for both sides of the 49th parallel, as it had detailed multipage entries on each Canadian Prime Minister, ending with Brian Mulroney, in a style similar to that of our Presidents, ending in Bill Clinton. It was probably the dichotomy it offered that spurred the interest on, mostly along political and historical lines. The internet only enabled it, particularly upon discovering that a lot of archived National Film Board and CBC material can be viewed online for free in the United States. And though my knowledge is imperfect, I offer this tribute to those aspects of Canada that most fascinate me.
Canada is a spiteful nation. For all of the similarities and familiar friendliness the United States and Canada share, there’s still the strange fact of Canada’s very existence. Indeed, its very identity is fortified in its continual rebuffs of America’s intentions for more than a century. Americans little remember the War of 1812, but it remains fresh for Canadians, particularly the finale in which they with British troops burned Washington DC. Confederation itself was spurred as John A. Macdonald and his Tories looked down in abject horror at our Civil War. John Diefenbaker feuded tensely with Kennedy over nuclear missile storage on Canadian soil, and George Grant’s Lament for a Nation bemoaned the encroaching liberal modernist influence of the United States on Canada. “We know what our rights are. We enjoy them. We don’t have to state them,” Manitoba Premier Sterling Lyon said of Pierre Trudeau’s constitutional reforms. “This rather American approach to it is really not ours. We don’t worry about things like that. We do what’s right.” This was put more neatly when, analyzing the “geopolitics of Girls,” Foreign Policy’s Daniel W. Drezner singled out the Canadian attributes of Zosia Mamet’s Shoshanna as being “seemingly polite, but bubbling over with passive-aggressive insecurities.”
Canada is a divided nation. America’s assumption of a monopoly on internal existential strife is maybe the primary symbol of its self-centeredness. There have been many civil wars in the world since our own but ours somehow stands as the Pet Sounds of that style of conflict, and it infects our thinking today. But America’s social problems are more a hellish bacchanal of intersectional short-circuiting than a simple us versus them-ism. Canada may not be immune from such overlaps but its collection of neat binaries is impressive: indigenous versus settler; English versus Scottish; Anglophone versus Francophone; Tory versus Grit; provincialism versus federalism; eastern cities versus western prairies; the maritime versus everyone else. These conflicts exert themselves in different and comparably less dramatic ways than we are prone down here. Which is preferable seems like a matter of taste; if Canadians are subtler, Americans are more cathartic.
Canada is a changing nation. But also an orderly one. In some ways it is understandable how Canada can haunt us from above as it does. Our flair for the dramatic, our simultaneous pathological attachment to tradition and impulsive drive for pioneering has long left our social workings exhausted, confused, and constipated. Separation of powers becomes competition of powers. Fearful resistance to slight short-term change backfires into momentous, traumatic long-term revolution. Canada’s reputation of social maturity seems earned at least in part. It contains a healthy amount of legislative supremacy, it accommodates political diversity more ably, it is not as conflicted about socialism, its Supreme Court Justices are age-limited, provinces do not have apocalyptic shit fits whenever the federal government interferes in their interests. Its Senate is a laughingstock but you take the bad with the decent.
Canada is a strange nation. It is the land that gave us Margaret Atwood, David Cronenberg (with public funding!), Black Christmas, Kids in the Hall, and Marshall McLuhan. It gave the Governor General’s Literary Award to a novel about a librarian who has sex with a bear. It is the land of yogic flying and William Lyon Mackenzie King’s dogs. Most confounding of all was when it treated The Tragically Hip’s final show earlier this year as if it was a state funeral. Canada’s strangeness is a refreshingly self-conscious and honest one. It seems at once unique to it while also being apart from it. Contrast this with the United States, which is not so much weird as it is authentic. And yet …
Canada is a lame nation. There’s no concealing it. Its history is drier and less mythical or epic. (Though Kate Beaton does her damnedest.) It propped up Stephen Harper for nearly a decade, and foisted Rush, Bryan Adams, Alanis Morissette, and Snow on everyone. In this regard I feel bad for Canada. In a perfect world, such things would not be embarrassments but simple broad entertainment sources. It would be a world without its southward neighbor, that is, whose cultural life is shaped almost entirely out of tragedy, conflict, and its incurable religious impulses. Canada is lame much in the same way that America is intense, and Americans wear their intensity about as boldly as they feel it. It is truly a complex I do not wish on friend and enemy alike.
But Canada is, after everything, a nation. It is not a massive heated blanket in which Americans can wrap themselves whenever they are frightful—and are they ever so.
With such a tribute it would seem all the more puzzling that I haven’t visited Canada. But as I see it, the longing is felt because rather than in spite of the fact that I will never see the nation with my own eyes. It is not so much my distaste for air travel or my aversion to cold weather, though they certainly play a part, but more crucially it runs counter to what makes me American. If there is an ideal relationship between Canada and America, it is that of Charlie Bucket staring at the titular chocolate factory from the gates, a place where “nobody ever goes in, nobody ever comes out.” America is my home and my tomb. It needs constant upkeep for the time when the mystic cord to which I and my fellow citizens are tied pulls me into the ground and puts me to my greatest use. I could never be wholly engaged with any foreign country, as I would be fretting over the mutations I am missing out on back in my own. Any citizen of a non-American country would see plainly how badly I mix in with them. I mean, I do not mix well with other Americans but then other Americans do not mix well with all other Americans.
The fact of the matter is, Canada does not need this heaped upon it. If it wants it in small doses I’m sure it will extend the invitation, and perhaps some of us would gladly accept, only to realize it may not be as it seemed. Fun and pleasure may be found for a time, but no amount of free healthcare can cure the sickness felt by a spirit when locked out of its sepulcher.