Anti-Americanism in Canada

Anti-American books

A good way to become a best-selling author in Canada is to write a book that centres around some theme of Canadian weakness in the face of U.S. aggression.

Canada and the United States are quite possibly the two most similar countries in the world. Their residents speak the same language, eat the same foods, watch the same TV shows, live in similar-looking cities, labour in the same industries and share the same basic values of work, family and friendship. But familiarity can also breed contempt and insecurity, and Canadians spend a lot of time trying to come up with reasons why they are not like Americans. Or, just as often, why Americans are worse.

Disliking, judging, teasing and even hating America sadly forms a central part of the Canadian identity, and is a bias that tends to run through most aspects of Canadian society and culture. For various reasons, the default position of a vast many Canadians is that America, Americans and American things are generally bad, and need to be opposed. These feelings are not always logical and consistent, and can certainly be hypocritical in practice, but they do exist, and understanding their important role in all aspects of Canadian culture is necessary to understand what makes Canadians Canadian.

Anti-Americanism in Canadian Politics

As two very similar countries, Canada and America obviously can learn a lot from studying one another. An idea that works in one country may be worth importing into the other, while an idea that fails in one will probably fail across the border, too. Canadian politics frequently embraces the latter principle to an extremely exaggerated degree, with America often being presented as a nation that is basically ruined beyond repair, and thus a country that Canada should be very careful to avoid copying.

Anti-Harper attack ad

During Canada's 2006 federal election, the Liberal Party ran attack ads blasting Conservative Leader Stephen Harper for being too "pro-American." Harper's team countered by denouncing the ads themselves as "American-style" gutter politics.

It’s exceedingly common for Canadian politicians to describe ideas they don’t like as being “American-style.” For example, someone who supports looser gun laws might be denounced as favouring an “American-style” approach to gun control. Someone who wants to tinker with Canadian medicare will be blasted for favouring “American-style” health care. A proposal for Canada to ditch the monarchy and become a republic would be condemned as ushering in “American-style” government.

The “American-style” slur is more commonly levelled at conservatives by liberals than vice versa, in part because it’s fashionable on the Canadian left to view Canada as a country defined by its embrace of progressivism, while seeing America’s flaws as the direct result of the country’s conservatism. But rare has been the party or politician who hasn’t found some occasion to accuse his opponent of being too “American” at one time or another — no matter how lame or forced the analogy may be.

Anti-Americanism in Canadian Pop Culture

A running trope in Canadian pop culture is comparing Americans to Canadians; a contrast that rarely has the Americans coming out well. If a Canadian character is witty, worldly, sophisticated and modern, you can count on the American character to be hickish, dumb, boorish and sheltered. Another favourite stereotype is the mythical ideal of the American who is woefully uniformed about Canada; some yahoo who expects to see dogsleds on every street corner and a beaver-skin hat on every head.

Rick Mercer

Rick Mercer in many ways embodies the ideal form of the Canadian anti-American: smart, sarcastic and savage in his commentary, but affable and easygoing in his personality.

In the early 2000s, the Molson Canadian beer company ran a number of hugely popular ads that played on this theme, showing cool Canadian guys striking back after being confronted by obnoxiously ignorant American douchebags. One particularly famous one, dubbed “the rant,” consisted of a cool guy aggressively comparing Canada to the U.S. (“I believe in diversity, not assimilation! Peacekeeping, not policing!”), before dramatically finishing with, “My name is Joe… and I AM CANADIAN!” The actor became a huge national star, and was even recruited by the Canadian Minister of Heritage to recite “the rant” at Canada Day festivities across the country.

Rick Mercer (b. 1969), now one of Canada’s biggest TV stars, similarly achieved his fame through a comedy series called “Talking to Americans.” As the title suggests, the show consisted of Mercer visiting American cities, microphone in hand, and asking the locals simple questions of Canadian trivia, or gauging their reactions to obviously made-up Canadian “facts,” with hilarious results.

As discussed in the Canadian pop culture chapter, made-in-Canada media is not tremendously popular, and most Canadians are fully capable of consuming (and relating to) American actors, characters and settings without much judgment or bias. But this can breed a kind of insecurity unto itself, and aggressive reminders of “why we’re better” in the forms of jokes, gags, cartoons and insults remain a popular cultural currency just the same.

Why are Canadians Anti-American?

Attempting to find a single root cause of the sometimes intense, sometimes subtle anti-Americanism in Canada is a complicated topic which many Canadians have written about at length. Generally, the most commonly held belief is that by vilifying America, Canadians are able to create a collective identity for themselves. Especially in an era where Canadians and Americans are becoming more similar in their lifestyles, language and culture, Canadians tend to focus on what they are not rather than what they are. We are not Americans. Therefore, we are Canadians.

The Walrus War of 1812 cover

The cover of the February 2012 edition of The Walrus, a left-leaning current affairs magazine, celebrates the bicentennial anniversary of the 1812 War without much subtlety.

There are also those who interpret Canada’s history as being one long struggle against “U.S. domination,” making anti-Americanism a sort of Canadian founding creed. Canadians partial to this perspective will view the United States as the single greatest threat to Canadian sovereignty, and a country that is always on the brink of conquering Canada — not just militarily, but culturally, politically and economically as well. Canadian history books usually make much of episodes like the War of 1812, the Fenian Raids and other instances where Americans were seen to be plotting the “annexation of Canada,” with the implication being that the sneaky Americans always look at Canada with hungry eyes. As mentioned, this also frequently manifests in the form of left-wing politicians and activists who fear what further American encroachment would mean for the future of Canadian progressive values and social programs.

While anti-American Canadians do tend to exaggerate the historical record, there is obviously some truth in these critiques. The tendency for Americans, especially American politicians, to either ignore or take Canada for granted has often been pronounced, and over the years there have been a number of American diplomatic slights against the country that have caused great offence. A typical example would be Rick Mercer’s revelation in 2000 that Vice President Al Gore (b. 1948) didn’t know the name of Canada’s capital, or a 2001 speech from President George W. Bush (b. 1946) that recited a long list of U.S. allies — but conspicuously omitted Canada.

Charter stain

During the Cold War, the United States often tested cruise missiles in the Canadian prairies. Upset over this, in 1983 a protester gained access to the national archives and dumped red paint on the Canadian constitution, permanently staining the country's most important document.

Lastly, one final explanation may be immigration. Though a lot of immigrants come to Canada for non-ideological reasons of employment, family, safety or convenience, there have always been more than a few immigrants who settle in Canada precisely because they don’t want to emigrate to the United States — historically, the world’s number one destination for North American migrants — due to some base dislike of American culture, politics or society. It should also be noted, however, that during the Vietnam War (1964-1973) and to a lesser extent the second Bush presidency (2001-2009), a large number of Americans emigrated to Canada because they themselves disliked some element of their home country.

Canadian-American Integration

Flag pinIn the end, however, Canada’s cultural anti-Americanism should not disguise the very real way that Canadians often casually or unconsciously think of themselves as Americans in day-to-day life. Most Canadians generally take it for granted that American studies or polls on topics like social behaviour, spending habits, family trends and personal psychology apply equally to their country, for example, and it’s very common to hear Canadians speak of “we North Americans” as one giant cultural group, in contrast to Europeans or Asians or other “real” foreigners. One of the great troubles of Canada’s entertainment industry, in fact, is that Canadians are almost too familiar and comfortable with American TV shows, music and movies (which barely seem foreign at all), meaning it’s often quite difficult for supposedly “distinctly Canadian” content to generate much public interest. To many, the phrase may even be an oxymoron.

A great struggle of Canadian existence is how to make peace with these two conflicting realities. How does one accept being very much like an American, but also hold a sense of pride in Canada, and the distinct sense of being something special and separate? It’s not a question with an easy answer.

Links About Canadian Anti-Americanism:

Quick Facts:

  • Canada and the United States are extremely similar countries, which causes discomfort to Canadians who want their nation to be notably different.
  • Canadian culture and politics tends to emphasize the ways in which Canada is "better" than the United States, with "better" usually understood to mean smarter and more progressive.
  • In its worst form, Canadian anti-Americanism can often be aggressive, ignorant or conspiratorial.
  • Canada and the United States are becoming more economically, culturally and politically integrated as the years go on, which only helps complicate the relationship.