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Before You Flee to Canada, Can We Talk?

By Nora Jacobson
Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page B02

TORONTO

I moved to Canada after the 2000 election. Although I did it mainly for career reasons -- I got a job whose description read as though it had been written precisely for my rather quirky background and interests -- at the time I found it gratifying to joke that I was leaving the United States because of George W. Bush. It felt fine to think of myself as someone who was actually going to make good on the standard election-year threat to leave the country. Also, I had spent years of my life feeling like I wasn't a typical American and wishing I could be Canadian. I wanted to live in a country that was not a superpower, a country I believe to have made the right choices about fairness, human rights and the social compact.

So I could certainly identify with the disappointed John Kerry supporters who started fantasizing about moving to Canada after Nov. 2. But after nearly four years as an American in the Great White North, I've learned it's not all beer and doughnuts. If you're thinking about coming to Canada, let me give you some advice: Don't.

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Although I enjoy my work and have made good friends here, I've found life as an American expatriate in Canada difficult, frustrating and even painful in ways that have surprised me. As attractive as living here may be in theory, the reality's something else. For me, it's been one of almost daily confrontation with a powerful anti-Americanism that pervades many aspects of life. When I've mentioned this phenomenon to Canadian friends, they've furrowed their brows sympathetically and said, "Yes, Canadian anti-Americanism can be very subtle." My response is, there's nothing subtle about it.

The anti-Americanism I experience generally takes this form: Canadians bring up "the States" or "Americans" to make comparisons or evaluations that mix a kind of smug contempt with a wariness that alternates between the paranoid and the absurd.

Thus, Canadian media discussion of President Bush's upcoming official visit on Tuesday focuses on the snub implied by his not having visited earlier. It's reported that when he does come, he will not speak to a Parliament that's so hostile it can't be trusted to receive him politely. Coverage of a Canadian athlete caught doping devolves into complaints about how Americans always get away with cheating. The "Blame Canada" song from the "South Park" movie is taken as documentary evidence of Americans' real attitudes toward this country. The ongoing U.S. ban on importing Canadian cattle (after a case of mad cow disease was traced to Alberta) is interpreted as a form of political persecution. A six o'clock news show introduces a group of parents and children who are convinced that the reason Canadian textbooks give short shrift to America's failed attempts to invade the Canadian territories in the War of 1812 is to avoid antagonizing the Americans -- who are just waiting for an excuse to give it another try.

My noisy neighbors revel in Canada's two hockey golds at the 2002 Olympics because "We beat the Americans in America!" The first gay couple to wed in Ontario tells the press, before they say anything else, that they are glad they don't live in the United States. A PR person at the hospital where I work, who has been eager to talk to me about a book I've published, puts down her pen when she learns that I'm American and that the book is nearly devoid of "Canadian content."

More seriously, in the wake of 9/11, after the initial shock wore off, it was common to hear some Canadians voice the opinion that Americans had finally gotten what they deserved. The attacks were just deserts for years of interventionist U.S. foreign policy, the increasing inequality between the world's poorest nations and the wealthiest one on earth, and a generalized arrogance. I heard similar views expressed after Nov. 2, when Americans were perceived to have revealed their true selves and thus to "deserve" a second Bush term.

Canadians often use three metaphors to portray their relationship with the United States. They describe Canada as "sleeping with an elephant." Even when the elephant is at rest, they worry that it may suddenly roll over and crush them. They refer to the U.S.-Canadian border as "the longest one-way mirror in the world" -- Canadians peer closely at Americans, trying to make sense of their every move, while the United States sees only its own reflection. Finally, they liken Canada to a gawky teenage girl with a hopeless crush on the handsome and popular boy next door. You know, the one who doesn't even know she exists.

The self-image conveyed in these metaphors is timid and accommodating. Perhaps this is how Canadians see themselves (or would like to be seen), but my experience is that they are extremely aggressive (if somewhat passively so) when it comes to demonstrating their deep ambivalence toward Americans. Take the popular TV show "Talking to Americans," which simultaneously showcases Americans' ignorance about Canada and mocks Canadians' unhealthy preoccupation with what Americans really think of them. Of course, there's often something of the stalker in that gawky teenage girl, isn't there?

Part of what's irksome about Canadian anti-Americanism and the obsession with the United States is that it seems so corrosive to Canada. Any country that defines itself through a negative ("Canada: We're not the United States") is doomed to an endless and repetitive cycle of hand-wringing and angst. For example, Canadians often point to their system of universal health care as the best example of what it means to be Canadian (because the United States doesn't provide it), but this means that any effort to adjust or reform that system (which is not perfect) precipitates a national identity crisis: To wit, instituting co-payments or private MRI clinics will make Canada too much like the United States.

The rush to make comparisons sometimes prevents meaningful examination of the very real problems that Canada faces. (For me, it has become the punch line of a private joke that whenever anything bad happens here, the first response is a chagrined cry of "But we're Canadian!" -- the "not American" can be inferred.) As a Canadian social advocate once told me, when her compatriots look at their own societal problems, they are often satisfied once they can reassure themselves that they're better off than the United States. As long as there's still more homelessness, racism and income inequality to the south, Canadians can continue to rest easy in their moral superiority.

Many Canadians have American relatives or travel frequently to the United States, but a large number are pretty naive about their neighbors to the south. A university student confidently told me that there had been "no dissent" in the United States during the run-up to the Iraq war. Toronto boosters argue that American cities lack the ethnic diversity found in Canada's largest metropolis. The author of a popular book on the differences between the Canadian and American characters (a topic of undying interest here) promotes the view that Americans are all authority-loving conformists.

Ultimately, Canadian anti-Americanism says more about Canada than it does about the United States. Because some 80 to 90 percent of this country's trade is with the United States, the reality is that Canadians need Americans to sustain their economy and thus the quality of life they value. Such dependence breeds resentment. In "officially multicultural Canada," hostility toward Americans is the last socially acceptable expression of bigotry and xenophobia. It would be impossible to say the things about any other nationality that Canadians routinely say -- both publicly and privately -- about Americans. On a human level, it can be rude and hurtful. (As it was on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, when an acquaintance angrily told me that she would now have to curtail her travel plans because she was afraid she might be mistaken for an American.) And there's no way to argue against it. An American who attempts to correct a misconception or express even the mildest approval for the policies of U.S. institutions is likely to be dismissed as thin-skinned or offensive, and as demonstrating those scary nationalistic tendencies that threaten the world.

I felt a strong tug toward America when the borders shut for several hours on the afternoon of 9/11, and again after the election this month. Canadian friends were honestly shocked when I, a caricature of a bluestocking blue-stater (I've spent most of my life in Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland and Wisconsin, with short stays in Washington state and the bluest part of Colorado), said that I would in many ways prefer to live in the United States, and not just because it's home. They assume that it's better, more comfortable, to be in a place seemingly more in tune with one's own political and philosophical leanings. Right after the election, many asked me if I would now apply for Canadian citizenship.

I don't intend to do that, because experiencing the anti-Americanism I've described has been instructive: Living here and coping with it has forced me to confront my own feelings about America. And it's helped me discover what I do value about it: its contradictions, its eccentricities, its expansive spirit, all the intensity and opportunity of a deeply flawed, widely inconsistent, but always interesting country. Perhaps I am a typical American, after all.

Author's e-mail:

nora_jacobson@hotmail.com

Nora Jacobson is an American medical sociologist living in Toronto.


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