Writing in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik produced a hagiography enumerating the charms of the Great White North: polite but willing to stand up to bullies, trusting and brimming with social capital, the quiet guy at the bar minding his own business who you just know has your back if things get dodgy.
As flattering as the depiction is, the pet unicorn takes don’t resonate with everyone who lives there because they’re simply not accurate. These portrayals are gilded coats that cover up something rusting underneath, and for many Canadians who are around when the paint chips, they aren’t particularly lovely to behold.
Is Canada the great democratic hope? A bit, surely, but only in comparison with weaker models. Voter turnout is low, typically under 70 percent and trending down despite a bump in 2015 on the strength of a competitive contest. Governments are formed with about 40 percent of those who show up, which means that electoral support for the governing party reflects a fraction of the popular will, and thus so does policy.
Young people are regularly shut out of political life. And as the Samara Centre for Democracy found in its assessment of the country’s democratic health, participation in government is rare and representative engagement and diversity in the legislature are low. They gave the country’s democracy a B-, up slightly from a C in 2015. Canada’s institutions are generally fine, but they aren’t flourishing and are subject of abuse or hijacking by populist appeal, as soon-to-be Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently proved with his anti-elite “Ford Nation” campaign victory.
What of newcomers? South of the 49th parallel, the United States is awakening to its utterly disgusting treatment of undocumented immigrants — which Trudeau has called “wrong” — but Canada has its own checkered past and troubling present. In recent months, things have improved a bit, but in 2017 migrants were dying in detention centers in which they were held in wretched conditions. In recent days, the story of Olajide Ogunye has rattled the country. He was detained by the Canadian Border Services Agency in 2016 and spent eighth months locked up while the agency investigated his identity.
And despite being imagined as a multicultural haven, Canada has its own history and present of racial discrimination and violence, too. Extremist and racial violence is up. And systemic discrimination is a serious problem. In 2017, educator, activist and writer Robyn Maynard described the education system’s anti-black racism in heartbreaking detail. In the country’s largest city, Toronto, the practice of carding — checking identification on the street, which has been prone to racist abuse — is a blight on the city despite recent restrictions on the practice. On top of that, the country’s recent history with refugees, especially during the Syrian crisis, went from grudging to moderately welcoming but inadequate, provoking a disconcerting backlash.
And we mustn’t forget Canada’s original and persistent sin. For many indigenous peoples, the portrait of the country as a welcoming and inclusive land is not only untrue but also offensive. In fall 2017, Trudeau told the United Nations that Canada had failed its indigenous peoples, going so far as to say that the country is “no land of wonders.” Still, today, indigenous peoples in Canada face high levels of incarceration, communities are suffering from suicide epidemics, and reserves throughout the land lack safe drinking water. Canada itself exists in part on unceded indigenous land. Colonialism in Canada is an ongoing injustice.
These reality checks are a sampling of what you find when you take a pass on the drive to mawkish caricatures of the country — and none of them touch on the opioid crisis, homelessness, hunger, crushing levels of personal debt, pathetic levels of social spending or inadequate action on climate change.
Of course, there are things that Canada should be proud of. Universal, single-payer health care ensures that those who need care get it. The impending legalization of marijuana will end an outdated prohibition on a substance far less harmful than alcohol and with it the decriminalization of those who use it. Canada was an early adopter of same-sex marriage legislation and a recent one of progressive assisted dying law. The country fought for justice and human dignity during World War II and opted out of the reckless Vietnam War, choosing instead to act as a haven for Americans fleeing the draft.
Perhaps this is why compared with the old gray and slightly fascist mare that is Trump’s America, Canada looks like a unicorn. But if you want to understand a country, and if you care to evaluate it critically and honestly, then you must begin with its lows and shames and work from there toward the decent or nice bits. If by the time you’ve reached the feel-good stories, you still wish to sing some praises, then by all means, do so. But one would hope that at the very least you would moderate your assessment with a dose of the more mundane realities of abuse, oppression and neglect that exist just off the clean and polite main drags.
In times of crisis, the impulse to glance beyond our borders in search for something better makes sense. Today, more than any time in decades, all over the world we need to embrace hope and leverage whatever energy we can extract from it to secure a future in which we can thrive as part of an inclusive society. But that process must start from the bottom up, from the outside in, with a real and true assessment of what a country really is and does to and for its people — all of its people. If you start with the truth, you won’t find a unicorn, but you might find a realistic way to move forward toward a society in which you don’t need to invent mythical lands in the first place.