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Canadians' attitude toward U.S. shifts from envy to sympathy, poll shows

When Canadians look at their American neighbours, they no longer gaze with envy at a powerful greenback, a low unemployment rate or deep pools of capital sloshing around an entrepreneurial paradise.

Canadians now look south with something closer to pity.

A poll conducted for The Globe and Mail by Nanos Research on attitudes toward the United States reveals that Canadians see an economy in tatters, a paralyzed political system and a volatile American Dream trumped by a stable Canadian version.

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Canadians have reached a conclusion that would have been shocking at any other time in the past 50 years: Canada is not just a better place to live, it's a better place to make money.

U.S. woes seem to trigger some sympathy among many Canadians who see us rolling along with lower unemployment, a stronger dollar and a stable political system.

"We've been fortunate not to have been hit quite as hard as our neighbours. But we've all heard about people who have lost their homes or been forced to declare bankruptcy, and our hearts go out to them," said Erin O'Connor, a 34-year-old engineer in the IT industry in Toronto who lived in Arizona for nearly four years. She moved back to Canada in 2008.

When Nanos researchers asked Canadians to describe the state of the U.S. economy, 84 per cent of respondents chose words ranging from "bad" to "a disaster." Nearly 86 per cent of Canadians say they would bet that their country holds more promise for prosperity.

"Most Canadians have long had a case of economic envy," said Nik Nanos, the president of the polling company. "If they were in the U.S., they felt they'd be making more money, they'd have a bigger house. I think what we've seen in the past few months is just completely contrary to what Canadians have believed for the past 50 years."

J.J. McCullough, a Vancouver cartoonist and writer who explores anti-Americanism in his online Guide to Canada, says that Canadians always find a reason to feel smug that they are not in the United States.

The dismal U.S. economy and gridlocked political system have just replaced healthcare and crime as the fuel for a Canadian sense of superiority, he said.

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"I feel like the economic situation is leading us to this condescending attitude. America is on its knees so we're sympathetic. Now that's an America we can get behind," said Mr. McCullough. "There's a lot of Schadenfreude right now that they're going down the crapper."

Michael Johnston, a software developer based in Halifax, says Canadians may be getting the wrong idea about the United States losing its status as a land of opportunity. It is still better at encouraging entrepreneurs, he said, with investors willing to take more risks.

He also warns that Canadians shouldn't get too smug about the spread of U.S. economic woes.

"From where I sit, it scares the hell out of me. I'd rather if they were ... going like gangbusters," said Mr. Johnston, a Halifax native who studied at Harvard in the 1990s before founding his software company, TeamSpace.

Canadians not only feel their economic prospects are superior, they also look at U.S. politics and see an inferior, wobbly, hyper-partisan mess.

Mr. Nanos, who conducted the online survey of 1,004 Canadians from Aug. 24 to 29, says Canadians still have a soft spot for U.S. President Barack Obama (he's doing his best, two-thirds of them say), but when they factor in the rise of the intransigent and destabilizing Tea Party, they "give U.S. politics a rather poor rating."

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Greg Paulhus, a web strategist and farmer near Kindersley, Sask., puts it more bluntly. "The world is relieved" that the U.S. global dominance may be fading, he says.

"America has gotten much crazier, movements like the Tea Party are just plain wacky," Mr. Paulhus said. "Obama will be an outlier, I think, a one-time phenomenon who rode the social web wave. I hope I'm wrong, though."

Bob Keats, a Saskatchewan native who lived in every province west of New Brunswick before moving to Arizona in the 1980s, runs a wealth management business for Canadian snowbirds. He says Canadian attitudes have mellowed toward the United States.

"George Bush was a bit of a cowboy, a Texan, and rubbed a lot of Canadians the wrong way. Barack Obama, no matter how his policies may have failed, he was the first black president, relatively liberal, so he shortened the gap between Canada and the U.S," Mr. Keats said.

Overall, the Canadian view of what we get out of our relationship with the United States remains a "real mixed bag," Mr. Nanos pointed out. A slim majority of Canadians said our trading relationship is a benefit to Canada, but a similar percentage felt our links to the United States harm our reputation around the world.

In other words, the United States is our best friend and business partner, but it embarrasses us sometimes. "It's classic. It's the fragile Canadian-centric way of looking at things, with hypersensitivity and self-consciousness," Mr. McCullough said.

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About the Author
National correspondent

Les Perreaux joined the Montreal bureau of the Globe and Mail in 2008. He previously worked for the Canadian Press covering national and international affairs, including federal and Quebec politics and the war in Afghanistan. More

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