When my family moved to Canada from the U.S. in 1964, it was a dull and drab place. Toronto had none of the exuberance that it has today. The country didn’t even have its own flag. It was suspended in a postcolonial WASP culture that could not imagine what it wanted to become.
The United States knew what it was: the moral exemplar and saviour to the world. Quebec knew. But what about the rest of us? The English-speaking intellectual class became obsessed with finding the elusive Canadian identity. It warned that we were being taken over, culturally and economically, by the bully to the south. We were simply passing from one colonial master to another.
Over the next decade, Canada grew into its nationhood. We got a flag. We got Expo. I started working at a coffee house where adventurous people would order a strange and bitter brew they called “expresso.” Meantime, the United States plunged into terrible civil unrest over Vietnam and race. My homeland began to look less and less familiar.
Today, the world is threatened by a demagogue in the White House. Populist, nativist parties have sprung up all over Europe, and have sometimes achieved power (note: Hungary). Can Canada escape these forces? Are we overly smug about our virtues? What’s to prevent a Trump-like figure from arising here?
The first answer is that conflict is in the United States’ DNA. The United States was born in a war – really, a civil war – and nearly collapsed in another civil war only 80 years later. Meantime, we learned to settle our differences by making room for one another. The ground was laid in 1774 with the Quebec Act, when the British realized they could not “command” the Quebeckers they had just “colonized,” and agreed to respect French laws and religion.
Canada is a country forged by consent and compromise, not force. As it turns out, English Canada’s lack of a national identity has been a blessing in disguise. Because we have no strong nativist roots, compared to the U.S. and places in Europe we are not as threatened by the cultures of newcomers. Among the strongest signs of our maturity as a nation was the Mulroney government’s 1990 decision to allow observant Sikhs to wear turbans in the RCMP. Mr. Trump and populist European leaders have succeeded by stoking the fires of tribal divisions. By comparison, English Canada found its national identity by accommodating the identities of others.
Our tradition of accommodation has pushed our major parties closer together, not farther apart. As bitter as the rivalries sometimes seem, their differences are mostly ones of tone and the leader’s personality, not of substance. Our two main tribes, the Liberals and Conservatives basically agree on everything from medicare, trade and immigration to gay marriage and abortion. They both have more or less pragmatic climate policies – one from conviction, the other from self-defence.
Despite scare stories, there is virtually no hard-right influence in politics in Canada today, and any effort to create one (see: Maxime Bernier) is probably doomed. By contrast, the differences between Republicans and Democrats are unbridgeable – and likely to remain so even after Mr. Trump is hooked off the stage.
Other reasons make the U.S. fertile ground for demagoguery. One is the fate of the lower middle-class, which was hit much harder by stagnating incomes and the financial crisis than Canada’s was. The U.S. also has among the lowest rates of social mobility and the highest wealth inequality among developed countries. Another source of division is race. “We underrate the extent to which racism is one of the defining elements” of U.S. life, Peter Donolo, a former Liberal political strategist and currently vice-chairman of HK Strategies tells me.
Add to that the ruinous legacy of foreign wars. “U.S. nationalism has expressed itself in presumptuous interventions all over the world," William Thorsell, a former editor of The Globe and Mail, wrote in an email. "Elements of paranoia and classic jingoism are woven into the very fabric of popular culture. ” Uncontrolled immigration across the southern border is another significant (and understandable) grievance.
Under these circumstances, the rise of a Trump-like figure should not have been surprising. The advent of right-wing media made it almost inevitable. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission ended the fairness doctrine – a rule that required broadcasters to present news in the public interest in a fair and balanced manner. That set the stage for Fox News and other right-wing broadcasters, who hit the motherlode by turning Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh into superstars. With his background in celebrity TV, Mr. Trump was a perfect fit.
Today, the differences between the two countries feel far greater than they did in 1964. The U.S. has become polarized and Canada did not. Instead of envying Americans for their power and wealth, we dread the United States for what it has become. Meanwhile, Canada’s sense of self has never been stronger. This year we can celebrate Canada Day with a mixture of thanks and relief – and also gratitude, because we are extremely unlikely to breed a Trump-like figure of our own.
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