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On both sides of the border, anxieties about the world beyond North America run deep, but on issues of human rights and business, we’ve drifted apart, a long-term study suggests

Kim Burns, right, of Maple Ridge, B.C., pulls a wagon with a Canadian flag cornhole game as her fiancé's son Gabe Steiner, left carries the U.S. flag portion at Peace Arch Historical State Park in Blaine, Wash., across the Canada-U.S. border from Surrey, B.C., on July 5. They are walking to meet Ms. Burns's fiancé Jeff Steiner of Marysville, Wash.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press/The Canadian Press

Nik Nanos is the chief data scientist at Nanos Research, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, a research professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and the official pollster for The Globe and Mail.

Words such as “trusted allies," “economic partners” and “friends” have historically come to mind when thinking of the relationship between Canada and the United States.

As former president John F. Kennedy memorably put it when addressing Parliament in 1961: “Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined, let no man put asunder. What unites us is far greater than what divides us.”

Those words still intuitively ring true for many. Some may point to the Trump administration as a watershed in the relationship, but opinion tracking over time in both Canada and the U.S. suggests the drift between the two countries on many issues occurred before Donald Trump assumed the presidency.

The latest results in a 16-year tracking study by Nanos with the State University of New York at Buffalo of 1,039 Canadians and 1,023 Americans put a new spotlight on the binational relationship.

Looking at the long-term trend line, it appears we are more bound by a common set of fears than a common sense of purpose.

As in all relationships, there are common interests, which land on the positive side of the political ledger, and divergent views on the negative side.

Common views between Americans and Canadians are more likely to exist when it comes to responding to forces from outside North America, whether driven by the goal of minimizing energy dependence on the Middle East or concerns about visitors showing up at our borders.

Among the most consistent views in both countries is the belief that Canada and the U.S. should work together to develop an integrated energy policy to reduce or eliminate our dependence on oil from the Middle East.

More than three out of four Canadians and Americans believe this is very or somewhat important. This view has been consistent over the past 16 years and has weathered storms such as the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. Likewise, the appetite in the United States for co-operation with Canada on energy policy continues even though the U.S. has become the top producer of oil in the world.

Percentage who say it is very important for the U.S. and Canada to work together to develop an integrated energy policy to remove any dependence on Middle East oil

CANADIANS

AMERICANS

70%

60

50

40

30

2005

2008

2011

2014

2017

2020

Percentage who say it is very important for the U.S. and Canada to work together to develop an integrated energy policy to remove any dependence on Middle East oil

CANADIANS

AMERICANS

70%

60

50

40

30

2005

2008

2011

2014

2017

2020

Percentage who say it is very important for the U.S. and Canada to work together to develop an integrated energy policy to remove any dependence on Middle East oil

CANADIANS

AMERICANS

70%

60

50

40

30

'05

'06

'07

'08

'09

'10

'11

'12

'13

'14

'15

'16

'17

'18

'19

'20

When it comes to co-operation on anti-terrorism measures, the views on both sides of the border have remained relatively consistent, with more than seven out of 10 Americans and about six out of 10 Canadians asserting there should be much/somewhat closer co-operation.

Percentage who say the U.S. and Canada should be moving towards greater and closer co-operation in terms of anti-terrorism measures

CANADIANS

AMERICANS

80%

70

60

50

40

30

20

2005

2008

2011

2014

2017

2020

Percentage who say the U.S. and Canada should be moving towards greater and closer co-operation in terms of anti-terrorism measures

CANADIANS

AMERICANS

80%

70

60

50

40

30

20

2005

2008

2011

2014

2017

2020

Percentage who say the U.S. and Canada should be moving towards greater and closer co-operation in terms of anti-terrorism measures

CANADIANS

AMERICANS

80%

70

60

50

40

30

20

'05

'06

'07

'08

'09

'10

'11

'12

'13

'14

'15

'16

'17

'18

'19

'20

On the border front, the Nanos-UB tracking study asks both Canadians and Americans about the inspection of goods and the questioning of visitors at the border. Although Americans were most likely to consistently cite Mexico and Mexicans as targets for border inspections, the focus is clearly shifting to China.

This year marks the first time that Americans felt Chinese visitors were more of a priority for questioning than Mexicans. Over the past decade, the appetite to question Mexican visitors at the U.S. border has dropped almost by half – from a high of more than six in 10 to a little more than three in 10. The appetite in the U.S. to question visitors from China over the same period has doubled.

Similar trends have occurred among Canadians with the view that Chinese visitors should be a priority for questioning at the border. Fifty-five per cent cite the Chinese as a priority – up 30 percentage points in the past decade – while 25 per cent believe Americans should be questioned by Canadian authorities.

Which country’s visitors should Canadian/American customs officials question most thoroughly?

2010

2020

CANADIANS SAY:

55

47

23%

17

China

Mexico

AMERICANS SAY:

62

40

34

18%

China

Mexico

Which country’s visitors should Canadian/American customs officials question most thoroughly?

2010

2020

CANADIANS SAY:

55

47

23%

17

China

Mexico

AMERICANS SAY:

62

40

34

18%

China

Mexico

Which country’s visitors should Canadian/American customs officials question most thoroughly?

2010

2020

CANADIANS SAY:

AMERICANS SAY:

62

55

47

40

34

23%

18%

17

China

Mexico

China

Mexico

On the values front, there has not only been disagreement but a significant disconnect between Americans and Canadians.

Among the most dramatic divides are human rights. Back in 2010, under the Obama administration, Canadians were much more likely to say the U.S. was the country closest to Canada on human rights. Over the course of the past decade that has dropped 35 points, with the U.S. now trailing Britain, Germany and France. In stark contrast, Americans believe Canada is the country closest to the U.S. on human rights and has scored Canada at the top in 15 of 16 years of tracking.

Views on business values also show a clear disconnect. Back in 2005, when Canadians were asked which country was the closest to Canada on business values, the U.S. was cited by more than 60 per cent of Canadians, with Britain trailing far behind at 17 per cent. Fast forward to 2020, and the U.S. has dropped a significant 30 points and is numerically second for the first time in the public opinion tracking, marginally behind Britain. The top three countries Americans believe have similar business values to their own are Canada (25 per cent), Britain (22 per cent) and Japan (16 per cent).

With the COVID-19 pandemic gripping the world, a new question was asked about health threats. Both Canadians and Americans were asked which countries represented the greatest health threats when it comes to things such as a pandemic.

About six in 10 Americans cite China as their greatest health threat, while only 6 per cent believe it is Canada. In contrast, 50 per cent of Canadians believe the U.S. is the greatest health threat to Canada, followed by China (40 per cent). This reinforces the view that Canadians are quite concerned about a full reopening of the border before the pandemic is better under control in the U.S., whereas the same appetite to keep the border closed does not likely exist among Americans.

Which of the following countries is the greatest health threat to Canadians/Americans when it comes to things like a pandemic?

CANADIANS SAY:

50

40%

8

3

China

U.S.

Mexico

Others

AMERICANS SAY:

61%

17

16

6

China

Canada

Mexico

Others

Which of the following countries is the greatest health threat to Canadians/Americans when it comes to things like a pandemic?

CANADIANS SAY:

50

40%

8

3

China

U.S.

Mexico

Others

AMERICANS SAY:

61%

17

16

6

China

Canada

Mexico

Others

Which of the following countries is the greatest health threat to Canadians/Americans when it comes to things like a pandemic?

CANADIANS SAY:

AMERICANS SAY:

61%

50

40%

17

16

8

6

3

China

U.S.

Mexico

Others

China

Canada

Mexico

Others

A majority of Americans and Canadians still want much closer or somewhat closer co-operation on border security, but the appetite among Canadians for co-operation is not as strong as it was in 2005, which is the benchmark year for the tracking study.

Where do things stand?

The long-term tracking suggests it may be unfair to lay all the tension in the Canada-U.S. relationship at the door of the Trump administration. The drift between the two countries on many fronts has been occurring incrementally. But Canada and the U.S. remain allies, economic partners and friends. The challenge today is ensuring the friendship continues to thrive in the future.


Note on the data

This column is based on an independent sixteen year tracking study conducted by Nanos in conjunction with the State University of New York at Buffalo. It is based on parallel national samples of at least 1,000 Americans and 1,000 Canadians each year. Both samples of opinion are national online surveys representative of the adult populations in both countries. The most recent research was completed in September, 2020, and the full reports with detailed technical notes on the methodologies are posted at www.nanos.co.

Percentages in the graphics shown may not add to 100 due to rounding.

More data dives with Nik Nanos

In Sino-Canadian relations, it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t

How the pandemic has changed our views on climate change

COVID-19 triggers soul-searching among Canadians

The coronavirus’s economic gut punch has hit Canadians hard

Making sense of Canada’s joyless democracy


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