On Thursday Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to a state dinner with United States President Barack Obama, where he compared the two countries to siblings:
“We’re actually closer than friends. We’re more like siblings, really. We have shared parentage, though we took different paths in our later years. We became the stay-at-home type. You grew to be a little more rebellious.”
Whether Canada is actually younger than America depends on which metric you use. But the comparison of Canada and the United States to siblings—with Great Britain as the not-always-proud parent—places Justin Trudeau in a long metaphorical tradition. It’s very common to explain the U.S./Canada relationship in familial terms, and particularly in terms of siblings: people who are obviously similar but develop different personalities.
Journalist Zoe Cormier told the Globe and Mail last year that “Canada is constantly riddled with being perceived as America’s little sibling.” In his book about the Canadian oil business, veteran writer Alastair Sweeney claimed that Canada is an easy target on climate issues because “it’s a breeze to beat up on America’s little brother and the world’s boy scout.” And NHL player Adam Burish told ESPN a few years ago: “I look at Canada as kind of like America’s little sister. And so the Americans kind of messed with them a little bit, like ‘Hey Canada, we’re going to take your hockey.’ ”
Perhaps the most elaborate sibling metaphor was constructed by Canadian novelist Robertson Davies, in a speech (as reprinted in the 1977 book One Half of Robertson Davies) where he referred to Canada as “the good daughter who stayed at home.” Like Trudeau, he saw the U.S. as the wilder and freer of the two siblings.
“In 1776 Columbia, a self-willed girl with a strong sense of her own independence, left her mother’s house, after some high-pitched family rows, and set up a household of her own. At that time Canada elected to stay with Mother. It was not a simple decision, for Columbia offered us all the inducements that naughty girls have at their command; we have not forgotten the bags of gold (we suspect they were of French origin) with which some of your very persuasive citizens—including that extremely persuasive, somewhat ambiguous character Benjamin Franklin—visited us, hoping that we might be bought. But, to continue this simplified version of history, we said: ‘No, Mother needs us, and we shall always be true to Mother; so long as she needs a faithful daughter, we shall never desert her.'”
And, Davies continued, Canada didn’t benefit much from her loyalty; in fact, she wound up being eclipsed by her big sister, even in the eyes of Mother:
“So what happened? Just what everybody with a knowledge of family behaviour might expect to happen: the Naughty Daughter prospered mightily and Mother, who always had a sharp eye for success, became very fond of her. And the Good Daughter Who Stayed at Home became, in the course of time, rather a bore.”
The canniest part of Davies’s observation is his idea that the U.K. is fonder of the Bad Daughter than the Good One. It is, after all, the U.S. that is often said to have a “special relationship” with Britain, even though it fought a war against England. Being what Trudeau calls “the stay-at-home type” may bring some advantages, but it doesn’t bring much respect in the eyes of the world.
Some have drawn connections between our self-image as a good sibling and our lack of assertiveness in the world. A few days before Trudeau made his “sibling” comments, Business Insider chided the Prime Minister for perpetuating the Canadian inferiority complex in the world: “Canada has always suffered from the short-man’s syndrome—you would too if you were America’s younger sibling. But now is not the time.” If a country sees itself in terms of goodness, niceness, quietness, it doesn’t really see itself very positively.
Still, these are attributes that lead to fewer civil wars and other such things. The world really does expect us to play the part of the good sibling, and is disappointed when we don’t. After the 2011 Vancouver riot, Death and Taxes magazine let us have it: “Canada is like America’s younger sibling who doesn’t curse, drink or do drugs. Watching them follow the lead of our rambunctious idiots who defile their own city is kinda disappointing. We’ve got North America covered in the moronic behaviour department.”