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How Canada’s seen: I try not to think about it, but fail.


 

Fretting about how Canada is seen by Americans is a mostly pointless and entirely maddening pastime and I try, I honestly try, not to indulge in it. But it’s hard sometimes. The Nov. 5, 2009 issue of the New York Review of Books broke my discipline. It contains a review of Margaret Atwood’s new novel, The Year of the Flood, which offers in passing a ridiculous picture of Canada, one I can only hope most of the NYR’s readers skip over. I wasn’t able to.

The reviewer, the novelist Diane Johnson, casts an eye on Canada by way of trying to get at what makes Atwood tick. Johnson makes two observations in one weird paragraph. She says Ontario seriously looked at “instituting sharia law,” and cites this episode as evidence Canada has outdone the U.S. “in the matter of reflexive multiculturalism.” And she says that even though Canada “virtuously” resisted the Iraq war, it has “pretty much collaborated with most U.S. programs,” even fighting in Afghanistan, something “few would have predicted.”

It’s not often you see Canada sketched as both bizarrely left-wing and militaristically right-wing in such a brief passage. Of course Johnson is way off on both points.

Ontario never contemplated “instituting sharia law.” The province considered allowing traditional Muslim arbitration to be followed in marriage disputes where both parties agreed, just as the province had for many years, without any fuss, let Aboriginal, Christian and Jewish tribunals settle some family disputes. Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad Ontario’s Liberal government rejected even this very limited application of sharia, and at the same time reversed the old policy of sanctioning some other forms of religious arbitration. But what was on the table was nowhere near as nutty or sweeping as Johnson’s casually accusatory phrasing suggests.

Now on the matter of the wars. I agree Canada was wise not to get embroiled in George W. Bush’s Iraq adventure. That war was unjustified. But why “few would have predicted” Canada would fight in Afghanistan I can’t imagine. NATO was behind the ousting of the Taliban (just about everybody was, if you think back) and Canada is a NATO member. So why wouldn’t Canadians fight? What’s surprising is that so few of the European NATO members that supported getting rid of the Taliban in principle backed up their words by putting soldiers into combat. As for Canada collaborating with “most U.S. programs,” I have no idea what Johnson means.

I know, I know. It would look more confident, cool, and collected to just let this sort of nonsense pass. The problem is, every once in awhile I see how being misunderstood in the U.S. really matters, like when I learned last year that the U.S. army had started teaching its next generation of top officers that the Canadian border is as much of a worry as the Mexican. The notion that Canadian multiculturalism somehow makes us addle-brained (sharia law? Okay with us!) contributes to the damaging U.S. misperception of Canada as recklessly open to terrorists. The unexamined assumption that any Canadian decision on foreign or military policy must have been either reflexively anti-American (Iraq) or slavishly pro-American (Afghanistan) fails to admit even the possibility of an independent Canadian perspective on world affairs.

And here’s what really bugs me. I read a paragraph like the one about Canada in Johnson’s Atwood review—so silly, so smug—and I can’t help but think of the Canadians I know who, at least some of the time, are prone to thinking of their own country along the same lines.


 
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How Canada’s seen: I try not to think about it, but fail.

  1. I'll say this: I think Chretien's decision not to enter Iraqwas based on anti-Americanism, or at least on his personaly dislike for G. W. Bush.

    So it may have been the right decision, but I don't think it qualified as "principled" or even "an independent Canadian perspective on world affairs."

    Actually it struck me as a huge opportunity lost for Canada. If we'd actually had a principled Prime Minister at the time, he could have faced the world saying "We stand by our friends and allies, especially the Americans, as much as possible. But friends do not help friends make serious errors, and we view the invasion of Iraq as such. Therefore we will not support this invasion with combat assistance."

    Instead we got Chretien mouthing blatant hypocrisies about needing a UN Security Council resolution before Canada would act, despite just having helped the far more popular Afghanistan invasion without a UNSC resolution.

    Given the sort of leadership we've had in Canada over the last two decades is it altogether surprising that people would think we're motivated by irrational considerations?

    • Somehow i doubt Chretien mouthing blatant hypcraacies would somehow put us at the bottom of a list of principled countries. I suspect that list is a very short one.

    • I always thought that due to our involvement in Afghanistan we didn’t have the resources to enter the war in Iraq as an active participant. The most we could have offered was our official support. I’m sure the US would have loved to have that, but I don’t think it it is a decision with long-term consequences. We weren’t going to Iraq without pulling out of Afghanistan first.

      • I pretty much agree with your take on the rationale for not going into Iraq, with one further point. The government had no real choice but to disappoint the Americans and those Canadians who favoured getting involved. Given this fact, the politically savvy thing to do is to play up the "principled objection" angle to please the the anti-war crowd. Say what you want about Chretien, but he rarely failed to turn a bad situation to his advantage.

    • "I think Chretien's decision not to enter Iraq was based on anti-Americanism, or at least on his personal dislike for G. W. Bush."

      Well thank God the World no longer has to keep guessing about how you *feel* (not think) about this.

    • Chretien's motive was the 2003 Quebec election, where the Liberals finally had a solid shot at unseating the separatists. Embroiling Canada in an unpopular war (especially in Quebec), in March (the election was in April) would have been disastrous for Charest. It not only might have enabled the separatists to win, but could also have paved the way for a referendum. Indeed, had separatists been in power when the sponsorship scandal came to light, polls suggest a referendum could have passed (YES had majority support in Leger's polls on the question in 2004 and 2005).

      Afghanistan provided a good place for Canada to fulfill its obligations to NATO, gain leverage with the US, and serve the international community. Signing up for Iraq would have taken away from that, reducing the pool of troops available to fight in Afghanistan. Because the Afghanistan war was sanctioned by the UN; because the war was conducted multilaterally; because the war was a response to a direct attack on North Americans; and because the war was conducted against a failed state (as opposed to Iraq, which had clear sovereignty) it was the better choice.

      It hasn't panned out because of a series of mistakes and oversights. Afghanistan was undermanned and the democratic transition has been too rushed. Afghanistan barely has any history as a state, much less a democracy. A dictatorship dependent on the US for support would have been much preferable to the status quo. You need a democratic civil society before you have a democracy.

      • You raise an interesting point, but there are some real issues with your post.
        (1) The Afghanistan war was not sanctioned by the UN. The coalition, if I recall correctly, acted without a UN Sec Council resolution.
        (2) It is ironic that Chretien's first order of business, with respect to preventing a Separatist resurgence, wasn't avoiding the sponsorship scandal.

        • It was sanctioned by the UNSC in December. It was after that that Canada got involved.

    • I think it was based on the fact that Chretien recognized a liar when he saw one. Remember that the reasons given for attacking Iran were lies.

  2. Geddes completely missed the point I think.

    It wasn't to brand us left wing AND right wing in the same sentence. It was a slap at our tendency to surrender our values, or at least not defend them as strongly as others.

    That is the coherent connection between giving in to Sharia and giving into anti-terror policies – they both offend our middle grounds but we're mushy.

    I'm not saying the book reviewer is wrong or right, i'm just saying its helpful if you read what is actually being said before writing a blog post based on your misinterpretations…

    • "It wasn't to brand us left wing AND right wing in the same sentence. It was a slap at our tendency to surrender our values, or at least not defend them as strongly as others."

      Yup, that's it exactly and I'll go further and say that Johnson nails it. SHe is right.

    • Uh, as far as I know nobody "gave into" Sharia law. And as Mr. Geddes points out the other pre-existing forms of religious-based family arbitration were eliminated.

      • The fact that it was even considered was giving in. Then they appeased the Sharia fans by saying "well look, now we ban all religious arbitration" instead of saying "these customs are demeaning to women and won't be allowed because they violate the charter of rights and freedoms".

  3. It's probably worth remembering that many Canadians make similar inaccurate comments about America.

    • Like what? And do these people write book reviews in major publications?

  4. Yeah, she really managed to roll every contemporary American cliché about Canada into one sentence. Of course it's a review of a novel, and literary folk are given a lot of leeway in their total ignorance of the world: there are a lot of broad-minded Americans who are interested in the world around them, but American literary types often feel a duty not to be (the better to channel John Updike). And of course there's the odd American here and there (e.g. Reihan Salam) who grasps Canadian political trends better than most intelligent Canadians. Ah well, so it goes.

  5. I lived in England and it use to make me nuts when I came across Brit stereotype of Canadians – earnest, humourless scolds. At first, I tried to counter the conception but I soon sounded an awful like an earnest, humourless scold. I also realized that I had an image of the Brits in my mind's eye that had nothing to do with reality.

    I think it is human condition to hold stereotypes of others. Helps make sense of world.

    • Remember that Britain is the world center of ginger-hate, based on a now 200+ years expired excuse. You couldn't find a more judgemental and stubborn bunch on earth.

  6. It would look more confident, cool, and collected to just let this sort of nonsense pass.

    Not let it pass, but not respond to it in such elaborate detail. It's enough to simply restate what everyone knows about Americans (which something unique to them, for the most part): They make assertions about things they have no way of knowing. Why that is, I can only guess. Most people don't assert much of anything about things they don't know, but simply guess or speculate if they haven't had the chance to educate themselves first.

    In any case, I certainly can 't explain it when this kind of thing comes from people who are considered credible enough to write for the New York Review of Books.

    • "[Americans] make assertions about things they have no way of knowing. … Most people don't assert much of anything about things they don't know".

      I suppose from this we have to conclude that you're either an American or a statistician who has just completed a study on people's willingness to assert about things they haven't studied.

      Or we could just conclude that you're talking through your sphincter.

      • "Or we could just conclude that you're talking through your sphincter."

        Who's *we* here? You're the only one talking.

        You can do whatever you want. And judging from your comments, which seem to be unburdened by thought, reflection, accuracy or normal levels of inhibition, you frequently do.

        I envy you in that regard.

        • I mean, I'd kill to be able to say something as grandiose and pompous as this and remain confident that I still have a firm grasp on reality and recent history:

          "Actually it struck me as a huge opportunity lost for Canada. If we'd had a principled Prime Minister at the time, he could have faced the world saying "We stand by our friends and allies, especially the Americans, as much as possible. But friends do not help friends make serious errors, and we view the invasion of Iraq as such because of its preemptive nature. Therefore we will not support this invasion."

          I'm sure no one would have called Chretien smug and morally superior for saying that. In any case, Chretien quite explicitly denounced the preemptive nature of the invasion by wondering what regime would be next and asking when and where we would stop.

  7. Geddes at least wins the Macleans Haiku Headline contest.

  8. How do you deal with number 8: "Canadians are boring?"

    • Now there is a real intelligent response.

  9. Yes, indeed. From my long experience with Americans, this is Canada:

    No guns (Canadians are unarmed).
    Wilderness, lumberjacks, etc (Canadians are a rough outdoorsy people, well armed).
    Igloos.
    Snow.
    Seal hunting.
    Socialism.
    Only white people live in Canada (that's why we can support socialism, homogeneous society here).
    Too many immigrants (that's why we are a threat to America, too few white people live in Canada, and we don't control who can come here).
    Boring (nothing happens in Canada).
    Immoral (they let anything happen in Canada, marijuana, prostitution, etc, woo lets go there for Joe's bachelor party)
    Moose (more moose than people).
    Iran embassy (thanks guys, you are awesome!).
    War on Terror (The only allies we have are England, not Canada anymore. You suck Canada.)
    Pierre Trudeau (is he still the President of Canada?).
    French (damn french).
    Terrorists (9/11 hijackers came from Canada).
    Ice Hockey.
    ……
    and the rest is a bunch of hokey stuff that you can probably think up yourself if someone asked you to describe what life was like for pioneers who settled the west 200 years ago.

    So….. considering that's what Canada is, I think you sir should go back to your original position, and stop thinking about how they perceive Canada. It's just too out there to think too much about. Let it go.

  10. oh, duh, I forgot to add
    Healthcare (Canada has the greatest health care ever!)
    Healthcare (Canada has the worst healthcare ever, because it's socialist. People die while government bureaucrats decide if they get treatment or not).

    That's a biggie these days.

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