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.