Maple Leaf Rag

Does Canada Matter?

The Friendly Dictatorship, by Jeffrey Simpson, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 238 pages, $25.95

By now, you may have forgotten about Joe, the flannel-clad twentysomething whose 30-second stump speech on behalf of all things Canadian delighted viewers in his native country. Joe's speech, delivered in an ad for Molson beer with a maple leaf flag in the background, was almost unavoidable in the spring of 2000:

"Hey, I am not a lumberjack or fur trader, and I don't live in an igloo or eat blubber or own a dog sled and I don't know Jimmy, Sally, or Suzie from Canada, although I am certain they're really, really nice. I have a prime minister, not a president; I speak English and French, not American; and I pronounce it 'about,' not 'aboot.' I can proudly sew my country's flag on my backpack. I believe in peacekeeping, not policing; diversity, not assimilation; and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal. A toque is a hat, a chesterfield is a couch, and it's pronounced zed, not zee, zed! Canada is the second largest landmass, and the first nation of hockey, and the best part of North America. My name is Joe, and I am Canadian! Thank you."

Audiences loved it. Beer sales shot up, Molson was besieged with requests for copies of the video short, and the National Post declared that Jeff Douglas, the Nova Scotian who played Joe, was a "national treasure." Having been on the ground at the time -- in British Columbia -- I can attest to the visceral impact of what I at first thought was a joke. Joe quickly become an icon of that quirky thing known as Canadian nationalism. Heritage Minister Sheila Copps even aired his rant at the Congress for International Press Institute in Boston.

Interviewed in the Canadian edition of Time, Douglas maintained that, while he was paid to deliver the rant, he believed every word of it. The follow-up was priceless:

Time: "So you really believe the beaver is 'proud and noble'?"

Douglas: "There is a type of nobility about the animal...."

And then market forces set in. Hollywood took notice of Douglas and began to send the appropriate signals. Because of lower tax rates, a warmer climate, and more opportunities, many Canadians -- especially young Canadians -- with skills, money, or ambition tend to flow south at the drop of a hat. The brain drain has become so pervasive that the newsmagazine Maclean's recently ran a cover story featuring "fifty people who chose Canada."

Jeff Douglas was not among them. Over the objections of his fellow countrymen, many of whom -- I am not making this up -- petitioned the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board to make him stay, Douglas moved to Los Angeles in 2001. He then backed out of plans to return to star in an Edmonton production of Romeo and Juliet. He told Time that if Canadians were having a hard time making the adjustment, "they can keep Joe and let Jeff go. Joe will never leave Canada."

Douglas is hardly the only prominent Canadian to move south. (As I wrote this review, the Canadian-born comedian Jim Carrey applied for U.S. citizenship, telling the Associated Press that the United States "defined me....This country allowed my dreams to come true.") But the Douglas story captures the Canadian predicament, and it does so in a way that Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson's new book, The Friendly Dictatorship, ultimately fails to do. Canada is not just a nation in decline. There is a real question as to what even makes it a nation.

Although Canada is nominally Catholic (and Anglican), religion, official or otherwise, does not give Canadians a set of issues to argue over, as it does for Americans. Instead of promoting a common tongue, the government enforces a rigid policy of bilingualism. This is mocked with great aplomb in Michael Moore's movie Canadian Bacon, in which police officer Dan Aykroyd forces John Candy to rewrite anti-Canadian graffiti in French, then fines him "$1,000 Canadian, or $10 American, if you prefer." (Incidentally, both Aykroyd and Candy were born in Canada.)

The Canadian military is too small and ineffective to generate much centripetal force, having long since retreated behind America's good will, large military, and nuclear umbrella. Compare the American and Canadian militaries in the company of most Canadians, and they tend to fall back on the fact that the last time the two forces met, the Canucks won -- in the War of 1812.

Simpson writes: "Canada was, in essence, a political creation. It did not arise, as some European countries did, as a political reflection of a common language or religion. Its boundaries did not emerge from war or from monastic dynasties. It was not a natural outgrowth of economic links. Canada was, and remains, above all a political statement, requiring the reconciling of sometimes deep divergences into something approximating a national whole."

But if that is so, it's worth asking, what is the statement? Or, to be more fair, what common sentiment holds Canadians together as a people? America, as fractious as it can sometimes be, can turn that vice into a virtue by pointing back to the Declaration of Independence's praise for "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The ink on Canada's equivalent document, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, has barely dried. (It was not adopted until 1982.) More to the point, its logic -- which blends individual and group rights, positive and negative freedoms, into one strange brew -- is horribly muddled. (A recent human rights tribunal weighed the freedoms of speech and religion of a man who took out an anti-gay advertisement in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix against the "equality rights" of homosexuals. Verdict: The man and the Star Phoenix each had to pay three gays $1,500 and could never publish such an advertisement again.)

Often, as with the Molson ad, the only articulation of what makes Canadians Canadian comes in the form of one loud, sustained negative statement: We are not Americans! Variations on this theme include blanket condemnations of American arrogance, denunciations of America's "cowboy capitalism" and love of guns, Joe's preference for "peacekeeping" over "policing," and much chest-puffing about America's mercenary medical system and the compassionate Canadian alternative.

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