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.

The thing is, as Simpson makes clear, the Canadian way is no better, and it shows. Through the splintering of the Canadian right into two parties—the squishy center-right Progressive Conservatives and the populist, mostly western Canadian Alliance—Jean Chrétien's Liberal Party has won the last three elections in a walk. On its own, that might not be a bad thing, but Simpson highlights two related trends: the sharp decline in voter turnout and the increasing centralization of power in the hands of Prime Minister Chrétien.

Canada borrowed from Britain a nearly unfettered parliamentary democracy with a first-past-the-post voting system. That's a fancy way of saying that the party that wins the most districts can form a government. It also means that the winners are often determined not by a majority of the vote but by a plurality. In the last three elections, Liberals have gotten a vast majority of seats but never more than 42 percent of the votes. Electoral contests have been determined by who stayed home. In spite of this, the governments have claimed popular mandates and proceeded to "speak for Canadians" and pursue whatever policies they—that is, Jean Chrétien—pleased. With an appointed rather than elected senate, a near total control of federal appointments, the right to pick future Supreme Court justices and not have them subjected to ratification, and even the right to appoint his own ethics investigator, Chrétien has had the run of the house.

This amounts, as Simpson's title suggests, to a "friendly dictatorship"—a dictatorship because one man controls everything and can only be unseated with great difficulty, a friendly one because that man hasn't done a horrible job and, with one famous exception, has refrained from throttling people. (The exception occurred in 1996, when he topped off an unsuccessful speech by attacking a protestor.)

Simpson even admits, using a rational choice model of voting, that decreased participation might make sense. Unlike his predecessors, Chrétien hasn't embarked on constitutional reform, hasn't tried to grab too much power from the provinces, has politely but firmly told his fellow Quebecers that the rest of the confederation isn't entirely beholden to them, has presided over a decent economy, and has even decided recently that taxes should be cut. For a Canadian prime minister, that's a sterling record. Why rock the boat?

But the unrepentant good government advocate in Simpson simply cannot let the matter drop at that. In his telling, the Canadian government "represents the entire citizenry." His high-watt verbiage tags the state as the "crucible for shaping the rights and responsibilities, duties and laws, priorities and challenges, values and aspirations—in short, the overall framework of society." Seeing such an institution reduced in respect and importance is simply too painful for him to bear.

Simpson thus proposes a slate of reforms to get people voting again: a British-style civil service, an independently appointed ethics investigator, an elected senate with staggered terms, multiple-preference ballots to ensure majority support, campaign finance reform to shake off those dreaded special interests, and guaranteed representation for the First Nation aboriginals. But he ignores the one type of voting that has already seen a marked increase. Given the current state of Canada—with its defensive culture, fossilized institutions, deferential habits, and ever-sliding Canadian dollar—many Canucks, like Jeff Douglas, have been using a much more effective ballot: the one cast with their feet.

September 11 may have changed all this. In his book's most accidentally prophetic passage, Simpson laments that "there is no one, sweeping reform that can reverse the trends of disengagement overnight." A change of leadership, however, might shake things up. Or, failing that, "there could be an international crisis." The planes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon instantly slowed the flow of people and trade across the Canadian-U.S. border. Canada plunged into its first recession in almost a decade, and the drop in gross domestic output between August and September was the worst since 1986.

Chrétien's Liberals fear the vengeance the Canadian electorate might exact on them if the recession is prolonged. This fear has led to a series of radical but seriously considered proposals, including a harmonization of Canadian and U.S. immigration laws, arresting the Canadian currency's fall by pegging it to the U.S. dollar, and having Canada's spies report to the U.S. authorities. The whole package would add up, in Commons Finance Chair Maurizio Bevilacqua's words, to "a truly integrated economic unit." The "unit"—note the singular—that he refers to is Canada and the U.S.

If this package of proposals does not get hobbled, watch for it, like free trade, to become the tail that wags the dog and bashes it against the walls. The Canadian identity already consists mostly of being America's kinder, gentler, poorer neighbor. That chafes, but it makes for occasional, hilarious bouts of resentment rather than for serious nationalistic impulses. With further integration, resentment may yet turn to something even more benign. The Canadians may even decide, ceteris paribus, to opt in. As one headline declared during the Jeff Douglas saga, "I am…moving to the U.S."