About Us Government Relations Public Policy Resources Publications Media


Print this pageSubscribeSend this page


Canada – US Relations: The Road Not Taken

By Scott Proudfoot, Principal
June, 1998

Some conflicts between Canada and the United States have been fueled by divergent political cultures that have evolved over a couple of centuries. But divergent political cultures also have been used to dress up narrow self interest when it comes to trade disputes.

An American who travels to Canada might be forgiven if he or she thought they had never left home.  Canadians dress the same as Americans.  Three quarters of them talk the same language.  Apart from the cities being cleaner and in better repair, it looks like home.  TV stations show the same fare — Seinfield, Jerry Springer, and the Movie-of-the-Week are all available along with your favorite soap operas.  Magazine racks hold most of the same magazines.  Theaters have the same blockbusters advertised on the marquees.  

The similarities of the two cultures, however, can create a false sense of security when politics intrude.  Shaped by many of the same environmental, social and political factors, Canada and the United States represent both common and different political traditions. 

Canada is the other, less well-known, North American political model. For an American, Canada might be viewed as ‘the road not taken’.

Often those divergent political cultures have been a significant factor in the conflicts that periodically develop between Canada and the United States.

Canadian and American political divergence pre-dates the American Revolution. 

The settlement pattern of early Canada was very much different than that of the American colonies.   At its very inception, the future Canada was viewed as a far less hospitable place to visit or stay.  The Viking explorer, Lief Erickson is quoted in the Greenlander Saga as saying

"I shall give this country a name and call it Helluland."

Hellluland in Icelandic means slab-land; hardly a flattering or inviting description.  Five hundred years later in 1534, French explorer Jacques Cartier was no more impressed:

"I am rather inclined to believe that this is the land that God gave to Cain."

Canada was viewed as a cold and inhospitable place where one obtained furs and fish but did not necessarily settle.  The territory of the future Untied States by contrast was viewed far more favorably, both more abundant and agriculturally promising.

One only has to visit colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and view the Governor’s mansion where a young Thomas Jefferson would come and practice his violin with the English Governor’s children to know that a settled society had taken early root in America and a home-grown aristocracy was well on its way to being created.

At that same period Canada could mostly be described as two territorially separate commercial monopolies — one French and one English, both dedicated to the fur trade.  Canada was a dependency and its settlers were either employees of the monopoly or there to serve the needs of the monopolies.  Add poorly paid and ill-clothed garrison troops and the limitations of garrison society and the picture of a less developed and less comfortable society is completed.

There were isolated paeans to the freer society available in a new and open frontier.  The boldness of the French coureur de bois is emblematic of this and it was one of their own adventurers, Pierre Esprit Radisson, who in 1661 wrote:

"We were Caesars, being nobody to contradict us."

But, on balance, Canadian society was far more concerned with basic survival. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness were a secondary priority.  Canadian colonists both French and English, looked to the Crown for support and security as opposed to a source of taxes and tyranny.

As a consequence, Canadian colonies wanted nothing to do with the American War of Independence and opposed it by force and apathy.

The influx into early Canada of ‘Loyalists’ (Americans who remained loyal to the British Crown and fled the revolution) injected an additional degree of conservatism and anti-republicanism into early Canada that had a profound impact on the development of the political society.

While Republicanism took hold in the United States, Canadian society was more conservative and monarchical in its sentiments.  This statement was as true of French Canadian society as the settlers of British origin.  It is indicative that when Admiral Nelson’s forces defeated Napoleon’s navy at Trafalgar in 1805, thousands of French Canadians in Montreal took to the street in celebration of this defeat of ‘Royalist usurper’.  And it was these French Canadian burghers who led the public subscription to erect a sculpture in Nelson’s honor (still standing across from city hall in Old Montreal).

Elected, responsible government was not achieved in the Canadian colonies until 60-70 years after the American Revolution.  The violence associated with it was minimal — mostly drunken farmers marching around rather ineffectively and a few public buildings burned down.   The bulk of the task was achieved by court challenge, press agitation, petition and negotiation.

In the beginning, our nascent American and Canadian political cultures collided because early Canadian colonialists were dependent and valued security over freedom.  Over time British institutions and political convention took hold and mutated in Canada.

It has been argued the local adaptation of British Conservatism to the new world forms the basis of the English-Canadian political character.  Transplanted to a new Canadian frontier and shorn of many of its class biases, British Conservatism as reflected in Canadian political society could be narrow and provincial.  Just as often, it turned out to be productive, pragmatic, tolerant and compassionate.  Its pragmatism and tolerance allowed it to make accommodations and alliances with an equally conservative French Canadian political culture rooted in an agrarian Catholic society.

Consequently, Canadians often chose different political models or had conflicts with their American neighbors because they were suspicious of republicanism and they wanted to preserve ‘British North America’.  French Canadian leaders were just as opposed to the ‘Protestant’ American society.

Subsequent political developments in Canada were often a direct reaction against the perceived deficiencies of the American model.

When officially formed in 1867, the Canadian “Fathers of Confederation” consciously designed their political system as an antidote to the perceived pitfalls of the American state; viewed by them as a failed society, torn apart by the slavery issue and engaged in a bloody and prolonged civil war. 

Reflecting a certain ancestral snobbery, Canada’s early leaders saw American society as venial, coarse, dangerous, rash, unstable and demagogic.  (Throughout the years, Canadian criticisms of American government and society are essentially these same charges updated to reflect the times.)

Against the backdrop of a gradually integrating economic space, subsequent Canadian politics can be seen as an oscillation towards or away from American political trends and institutions.

Most notably was the defeat of Laurier’s Liberal government and a just negotiated Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 1911.  The winning campaign slogan was “No Truck or Trade with the Yankees.”

While modern Canadian society has retained many residual conservative habits and inclinations, it has become less hostile to republicanism and the United States.   That is certainly linked to it having become less British in English Canada and less Catholic in French Canada.

Fueled by the Vietnam War and Watergate and led by socialist economic nationalist dogma, Canadian opposition to American politics, society and influence reached its most recent peak in Canada in the mid seventies and early eighties.

Propelled by economics and globalization, Canadian political trends have been moving back towards the US ever since.

The fall of communism has made market solutions more credible everywhere and it has made the American economic model very compelling. 

The Canada-US Free Trade Agreement and NAFTA has meant abandoning many previous Canadian forms of protectionism. 

It also publicly acknowledges what had been obvious to some Canadian policy makers since the fifties — the continental economic integration of the American and Canadian economies is irreversible. 

The Americanization of Canadian politics has been apparent for some time.  The technologies and marketing strategies of electioneering are imported, in a slightly diluted form, almost immediately into Canadian politics. The Canadian Charter of Rights, introduced by Prime Minister Trudeau in 1982, is very much a republican notion.  So are most of the institutional policies proposed by the Reform Party.   Federal and provincial governments’ battles against the deficit has left policy makers with fewer resources and with less inclination to try to bend market forces to some perceived public purpose.

Having drifted from previous cultural reference points, Canadians have tried to define their political culture by what they were not (they were not Americans) and what their governments did (spent money on all sorts of ill-defined projects) or by celebrating our bilingual and bicultural character.

However, it can be argued that this has boxed Canadian nationalism into a dead end.  It is unsound to have your national character defined by a negative. (I am a Canadian because we have Medicare and Americans do not?)  Having one’s national identity dependent on a government department’s accomplishments is a shaky foundation.  Bilingualism and biculturalism are great assets but a majority of Canadians lack either.

Fuelled by this form of nationalism, we entered into a period in the sixties, seventies and eighties when we had many political and economic conflicts with the Americans.  The policies of the Foreign Investment Review Agency and the National Energy Program were the most glaring examples.

While these nationalist inclinations linger, including pockets of support in the current Canadian Cabinet, they also laid the groundwork for an easy capitulation to continentalism. 

A Canadian identity which can only be defended by reference to its anti-Americanism is an easy convert to the benefits of big trade deals and easier access to the world’s most enticing candy store.  Pretensions can usually be convinced to yield to advantageous, practical arrangements.

Canada has become a more republican form of government without publicly acknowledging the fact.  It is probably only a few elections away from dropping the monarchy as an odd, foreign and irrelevant anachronism.

More recently, there has been an effort by some of the intelligentsia to define Canadian political culture in terms of Canada being the first postmodern nation. An interesting line of inquiry but it is a little unclear what the term means or if it has any resonance with ordinary Canadians.

It is apparent that . 

It is also equally apparent that our political cultures are now less divergent than they have ever been.

After a hundred and thirty years of self-government, Canadians have developed their own diplomatic traditions and certain institutional arrangements and preferences for managing their public affairs.  Many of these arrangements have bent more towards market mechanisms in recent years but they have not entirely succumbed.  We are used to doing things in certain ways and many of these ways are different from how Americans order their public affairs.  That means some conflicts of the past and some current conflicts will re-surface in one form or another in the future

However, this is an argument that can be carried too far — and it frequently is!

Most conflicts between Canada and the US are commercially driven. Strip off the policy veneer and most conflicts are about money! 

Often our respective political traditions are the public rationale for these private interests. The United States and Canada just happen to go about supporting their commercial interests in different ways.

The American Way

US precipitated conflicts with Canada generally carry much less emotional baggage.  The usual scenario is that a Canadian exporting interest has been successful in penetrating the US market and gaining market-share.  This precipitates the affected US industry interest to agitate politically for some contingency action to restrict Canadian imports.  If that interest has sufficient political muscle, the US government takes an action that often results in the negotiation of a voluntary restraint agreement.  The Softwood Lumber Agreement between Canada and the US is a prime example.

The US follows this pattern with other trading partners whose export success elicits similar domestic opposition.  While the US may dress up it actions in various political and policy justifications — usually the level of subterfuge is not very deep.  It is all about how conflicts get settled in the US political system.  

The US is the world’s number one super power.  It has a large, attractive market.  If foreign competitors want access to this market, then they have to play by the local rules.  Often those rules get changed to benefit the home team. 

In many respects, the US system is more accessible and open to negotiation than other large markets, which also have their own systems in place to protect their domestic commercial interests.

While Canadian companies complain about the heavy-handed US approach, they are good at adapting to the US system.  Given the level of our mutual trade, the surprise may not be that Canada has voluntary restraints agreements with the US but that we have so few!

The Canadian Way

Canada is no less prone to protecting its domestic companies from American competition but we go about it in different ways. 

We are not a world super-power.  We do not have a large market to leverage in the same fashion as the US or the EU.  

Our preferred approach is to create a regulatory wall glued together by a slew of national policy justifications.  Often these policy justifications are arguments about national sovereignty, regional development, our unique character, our administrative traditions, the need to protect Canadian culture and so on. 

Sufficiently pressured, we may dismantle these walls but generally we negotiate the removal of each individual brick to buy time and wear down the other side.

For example, Canadians have a tremendous tolerance for protective arrangements.  We have them in the telecommunications, liquor board practices, supply-managed agriculture, banking fields.  In all these areas, commercial Canadian interests are embedded within supportive regulations.

Dealing with the Canadian method of protecting its commercial interests can be both confusing and frustrating for our trading partners.  Often these regulatory ‘walls’ have real policy origins and objectives that actually do reflect some aspect of our ‘different’ political culture.

Our preference for protecting our commercial interests behind elaborate policy edifices leads some trading partners to see Canada as quite sanctimonious and hypocritical.  However, in Canada’s defense, it could be argued that small powers do not have the same options as big powers and, therefore, they must make the best use of the available weapons at hand.





Hillwatch Inc., 45 O’Connor St. Suite 1150, Ottawa ON K1P 1A4 tel: (613) 238-8700 fax: (866) 310-4955