Free to disagree

Despite the claims of radio talkshow hosts and opinion pieces in daily newspapers, Canadians as a whole are not anti-American. 

Canadians may be a tad miffed from time to time by some of the United States’ policy decisions, but that does not make us anti-American by any stretch of the imagination. What it does make us is dissenters from American policy, and since when does dissension become equated with being anti-American? I always thought dissension is merely expression within a free and open society.

But, a gaggle of Canadians seem to have bought into the President George W. Bush administration’s claim that “you’re either with us, or you’re against us” — a philosophy fostered and used effectively by presidential advisor Karl Rowe, who used hardball tactics to get Bush first elected and then re-elected to the White House. What these tactics have done is change American politics, creating an ideological minefield that punishes dissent through the application of explosive labels. To be called a “liberal” is the right’s equivalent of being labelled the spawn of Satan and a non-supporter of the American way. 

How effective are these tactics? Following 9/11, they have been very effective. Dissent has been stifled, even when the roots of policy decisions have been shown to be seriously flawed.

Within this “with us, or against us” mentality, Canada has been equated to a “nuisance neighbourhood” by one American columnist. Harvey M. Sapolsky, a professor of political science at the Massachusetts Institute of technology, writing in the National Post, said Canada is a “security threat” to the U.S. because “Anti-Americanism is the unstated essence of the modern Canadian identity.”

He even called Prime Minister Paul Martin and the Canadian government insensitive to U.S. politics for not supporting the U.S. missile defence program. To make his point, he referred to the “left in America” having “all but given up on missile defence, which is a sacred component of the Republican Party creed.”

Perhaps the left has all but given up because of Republican intimidation tactics used to protect its “sacred component.” What Sapolsky doesn’t mention is that testing so far has been a spectacular dud. 

Sapolsky then went on to give a history lesson on Canadian foreign policy. Unfortunately, those reading the opinion piece will be mislead by his so-called historical information, particularly his claims that until quite recently Canada still considered itself an “outpost” of Britain in North America.

Although ties to Britain have been strong in the distant past, they were fading well before the 1960s, the era claimed by Sapolsky when the ties were effectively over and Canada edged closer to the U.S. True, Canada supported British efforts in the First and Second World Wars, but so too did the Americans, although they arrived late on the scene in both instances. On the battlefields of the First World War, the concept of being British eroded. After Vimy Ridge, a deep-felt sense of Canadian nationhood developed that led Prime Minister Mackenzie King after the war to proclaim that Canada would not be drawn into British foreign conflicts without first consulting our parliament. Did this make Canada anti-British? No. Just like Canada’s refusal to participate in the War in Iraq does not make Canadians anti-American. In the case of telling Britain not to assume that once that nation went to war, Canada would automatically follow, simply signalled that Canadians had a new view of foreign policy issues — decisions were to be made taking into account Canadian sensibilities. What else could one expect from an independent nation other than independence of action.

Historically, Canadians cannot be accused of having an anti-American stance, other than when the U.S. invaded Canada during their War of Independence and during the War of 1812. The reality is that successive Canadian governments have attempted to achieve closer ties with America. 

In 1911, Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier tried to establish freer trade with the U.S. He was stopped at the polls under the guise of anti-Americanism, but Laurier’s election loss had more to do with protectionism — Eastern industrial interests wanted to keep their federal government-regulated stranglehold on Canadian consumers — rather than anti-Americanism. 

And, protectionism is something Americans should be well familiar with, considering their actions against Canada on softwood lumber and mad cow disease.

During the Second World War and before the U.S. joined the war effort, King signed a treaty at Ogdensberg, New York, with President Franklin Roosevelt for mutual friendship and North American defence. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was irate at King when he heard of the agreement. But, King knew closer ties to the U.S. were essential to the survival of the two countries in the event of a British collapse in the same manner as France. Britain didn’t fall to German invaders, but that didn’t diminish the significance of an agreement recognizing the realities of the two nations.

Sapolsky is right in asserting that Canada’s military forces have been weakened by successive government cutbacks, but that doesn’t mean that support for the U.S. is not freely given. Following 9/11, Canadian troops were on the ground in Afghanistan — where Al Qaeda terrorists were actually based and trained, not in Iraq. Canadian troops are still in Afghanistan, so we have not abandoned the fight against terrorism.

“Canada is easy to be squeezed ... signals should be sent saying that there can be even greater costs ahead for Canada if it continues its international meddling at our expense and forgets its geography ... the Canadian economy is highly vulnerable,” warns Sapolsky.

Forget our geography? Hardly. We’ve been the mouse to America’s elephant for too long to forget. We know to tread lightly so as not to offend American sensibilities, if they take time to notice that we’re even around.

And, we know our economies are highly integrated. After all, we are each nation’s biggest trading partners (it’s the Americans who forget this, not us). But, we’ve heard all the threats before. Recently, a North Dakota newspaper editor felt it would be appropriate to boycott Manitoba because of our opposition to the Devils Lake outlet.

Even with the kerfuffle brewing over the impending opening of the spigot for the outlet sometime next week, North Dakotans have failed to take the editorial writer at his word — North Dakotans still frequently visit Manitoba and vice versa.

Manitobans still feel the outlet into the Sheyenne River, which  runs into the Red River and from there into Lake Winnipeg, has the potential to introduce damaging foreign organisms into our waters, but that hasn’t stopped neighbours from treating each other with respect.

On a recent trip to North Dakota, not one American stopped me in my tracks and threatened to punch me out because Manitoba is opposed to draining Devils Lake water into the Sheyenne. I did discuss it with some people, but the conversations were civil and we never came to blows. No one accused me of being anti-American. In fact, those I met were quite willing to hear another opinion on the matter. That is what has been forgotten in all the debate by pundits and politicians— Canadians are not anti-American, but they occasionally do have differing points of view.