Is Canada Kinder and Gentler?

Sometimes leaving the USA clarifies what’s wrong with it. An old joke holds that George W. Bush meant Canada when he promised Americans a “kinder, gentler nation.” Yet in many ways that quip is more truth than cliché.

Before going further, a disclaimer. I used to teach Canadian Studies and have been to every province except Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, but I’m not Canadian. When those who are tell me they can be as mean as a junkyard dog, I'm honor-bound to believe them, so no misty-eyed utopianism from me.  Oscar Wilde once quipped that a map of the world that doesn’t include Utopia isn’t worth gazing upon, but I suspect it only appears at the map's edge where the road runs out and we see an arrow signposting, “To Utopia.” Maybe Utopia is an aspiration, not an actual place—one that challenges us to be better than we are.

Alas, too many Americans feel maps are worthless because there is nothing beyond the borders worth considering. Is it blissful ignorance that blinds them to aspirational Utopia, or the pride that goeth before a fall? The latter, I fear. Whenever I venture northward, I see people who are, on average, nicer, happier, and more decent than Americans. Perhaps I romanticize, but I’m not blind. Montreal drivers are often aggressive and foolish, homeless people line Ottawa’s Rideau Street, and heroin addicts roam some Vancouver neighborhoods.  Canadians like former Toronto mayor Rob Ford and ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper are as odious as any politician that crawled from a US cesspool.

Nonetheless, I encounter civility inside of Canada that exists in the United States mostly in myth-fueled imaginings of the 1950s. Civility makes Canadians, well… nicer. That adjective distresses some Canadians and makes them feel they are not being taken seriously. Embrace it! Civility is linked to the concept of civitas—citizens bound by some common code: law, morality, shared values….  Civitas is a rare commodity south of Canada, where the word “united” is a syntactical misnomer that generally goes no deeper than xenophobic cheers during international sporting events or bombing sorties. In the main, the US is a land of “me,” not “we.” Canada seeks to reverse that formula. There are, of course, social outcasts in Canada, but at least they have universal healthcare, aggressive anti-poverty programs, and a social safety net that puts ours to shame.

Think upon other differences. Canadians own guns just like Americans, but are 51 times less likely to shoot each other. Why? Because too many Americans can't imagine that there should be any gun control; most Canadians can't imagine there wouldn't be commonsense restrictions. While it's true that Canadians visiting Parliament moan about taxes and complain about government with the fervor of a white Dallas suburbanite, at the end of the day they still think government should solve social problems. I've yet to meet a Canadian who thinks that universities are bad for the nation—something a majority of American Republicans shamelessly believes. When Canadians complain about government—who doesn't? —as often as not, it's because they want more schools, roads, public transport, and services.

It boils down to how one defines wealth. Americans often perceive it as if there are no stops between acquisitiveness and asceticism. Bumper stickers proclaim, "He who has the most toys wins." That would be amusing, were it not such a guiding principle. But is wealth merely individually owned TVs, SUVS, McMansions, bling, and sparkle? Civitas ideals suggest otherwise. Can a nation truly be considered wealthy if it has impoverished culture, a fractured citizenry, broken infrastructure, and a corroded sense of civics? Americans are fond of saying that a rising [economic] tide raises all boats, but do you see much evidence that this actually occurs? Ironically, though Canadians on average pay higher taxes and live in the world's 8th richest country, the median wealth of adult Canadians is higher than that of Americans in the world's wealthiest nation.

Maybe Canadians don't assume as much debt, or maybe some economist will cite data refuting median wealth comparisons, but there is little question that Canadians are wealthier in their civic life. There are public mixings of First Nations people, immigrants, Anglophones, Francophones, assorted Euro-Canadians, and people of color. There are bigots, of course, but there is a much greater tendency for groups to move in synch that in the United States would roam in separate packs. The Canada Council for the Arts and other such bodies routinely greenlight multicultural or controversial projects that would be hopelessly shipwrecked upon ideological reefs in the States.

Canada is, indeed, a kinder, gentler nation. Utopia? No. But if you look, you'll notice that the arrow on the edge of the map bends northward.

Rob Weir

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