Suddenly, America Has a Brash Neighbor Up North ; Moves toward Decriminalizing Marijuana and Allowing Gay Marriage Contrast with US Ethos

Article excerpt

Canada has long been the United States' virtually invisible neighbor to the north.

But suddenly it is coming out of its shell - and sharpening an identity that increasingly looks like a slice of Europe on America's back porch.

It's moving to become the third nation on the planet to legalize gay marriage. It's primed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. And it vocally opposed the US war on Iraq.

These moves reflect a growing cultural assertiveness - especially on the importance of tolerance and multiculturalism, which are enshrined in Canada's version of the Bill of Rights. The shift is increasingly putting the US and Canada - the world's biggest trading partners - on a cultural collision course.

"We look at you Americans and see the [National Rifle Association], rigged elections, Christian fundamentalists, and pre- emptive wars," says Michael Adams, author of the best-selling "Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values." By contrast, Canada is a place that prizes "peace, order, and good government." It's "a social welfare state where we raise taxes to pay for transit, housing, and more," he says.

Canada's newfound assertiveness stems, in part, from a growing confidence in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982. It's akin to the US Bill of Rights. But it guarantees, for instance, equality for women, aboriginal groups, and minority-language groups.

It's led to Canada even having a cabinet position for multiculturalism.

And it's one reason for Canada's wide-open immigration policy. Fully 18 percent of Canadians are foreign born, compared with about 10 percent of Americans. In Toronto, 40 percent of residents are foreign born.

Recently Canadian courts have also interpreted the charter to guarantee rights for gays, including the right to marry.

All in all, "It's not just that Canadians are comfortable with diversity," it's something they are increasingly proud of, says Andrew Parkin, codirector of the Center for Research and Information on Canada in Ottawa. "They're now saying this is what makes them proud to be Canadian."

While the two nations also have their commonalities, Canadians often have defined themselves as "not American." Now more and more they're stressing their unique societal openness along with other intrinsic values. The United Nations, for instance, has frequently declared Canada home of the best quality of life in the world. …