Anti-Americanism in Canada, before and after Iraq

By Bow, Brian | American Review of Canadian Studies, Autumn 2008 | Go to article overview

Anti-Americanism in Canada, before and after Iraq


Bow, Brian, American Review of Canadian Studies


When Americans think about anti-Americanism, they are likely to think of angry demonstrations in Pakistan, stuffy French intellectuals, or maybe a surly cab driver they once ran into in Mexico. Most are not likely to think of Canada, at least not right away. In fact, Americans who haven't had a lot of direct experience with Canadians might be mystified by the idea that there could be anti-Americanism in Canada, given that Canada seems to have so much in common with the United States, and Canadians are generally thought to be friendly and fair-minded. But anti-Americanism has a long and colorful history in Canada, and--contrary to the expectations of those who argued that it had been defeated and exorcised in the debate over the Canada-U.S. Free Trade Agreement--anti-Americanism in Canada is apparently alive and well today, though in a different, somewhat attenuated form. In this essay, I will briefly review the historical evolution of anti-Americanism in Canada, and then offer some reflections on its nature and implications today.

Anti-Americanism is not the same thing as disagreement with American values or policies. A person can emphatically reject something that the United States says or docs, and even harbor profound resentment toward the people who made those choices, without necessarily having anti-American views. Anti-Americanism is an attitude toward the United States and its people which is profoundly mistrustful--a prejudice that colors the way a person interprets Americans' choices, and consistently attributes them to negative values and purposes. (2) As comparative studies have shown, the specific content of anti-Americanism that is, the themes and arguments with which it is socially constructed--can vary widely from one society to another, and evolve over time. Canadians' experiences with anti-Americanism are just about as diverse as Canada itself, but they can be readily grouped into two main collective experiences: Anglophone and Francophone." (3) Each has its own enduring, primary impulse, but each has evolved and changed over time, in terms both of the way it sees the United States and the way it manifests itself in political discourse and action.

Ironically, given the origins of Canada and the United States as "twins separated at birth," their essential and enduring similarities, and their long history of peace and cooperation, one might argue that the Anglophone Canadian experience has been as close as one can get to anti-Americanism in its "pure'" form. It is, in other words, probably as close as we get to an anti-Americanism which persists even flourishes--without being sustained by profound political or cultural differences, anticipation of violence or direct coercion, or even deep-seated grievances. The (Anglophone) Canadian, as historian Frank Underbill famously said, is "the first anti-American, the model anti-American, the archetypal anti-American, the ideal anti-American as he exists in the mind of God." (4)

Despite or rather because of--the essential similarities between the two societies, the defining element of anti-Americanism in Anglophone Canada is differentiation. It is in that sense consistent with a widely recognized tendency for societies to be preoccupied with demonstrating, to themselves and to others, that they are separate and different from a larger, very-similar neighbor, as in New Zealand (vis-a-vis Australia), Austria (vis-a-vis Germain), and most of Central America (vis-a-vis Mexico). The search for bases of differentiation, and the natural impulse to harness them in support of group cohesion and a positive collective self-image, fosters what Freud called the "'narcissism of small differences." (5) These impulses may be especially powerful in Canada, because of the relatively shallow and profoundly contested nature of the country's sense of national identity: Canadians are forever casting about for markers for collective identification, but there are few at hand, apart from not being Americans. …

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