Justin’s least favourite PM

Justin’s least favourite PM
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One of the most attractive features of American politics is all the storytelling. Since the US is a such a geographically enormous country lacking a common race or religion and with a muddled history that only dates back little over two centuries, stories of shared values and experiences are basically the only thing Americans have to unite themselves with a sense of commonality.

You see this constantly in the current GOP primary: Santorum tells stories about his working-class immigrant father, Romney tells stories about entrepreneurship at Bain Capital, Gingrich tells stories about ambition and aspiration, and Ron Paul tells stories about freedom and individuality. In their own way, each candidate tries to spin some element of the fundamental “American experience” into a set of partisan talking-points that justify his particular brand of conservative ideology.

One of the worst aspects of Canadian politics is that we don’t do any of this. Even though Canada is a country very much like America, a geographically enormous place without a common race or religion and only a few centuries worth of history, and even though Canadians are largely unified through shared experiences like immigration, entrepreneurship, ambition, and individuality, it’s rare that our politicians try to weave these realities into larger stories of the “Canadian experience.”

The reason, of course, is because that would be considered too “American.”

To the extent we’re allowed to talk about a “Canadian experience” in this country, it must always contrast with the sound and tone of the stories being told down south. Since the 1970s, this has mostly manifested in an obsessive desire to frame Canada as the country that is always entertaining left-wing alternatives to current American policy, from opposing the Vietnam War when America was in favor of it, to promoting public health care when America had only private, to championing same-sex marriage when Americans were voting to ban it. While the US might be held together by broad values like “freedom” and “hard work” that can be easily spun in either ideological direction, in Canada, our anti-American contrarianism has forced us to define patriotism far more narrowly: we’re a progressive country.

The myth of progressive Canada (and conservative America, for that matter) keeps a lot of left-wing Canadians very smug and happy, but it’s an inherently divisive and limiting way to define nationalism in a democratic country. Since progressive political initiatives will almost always divide public opinion in a very ugly and inelegant way, one is constantly forced to see day-to-day left/right debates not in terms of two different ways to achieve a common, shared value (like “freedom”), but rather a mean-spirited clash between the patriotic and treasonous. If you say “it is a fundamental Canadian value to favor socialized medicine,” for instance, what is the correct response when someone replies “but I’m Canadian and I hate it”?

Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Member of Parliament and debonair son of former prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau (1919-2000), recently highlighted the weird places this sort of logic can take you when he mused last week about how Stephen Harper’s right-wing government could rationally justify Quebec separatism.

“I always say,” he said on a radio chat-show, “if at a certain point, I believe that Canada was really the Canada of Stephen Harper — that we were going against abortion, and we were going against gay marriage, and we were going backwards in 10,000 different ways — maybe I would think about making Quebec a country.”

His argument posits that it is little more than a certain collection of progressive political policies that keep Canada Canada, meaning that the second those policies change — if, say, abortions suddenly became harder to get, or all the country’s gay marriages were somehow annulled — Canada would basically have failed. Time to start over with a new country!

It’s a very myopic sort of patriotism in part because it makes it almost impossible to relate to the nation’s history in any affectionate way. After all, 93% of Canada’s 145 years occurred in an era where same-sex marriage was not permitted, and as the toon above hopefully shows, even Trudeau Sr., who was considered quite the left-wing nationalist in his own time, could easily be seen as more conservative than Stephen Harper based on the standards of the present. Under the progressive patriotic story, Canada is only a country worth loving right now, or at best since the 1970s, since only then is the nation ideologically different enough from the US in a left-wing way we’re currently capable of appreciating.

You do see some of this silliness from time to time in the States, admittedly; we all remember the liberal celebrities who made empty threats to leave America if George W. Bush was reelected, and certainly President Obama has had his patriotism questioned by right-wingers on a number of occasions. But Bush still had his stories to tell about America’s benevolent duty to the world, and Obama had his about his about race and inheritance. There was always a unifying fallback narrative that was greater than the small partisan debates of the moment.

Though I still think he’s better than the alternative, in some ways Stephen Harper has been a very bad prime minister for Canada simply on the basis that he presents such a depressing existential challenge to the whole idea of “what it means to be Canadian.” In the years surrounding his ascent to power, after all, Canada was in the throes of one of its most aggressively anti-American epochs, in which the simplistic narrative of left-wing = patriotic and good, while right-wing = American and bad, was omnipresent in the country’s press, politics, education system, and popular culture. Since Harper has failed to cobble together some competing patriotic narrative of his own (a nigh impossible task), the man seems doomed to forever remain unloved and unlovable, and will probably never be able to truly connect with anyone outside his narrow party base.

Harper inherited a country that has allowed its sense of purpose and nationalism to be defined in such a petty, small-minded way that there are no longer any good stories to tell about it.


  1. Pat Gunn

    I don't see any harm in defining yourself not as where you've been so much as where you're going. Does a nation really need pride in its history to survive? Particularly given how circumstances and values changed, being forward-looking doesn't give us the danger of needing to approve (or gloss over) ugly things in the past.

    I agree that defining oneself as the not-America would be unhealthy, but being a nation focused on progress towards the future rather than obsessed with the past, that sounds grand.

  2. J.J. McCullough

    I'm not saying you have to be obsessed with the past per se, I just think it's useful if you can see some degree of continuity with it. Americans can spin their history into a history of freedom, or a history of progress, or a history of perseverance, or broad things like that. If a Canadian nationalist defines the purpose of his country so incredibly narrowly, ie "the purpose of Canada is to provide a left-wing alternative to the United States by the standards of 2012" then I think you ultimately promote a very divisive standard of patriotism that automatically writes off a very large amount of Canadians, both past and present.

  3. @Kisai

    The west side of Canada hates Pierre Trudeau (Official languages act and NEP,) when he died and the feds were deciding what to name after him, there was a grumbling about naming anything in BC after him would be an insult.

    Pandering to Quebec doesn't go over well with people out west, and there is suggestion that should Quebec ever leave, the west must too. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_alienation ) The current federal government, is seen by Central Canada as a government from the West, but that isn't particularly true either (one third of BC also voted for NDP.) The current federal government should be seen as the end of the Quebec sovereignty movement, and loss of faith in the Liberals.

    The worst thing(s) the Conservative government does is allowing Americans to write laws for us that are hardly in our interests. (See bill C-11 copyright law and C-30 privacy invading laws, TPP and ACTA.) Not saying that the Liberals or NDP would be be any better, but under a minority government, there was little traction for the IP bills.

  4. ThePsudo

    I am deeply impressed, JJ, by your ability to bring the nature of nationalism and ideology into focus using the US / Canadian contrast as a lens. It is philosophical in a way that is beyond me, a fundamentally unexpected way of addressing political questions. I have nowhere else to go to find such insights. Thank you.

  5. J.J. McCullough

    Thanks for the kind words, Psudo. When I read about other countries, I'm always quietly thinking about analogies to my own. Do you draw any analogies to modern America based on what you read about Canadian nationalism?

  6. ThePsudo

    I somewhat do, but it seems different. Here, let me provide an analysis as an example of how I analyze.

    Factions in the USA do the same historical revisionism for patriotism as Canadians do. The British, not Canadians, burned Washington in 1812, but the US distorts the Battle of New Orleans six ways from Sunday. That suggests to me that selective memory is symptomatic of patriotism generally. The place where Canada figures most prominently into US history is as the ultimate destination of the Underground Railroad. Why does 1812 feature more prominently than that in Canadian patriotism?

    In the USA, different factions emphasize different elements of patriotic elements of the narrative for the obvious reason that they are the parts they care about. Using the Battle of New Orleans as an example, left-wingers emphasize the multiculturalism of Jackson's infantry and the ultimate futility of the Battle as a metaphor for the futility of war in general (for those that don't know, the peace treaty was already signed, but news of that hadn't reached New Orleans yet at the time of the Battle). Right-wingers like to emphasize the American victory ("America has never lost a war" they say) and assign credit for it to the country farmers turned sharpshooters (not precision artillery). These two wings are mutually exclusive (either the victory matters or the battle was futile, not both) and both include enough selective reasoning to be subject to valid criticism from the other side.

    This jives with your analysis that Canada has only a single national narrative that one can either accept or reject while the USA has competing national narratives that motivate greater ideological division and debate. Canada says "We burned Washington." It can be disputed or not, but even if it is conceded that "We" did not refer to Canadians there is not a competing narrative to replace it. Canadians have only one road to patriotism, take it or leave it, whereas the USA has at least two. That's the theory you offered, and my own analysis attests to it. But I don't think I would have thought of that if I hadn't read what you wrote.

  7. J.J. McCullough

    This is somewhat tangential, but reading your comments reminded me of this recent cover of The Walrus, a left-wing Canadian current affairs magazine, perhaps vaguely similar to something like the Atlantic in the US. It's for the bicentennial of the 1812 War, and as you can see, it has a very sort of jingoistic, militaristic theme: http://www.bcliving.ca/sites/default/files/The_Wa

    I thought it was kind of an interesting artifact that contrasts with what you were saying about the Battle of New Orleans. Anti-Americanism is such a dominant narrative in Canada that even a liberal publication will embrace a very sort of macho, right-wing tone when certain incidents are evoked. I couldn't imagine the Walrus running a cover like this in regards to say, the Korean War, or even World War II. Nor could I imagine a liberal US publication doing the same for any war ever.

  8. Dan

    That magazine cover is…interesting. It's not something I'd leave lying around if I knew my neighbors would see it.

  9. ThePsudo

    The left in the USA does become militaristic at odd times, too. I remember some harsh, hawkish noises coming from Democrats during the height of the Iraq war about all the aggressive, violent things we should be doing in Afghanistan instead. John Kerry epitomized that for me: the soldier turned anti-war activist turned would-be war President. I don't think I have any example so clear as yours from the Walrus, though.

    I think the more striking contrast is with how Americans see Canadians. If some US political magazine was celebrating Canada's black eye, the reaction to it would be more like: "Well, that was uncalled for! What ever happened to common courtesy? Maybe you ought to take a lesson from our polite northern neighbors, ya jerk."

    Maybe it's more unbearable to be thought harmless than to be thought brash and dominating.

  10. Erika Butler

    I've noticed that many Canadians engage in a narcissism of small differences regarding the U.S. Sure their politics tends to be more left-leaning, but in my view Americans and Canadians are similar.

  11. Jake

    The form of government – republican (small R) as opposed to Canada's parliamentary government. Canadians are quite okay with some things on a national level. Americans tend to hate it when the federal government controls things. Even the left dislikes (well when they disagree with it). But overall most Americans do hate when issues become controlled by the federal government. The American mindset set forth a dual federalist government and in response that type of government reinforces those ideals and vice versa. Same goes for Canada but with a more centralized national government, although not that much as Canada does have provinces. But the core is basically those things in which cause a set of ideals.

  12. LorenzoCanuck

    Frankly I think Canada needs some form of creative destruction in terms of our narrow nationalism. If the long-term effect of Harper’s term is to force us to acquire a more healthy apprehension of national identity then so much the better.

  13. Kwyjor

    "Since the US is a such a geographically enormous country lacking a common race or religion and with a muddled history that only dates back little over two centuries, stories of shared values and experiences are basically the only thing Americans have to unite themselves with a sense of commonality."

    Come now, that "muddled history" seems to be more than enough to band a lot of Americans together. Why else would the pundits constantly be yapping about tearing the Constitution to shreds, or about what the Founding Fathers intended, or about how the pilgrims were fleeing religious persecution? Why else would some kind of movement call itself the Tea Party?

    If some group in Canada today suddenly decided to start calling itself the Family Compact, no one would have the foggiest idea what they were talking about.

  14. Rebochan

    Eh, I don't know if the "story-telling" is something Americans should be proud of, since the stories tend to be pretty much filled with lies. It's less about appealing to people on your strengths in the job you're applying for, and more of who can tell the most compelling narrative, truth be damned. They make for romantic images in the media, but its rare that we get qualified heads of state out of it.

  15. ThePsudo

    An imperfect summary of events is not a "lie." Every summary of events is imperfect. Yours is an argument against history and knowledge in general.

  16. Rebochan

    There's an "imperfect summary" and there's presenting yourself as something you're definitely not because it makes a better story. It's not a recent phenomenon either – try looking up the campaign of William Henry Harrison sometime.

    It's not something uniquely Republican, if that's why you're so upset at me pointing it out. Yea, it's easy to bag on them right now because they're in the middle of campaign season, but I deliberately didn't call them out because unfortunately, they do it because everyone does it.

  17. ThePsudo

    Of course everyone does it: it's not entirely avoidable. Even Canada does it: Britain, not Canada, burned down Washington in 1812.

    Even you did it, just now. Using William Henry Harrison's campaign as an example of uncommonly severe misrepresentation is an example of the same not-quite-true storytelling you're condemning: Harrison didn't rely so strongly on "Tippecanoe and Tyler, too" just because he was some unusually flagrant liar. It was the first real bipartisan election since 1800, the first to face an electorate newly expanded by 2/3rds, and the first attempt in American history to create a modern national campaign. There was never before so much pressure to compress a narrative down to a small but powerful message that would motivate a broader, on average less educated electorate, and never before was the message so delegated to local officials (strangers). You ignore the unmitigated success it was in that regard, the near-impossibility of maintaining a complexly detailed platform in those conditions, and the great extent to which all modern elections in every multi-party democratic country in the world follow that example. In telling that story as a soundbite, you are guilty of the same style of oversimplification as the Harrison campaign you condemn.

    And I've done it, too. There is more context than my "Harrison had to" argument lets on; some of it seems irrelevant to this discussion, and I don't know everything and can't tell you what I don't know. At some level of detail, the truth becomes too complex, and we accept the flawed summary we have. It's the same intellectual compromise everyone must make in order to claim any reality-based knowledge of anything. You condemn all history and knowledge generally when you condemn the narrative storytelling necessary to have any practical understanding of history and reality.

    A flawed story is better than no story at all.

  18. ThePsudo

    Anyone who thinks tl;dr should read only the first sentence of each paragraph. It's the same message simplified.


    Trudeau's laws regarding abortion and gay marriage have been more conservative than current laws, but that's because they were brand new. He implemented them for the first time- that in itself is progressive and "left-wing." Remember, it was the 1970s- you've got to start somewhere.

  20. J.J. McCullough

    Even if Canada just had civil unions and abortion only legalized until the second trimester it would still be one of the most socially liberal countries in the world. America is already one of the most liberal countries in the world in terms of abortion rights and gay marriage. It's all relative, really.

  21. ENOCH

    BULL SHIT!!!!!!

  22. Etc.

    Yes, because the USA is so backwards compared to Saudi Arabia and the like, right?
    Gay people may not have the marriage and the such afforded to them in western Europe and the like, but it's certainly better off for gay people than the many places where the official government statement is 'our country has no gay people, because we'd stone them to death if they existed'.

  23. Dan

    Only 13 nations perform gay marriages on any level. The USA is one of them. Nations like Denmark and the United Kingdom are not in that group.

  24. Jbot

    As an expat who has met a lot of different people from English speaking countries, I can tell you that the Canadians who pull the "we're-not-Americans" card with that smug air of self-satisfaction are actually looked down upon by a lot of non-North Americans. It often reeks of sucking up to other countries, and it's not an attractive trait.

  25. csthom

    I find that the the underlying message in American politics is rarely uniting. Though all candidates love to share stories extolling how their lives and their families exemplify some ambiguous "American Dream" in an effort to connect with followers, the subtext always seems to be "The people that disagree with us are not like this: they are not real Americans." Even if they don't mean this in a literal sense (Obama being Kenyan,) they point out ways in which those with different political ideologies don't fit their idea of the American Dream. Republicans don't understand hard work and virtue, because all inherit their wealth. Democrats don't understand the real America, because they just go to college to learn pointless things like art and European history.

    There are certainly examples where the message is "we're all Americans," but those largely come from those already elected. Even in that position, being American is still used as a wedge issue. Under Obama, real Americans support American jobs (i.e. large corporations do not.) Under Bush, real Americans support OUR troops (as opposed to French troops or something.) Real Americans support the disadvantaged, but is it largely liberal or conservative groups? Real Americans work hard, and obviously those not like us don't! Real Americans are humble, but of course bragging about it is okay.

    I'd say you're lucky, J.J.! After all, you do have a very unified ideological enemy in Canada! Just tell people, "well yes, I may be a conservative, but at least I'm not an American!

  26. ThePsudo

    In what way does that unified ideology help locate truth?

  27. J.J. McCullough

    I don't disagree with your analysis or your critiques, but I still think it proves my point. I just like the idea that there's a larger narrative framework to operate under in in America. In America, people argue "X is an American value and my policy Y supports X, therefore I'm great and patriotic." In Canada, we just go "support policy Y or you hate Canada." It's much more crude and blunt.

  28. csthom

    I don't really disagree, and it does feel nice to have some level of common ground. If anything, I'm amazed that we can use the same argument to opposite ends to criticize conservatives or liberals.