The other America

by Alan Freeman

The better America (Issue IV/2020)


The atmosphere is tense not only between Justin Trudeau and Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

In the chaotic hours after the Twin Towers of New York’s World Trade Center were struck by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. authorities ordered the closure of the border with Canada. Families were separated. Commerce between the two trading partners was halted. Canadian automotive plants, dependent on just-in-time delivery from U.S. suppliers, soon shut down.

It proved a traumatic event for Canadians, who long have long boasted of having the longest undefended border in the world, 8,891 kilometres crossing pristine forests, the vast expanse of the Great Lakes, Prairie farmland and the Rocky Mountains.

While the border reopened and commerce restarted quickly, some changes soon became permanent. Canadians who were used to flashing their driver’s permits at U.S. border points and being waved through were soon required to use passports as if they were travelling to Europe or Asia. America became a truly foreign land. Yet despite the border chill, warm relations on a political level remained largely intact. Canadian soldiers fought and died with US and its allies in Afghanistan. Canadians were particularly attracted to Barack Obama and his liberal message.

Trump repeatedly showed disdain for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau

Then came the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, whose America First approach hit out at traditional American friends, including Canada. Trump repeatedly showed disdain for Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “very dishonest and weak” and “two-faced” at the close of a fractious G7 summit in 2018 after Trudeau complained of what he called “unfair” tariffs imposed by the U.S. on imports of Canadian steel and aluminum.

Nik Nanos, one of Canada’s leading pollsters, says the Trump era has destroyed any lingering notion Canadians had that they have a “special relationship” with the US. “Even though Canadians know that the United States is their most important ally, neighbour and trading partner, there is now an administration in Washington on a very different page on the big issues,” he says.

“Congenial feelings have all gone and it’s due mostly to Trump,” says David Shribman, a veteran U.S. journalist with a longstanding interest in Canada. “Not in more than a century have Canadians felt such rancour, resentment and revulsion towards their neighbours to the south.”

Then came the pandemic. In March 2020, as the coronavirus surged, Canada and the U.S. agreed to close the border again, this time to everything but trade and other essential travel. It was a mutual decision, initially for 30 days, but the closure has been repeatedly extended.

Canadians can no longer take their friendly relations with America for granted

This time it it is the Canadians who are anxious to keep the border closed, concerned about the inability of U.S. authorities to control the pandemic’s spread. According to the pollster Nanos, 81 per cent of Canadians don’t want the border to re-open until the pandemic recedes in America. While there is hope that warm relations can be restored if the Democratic Party returns  to power, there is growing recognition that no matter the outcome, Canadians can no longer take their friendly relations with America for granted.

Adding to this anxiety about Canada’s place in the world has been growing tension with China. Successive Canadian governments have looked to growing trade and investment flows with China as an alternative to dependence on the U.S., which still accounts for 75 per cent of Canada’s exports. There was even talk of a free trade agreement with China. That all ended following the arrest in December 2018 of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecoms giant Huawei, who was nabbed as she transited through Vancouver airport. U.S. authorities sought her arrest on charges of bank fraud relating to alleged breaches of U.S. sanctions against Iran.

Outsiders visiting Canada for the first time may be forgiven for thinking they are in another U.S. state

The U.S. extradition request remains before a Canadian court. China reacted by arresting two Canadians living in China and charging them with spying. Most Canadians believe the two men, a businessman and a former diplomat, were essentially abducted and are being held as bargaining chips to secure Meng’s freedom. China has further exacerbated relations by cutting off imports of Canadian canola, a major agricultural crop, and for a time Canadian pork. There are increasing calls in Canada for further disengagement from China.

While the Trump era has unsettled Canadians, it has also reinforced their self-image as members of a distinct society. Outsiders visiting Canada for the first time may be forgiven for thinking they are in another U.S. state. Canadians live in sprawling suburbs, drive the same cars and watch the same Netflix programs as their American neighbours.

Yet Canada is a different society, developed from a separate history. Long a British colony, it never had a revolution like the US, emerging slowly and carefully to full independence. While Americans guard their personal and economic freedoms and value individualism above all, Canadians believe more strongly in stability and the rule of law. “Peace, order and good government” was inscribed as a goal in Canada’s founding document but lives on. Stronger gun laws. Universal free health care. A belief in diversity and an open door to refugees. A bigger role for government. According to Miles Corak, a Canadian economist who teaches at the City University of New York, the American dream is now more easily achievable in Canada. “A growing consensus in the academic literature suggests that social mobility is twice as great in Canada than in the United States,” Prof. Corak writes, noting that his studies show that “the middle class is within easier reach of Canadian children raised in low-income families than for Americans.”

While many immigrants traditionally saw America as their first choice, this has changed as well. For one thing, they’re no longer as welcome as they once were. Canadian government and industry sees this American rejection of immigration as an opportunity to attract the world’s best talent, particularly in high technology. Tobias Lütke, the 40-year-old founder and CEO of Shopify, Canada’s most successful high-tech business, personally tweeted an invitation to engineers and others affected by the U.S. ban to consider Canada. “Shopify is hiring all over the world and we have lots of experience helping with international relocation.” Lütke, a German who moved to Canada after meeting his future wife while snowboarding in Whistler, British Columbia, is many times a billionaire, a living example of the successful Canadian immigrant. Yet Lütke's story also harks back to a previous era. In the early 1970s, more than 60 percent of immigrants arrived from Europe. By 2016, it was just 11.6 percent. India, China and the Philippines are now the top three source countries. Almost half the residents of Toronto were born outside of Canada.

47 percent of First Nations children live in poverty, 2.5 times the national rate

While diversity is celebrated, it doesn’t mean Canada doesn’t suffer from its own forms of racism and discrimination, laid bare by the pandemic. While most deaths have occurred among the elderly, reflecting chronic under-staffing and under-investment in Canada’s long-term care homes, many of the pandemic’s other victims have been from racialized and immigrant communities. In Quebec, the centre of Canada’s pandemic, infection rates have been particularly high among immigrants and asylum seekers in Montreal who have worked for low wages and in dangerous conditions as health workers in care homes. In Alberta, the pandemic has swept through meatpacking plants, infecting hundreds of mainly Filipino temporary foreign workers. And in Ontario, migrant farm workers from Mexico and Jamaica have caught the virus after being forced to live in crowded conditions.

There have been calls to end “systemic racism” by police and other authorities against racialized minorities and Canada’s Indigenous peoples, who still suffer from chronic poverty, poor health outcomes and economic marginalization despite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2015 pledge for “reconciliation” and an end to colonialist-influenced attitudes and policies. The statistics are stark. According to a 2019 study for the Assembly of First Nations, 47 percent of First Nations children live in poverty, 2.5 times the national rate. A recent study of Canada’s federal prisons shows 30 percent of prisoners are from Indigenous communities even though they only make up 5 percent of the population. And the incidence of tuberculosis among Inuit living in Canada’s Far North is 290 times higher than that of Canadian-born non-Indigenous people, blamed on overcrowded housing, food insecurity and high rates of smoking. Perry Bellegarde, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, praises Trudeau for “considerable efforts towards reconciliation” and creating economic opportunities for First Nations, but says that there’s a need for fundamental change. “First Nations face systemic racism in every aspect of life and from every institution of Canadian society. This is a fact,” says Bellegarde.

The views of First Nations are also important to another debate going on in Canada: the measures needed to tackle climate change and how Canada transitions away from being an energy dependent country that’s a big producer of carbon-emitting oil, gas and coal without seeing a drop in living standards. Aboriginal communities are often in the forefront of these debates with their territorial lands often the first to be affected by the construction of new pipelines or the massive oil sands facilities in northern Alberta.

Canada’s promise to reduce its carbon emissions in line with the Paris agreement is threatened

Most of Alberta’s oil is extracted from oil sands through a process that produces large amounts of greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Pembina Institute, an Alberta-based environmental think tank, Canadian oil production emits on average 70 percent more of these emissions than the average crude produced around the globe. While the industry insists it’s getting cleaner, higher output from the oil sands means Canada’s promise to reduce its carbon emissions in line with the Paris agreement is threatened, according to the institute. Foreign investors have taken note and now see oil sands as dirty as coal. Banks like HSBC and Deutsche Bank have halted investing in oil sands while Total Petroleum of France has written off the value of its oil sands holdings. The reaction of the Alberta government, long hooked on a flow of billions of dollars in royalties to keep taxes low has been visceral. The provincial premier, Jason Kenney, has threatened to retaliate against banks that boycott his province and has launched an “information centre” aimed at countering what he says are foreign-funded environmentalists intent on destroying his province’s economy.

Trudeau’s response has been to try to please both sides. While backing the Paris climate accord and pushing for Canada to do more to reduce its emissions, his government has also purchased a controversial oil pipeline from Alberta to the Pacific coast that is undergoing a massive expansion. The idea is to diversify markets for Alberta’s oil-sands crude, now totally dependent on U.S. exports. After approving the start of construction on the pipeline in 2019, Trudeau explained that it was needed “to create wealth today so we can invest in the future.” A day earlier, his environment minister had declared a climate emergency saying that climate change was “a real and urgent crisis driven by human activity.”

The contradiction is apparent. Canada is struggling to adjust to a new reality, while still hanging on to the benefits that came from the old one. It’s similar to Canada’s effort to adjust to a world where a less dependable and more belligerent U.S. plays a smaller role. These transitions are not easy.

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