May 2005: Embracing Canadian Values

Being "pro-Canadian" means much more than being "anti-American"
May 1, 2005

George W. Bush and his gang of neo-cons have inadvertently prompted Canadians to more closely examine their own very different take on the world. And they like what they see.

There are those, of course, who dismiss this phenomenon either as “mindless” anti-Americanism or narrow nationalism. But both these criticisms miss the mark. First, an attachment to the ideas of tolerance, community, equality, and the rule of law is not anti-anything. And as for nationalism, in Canada this has almost always been expressed, not as blind patriotism or narrow xenophobia, but as pride in (and a commitment to) broad social democratic ideals.

The polling firm EKOS put the following question to a large sample of Canadians: If you were prime minister for a day, and had to pick overall national goals for Canada to achieve by the year 2010, which of the following would you choose? Here is how Canadians responded:

  • Best quality of life in the world: 66%.  
  • Best health care system in the world: 64%.
  • Lowest incidence of child poverty in the world: 62%.  
  • Best-educated population in the world: 57%.  
  • Eliminate public debt: 50%.  
  • Lowest overall tax burden of major industrialized countries: 45%.  
  • Highest productivity level of major industrialized countries: 45%.  
  • Highest standard of living of industrialized nations: 30%.

Canadians continue to reject the mantra of the economic élite by putting their own priorities—quality of life, universal health care, and lowest child poverty rate—far ahead of Bay Street’s preoccupation with productivity, low taxes, and debt reduction. The emphasis on quality of life, says the EKOS study, underlines Canadians’ view that government has a positive role to play “in addressing problems in our collective life” because robust social programs are seen as complementary to income.

In 2002, the Canadian Policy Research Network (CPRN) explored Canadian values in a comprehensive follow-up to a 1995 study. Day-long dialogues around the discussion theme, “The Kind of Canada We Want,” revealed that the 1995 theme of investing in children “had strengthened and broadened to include the right of every child, youth, and adult to receive support to become a fully contributing citizen.” In 1995, citizens emphasized “self-reliance and compassion leading to collective responsibility,” while the 2002 dialogues revealed a desire for “mutual responsibility for all actors in society.”

Many commentators have mused about the decline of Canadian democracy, but the CPRN study revealed something quite different. In 1995, citizens said “everyone should have a chance to participate in this kind of dialogue.” But seven years later, Canadians were “stating their right and their responsibility to engage more actively in the policy process.” Many participants suggested that governments get advice from program recipients in designing those programs.

None of this is anti-American. Yet Canadians’ strong belief in fairness does lead them to distrust the U.S. government. This distrust arises from two main sources: American officials’ imperial arrogance, and their disregard for trade agreements. In a poll done by the Innovative Research Group, 80% of Canadians described the U.S. as a “rogue nation” and fully one-third believe it is a “force for evil” in the world. Persistent trade harassment by the U.S. has led 48% of Canadians to the conclusion that “the U.S. cannot be trusted to treat Canadians fairly.”

While Canada’s élites are eager to hand over our sovereignty to ensure our trading relationship with the U.S., Canadians are nearly unanimous in saying they want to maintain that sovereignty, no matter what. In a March, 2004 poll, Ipsos Reid found that 91% agreed that: “Canada should maintain the ability to set its own independent environmental, health and safety standards and regulations, even if this might reduce cross-border trade opportunities with the United States.”

These trend lines must give migraines to Bay Street’s annexationists, such as Tom d’Aquino, head of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives. Canadians show every sign of wanting nothing to do with undermining their quality of life by being absorbed into the ailing and paranoid giant to the south. Books and studies galore reveal the very stark differences in values held by Canadians and Americans. EKOS asked people what being a Canadian or American meant to them. Having universal health and social programs was identified by nearly half of Canadians polled, but by less than a third of Americans. Twice as many Canadians opted for paying taxes. Almost three-quarters of Americans believed that aiming for “the good life”—measured in material possessions—trumped all else. Canadians’ emphasis on collective rights led them to put a healthy environment, a tolerant multicultural country, and individual liberty ahead of the accumulation of wealth.

Tom d’Aquino, meet Canada.

(Murray Dobbin is a CCPA research associate, a member of the CCPA’s board of directors, and the best-selling author of The Myth of the Good Corporate Citizen.)