Quiet Canada is becoming a radical exception in the global political order. One startling fact is starting to separate our country from the rest of the developed world: We’re cheerful. Justin Trudeau’s “sunny ways” have been flooding Ottawa with their brightness for a year now and clouds have shown no signs of forming on the horizon yet.
A year is typically more than enough for Canadians to tire of whomever they choose for prime minister during election season, and a very recent small decline has Trudeau with 55 percent of the country’s support—still much, much higher than the support that brought him to power. Canadians are, for the most part, pleased with their optimistic leader. His optimism reflects theirs. From a global perspective, that optimism verges on the bizarre.
The political vision through which Trudeau has attained and maintained power is unique in the world as it stands. He has increased his popularity by more or less following the tenets of his policy platform during the 2015 election which was, in itself, an extraordinary gamble for a government leader to take in the 21st century. He promised to increase the number of refugees allowed into Canada from foreign warzones, he promised more open markets and engagement with international institutions through free trade agreements, and he promised an increase in deficit spending due to the historically low cost of borrowing money. In almost every other developed country in the Western world, any of those promises would have been political suicide. Trudeau triumphed by making those promises and his popularity has increased because he has enacted them. It’s a mystery: In a world of growing darkness and loathing for others and for the global political order as a whole, why are we so hopeful?
Look around, and on all sides there are only counterexamples to Canada’s sunny ways. The candidacy of Donald Trump has realized once-unthinkable scenes in the United States. Crowds chanting “Build a wall! Build a wall! Build a wall!” Crowds chanting “Lock her up! Lock her up! Lock her up!” referring to Hillary Clinton. Crowds chanting against women and immigrants and the press. Street violence is overtaking American cities in a way not seen since 1968. American discourse has more or less broken down. The American conservative movement, if it can even be said to exist as a singular entity anymore, exists in vitriolic factions, fragments of exploded fragments. The left, too, has not entirely recovered from the candidacy of Bernie Sanders. Extreme voices on the margins are calling for state secession and for racially exclusive nationalism.
But this spirit of overwhelming alienation and the decline of political unity is by no means only an American phenomenon. Hatred for otherness and fear of the new economic order has emerged the world over. Australia has more or less ended illegal immigration from its North, but at the price of establishing a “tropical gulag archipelago” in the South Pacific. Recent reports from its camp on the tiny island of Nauru have detailed an astonishing history of sexual crime, child abuse and a skyrocketing suicide rate among the refugees. Australia’s desire to keep foreigners away—the ruling party’s motto was “stop the boats”—came at a serious financial expense as well. The Australian government pays Papua New Guinea nearly a million dollars for every person detained on the island of Manus.
In Britain the consequences of the worldwide loathing for others have been even more severe. Even before Brexit, there was the murder of MP Jo Cox following a constituency meeting. Her attacker shouted “Put Britain first!” and, when asked for his name at his hearing, declared “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.” When asked again, he repeated the phrase word for word. A wave of xenophobic abuse and physical violence against immigrants followed Brexit, recalling the worst of Europe’s 20th century history.
Why is Canada different from the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia? Canadians have emerged from and have shared in the same culture, broadly speaking, as the rest of the Anglosphere. Our political traditions and our economic life have developed from the same matrix of ideas and even the same historical events. A Canadian can walk into any state in the union and be taken for an American. But we have Justin Trudeau and they have Donald Trump. Our most rabidly conservative citizens do not even approach the state of revolutionary loathing that is coming to dominate Republican politics.
The mystery of the Canadian exception is more than a curiosity, of interest principally to Canadians or to students of Canada. The neoliberal order, as it has emerged in the 21st century in the wake of globalization, is generating enormous resistance. A big step back, in one way or another, possibly with serious violence, appears inevitable. But not in Canada. Canadians are embracing the world of open borders and open markets, and they are doing so eagerly, not with a sense of loss but with a sense of purpose. Understanding the specific conditions of the Canadian exception is essential to anyone with the interests of global peace and prosperity at heart.
Almost every observer of Canadian and American political life assumes one basic fact about the difference between the two countries: that Canada is a more liberal and less conservative country than America. This assumption is not entirely accurate. While it is true that Canadians overwhelmingly believe in gun control, public health care and strong public education, the reason these issues have never become major political issues is that Canadian conservatives overwhelmingly share those values. Since 1984, Conservative governments have controlled the Canadian parliament for 18 years, while the U.S. has had a Republican president for only 16 years during that same period. In terms of who actually holds power, Canada is every bit as conservative as the United States.
The Democratic Party in the United States and the Liberal Party in Canada are just not that different in their means and their aims. Both want to use the power of government to effect social change. The real question of how Canada has stayed so sane and cheerful over the past 40 years rests with the right. How have Canadian conservatives stayed so sane and cheerful when the right in the United States and Britain have collapsed into fear and loathing?
Canadian conservatives are increasingly unrecognizable from their counterparts to the south; there is no Canadian conservative in elected office who desires, for example, the end of fiat currency. There is no Canadian conservative like the governor of Kentucky who has openly discussed the possibility of armed revolution if the Democrats win. The cynical explanation for the distinction between Canadian conservatives and American conservatives is that Canadian conservatives have only been able to be as conservative as the Canadian people would let them be. It is true that former prime minister Stephen Harper was a deeply cynical operator who manipulated the Conservative Party into a collection of ideological positions that were more or less palatable to the Canadian people (no debates about abortion, for instance.) But cynicism would be inaccurate if not unfair. Canadian conservatives are creatures of policy; American conservatives have become opposed to policy as such. That distinction is the most important explanation for why Canada has not been subject to the vicious populist swells of the American right wing.
Stephen Harper was in power for nearly 10 years and still represents the face of the Canadian Conservative Party. During his time in power, he earned a great deal of contempt from Canadian liberals because of his notorious hatred for expertise of all kinds and in all fields, from environmental science to the judiciary. He made a conscious effort to restrict any information that could be inconvenient to him. He shut down the capacity of government-mandated scientists to speak to the press; he closed down the long-form census. His mania for personal control over every detail of government was extreme. And yet a decade after he was first elected, it would be hard to trace significant decisions where Harper diverged from his Liberal predecessor Paul Martin. It is true that no progress was made on native and environmental issues but there was no grand attempt to dismantle entitlement spending in any significant way. He cut social programs, slightly, and he instituted minor changes to immigration policy. But on the major issue of his tenure, the 2008 financial crisis, Harper did the right thing even though it flew in the face of his ideology. He lived by deficits. Here is one source of the Canadian exception: Over the past 30 years, Liberal governments tend to run surpluses and Conservative governments tend to run deficits, and it’s to the credit of both, because in both cases, because of the timing, it has been the right thing to do.
Let us examine how this history compares to the recent history of conservatism elsewhere. In the United States, we have seen the return of an explicitly racist, explicitly nativist demagoguery. Trump seems like a pure novelty, with his combination of P.T. Barnum hucksterism and total lack of coherent policy. It is a legitimate question whether he can even be identified as a conservative ideologically. His main point is America’s greatness. The content of that greatness is vague at best.
Nonetheless, he could only have appeared as a Republican. His particular brand of angry incoherence is nowhere near as unprecedented as some would like to imagine. The loathing for Barack Obama has taken the Republican Party into bizarre territory. The refusal to consider Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court, a refusal that flies in the face of 200 years of precedent, belongs not to Trump but to his party. Fox News and other more extreme-right media organizations grew obsessed with a counterfactual: that Obama was not a citizen at all. But even before the distortion of that fantasy, serious candidates supported ideas that had virtually no support from experts, like a return to the gold standard. Even well before Obama, conspiracy theories flourished openly for decades. One may say horrible things about the Conservative Party of Canada (and I have) but they would never swallow this nonsense. There is a lunatic fringe, of course, but it has no real power.
Ronald Reagan set the tone of the American politics that followed him when he famously declared in his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.” Brian Mulroney set the tone of the Canadian politics that followed him when he described medicare in 1983 as a “sacred trust” in a debate in the House of Commons. Canadian conservatives, not always but typically, believe in leaner government, more efficient government, and above all, less arrogant government. But they don’t believe in annihilating government. Moderate and, for lack of a better word, sane conservatives are what has led most directly to the Canadian exception.
It is of course possible to find evidence of this moderation—the desire for more effective policy against the desire for no policy whatsoever—written into the different Canadian party platforms in any number of ways. But the distinction runs much deeper than party politics. Harper and Trump reveal essential differences in the natures of the two countries; differences as old as the countries themselves.
In the simplest terms, the fundamental difference between a Canadian and an American is the difference between a subject and a citizen. The distinction may seem insubstantial but the nature of subjecthood and citizenship has extreme consequences for the political differences between the two countries. The difference between the two was the casus belli of the only major war fought between Canada and the United States, the War of 1812.
The great Canadian literary critic Northrop Frye defined a Canadian as “an American who rejects the Revolution”—this is literally as well as metaphorically true. After the Revolutionary War, there was a great deal of interaction between the new Americans and the old subjects—they were former neighbours, often blood relations who had been torn apart by historical accident. Who was Canadian and who was American, then as now, was often hard to distinguish. They were not just like each other. They were nearly identical.
The structure of their political obedience was what distinguished them, and this was no mere legal quibble. British ships in Québec in September 1812 entered a prison ship and press-ganged American citizens on board, declaring them “born subjects,” which of course they were in a sense. They had been born British subjects. It was just a question of whether their chosen citizenship would be recognized. Historian Alan Taylor, in his book The Civil War of 1812, described the struggle that followed:
“The War of 1812 pivoted on the contentious boundary between the king’s subject and the republic’s citizen. In the republic, an immigrant chose citizenship—in stark contrast to a British subject, whose status remained defined by birth. That distinction derived from the American Revolution, when the rebelling colonists became republican citizens by rejecting their past as subjects. An immigrant reenacted the revolution by seeking citizenship and forsaking the status of a monarch’s subject. But the British denied that the Americans could convert a subject into a citizen by naturalization. By seizing supposed subjects from merchant ships, the Royal Navy threatened to reduce American sailors and commerce to a quasi-colonial status, for every British impressment was an act of counterrevolution. By resisting impressment and declaring war, the Americans defended their revolution.“
The nature of an American citizen wasn’t defined by the Constitution until the 14th amendment in 1868. But even by 1812, the American difference was already established: A citizen chose to be a citizen. American citizenship was a miniature declaration of independence, recreated by each individual person in the nation. A subject has no choice in being a subject.
A Canadian may identify with citizenship but still has no choice in the matter of being a subject. In 2013, two complainants tried to avoid the oath to “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second, Queen of Canada, Her Heirs and Successors” when they became Canadians, claiming that it violated their Charter rights. (They were republicans and therefore the declaration was against their conscience.) In Canada, conscience doesn’t obviate signing onto the political order. Even separatist politicians must declare their obedience as members of the loyal opposition, although they have been known to add “Vive la République” at the end, or “et aussi au Roi de France,” or to whisper the name of the queen, or to cross their fingers.
And yet it would be ludicrous to say that Americans are inherently freer than Canadians; rather, the country’s two types of freedom are differently structured. Subjecthood is far from pure subservience. To take one of the more fascinating and revealing traditions of the British parliamentary system, the role of the Black Rod during the monarch’s opening of parliament shows the tension between sovereign and subject that maintains the system. As the queen arrives at parliament to open the proceedings of her ministers, a representative—the Black Rod—has the door to the Commons Chamber slammed in his face, to symbolize independence. The gesture harkens back to the time of Charles I and demonstrates that parliament does not allow the king or queen to enter the place where political decisions are made. The sovereign is not allowed in the House of Commons. The queen is the only person in the system not entitled to an opinion.
The kinds of political freedom enjoyed in both the United States and Canada often have the same result: the freedom of the press, the freedom of religious expression, and so on. But the structural difference remains. The citizen has rights as opposed to government; the subject is guaranteed rights by government. America has resistance to government at its beginning. Canada has the evolution of government at its beginning. In both countries, conservatives aspire to recapture a national original freedom. But the conception of that freedom is very different. “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” is the motto of the United States. “Peace, order and good government” is the motto of Canada.
When Americans wish to restore their democracy to its original promise of freedom, they naturally turn to a figure who is unrecognizable from the political class. And populism in America must always be anti-government. But when Canadians wish to restore their democracy to its original promise of freedom, they turn to a better servant, a more efficient subject. Critique of government comes from outside in America. Critique of government comes from inside in Canada. And therefore the dervish of Trump and his total incoherence when it comes to policy stands against Harper, the control freak.
The difference between the citizenship of Americans and the subjecthood of Canadians explains why destructive Trump-style populism is impossible here, but avoiding American-style populism only explains a portion of the Canadian exception. The United Kingdom is the mother of parliaments, and yet its politics have led to Brexit, making it the first major democracy since the Second World War to step back from global political and economic integration. Britons too run on the notion of the subject and the internal critique of government, but they have closed themselves off nonetheless.
Indeed, the openness of Canada towards immigration and towards global institutions is remarkable when compared to virtually any other parliamentary democracy. In the most recent federal election, the Conservatives proposed policies that had proven to be wildly popular elsewhere, and included screening refugees on the basis of their religion, “barbaric cultural practices” hotlines and banning the niqab for citizenship ceremonies. They even tried, in one desperate final lunge, posing with the late controversial Toronto politician Rob Ford. But wedge tactics only drove down their numbers. The same tactics were tried in the most recent provincial election in Québec. The proposed Charter of Values, based on Jean-François Lisée’s book Nous, was soundly defeated. The appetite is very small for divisiveness based on race or religion in Canada. Canadian identity is tough enough to survive the onslaught of globalization.
National identity is not supposed to be Canada’s strong suit. Defining Canada, in ways that fit the modes of national identity found elsewhere, is next to impossible. In England Your England, George Orwell was able to define Englishness in ways both grand and superficial:
“Here are a couple of generalizations about England that would be accepted by almost all observers. One is that the English are not gifted artistically. They are not as musical as the Germans or Italians, painting and sculpture have never flourished in England as they have in France. Another is that, as Europeans go, the English are not intellectual. They have a horror of abstract thought; they feel no need for any philosophy or systematic ‘world-view’. Nor is this because they are ‘practical’, as they are so fond of claiming for themselves. One has only to look at their methods of town planning and water supply, their obstinate clinging to everything that is out of date and a nuisance, a spelling system that defies analysis, and a system of weights and measures that is intelligible only to the compilers of arithmetic books, to see how little they care about mere efficiency. But they have a certain power of acting without taking thought. Their world-famed hypocrisy – their double-faced attitude towards the Empire, for instance – is bound up with this. Also, in moments of supreme crisis the whole nation can suddenly draw together and act upon a species of instinct, really a code of conduct which is understood by almost everyone, though never formulated. The phrase that Hitler coined for the Germans, ‘a sleep-walking people’, would have been better applied to the English. Not that there is anything to be proud of in being called a sleep-walker.”
One could never write a paragraph like the above about Canada. Orwell was able to define Englishness through a host of traits—the mania for hobbies, the interest in flowers and so on. As much as people have tried, it is nearly impossible to achieve the same level of generalization with Canada. Tim Hortons, The Tragically Hip, even hockey—their appeal applies, at best, to segmented communities within the country. There are 640 Indigenous groups, two official languages, hundreds of ethnic groups, and somewhere in the vicinity of a dozen regions in Canada. These facts have meant that, from the beginning, we have been forging a national sense of self from within the confines of multiple communities.
This diffuse community was the grounding reality of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Canada has never lived by national pride, or by a numinous sense of blood and soil. The process of integration is described in plain English right there in Section 27 of the document: “This Charter shall be interpreted in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”
The legal and intellectual basis of the Canadian way in immigration is openness combined with order. The happy accident of our location and borders means Canada has chosen immigration, rather than had immigration forced on it. But the clear-eyed terms of the selection of immigrants is also vital to the Canadian success: We want immigrants, and we do not demand any cultural fealty to a newfound Canadian identity. But the country insists on a very clear and very distinct political vision of itself which immigrants are implicitly and explicitly bound to follow. Canada’s tolerance has fiercely inscribed political limits. What is against the Charter is un-Canadian. You may keep whatever language and culture you like, just so long as you act like a high liberal.
Our immigration system is, above all, systematic. The order permits the openness. Canada’s system does not necessarily prevent crises of integration, but it does clarify them. You can wear whatever clothes you want. But in public schools you will have to endure sexual equality. You will have to put your kids in mandatory music classes. The clarity of the Charter is part of why the anti-multicultural voice is so muted in Canada. The immigrants here have made a deal when they became citizens. That deal has set terms, laid out directly. When a Muslim woman in a niqab comes to this country, the political document that defines her citizenship enjoins her to “preserve and enhance” her culture. Who can hate her for fulfilling the terms of the deal?
The reason Canada has escaped the populist manias of both the United States and the United Kingdom comes down to some very boring underlying policies. We made multiculturalism a public good and regulated its application assiduously. Our political system is structured to make political insurgency nearly impossible; Canada is inherently anti-revolutionary, from its beginning. The struggle between the right and the left in Canada is a struggle within the context of the Charter, and behind that struggle lies the tradition of both parties being servants loyal to the crown. These legal abstractions and historical accidents, so utterly ethereal, so completely forgotten in everyday life, mean the difference between Trump and Trudeau, between the small towns in Britain where they beat up Poles and the small towns in Canada where they have spaghetti suppers to raise money for Syrian refugees.
Behind the policies and the governmental system lies the mysterious political unity of the Canadian people, which is equally ethereal, equally obscure. We are deeply divided by almost every quality, a concatenation of cultures with few meaningful national symbols, paying virtually no attention to our collective history, possessing a tiny handful of myths which we ignore. We remain overwhelmingly certain of what our country stands for even in the middle of collapsing world.
Stephen Marche is a novelist and a contributing editor at Esquire.
Illustrations by Simon Prades.
This feature is published as part of the University of British Columbia’s 2016 Lind Initiative in U.S. Studies.