Since 1776, anti-Americanism has been a bedrock of Canadian identity – reflected both in posturing by politicians and the sentiments of many Canadians. Anti-Americanism is “the Canadian secular religion,” according to historian Jack Granatstein. Both the Liberals and Conservatives have exploited anti-Americanism in elections since the 19th century.
The founding of Canada itself was by definition “anti-American” – one of the main reasons for Confederation in 1867 was to pool the resources of the northern colonies to resist absorption into the United States, then under the “Manifest Destiny” sway of inexorable continental expansion. The Fenian Raids by anti-British Irish patriots in the United States and the US’s cancellation the Reciprocity Treaty (see Free Trade) fuelled more anti-Americanism.
Through the years, anti-Americanism in Canada morphed from an existential imperative to the natural resentment of living in the shadow of a much larger and more powerful neighbour (see Trudeau’s The Elephant and the Mouse speech). The pathology is understandable. Canada and the US share a (largely) common culture and are tied by millions of personal and commercial links and the US is often a magnet for Canadians seeking fame and fortune. Notwithstanding all of this, the United States’ status as the dominant international power – guided by an approach that serves, above all (and naturally) its own mercantile and political interest – has ignited anti-Americanism mixed perhaps with just a little bit of envy.
Until the 1960s, Canadian anti-Americanism tended to be synonymous with pro-British or pro-Empire sentiment. The Conservatives’ protectionist National Policy was promoted as “the old flag, the old policy, the old leader” (the old flag being one that included the Union Jack) and in 1911 campaigned on an ardently anti-American platform promising “no truck or trade with the Yankees.” George Grant’s Lament for a Nation is the conservative touchstone for this sentiment – and fear of rampant American commercialism and cultural dominance. John Diefenbaker’s Conservatives employed subtly anti-Americanism during elections in the late 1950s and early 1960s, playing to fears about US economic domination and the controversy over whether Canada should host American Bomarc missiles in Canada.
From the 1960s on, triggered by both the Vietnam War and (to some) alarmingly high rates of American ownership in the Canadian economy, anti-Americanism became the domain of the NDP & political left (and when strategically useful, the Liberal Party & political centre.) This was on display following the 1972 election, in which the NDP’s protectionist and anti-American campaign helped increase its standing, prompting Pierre Trudeau’s minority government to embrace elements of economic nationalism. Anti-Americanism was also prevalent in debates over the Canada-US and North American Free Trade Agreements in the 1980s and 90s. In 1988’s “Free Trade Election”, one Liberal campaign ad even depicted an American negotiator erasing the Canada-US border.
Today, anti-Americanism in Canada typically waxes and wanes depending on who occupies the Oval Office and 24 Sussex, and specific US policies. Ronald Reagan and both Bushes were unpopular in Canada, and the warm relations that Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper maintained with them were fodder for the Liberals. Canadians heavily opposed Bush Jr’s 2003 Iraq invasion, while Reagan was even heckled when addressing Parliament in 1987.
During the 2006 election, the Liberals again returned to anti-Americanism, running ads claiming Harper would be “the most pro-American leader in the Western world.” In 2008, they attempted to brand the Conservative campaign as “Bush-Harper ‘08.” On the other hand, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama enjoyed the kind of poll numbers among Canadians that domestic politicians would kill for. Jean Chrétien befriended Clinton (after criticizing Mulroney’s closeness with Reagan & Bush), while Trudeau had a much celebrated “bro-mance” with Obama.
The election of Donald Trump in 2016 perplexed many Canadians; which may ignite a return of anti-Americanism due to Trump’s incredible unpopularity in Canada. Surveys taken in mid-2017 found – for the first time since polling began – a majority of Canadians have an unfavourable opinion of the US. Yet in an effort to save NAFTA (which Trump promised to tear up,) the Liberal government has this time ignored anti-American sentiment, focused as they are on persuading the Americans to keep the deal.
Regardless of who occupies the White House, anti-Americanism manifests itself in other elements of Canadian culture and politics. Politicians and pundits routinely denounce (even Canadian) attack-ads or other aggressive tactics as “American-style.” The (somewhat dubious) narrative of a Canadian “victory” over the US was heavily promoted by the federal government during the War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations. Victories over the US in hockey ignite national jubilation. “Can-Con” defenders have pushed concerns about American cultural dominance, advocating for regulations surrounding Canadian content in the media. Canada’s health care system and attitudes towards ethnic, religious and sexual minorities are often contrasted with those of United States’ as a point of national pride.
A leaked 2009 cable from the embassy in Ottawa once described Canada as having an “inferiority complex” towards the US. The reality is closer to an insecure yet smug superiority, with Canadians seeing themselves as more tolerant, compassionate and progressive. Always in the Canadian psyche, anti-Americanism is certain to remerge.
That this is Parli’s longest entry speaks to its rich and enduring of anti-Americanism in our national politics!
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