Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Canada as a Concept for Others

I am a supporter of a podcast call The Mixed Six. As a reward for backing the podcast I get the privilege of submitting questions for the hosts to answer. The two hosts are well-educated and modestly inebriated men having heady conversations over beers. The conceit is basically the best conversations I have with my friends after about three or more beers. I submitted a question on the week of Canada for their perspectives on Canada and its influence on American debates as Americans, which they answered in episode 19. They are both lefties, it is safe to say, and I found both of their takes interesting and it inspired some thinking on my part.

It is no secret that Canada is often used as a prop during American political debates. Our country plays an important role in the rhetorical exchange of Americans, but the interesting thing it isn't Canada itself that plays a part in this debate, it is the conception of America. Both Spencer and Caleb of The Mixed Six cottoned onto this distinction immediately. Discussions in America about Canada aren't really about Canada for the most part, they are about America. The same is true to a lesser extent here, but Canadians have a greater familiarity with American and vice-versa so it's possible that our conversations are more grounded in the real experience of American lives.

Depending on an American's given political perspective Canada can be an illustration to how thing should/could be or an abject lesson in policy failures. For the conception of Canada the facts as relates to this is entirely irrelevant. Perhaps the best case study for this is to look at how Americans discuss our healthcare system. For many on the American left Canada is a model for what healthcare in the United States could be. We have universal care that does not exclude any Canadian on the basis of wealth. Even as a person familiar with these issues in America I don't understand American healthcare. How many times have you heard distortions about the nature of our healthcare? I don't view it as perfect, but it's certainly offers trade-offs I'm willing to accept. From the conservative point of view we live in a rationed system of long wait times and privation. Both sides caricature life in our country as a stick to beat the other, not to say anything about Canada.

This fetishization of Canada is epitomized during controversial elections and with coverage of our 'beloved' Prime Minister. It was widely reported that the Canadian immigration website crashed on the night of the American election and the days followed it. Liberal/progressive Americans often use the refrain that if a conservative wins they will flee to Canada. It is a convenient short-hand to reject the reactionary element of American political life. It's not truly rooted in a sense of Canada as a real place. Likewise the humiliating fawning the world does over our Prime Minister really fails to paint an accurate picture of his government or its policies. Would international press celebrate his feminist credentials if they saw the arms deal to Saudi Arabia? Or the way junior female cabinet ministers have been repeatedly thrown to the wolves? Or what about his broken promises on key electoral issues, or he violation of his government's commitments to Indigenous Canadians?

While familiarity breeds contempt I think is more accurate to say American familiarity with Canada has created complacency. Canada is as different as a subset of America, like how California or the South is distinct from the rest of the country. Canada is America but with French people, it's colder and has healthcare.

Ultimately this misrepresentation in foreign media reinforces and lends strength to those comfortable in the status quo. The privileged can pat themselves on the back because despite his flaws Justin Trudeau is not Donald Trump, which is hardly convincing enough on its own. Doubling down on our own (unearned) smug superiority is hardly helpful for Canadians. It's a curious mix of reactions. On the one hand we want to be acknowledged for our successes without becoming complacent by them.

Ultimately very few of us know another culture, country or society. What we have is our conception of them. Our broad understanding of these places drives our reactions to them and perhaps provides tools for our own debates. While it may be nicer to have the world understand us better I think it is more important to be more critical of these reflections back on ourselves and not stare too deeply into blurry that is so appealing.


Jared Milne said...

Great article.

In fact, I would venture so far as to say that there are subtle but important differences between Canadian and American conservatives, rooted in their attitudes towards healthcare.

When Canadian conservatives support a greater role for private healthcare delivery, in my experience they do so because they believe that this will ease pressure on the public system and allow people who really need care and can't afford it to get it sooner.

You can see it even here in Alberta. Preston Manning, during the early salad days of the Reform Alliance, tried to emphasize that Reform did not want to kill private healthcare-it wanted to get Canada's deficit problems under control so we could afford to keep financing public healthcare.

Former Premier Ralph Klein tried to justify more private delivery of healthcare with his "Third Way" proposals, based on a third way between public and private delivery. However, his proposals never got anywhere-the public had little enthusiasm for them, and even Klein's own caucus got cold feet. This was a surprising defeat for a Premier who had the well-earned nickname of "King Ralph" for the power he wielded over his caucus and the anemic opposition he faced in the Alberta Legislature.

SJL said...

Thanks for the feedback Jared, I'm glad you liked the article.

I would say that the breakdown between American and Canadian conservatives may be in the initial conception of the state. I think libertarianism has a comparative weak hold in Canadian conservatism. Though you could argue it has little bearing on the present the Conservative Party was founded on national projects and protecting industry.

I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of the motivations of those politicians in regards to private healthcare. I think that is how they had to discuss public healthcare given attitudes about it.

Fundamentally Canadian conservatives are conservative while American conservatives are reactionaries. Conservatives in our country want to, generally, keep the status quo for the sake of stability. Republicans are eager to overturn decades of precedence for their policy objectives. There's a lot more to breakdown, but I think these are some of the things at the heart.

Jared Milne said...

I'm not sure I agree with your assessment of the motivations of those politicians in regards to private healthcare. I think that is how they had to discuss public healthcare given attitudes about it.

Even if it doesn't, is does still say a lot about the attitudes of members of the public who call themselves conservatives, but still only support the idea of private medicine because they think it will ease pressure on public healthcare.

You see it even with attitudes towards social conservatism-while some backbenchers and activists in Alberta and nationally during the Stephen Harper era tried to get gay marriage back on the agenda, their efforts didn't amount to much. Nor was it much of an issue for most voters, who seemed quite comfortable re-electing Harper and Ralph Klein despite it all.