MSSU Canada Semester

Why Canada?

Canada theme logoDr. Allen H. Merriam
Professor of Communication (Ret.)
Missouri Southern State University

Nearing Autumn’s close.
My neighbor -
How does he live, I wonder?

A sense of curiosity about one’s neighbor, expressed in this haiku by the noted 17th century Japanese poet, Basho, might aptly apply to Fall Semester 2009 at Missouri Southern State University. For although we share the world’s longest bi-national border with Canada, people in the United States tend to be notoriously ignorant of our northern neighbor.

For example, if typical Canadian college students were asked to name the president of the United States, chances are that most of them would know. But if we asked college students here to name Canada’s prime minister, there likely would be many blank stares.

Such ignorance proved embarrassing at the 1992 World Series. A U.S. Marine Corps honor guard inadvertently displayed the Canadian flag upside down during the opening ceremony Oct. 18 at Fulton County Stadium in Atlanta. An official apology followed.

But beyond neighborly curiosity, why should people in the U.S. be motivated to study Canada? At least three reasons can be offered: economic interdependence, security concerns, and cultural affinities.

The United States and Canada enjoy the largest trade relationship between any two nations on earth! Imports and exports in 2007 totaled nearly $566 billion, a 77% increase over 10 years earlier (2009 World Almanac). In 2007 more international visitors entered the U.S. from Canada than from any other country. Canada was the origin of the second greatest number (after Japan) of passenger cars imported into the U.S. Canada provides more oil, gas, electricity, and uranium to the U.S. than any other country. An estimated seven million U. S. jobs depend on trade with Canada (, which ranks among the top 10 producers of corn, wheat, beef, and pork. Undoubtedly, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) will only intensify economic interdependence among Canada, Mexico, and the United States.

The Canadian-U.S. border, counting land boundaries, shorelines of shared waterways (including the Great Lakes), and the Alaska-Yukon border, stretches 5,525 miles (8,891 km). Securing this vast space in the post 9/11 era requires cooperation among immigration and customs agencies, border patrols, intelligence services, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the FBI, Interpol, the Coast Guard, and NORAD (the North American Aerospace Defense Command). The arrest and conviction of the “millennium bomber,” Ahmed Ressam of Algeria, who entered Port Angeles, Wash., by ferry from Victoria, British Columbia, to attack the Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve 1999, illustrated such collaboration.

We have come a long way from the time depicted in “Sgt. Preston of the Yukon.” That popular radio drama, launched in 1947 and later a television series, featured a Mountie who fought crime on the Western frontier with his faithful Husky dog, King, and horse, Rex. Today computers track potential terrorists and sophisticated scanning devices monitor cargo. While former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien pointedly refused to endorse George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, Canada supports the campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida with about 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. Canadian public opinion, however, remains sharply divided on that military mission and Parliament has mandated that all Canadian combat troops be withdrawn from Afghanistan by 2011.

Canada and the United States share a common legacy of British colonialism but evolved quite differently. Whereas the U.S. became a federal republic with 50 states, Canada, a confederation within the British Commonwealth, is a parliamentary democracy and a constitutional monarchy. Canada’s head of state is Queen Elizabeth II, represented by Governor General Michaëlle Jean, a Haitian-born journalist and the first black woman to hold that post. Canada’s head of government is the prime minister, currently Stephen Harper, the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons in Ottawa.

With 3.85 million square miles, Canada ranks as the world’s second largest nation in total area (after Russia). The country is divided into 10 provinces plus three sparsely populated territories: Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, created in 1999 as a homeland for the Inuit (Eskimos).

With its huge area and relatively small population of about 33 million people (less than California), Canada has a dramatically low population density of 9.5 people per square mile, compared to 2,970 people/sq. mi. in Bangladesh.

While the United States contains a significant number of Spanish speakers, Canada’s largest linguistic minority speaks French. Early French explorers included Jacque Cartier in 1534 and Samuel de Champlain who founded Quebec City in 1608.

French-speaking and predominantly Roman Catholic Quebec, the second most populous province after Ontario, maintains an uneasy relationship with the rest of English-speaking and largely Protestant Canada. France’s President Charles de Gaulle inflamed emotions on July 24, 1967, by declaring “Vive le Québec libre!” (“Long live free Quebec!”) to a large crowd at Montreal’s City Hall. The following year separatists led by René Lévesque formed the Parti Québécois to promote sovereignty. In 1995 a referendum calling for independence for Quebec narrowly lost. Three years later Canada’s Supreme Court ruled that Quebec has no legal right to secede, regardless of its voters’ wishes.

Such tensions grew out of conflict between France and Great Britain over control of eastern Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries. Samuel de Champlain founded Port Royal, an outpost on Acadia (from the French Acadie) on present-day Nova Scotia. Following repeated British incursions, the Acadians in 1755 were compelled to swear allegiance to the British crown or leave. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow dealt with the expulsion of the Acadians in his famous poem, “Evangeline,” published in 1847. Approximately 6,000 Acadians left by ship, many settling in the French colony of Louisiana on the Gulf of Mexico. Today’s Cajuns are descendents of those French-speaking exiles. The word “Cajun” represents a corruption of “Acadian.”

Canadians now struggle to maintain their cultural and national identity in the shadow of a superpower. A majority of Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border, so are inundated with media, products, and ideas from their southern neighbor. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once likened Canada’s situation to a mouse sleeping next to an elephant.

Numerous reports have warned of threats to Canadian sovereignty posed by media imperialism and trans-border data flow from the U.S. The Aird Royal Commission in 1929, the Fowler Royal Commission on Broadcasting in 1957, and the Cline Report on Telecommunications in 1979 all urged government action to promote the nation’s information independence. Today, satellites, the Internet, and new media technologies profoundly influence Canada’s social landscape.

The Canadian experience may illuminate some timely public policy issues. In 2005 the nation legalized same-sex marriage on the principle that all citizens deserve equal rights. Capital punishment has been banned since 1976, yet the country’s per capita homicide rate is generally about one-third of that in the U.S. And the government-sponsored universal health care system merits analysis. While the U.S. spends nearly twice as much per capita on medical care, Canadians have a longer life expectancy (81 years vs. 78 years), a lower infant mortality rate (5.1 deaths/1,000 live births compared to 6.3 deaths/1,000 live births), and an HIV rate only two-thirds (0.4% vs. 0.6%) of that of their U. S. counterparts (2009 World Almanac).

Many Canadians love sports. Canada finished 15th in overall medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympics and third at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. The country has been chosen to host three Olympiads: the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, and the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.

Four Canadian cities have hosted the Commonwealth Games: Hamilton, Ontario (1930), Vancouver (1954), Edmonton, Alberta (1978), and Victoria, British Columbia (1994). Winnipeg, Manitoba hosted the Pan American Games twice, in 1967 and 1999. The Toronto Blue Jays won baseball’s World Series in 1992 and 1993.

Not surprisingly in a northern climate, ice hockey is very popular. Dec. 4, 2009, marks the 100th anniversary of the Montreal Canadiens, the world’s oldest continuously operating professional ice hockey team. Montreal has won 24 Stanley Cups, by far the most championships by any team. The nearest rival is the Toronto Maple Leafs with 13.

Many fans regard Ontario-born Wayne Gretzky as the greatest hockey player ever. While playing for the Edmonton Oilers, Gretzky won the Hart Memorial Trophy (the equivalent of the Most Valuable Player award) eight consecutive years (1980-87), an astounding accomplishment for any athlete.

Environmental concerns in Canada include diminishing polar bear habitats, the clubbing deaths of baby seals, the depletion of fishing stocks, the slaughter of whales, threats to forests due to commercial logging, the degradation of air and water, and the destruction of Inuit villages resulting from global warming and climate change. Among the nation’s endangered species are bison, caribou, whooping cranes, and the northern swift fox.

From Niagara Falls to the Rocky Mountains, Canada is a land of extraordinary natural beauty. Human-made wonders include Toronto’s spectacular 1,815-foot CN Tower and the world’s fifth longest railroad network (about 30,000 miles).

On balance, Canadians are a hardworking and resourceful people who overcame vast distances and an often harsh climate to forge a modern and progressive nation. Appropriately, Barack Obama’s first international trip as U.S. president, in February, 2009, was to Canada. Maintaining friendly and peaceful relations between these two North American neighbors is imperative for both countries.