As we near our 150th birthday as a country, Canadians find it easy to be a little bit smug.
Our usual points of reference—Britain, the USA, and France—are in political disarray, while our Prime Minister is handsome, glib, and cool atop a majority government that steams along, for better or worse.
In fact, particularly when it comes to the States, we’re riding high. There’s nothing like anti-Americanism to give normally tepid Canadian patriotism a charge, and Mr. Trump and his GOP colleagues savaging/saving health care, immigration law, and various forms of decency down there give us daily jolts.
I used to think anti-Americanism was the core of our putative Canadian inferiority complex—you know, the mouse-and-the-elephant thing—stemming from the rise of American global dominance during and after the Second World War.
But anti-Americanism goes ‘way back: to the founding of our country.
And there were good reasons for it.
First, in the 1860s as the Fathers of Confederation were trying to put things together up here, they had front-row seats to the vilest show on earth immediately to the south: the American Civil War.
From 1861 until 1865, Americans fought Americans over competing visions and versions of unity, freedom, and slavery, and they killed each other in breathtaking numbers. It took the Vietnam War to push the total number of Americans killed in every other war combined beyond the 620,000 killed by fellow Americans in the Civil War.
Canadians saw what Americans, from the nastiest slave owners to Abraham Lincoln himself, were prepared to do to triumph—namely, just about anything—and they wanted no part of it. Canada would avoid the fractious fragility of a republic, and stay united under the Crown and a strong central Parliament.
Second, older Canadians in the 1860s would have been alive when Americans had invaded Canada during the War of 1812. (That was the war featuring Sir Isaac Brock and Laura Secord at Queenston Heights, the burning of the White House, and the Battle of New Orleans.)
And those Canadians might well have had grandparents who told them about Americans invading Canada during the Revolutionary War. (Benedict Arnold is known to Americans as a traitor. He is known to Canadians as the commander of the invading force of Americans eventually repelled at both Quebec and Montreal.)
Furthermore, fear of American invasion was stoked in the 1860s not merely by memories, but by current events. For in 1867 an event occurred in the United States that decisively shaped Confederation in Canada. And most Canadians don’t know what it is.
It was the Alaska Purchase.
On March 30, 1867, that giant hunk of snow, trees, and rock passed from Russian hands into American. And why?
To weaken Russian influence in North America, to be sure. But also, as Charles Sumner argued on the floor of the U. S. Senate in favour of the purchase, to form a pincer that would drive what remained of British North America into the Atlantic and back home whence it came.
Yes, the Americans were coming. It was, they thought, their Manifest Destiny.
It isn’t paranoia if they really are out to get you.
I love visiting the United States. I enjoyed living there for a decade and I studied American culture in graduate school. My family of origin are all U. S. citizens. I speak fluent American. I don’t have an anti-American bone in my body.
But je me souviens, and I recognize that anti-Americanism is in our country’s DNA.
Racism is racism, and racism is bad. We all have our favourite jokes about Americans, but anti-Americanism is racism, albeit the one form of racism we indulge in this country.
We Canadians, and particularly those who want to celebrate the Christian heritage of Canada (more about that next week), must name it and abandon it.
Racism is racism, and racism is bad.
Even if every day’s news seems to tempt us afresh…