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By David Montgomery Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, July 1, 2003; Page C01
Legal Marijuana. Gay Marriage. Peace. What the Heck's Going On Up North, Eh?
Peaceniks, pot and people of the same sex exchanging wedding vows: It's a trinity from the church of high liberalism, or a right-wing trifecta of decline and doom.
Either way, it's a perfect storm of cultural weather patterns that you'd expect to be brewed only in, say, the East Village, Dupont Circle or the intersection of Haight and Ashbury.
Can you say Saskatoon?
Just when you had all but forgotten that carbon-based life exists above the 49th parallel, those sly Canadians have redefined their entire nation as Berkeley North.
"It's like we woke up and suddenly we're a European country," says Canadian television satirist Rick Mercer.
"We're supposedly the reactionary society," says Rudyard Griffiths, director of the Toronto-based Dominion Institute, which promotes Canadian citizenship and history. "We didn't have the revolution. You'd think we would be an inherently conservative society. There's the irony."
In March, Canada decided it was unwilling to join the "coalition of the willing" for the attack on Iraq. Unlike French wine and toast, Canadian bacon avoided boycott because somehow Canada's defection escaped notice.
In May, Canada proposed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and refocus law enforcement on traffickers. An herbal blend out of British Columbia known as "B.C. Bud" is attaining a reputation reminiscent of the old Panama Red and Maui Wowie.
In June, Canada decided to allow same-sex marriages. In comparison, the U.S. Supreme Court's striking down of the Texas sodomy law last week seems tame. Since the Canadian marriage right is construed as inalienable and open to all -- sound familiar? -- hundreds of gay Americans are streaming north to get married. Their nuptials will not be recognized at home, where a 1996 federal law decreed that marriage is strictly a man-woman thing. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist ( R-Tenn. ), appearing Sunday on ABC's "This Week," called for amending the Constitution to ban gay marriages.
The news from Canada is just a little disorienting -- no, shocking -- for Americans. Depending on your view, isn't America supposed to be the cradle of the coolest, most cutting-edge culture? Didn't we invent civil rights? Alternatively, if such so-called cool culture is corrupt and these "rights" wrong, at least by golly we're supposed to get to Hell first.
Now Canada is leading the way.
And America is looking fussy, Victorian and imperial.
On this Canada Day -- commemorating the creation of a central Canadian government on July 1, 1867 -- let us pause to wonder: What happened to that clean cold land of Mounties, Dudley Do-Right, loons on lakes, loons on coins, cheese on french fries? What of the goofy, front-teeth-missing, bad-haircut, lovable beer-and-doughnut civilization of hosers like Bob and Doug McKenzie, the characters created by Canadian comedians Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas? Eh? Bob would ponder conundrums like: "What is a six-pack equal to in metric conversion?"
That's a Canada we recognize, where everyone speaks in a crisp nasal deadpan, even the French. It is the home of a self-deprecating and polite-to-the-point-of-invisible people. In Michael Moore's 1995 satirical film "Canadian Bacon," the Canadians say "pardon me," "excuse me" as the Americans club them like baby seals during an invasion to keep the military in business after the Soviets caved. Toronto, observes one of the invaders, "is like Albany, only cleaner."
In more noble moments, we admire the benefits that seem to come with a passive, upstanding, low-key, non-controversial existence. Moore's new film, "Bowling for Columbine," hails Canada as an unarmed, low-crime utopia Where Front Doors Are Unlocked.
But Canada is also like the well-behaved child who is fun to pound on the playground. "Blame Canada," goes the song in the 1999 "South Park" movie, which depicts another invasion scenario. ( Why is the idea of going to war with Canada such an easy laugh? ) "It seems like everything went wrong since Canada came along."
"We tend to think of them as the quiet good people to the North," says David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.
Canadians are surprised by the stunned reaction to current events of their friends to the south. Is America's image racier than the reality?
"I find it interesting that a country like the United States . . . isn't at the same level on these issues as we are," says Amanda Hachey, a university student from New Brunswick in Washington for an internship with an international consulting firm. "For example, you only have to go as far as watching 'That '70s Show,' where they're smoking marijuana on that show. It's an American show. You'd be thinking American culture would be accepting of those things."
Or: "You watch 'Will & Grace.' There's two gay men on that show. It seems to present that it's totally accepted."
"Certainly we are ahead -- if you want to call it that -- on those two issues," says Lorna Hundt, manager of Great Canadian Holidays in Kitchener, Ont. "As a Canadian, I'm proud."
Majorities of Canadians support their government on the war, marijuana and same-sex marriage. The most negative reaction, at least to gay marriage, is coming from Alberta, which Canadians call their most "American" province: cowboys, oilmen.
Maybe it's time to overhaul some old assumptions about national character.
At one time all you needed to know was that America was created through revolution under the slogan "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Canada was born of evolution and compromise under the slogan "peace, order and good government." America invented itself, Canada sort of happened.
The English settlers of what would become the United States were driven by religious freedom, as well as economic opportunity. The land of woods and lakes to the north attracted Frenchmen and Englishmen in pursuit of fur and a passage to Asia.
In America, groups besides white males acquired rights, immigrants came, industry was built, wars were won, music was made -- and in the process the nation forged an identity.
Similar things happened in Canada, except the identity part. The nation has struggled to figure out who it was.
The winner of a radio contest some years ago to define the Canadian identity in one sentence was: "As Canadian as possible under the circumstance."
"In Canada, we're a nation of institutions, we're not a nation based on an idea or a set of founding documents," says Griffiths, of the Dominion Institute. "There's no bedrock, there's not a terra firma to Canadian identity. It's something we make up very much on the fly."
Plenty of Canadians have made their mark, but somehow that hasn't really helped define their homeland.
"People look at Celine Dion and say she's Canadian," says Biette. But "is what she does Canadian?"
And what about: Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Geddy Lee, Bruce Cockburn, Peter Jennings, Margaret Trudeau, Mike Myers, William Shatner, Keanu Reeves, Dan Aykroyd, Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Margot Kidder, Pamela Anderson, Carrie-Anne Moss, k.d. lang, Neil Young, Alanis Morissette, Robbie Robertson, Paul Shaffer, Paul Anka, Shania Twain, Alex Trebek, Lorne Michaels.
But now with peace, pot and same-sex people saying "I do," something weird is happening. Could it be Canada is getting an identity? Even weirder, is it possible that Canada is becoming more American, and America is becoming more Canadian?
A new nonfiction bestseller in Canada is called "Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values." It's based on surveys of Canadians and Americans about their values as sampled in 1992, 1996 and 2000.
"What emerges," writes Toronto-based author and pollster Michael Adams, "is a portrait of two nations evolving in unexpected directions: The once shy and deferential Canadians, who used to wait to be told by their betters what to do and how to think, have become more skeptical of traditional authority and more confident about their own personal decisions and informal arrangements. Americans, by contrast, seeking a little of the 'peace and order' that Canadians hoped 'good government' would provide, seem inclined to latch on to traditional institutional practices, beliefs, and norms as anchors in a national environment that is more intensely competitive, chaotic, and even violent."
Adams found that Americans were adopting more conservative stances while showing more pessimism about the world. Canadians were moving in the opposite direction. Adams considers attitudes about "patriarchy" to be particularly revealing. He asked Americans and Canadians their view of the statement: "The father of the family must be the master in his own house."
In 1992, 42 percent of Americans agreed strongly or somewhat, and 26 percent of Canadians did. By 2000, 49 percent of Americans agreed, 18 percent of Canadians.
Adams and other scholars point to the varying influence of religion in the two societies. Two-thirds of Americans think religion is important, while a third of Canadians do, according to polls. Nearly half of Americans say they attend church weekly, compared with one in five Canadians.
"We don't have Pat Buchanans and we don't have powerful religious movements shaping social policy the way you do," says Neil Nevitte, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, who also has measured national values.
On religion and related moral questions, the United States is off the charts when compared with other industrialized societies, say those who have studied the subject. America looks most like Ireland. Canada is more in line with Scandinavia, and the rest of Europe.
The contrasting values -- and the latest policy announcements -- might be less surprising to anyone paying attention to a range of Canadian stands over the years: The country has strict gun control, no death penalty and universal health care. Canada signed the Kyoto global warming accord that the United States refused to endorse.
Canada, despite its open spaces, is more urban than the United States, with most of its population clustered in or near cities not far from the border. And despite the whitebread hoser stereotype, Canada accepts more immigrants per capita than the States, making it ethnically diverse. Adams theorizes that Canada's tradition of compromise as opposed to the pursuit of individual fulfillment has paradoxically made the society better able to tolerate a change like gay marriage.
"The point is that the 'conservative' society that values 'peace, order, and good government' is also the society whose people feel secure enough to acknowledge interdependence," he writes. "To be interdependent means to acknowledge the essential equality of the 'other.' "
That sounds right to Machell Louis-Kante, a Native Canadian from British Columbia who is working as an administrative assistant in Washington. She says America's melting-pot ideal implies that people need to shed differences to become more alike. Canada goes to sometimes awkward lengths to allow differences to dwell in each other's orbit, like putting French and English words on the same sign.
So maybe there is a Canadian identity emerging from all of this. Adams reprints in his book a 2002 New Yorker cartoon showing a man and woman in evening dress having cocktails. The man says, "You seem familiar, yet somehow strange -- are you by any chance Canadian?"
But consider how maddening it must be to live next door to a country that has almost 10 times your own country's population, and significantly more money, science, art and adrenaline to show for it.
One way to come into your own as a Canadian is to look at what Americans are up to -- and do the opposite.
"Part of our problem of differentiating ourselves from the United States -- post-World War II and the creation of a global consumer culture manufactured on Madison Avenue and produced in Tinseltown -- all that has made us look at the United States as a mirror to reflect back not what we are, but what we don't want to be," Griffiths says.
Canada can say it's Canada because it has gay marriage, universal health care, gun control and so on, and America doesn't.
Says Griffiths: "I think if the United States ever got a handle on universal health care and gun control, Canada would have a major identity crisis on its hands."
Staff researcher Margaret Smith contributed to this report.