How much do you know about Canada? If you’re like most Americans, not much.
Canadians know a great deal more about the United States than we know about them. There’s a reason for that. We’re the dominant power and what we do, Canadahas to follow. It’s a matter of survival.
Most of Canada’s 35 million people live within 40 miles of the U.S.-Canadian border and avidly observe American actions and behavior. The U.S. population is more than 325 million.
Canada’s government is different from ours in several ways and those differences help us gain an insight into our own country’s government and attitudes.
In Canada, the queen is the head of state, while the prime minister is head of government. Canada’s government is parliamentary. That means that the executive and legislative branches are combined. Whichever party wins the majority number of seats in the House of Commons gets to elect the prime minister. The prime minister’s term can last as long as five years, but he/she can be replaced if there is a vote of no confidence, or if the ruling party loses its majority.
Canada has two houses of Parliament, with the upper house, the Senate, appointed by the governor general, the queen’s representative to Canada. Voters elect representatives called ministers in the lower House of Commons.
The U.S. government also has two legislative houses, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Each acts independently and voters elect representatives for both houses. Terms in the House are for two years, encouraging short-term thinking, and six-year terms in the Senate, which encourages long-term thinking.
The U.S. president is both head of state and head of government. He can be elected to up to two four-year terms and can only be removed from office by impeachment, incapacity or resignation.
Attitudes about government differ a great deal between the two countries.
Americans tend to be distrustful of authority. That’s why we have all those checks and balances and our government is divided into three branches to prevent the abuse of power.
Canadians are more trusting and deferential to authority and tend to obey the government even when they don’t agree. Many Canadians of English descent were Tories (Loyalists) during the American Revolution who either fled or were driven out of the United States after the war ended.
The United States declared its independence in 1776 and then fought an eight-year war to free themselves from British rule. Canadians gained their independence in 1867 without a revolution are still are members of the British Commonwealth.
Britain made several concessions to Canada because of their loss of the American colonies.
Canadians are more collectivist in orientation and therefore emphasize the common good more than Americans who are probably the most individualistic nation in the world. Canada sees its many ethnic groups as part of a mosaic. Americans have seen themselves as a melting pot where immigrants are encouraged to take on American values and blend in. This perspective has been challenged by what some call the American rainbow where diversity is encouraged.
American society tends to be more confrontational and aggressive, while Canadians favor a softer, less aggressive approach, which some Canadians have called more passive-aggressive.
Canada is a confederation, where the provinces hold most of the power. The United States has a strong central government where states have had to concede many of their powers over the past 219 years since the ratification of the Constitution.
Canada’s great distances and diversity in its three major provincial areas, the western provinces, French Quebec, and the eastern provinces, have forced it to create foreign policy that is “nice” to avoid causing the provinces to split due to those many differences, according to a “Geopolitical Futures” article by George Friedman called, “In Canada, Deep Divisions Brilliantly Managed.”
Now Canada is being faced with a major economic crisis over the future of NAFTA. In 2016, Canada exported $320.1 billion and imported $307.6 billion in goods and services between the United States according to the U.S. Trade Representative. Neither Canada nor the U.S. can afford to have a breach in that trade deal.
Most of us may be largely oblivious to Canada, but Canadians watch the U.S. with great concern and interest. Being aware of what the U.S. is doing is a major pastime for our neighbors to the north. It’s a matter of survival.
Richard Elfers is a professor at Green River College.