Morgan Shandro/the Gauntlet

Divided or united

The harmful effect of American politics on Canada

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Canada has a history of separatist movements, mostly due to its multicultural society, which is constantly growing by welcoming immigrants from other countries. National unity can be hard to promote when there are many different voices, but unity is beneficial to all Canadians. Currently, there is little threat of any part of Canada seceding, yet, if Canada adopted a political culture similar to that of the United States, the new political culture would undermine the unity of Canada. 

Political culture is defined as the orientation of citizens towards politics. This definition can mean a certain affiliation towards a particular ideology or the application of people’s opinions in politics. Political culture is also cyclic and public opinion greatly affects democratically elected officials’ approach to government. Government actions shape the way citizens view the inner mechanism of politics. Canadian citizens need to be aware of how their national political culture ­— and the influence of other countries’ political culture ­— can influence their living standards. 

The United States was founded entirely by British protestant immigrants with similar political and philosophical views. Canada, on the other hand, was founded by two distinct European nations and numerous Aboriginal Peoples, each with a unique outlook on politics. Canada promotes more of a cultural mosaic than the assimilating melting pot of the United States. There are hundreds of different groups of peoples that make up Canadian culture. 

The American Republican Party and the American Democratic Party represent a similar confrontational style that, although divisive, is non-threatening in terms of national unity. Both Republicans and Democrats fight over the policies of one nation — there aren’t any prominent parties that look to establish sovereignty in a certain region of the United States. Of course, there are small succession movements, such as for Alaskan independence or Arcadia, consisting of Alaska, Yukon, British Columbia, Oregon and Washington, but none have gained the political power of the Quebec independence movement. 

University of Calgary political science professor Dr. Thomas Flanagan describes American politics as being in a “very polarized phase.” Inter-party relationships are incredibly confrontational, yet not an imminent threat to the unity of America. Flanagan explains that the recent 2012 presidential election debates between then Democratic nominee Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney are examples of open and unrestrained candidate talks, leading to implied resentment that is present in debates and the public sphere. This infighting splits American voters, with portions representing a strong Democratic base and a strong Republican base, as well as large portions of undecided voters. In the United States there are “political parties moving closer to the extremist sides of the spectrum, splitting moderate voters,” says U of C political science professor Katrine Beauregard, noting that as the two parties increasingly fight and become polarized, the group of undecided voters grows in proportion. As a consequence, candidates battle over the votes of independents, increasing the tension between the two parties, which in turn causes those already decided voters to either follow the party’s direction or distance themselves from it. The influence of the public on a party and vice versa creates a chaotic cycle of confrontational and aggressive politics that continues to worsen. 

As Canada’s closest neighbour and ally, the two nations are politically connected by an intertwined web of treaties, trade agreements and joint defence contracts. Dramatic shifts in policy and candidates in the United States often transfer into Canada. Due to the influence of American politics on Canadian politics, sometimes even the choice of leader is similar. Franklin D. Roosevelt became president in 1933 and began applying Keynesian principles — government regulations of the economy by spending money during recessions and increasing taxes during economic booms. Soon after, Canada elected Liberal governments that applied similar policy. 

In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan drastically moved away from Keynesian thought in the American economy and established lassiez-faire capitalism. The next federal election in Canada saw Brian Mulroney elected with a Progressive Conservative majority in 1984, which almost immediately resulted in mass privatization and a dramatic decrease in the size of government. Both cases show political connection between Canada and the United States. 

U of C political science professor Michael Zekulin says that, although there is minimal threat of Canadian separation, he does caution “the adoption of American-style campaigns and technology.” Zekulin adds that the total Americanization of Canada’s political culture is not likely. 

Beauregard says that Canadian political culture is currently much quieter and more reserved than the United States and that Canadians are “less tolerant of nastiness.” Although attack ads are used in Canada, their use is less extreme than in the United States. 

However, Canada is constantly influenced by the United States and certain aspects could come across the border. With Canada’s multiculturalism, there are nations and regions represented by several political parties or groups. Some of these nations have long histories of conflict with one another, which is currently being held in check by the notion of Canadian unity. Adopting American-style political campaigns would increase the aggression and tension between these different groups. When tensions rise between different nations in Canada, for example, the French and English in Quebec, Canadian political culture becomes less tolerant and less reserved. The various ethnic and linguistic differences of the nations that make up Canada often lead to bills and propositions of self-preservation or cries for sovereignty. 

Under certain circumstances, Canadians lose their reservations, for example, the War Measures Act during the October crisis in 1970 when the Quebec Liberation Front kidnapped two government officials. If an Aboriginal Peoples’ interests are threatened, violent measures can follow, for example the Oka crisis in 1990 between the Mohawk people and the town of Oka, Quebec.

If these tensions between different groups or regions in Canada were ever to break Canada apart, increased nationalism towards a region or group instead of Canada as a whole, influenced by American political culture, would be a main cause. 

Zekulin describes nationalism as “arguably the single most powerful force in modern politics.” Nationalism is a devotion to one’s nation and its cause above other nations. The nationalistic discourse often portrays other groups as obstacles that hurt one’s nation. Nationalistic fever is about excluding people from a group, instead of finding ways to be inclusive and support diversity. 

Take the 1980 and 1995 Quebec separatism referendums, for example. In 1980 and 1995, a Parti Québécois government presented Quebecers with the question that essentially asked, Should Quebec become an independent state with strong ties to Canada? Though the questions were quite vague, particularly the 1980 question, the resulting numbers — 40.44 per cent yes, 59.56 per cent no in 1980 and 49.42 per cent yes, 50.58 per cent no in 1995 — continue to worry opponents of Quebec separatism. These referendums, coupled with the presence of the federal Bloc Québécois political party, served to forward the ideas and desires of Quebec provincial nationalism.

There are critics who doubt if Quebec actually wanted full independence, but threatening to secede is still harmful for Canada. Flanagan notes the wording of the 1995 Quebec referendum and, in his opinion, if the question did not mention the continued bond between Canada and Quebec, the yes votes “would be more likely around 20 per cent, instead of nearly 50 per cent — and even then that might be a stretch.”

However, for Quebec, this nationalistic fever nearly started the lengthy process of the largest province separating from Canada. This separation would have caused an enormous physical rift between the maritime provinces and the rest of Canada, and would leave Ontario with even more power and influence in the House of Commons. Canada would also have lost an important intellectual, economic and entertainment power. 

Problems would also arise from within Quebec if they did separate. Quebec is not homogenous — though a minority, there is a significant English-speaking population within the provincial borders. Any separation between the mostly English-speaking provinces and Quebec raises the question of what the Quebec government would do for the English-speaking population. And Quebecois do not live exclusively within the borders of Quebec either. Are they not a part of this nation? There would also be economic ramifications. Flanagan says, “the economic benefits of Quebec remaining a part of Canada are too high to seriously consider separation.” He mentions the provincial debt Quebec has incurred over the years as an example. 

Quebec is far from the only splinter within Canada, however. Canada’s political system is unique in the power given to provincial governments. Unlike in countries such as Britain, Canadian provinces have sole authority over several policies, such as education and health care, and can give input into matters that affect Canada as a whole. Of course, this power leads to several conflicts of interest and, during the period of western alienation, nearly every province in the west fielded a separatist party. There were divisive battles between the provinces and the federal government, such as Pierre Trudeau and Peter Lougheed fighting over the National Energy Program in 1980. When conflict arises between a province and either the federal government or another province, a nationalist and divisive feeling can be sparked for the residents of the province. 

There are also many Aboriginal Peoples who live in Canada and demand more political power. The Assembly of First Nations, representing 90 per cent of chiefs across Canada, and the Native Council of Canada, representing Metis and non-status natives, actively work for changes in federal government policy such as economic development and education. Aboriginals, Metis and non-status native organizations along with the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada worked to enshrine aboriginal rights in the repatriated constitution. “Existing Aboriginal and treaty rights” were recognized in the Constitution Act of 1982, which allowed for further political power, yet wholly functional aboriginal rights remain elusive. 

A royal commission in 1996 called for major structural changes between the federal government and First Nations. There are still legal battles over the benefits Aboriginal Peoples receive from land and resources, and how much political recognition they receive. To this day, indigenous advocacy continues to change the political arena in Canada and remind everyone of how different nations and groups have different views. 

With all these representative parties and regionalist feelings boiling under the surface, American-style political conflict could be the catalyst for further division, potentially separation. The confrontational nature of American politics coupled with the power of nationalism towards one’s group instead of Canada as a whole, showcases the danger of Canada adopting a similar political culture as the United States. If Canadian political parties further develop an approach to politics similar to that of Republican versus Democratic, this approach would continue to pit one region of Canada against another. The Quebec referendums show that the push for sovereignty can be one solution. 

Although there is very little chance of any nation in Canada seceding anytime soon, the issue of national unity being affected by the Americanization of Canadian political culture deserves attention. Each nation and citizen of Canada depends on one another and continues to make Canada an excellent place to live, from education levels to life expectancy. Canadians can’t take living standards for granted by continuing to talk about separation. Canada must remain together and avoid mirroring American political culture. 

To avoid this change to a divisive and nationalistic form of political culture, the Canadian government should stress the unity and importance of each nation, and recognize their political authority. Allowing concessions for the Inuit in shaping Arctic policy, for example, or giving extra consideration to the prairie provinces in the production of wheat and barley. Allowing each unique group a stake in shaping political action in regions of interest will promote unity over division. 

As well, the current process to determine how many seats each region receives in the House of Commons and Senate, which can promote feelings of isolation or resentment, should be restructured to prevent other groups and nations from feeling isolated or resentful towards more favoured regions.

If Canada’s political culture is influenced by the United States, the Americanized political culture would threaten national unity. The system that causes problems for the United States would be amplified in Canada because of the greater plurality of nations and voices, and would severely hurt unity and multiculturalism. Citizens need to pressure the government to enact changes that stress unity and co-operation among different opinions and cultures, so that Canada can remain a cohesive whole where citizens can work towards better living standards instead of taking for granted what citizens already enjoy. Canada is truly more than the sum of its parts, and national unity needs to be fought for and protected.