Arts & Life

The Difference Between U.S.: After the clichés

By: Johanu Botha and Noah Caldwell

Running over 5,500 miles (er—8,800 kilometers, that is), the international boundary between Canada and the United States is the longest in the world shared by two countries. Cupping the eastern end of Vancouver Island, the border meanders through the Strait of Juan de Fuca; finds the 49th parallel; traverses the Rockies and Plains with ease; vaults Lakes Superior, Huron, Erie, and Ontario; and crests in northern Maine, kissing the Atlantic Ocean at the Bay of Fundy.

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Noah Caldwell: Aside from this romanticized geographic mumbo jumbo, what does the border really separate? Well, if we were to believe every cliché that floats up via America or trickles down from the True North, then the border separates:

  • Washrooms from bathrooms
  • Peaceable Windsorites from murderous Detroiters (that is the official demonym, I checked)
  • Stuart McLean from Garrison Keillor
  • Poutine from Chik-Fil-A
  • Syrup-guzzling Quebecois from syrup-guzzling Vermonters
  • Passive socialists from hawkish neo-cons
  • Free medicine from mortgage-your-house-and-sell-your-car medicine
  • Nationalization from privatization
  • Collectivism from individualism

It is chic and easy to glamorize and perpetuate seeming differences between the North American Neighbors. But what is lost in these characterizations? What is myth? What holds water? When does perceived cultural divergence belie the facts? Are we blood brothers? Irritable twins? Soul mates? Bed mates? Or, perhaps, two countries still young in the world’s eyes, enjoying a bit of adolescent locker room towel-whipping?

In this series Johanu Botha, a Canadian studying public policy, and Noah Caldwell, a student of American history, will debate these and other questions, trying to demystify the Canadian-American relationship through politics, culture, history and anything else that comes to mind.

Johanu Botha: Thanks for that sizzlin’ introduction, Noah. Paradoxically, I think the best way to start comparing these two countries is by looking within each of them. If we begin by contrasting artificial or surface-level conceptions of the US and Canada, then our ultimate result will be as unsatisfying as a cross-border vacation cut short by a — culturally insensitive American or rule-book-thumpin’ Canadian — border patrol officer (last stereotypes, I promise).

An initial assessment of Canada, once the polite ‘n peaceful cliches have run their course, reveals a country swimming in a strange soup of British and American influences. Two of its constitutional pillars — Westminster-style parliamentary government and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms — are the institutional examples of this. Our parliamentary tradition is British through and through: it doesn’t tolerate the sort of independence enjoyed by congressmen and women in Washington (it has taken ‘toeing the party line’ to a sort of absurdist extreme), and there is no ‘separation of powers’ between our prime minister and the legislature (ie. less gridlock. Unless it’s a minority government steadfastly avoiding a vote of confidence, but that’s another story).

Along with this tradition came a utilitarian understanding of rights, that human beings do not intrinsically have a right to anything. There is no inherent right to liberty, ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ or a snow cone for that matter. We decide to acknowledge certain rights in each individual because ultimately that will lead to the greatest amount of happiness in society (for the political philosophy geeks: check out John Stuart Mill’s response to Jeremy Bentham on this one).

But this is where it gets tricky in Canada. The utilitarian understanding of rights have buckled under that glowing Constitution down south, which enshrines certain ‘truths’ — such as inherent rights — as ‘self-evident.’ This understanding of rights (philosophy geeks: check out John Locke’s response to Thomas Hobbes) has dazzled the Canadian psyche and, along with it, Canada’s legal system. We now have a constitutionally-entrenched Charter of Rights and Freedoms where none previously existed. Despite the fact that the utilitarian tradition had often been swifter in granting and protecting civil liberties, our institutions evolved into an American direction. Thus, in one country we have a Canuck-version of British parliamentary government and a Canuck-version of US-style rights-bearing citizenry. This latter element, by the way, is a surreal concoction of societal irony and ignorance: Canadians simultaneously celebrate their difference from the US while upholding the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as one of their most cherished institutions.

Beyond this initial assessment lies an array of phenomena (phenomena being academic-speak for ‘shit we don’t understand yet’), including a more nuanced exploration of the above, that merits delving into. But before I do that, I’d like to hear your mini-version of the Red, White ‘n Blue. It also has a British background, but one drenched in revolution, not steady evolution. How does it’s initial assessment dance next to the Between-Yank-’n-Brit picture I painted for Canada?

NC: By painting the bare bones of American political culture you run the risk of sounding like an all-expenses-paid holiday brochure: simplistic, gilded, manicured, and promising something much too lofty to be real. Regardless, here it is.

The Constitution (really, its Bill of Rights) was the first attempt to reify Enlightenment ideals in the realm of politics. It staved off tyranny by eschewing a monarchy. It institutionalized universal rights to free speech, arms (sigh), and due process (though this last one was based on British common law, so we’d do well not to glorify it as a staple of anti-imperial sentiment, or, really glorify it at all given our latter-day actions at Guantanamo Bay). A tripartite system separating legislative, executive and judicial powers aimed to curtail overreach and ensure accountability within the government, not just between government and the populace. And then rainbows guided settlers across the frontier, someone paved all the streets with gold, and Benjamin Franklin wrote the first ever version of Kumbaya.

I jest, but I also assert that to hold up the U.S. Constitution as the Bible of civic religion is a mistake. Echoing your conclusion about the muddled Canadian political philosophy, well, we’re confused too. The Constitution itself was a second attempt at post-revolution government, a fact that pokes holes in the image of a liberated, enlightened population organically institutionalizing their universal rights with ease.

The Articles of Confederation was (were?) the rule of law from 1781 to 1789; its design of a confederation of sovereign states *without an executive* was an explicit attempt to exclude any King-like figure (just for shits ‘n gigs, it also established the precedent that should Canada wish to become another state it would be admitted). After rebellions and general legislative chaos, the Constitutional Convention was convened (I dare you to think of a more tautological way to phrase that), writing up the system we today cherish.

The Arts. of Conf. (we don’t really have an acronym for them) were not just a blip to be corrected, however. The impetus for their creation—and the constitutional tumult that followed—illustrate more clearly than anything the conflict in the American political identity. Whereas Canada’s anxiety is derived from liberty clashing with utilitarianism, America’s is a fear of despotism, tyranny and Kingliness (just watch Fox News’ coverage of the current NSA surveillance leaks … we’ve still got it). It was only with great apprehension that a central government was put in place; and its inclusion has caused: the infuriating two party system (factions first split over whether to ratify the constitution, and the partisanship never left); 600,000 dead in the Civil War; and every debate over taxes, health care, marijuana, and, really, anything else even tangentially relating to “Big Government.”

Enough from me. This time we covered the political underbellies of Canada and the U.S. very broadly. A wee question to ponder for our next Go At It: American political culture has evolved in extremely disparate ways depending on region, and settlement across the country. How’s Canada on uniformity versus regionalized politics?


Noah Caldwell, a native Vermonter, studied history at McGill and politics in Edinburgh. He now lives in Colorado and studies the complex dynamics between waiting tables and launching a new media journalism career.

Johanu Botha is a student of public policy and political philosophy. His hobbies include the mandolin and intermittent bouts of existential angst. You can reach him at