There is a place on earth that most Americans never think about—a vast, strange land where the days can be cold, but the people are friendly and the health care is free. We remember this place exists only occasionally: when we find out our favorite comedian was born there, or when someone we know decides to move there for college. For the most part, though, it hardly enters into our conception of the world. Canada is there, and it isn’t.
But there is a new and unfamiliar wind blowing in the North—one of national ambition and passionate, even aggressive, patriotism. Its proponents seek to transform Canada from the polite and accommodating country it’s been for most of its history into a major, muscular force on the world stage. The Canada they envision will be powerful, rich, and influential. It will never again be ignored, or dismissed sneeringly as “America’s hat.”
Adherents of the new Canadian nationalism point to their country’s range of advantages, starting with its massive size and abundance of natural resources like timber, water, gold, and oil. They note the stability of their government and the strength of the Canadian economy—the Canadian loonie is currently worth more than the American dollar, and according to the International Monetary Fund, its gross domestic product outpaced that of the United States by more than $2,000 per capita in 2011. Then there’s global warming, which promises, strangely enough, to benefit Canada by melting the ice in the Arctic Circle, thus opening it up for drilling and lucrative new trade routes to Asia.
“There is a growing consensus in a certain part of the Canadian population that we have been underachievers and boy scouts, internationally, for far too long,” said Matthew Fisher, an international affairs columnist for Postmedia, a Canadian publishing company based in Toronto. When Fisher started his column last January, he argued that Canada, for the first time, “intends to live up to what has until recently been largely a fantasy—that it is an important world player,” and pledged to use his position to trace “Canada’s growing reach and rising stature.”
Led by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the Canadian government has fully embraced this vision, emphasizing the country’s military history and spending millions to promote its image as a nation of uncompromising fighters. Earlier this fall, the country’s foreign affairs minister, John Baird, delivered an unmistakably belligerent speech at the United Nations accusing the organization of “endless, fruitless inward-looking exercises.” And last spring, amid a national debate over the government’s plan to spend billions of dollars on a fleet of F-35 jets, an elaborate ceremony was staged on the Canadian equivalent of Capitol Hill to celebrate the country’s military and its contribution to unseating Libyan dictator Moammar Khadafy.
This growly and pugnacious Canada bears little resemblance to the nation of unobtrusive peacekeepers that Americans have known. The change in tone has been nothing if not deliberate, and according to Canadian experts, it’s one that Americans ought to be paying attention to. “Every day brings a new development in what seems to be a very consistent and well thought out, almost ideological reeducation program,” said Ian McKay, a historian at Queen’s University and coauthor of the recent book “Warrior Nation: Rebranding Canada in an Age of Anxiety.” He added: “Once [Americans] wake up to this, they’ll be startled.”
Meanwhile, many Canadians are bristling at the top-down campaign to change their national identity. “I think we’re so embarrassed by it, to be honest,” said Adrienne Silnicki of The Council of Canadians, a progressive organization. “We’re watching this happen and it’s so out of touch with the Canadian reality....Who our government promotes us to be is not who we are.” The question, then, is not just whether Canada can rebrand itself in the eyes of the world. It is whether the nationalists can successfully rile up a reluctant populace to aim for global domination—even if, to most, that goal is fundamentally at odds with what being Canadian is all about.
Almost uniquely , for a country its size, Canada has long defined itself in terms of what it isn’t, rather than what it is. It’s not part of Europe, though French is one of its official languages. It’s also not part of the British Empire, though it is still part of the Commonwealth and bows before the same queen. Most profoundly, Canada is not the United States, its swaggering neighbor to the south—and the country which, but for a few accidents of history, it most closely resembles.
For Irvin Studin, a public policy professor at the University of Toronto who penned a widely circulated article titled “Why Do Canadians Shun Greatness?” the modesty at the heart of Canada’s national identity is a direct result of its history. For one thing, Studin argues, the country’s independence did not involve an “emancipatory moment” like the one that gave the United States its origin story. But perhaps more importantly, he says, Canada has been done in by its own good luck: Because North America is so isolated, it has never really had to protect itself. “You defeated an empire, and so you became an empire,” he said in an interview. “But Canada never had that. We never had to fight for our existence or prove ourselves.”
During the second half of the 20th century, as the United States emerged as a superpower,
Canada slipped into a very different role. Instead of building up a massive army, the country developed its foreign service and treated international peacekeeping as its central calling abroad. After World War II, Canadian peacekeepers were deployed to places like Cyprus, Lebanon, West New Guinea, and Yemen, where they stood guard over simmering conflicts and worked to prevent them from flaring up; in 1957, Canadian diplomat Lester Pearson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for helping to resolve the Suez Crisis. “The term in the postwar era that was used for Canada was ‘middle power,’ and we were very proud of this,” said Andrew Cohen, a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University and author of the book, “While Canada Slept: How We Lost Our Place in the World.” “It was so us, to be a middle power. It reflected...the instinct to mediate, the idea of being the helpful fixer and the honest broker.”
It was a peculiar sort of pride, a moral authority derived from not being the kind of country that would start a war in Vietnam or face off with the Soviet Union. “It was kind of like a phantom nationalism—a negative nationalism,” said McGill University historian Gil Troy. “It was defined...by saying ‘We’re not patriotic; we’re not aggressive like the United States.’ But that in itself was a form of nationalism—they just didn’t name it nationalism because of some post-’60s, post-colonial assumption that nationalism is somehow bad.”
Troy doesn’t see it that way: In an essay published last spring in the Canadian magazine Policy Options, he argued that it’s no longer enough for Canada to be “the nice nation”—that to fulfill its potential, it must rise up and become a “leading player in the Western democratic West.” For Troy, that means passionately supporting Israel, denouncing Iran, and being willing to stand up, militarily, for its ideals. The emphasis on peacekeeping, Troy said in an interview, “curdled at a certain point—it turned, and became too concerned with appeasing others. And in a world filled with some seriously bad people and some seriously evil forces, that kind of approach has its limits, and it has to be paired with what people consider a more in-your-face confrontational style.”
This call to arms has been embraced and passionately promoted by the Harper government, whose approach to foreign policy has been marked by militaristic rhetoric and an emphasis on Canada’s martial history. Perhaps the most overt manifestation of this effort has been the $28 million promotional campaign to recast the War of 1812, when British forces in Canada fought off an invasion attempt by the United States, as a defining moment in Canadian history. “This kind of talk is just everywhere,” said Ian McKay. “They’re [also] redesigning the Canadian passport, and they’re going to put on the back...all kinds of ennobling, exciting things about Canadian history, one of which is a long salute to Canada’s role in war. There won’t be any word in these passport history lessons on peace. Not one. Not a peep.”
The new Canadian nationalism does not end with militaristic bluster. A 2010 report by former Globe and Mail editor Edward Greenspon, intended as a blueprint for making Canada “the centre of the networked world that is emerging in the 21st century,” focused on ways to make the country more economically powerful, and to avoid being left to “sit on the sidelines as the world moves on.” Among other things, the report called on policy makers to help expand Canadian trade with India and China, so that Vancouver might become “the Asian business capital of North America.” The report also called for the construction of a pipeline that would connect the Alberta oil sands to the country’s west coast, so that its oil can be exported more easily to countries other than the US.
Then there’s the matter of the rapidly melting Arctic ice, which stands to expand Canada’s already vast stores of natural resources. The shrinking ice would also open up a new sea route from Asia to Europe, allowing ships to bypass the Panama Canal and cut some 4,300 miles off the trip from Tokyo and London. Suddenly Canada would go from the world’s quiet, tree-covered back forty to a crossroads of international trade.
Who will control the Arctic waters is in dispute—it will be somehow divided between Canada, the United States, Russia, Denmark, and others—and there’s reason to believe it will be the site of intense competition. “There has not been a major strait that has opened itself to maritime traffic and geopolitical competition that has not been the cause of...war,” said Studin. Even if outright conflict is avoided, he added, the mere threat of it will compel Canada to protect its interests in a way it has never had to before.
“This will be a much more difficult century for Canada,” said Studin. “And it will test our mettle and make us more relevant, if we’re up for the game.”
So far , the new Canadian nationalists have not been met with great affection by their countrymen: Matthew Fisher, the Postmedia columnist, said his first piece on Canada’s future as a big, strong power provoked an outpouring of condemnation. “Ninety percent of the respondents ridiculed me,” Fisher said, “and asked why I was trying to turn Canada, the most righteous country in the world, into America.”
Therein lies the rub: For many Canadians, being powerful on the world stage is associated with the arrogant, tub-thumping United States they’ve spent their lives trying not to resemble. Perhaps this is why the Harper government has so insistently invoked Canada’s historical alliance with the British Empire and ties with the British monarchy. On the surface, there’s something paradoxical about this—as McKay put it, “It’s risky to hitch your nationalism to something that so emphatically isn’t made in Canada”—but as a strategy for differentiating Canada from the United States, it makes a certain amount of sense.
Which isn’t to say Americans should worry that a “South Park”-style war with Canada is on the horizon. Though Harper and his team have made disparaging comments about the American economy—and bluntly told countries that are struggling economically to take the “Canadian approach” to fiscal policy—we are still each other’s largest trading partners, and our longstanding alliance is unlikely to falter. Besides, the patriotic fervor that the new nationalists are trying to whip up is still just a proposition—one that most Canadians have yet to buy into.
“It doesn’t seem like a grass-roots type of nationalism,” said Michel Bouchard, an anthropologist at the University of Northern British Columbia. “It seems like the Canadian state is promoting a certain type of nationalism and seeing if the rest of the populace will actually follow them.” He added: “It’ll be interesting to see 20 years from now how it will play itself out. It may end up being a complete flop.”
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.