U.S.-Canada: Two countries, increasingly intertwined

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 21, 2012 - 6:08 PM
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At Moir Park in 2006.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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A lot of goodwill flows between America and Canada, the Minnesota International Center's 2013 focus country. A lot of goods do, too, with most of them measurable in tons or barrels or other familiar metrics. It's harder, however, to gauge the exchange of culture.

"How do you describe the structure of quicksand?" asked Andrew C. Holman, professor of history in the Canadian studies program at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. "Culture is always moving and not easily described or captured in one glimpse."

Holman, a native of Canada, said that for the most part capturing Canadian and American culture is mostly focusing on similarities. But, he added, there are self-definition differences.

"One of Canadians' national sports is telling themselves how different they are from Americans," Holman said. "It's sort of this need to have big brother's attention, but to be different from big brother."

Only this big brother isn't Orwellian, but the opposite: Big brother isn't watching you; you're watching your big brother.

And Holman believes the ethnicity ethos is different, too. America's vision is more melting pot, while Canada's construct is more mosaic.

"There's more of a celebration of diversity in terms of ethnicity, immigrant origins, importance of maintenance of traditional inherited values, like the 'French fact' in Quebec. Canada has never had any intention of becoming a melting pot. In fact, in the other direction, in some years it has embraced multiculturalism in government policy."

For instance, a policy put in place years ago to protect Canadian culture on radio and TV, the so-called Canadian Content Regulations ("CanCon"), requires that a considerable percentage of content be of Canadian origin, especially during peak periods of the day. (Other policies support Canadian content in the publishing sector.)

To some, CanCon, developed in an analog age, is increasingly irrelevant in the digital age. "New media has the potential to blur distinctions," Holman said. "Ordinary people now are going to be doing the kind of public diplomacy that institutions and governments used to do before. There is just no check on what they say to represent Canadian culture to the rest of the world."

There are economic and cultural considerations keeping CanCon in place, said Prof. Bart Beaty, a scholar of Canadian culture who heads the English department at the University of Calgary.

Besides jobs, there is "the cultural argument -- we need to be telling Canadian stories, expressing our voices. Otherwise all we get is American media, which is so loud, so prominent," Beaty said, explaining that Canadians get U.S. culture "plus this kind of subsidiary culture, this other layer that augments it. ... In [former Prime Minister Pierre] Trudeau's analogy, we're the mouse in bed besides the elephant. And if the elephant is going to roll over, that's going to be a problem for the mouse."

Yet it's the mouse that roared in many cultural cases. For instance, three of the top pop stars in the mid-1990s were Canadians Shania Twain, Celine Dion and Alanis Morissette. (And it seems that this Justin Bieber kid just might make it.)

And the friendly fraternal differences may be behind another key cultural export: Canadian comedians and actors, like Dan Aykroyd, Mike Myers, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey, Seth Rogen, Samantha Bee, Michael Cera, Will Arnett, and the late John Candy and Phil Hartman, to name just a few.

Canada has been "the younger sibling of two great nations," Holman said, referring to the United Kingdom and United States. "This has had an effect on culture, just as it did in economy and polity. Canadians recognize they are not, nor ever will be, the most powerful player in the world, so they take the role of observer first. ... Canadians, to be fair, mock themselves as hard as anyone else. There's something in this self-deprecating culture that is an important prompt to be a comedian."

This gives Canadians "a distant, ironic take on American culture," Beaty said. "We're not them, but we understand everything about them. It's like looking through a one-way glass: We can see them, but America doesn't see us."

Now, of course, it's not a one-way glass but a two-way screen that matters most. The World Wide Web, after all, allows instant import, and export, of gloal culture.

"You could have, once upon a time, a kind of mandatory Canadian culture because technologically that was what was available," Beaty said. "But now in a world where my students are downloading Japanese anime and Korean dramas and African or South American cinema, I think that kind of argument in favor of mandatory culture is going to give way, especially in a country like Canada, which prides itself on being multicultural and welcoming to ethnic minorities. Increasingly the Internet, insofar as it's making everything available to everyone -- everything just fractures into these smaller groups. Nationalist arguments become less relevant in that context."

Still, don't expect CanCon to fade fast. For one, it's crucial to Quebec -- an island of over 5 million French speakers in a continent of 350 million English speakers, said Beaty. And despite Canadian artists' global cultural impact, many citizens are cautious about scrapping it.

"A majority of Canadians would say, even though we are going through a period of ideological conservative governance, that Canadian culture is too important not to be protected," Holman said. "If you don't protect it, you can't get it back."

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John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in " Great Decisions," a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.

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