Friday, December 10, 2004

American Attitudes versus Canadian Attitudes

Two days ago, I saw an article in CNN that really made me laugh. Here is an excerpt:

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico (AP) -- An American T-shirt company has a solution for their fellow citizens who want to vacation in Europe without having to answer questions about U.S. politics -- pose as Canadians.

For $24.95, offers the "Go Canadian" package, full of just the kind of things an American traveler needs to leave their country and its politics behind.
There's a Canadian flag T-shirt, a Canadian flag lapel pin and a Canadian patch for luggage or a backpack. There's also a quick reference guide -- "How to Speak Canadian, Eh?" -- on answering questions about Canada.

I remember when I was growing up, I'd hear about Americans backpacking in Europe who would wear a Canadian flag on their backpack so that they would get a good reception there. With the current state of political affairs, it seems those days are back.

Earlier this summer, I was with a cousin of mine who was born and raised in the United States. She was telling me how she was contemplating applying for her Canadian citizenship: she is planning to travel the world, and figures she will have a much easier trip with a Canadian passport than an American one. She's probably right.

I've sometimes joked that the reason Canadians tend to be well received is that Canada's army is too small to piss anyone off badly enough for them to hate Canada. But, the truth I think is a bit deeper than that. Canadians may look like Americans, and may sound like Americans when we talk, but Canadians tend to think differently about world affairs - we take greater interest in both sides of a dispute, and look at issues from more of a humanitarian perspective. Canadians tend to feel sympathy for people in adverse situations, and will often put those people's needs ahead of their own. Canadians will generally not complain about Canadian tax dollars being used to help people in other countries, and will actually get angry if they feel their government is being too stingy towards charitable causes (peacekeeping missions, international aid, etc.).

An interesting case in point happened last week. Canadian prime minister Paul Martin was on his way from visiting a school in the middle of a refugee camp in Sudan when a pickup truck in Martin's motorcade struck and injured a 5 year old girl named Widad Isa. The motorcade stopped and a member of Martin's security detail grabbed the child from her shrieking mother and literally ran her to an ambulance so fast her little hijab was flapping in the wind behind him. Later that day, Martin himself visited the child in hospital, bringing her candy and two teddy bears. Earlier in the visit, Martin had received a standing ovation at the school when he announced that he had brought with him to Sudan "a planeload" of schoolbooks, crayons, and supplies, along with two posters signed by Canadian children in Ottawa and Quebec City.

Here are some links to news articles on this incident:

Globe and Mail
Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)
Canadian Press

This series of events really got me thinking about how different America's way of dealing with foreign countries is from Canada's:

  1. You would never see the President of the United States visiting a country like Sudan (he only seems to visit countries the United States has "interests" in).
  2. If the president did visit a country like Sudan, you would never see him visiting a school in the middle of a refugee camp. His public relations staff would probably try to keep him far away from places like refugee camps, being unsure of how the public would like pictures of Bush walking around in a place like that.
  3. If the president did visit a foreign school, some American "special interest groups" would surely kick up a fuss about him directing attention to the plight of children in foreign countries instead of directing that attention on children in America.
  4. If a vehicle in the president's motorcade struck a child in a refugee camp, the motorcade probably would probably not even stop for "security reasons". The president would probably not bring gifts to the child or spend time with the child in the hospital, and the American press would not even report on the incident.
  5. If the American press did pick up on this story, some insensitive editorialist might have grabbed onto the fact little Widad Isa was wearing a hijab (Islamic head scarf) and tried to make some issue about that, rather than looking at her as just an innocent child who got hurt in a car accident.
  6. You would never see them packing Air Force One full of school books and crayons on the way to a place like Sudan. And, if they did, the press probably wouldn't report on it.

I must say, reading about how Paul Martin handled his visit to Sudan, and especially how he handled the unfortunate car accident with little Widad Isa made me feel proud to be a Canadian citizen. It is also easy to read news articles like this and understand why others in the world may have a good impression of Canada and may be welcoming to Canada's citizens when we visit their countries.

On the flip side, you can easily look at the parallels with America's way of dealing with foreign countries and understand why Americans are often viewed as arrogant and detached: it is not because individual Americans act this way, but their government certainly does. Non-American lives are viewed as somehow less valuable than American lives, and a foreigner is somehow less of a person than an American. While many Americans do not think this way, many other Americans do, and the American press feeds into this mentality.

Given these differences, it is not surprising that a Canadian passport can be a ticket for a hassle-free trip abroad, and that Canadians may prominently identify themselves as Canadian (so as not to be mistaken for Americans). By the same token, it is not surprising that some Americans may choose to pretend to be Canadian when traveling, or that companies like would seek to cater to that desire.