Election 2011: Deconstructing the myth of Canadian exceptionalism

If you dare to tell a Canadian that they live essentially in a colder, under populated version of the United States expect a string of vehement -- however polite -- rebuttals. But aside from the friendly border patrol running along the 49th parallel, what distinguishes us from "the land of the free, home of the brave"?

An analysis of the history of Canadian-American relations reveals plainly the fact that Canadians have, speaking generally, always based their national identity around a deferential anti-Americanism. The actual integrity of our widely-held vision of Canada as a distinct socio-cultural entity from our neighbours to the south is not entirely lacking - surely there is universal health care, Tim Horton's, and ice hockey; each of which exists in a severely impoverished form in the United States. However, I argue that this myth of what I call "Canadian exceptionalism" is detrimental to a nation that prides itself on one major distinction from the United States -- that of universal health care -- whilst ignoring the shift of our country rightward under the current Conservative government.

As Professor Iain McKay outlined in a recent and timely lecture at York University, the political shift in this country is following a similar pattern to that of the United States in many respects: the militarization of our national discourse; the absence or misappropriation of Aboriginal voices in government-sponsored official "histories"; the militaristic shift in our foreign policy, and increasing emphasis on war-maintenance, rather than peace-keeping; to say nothing of ambiguous legislation regarding global warming to complement eerie hints at the privatization of natural resources that threaten our survival as a species. At the current rate, the Canada of the very-near future threatens to be one day unrecognizable to the current generation. The relative intelligibility of our national discourse (at the time of publication, Canada lacked a "Tea Party") masks a neoliberal shift in our politics that closely mirrors that which has taken place in the land of Reagan and Bush. I fear that a general societal gratitude regarding simply not being the United States seriously undermines our will to fight the attempted Conservatization of this country. Not being American should afford us no pride in being Canadian.

The current worldwide "Great Recession" has affected Canada to a lesser extent than it has other nations, such as the United States, with a more weighty investment in neoliberal socio-economic policies; thus feeding the myth of Canadian exceptionalism still further. However, under the neoliberal ethos sweeping this country in the form of Stephen Harper's Conservatives, in five or ten years Canada may not be able to weather such an economic storm.

I do not believe Canadians are willing to settle for a status as "America lite;" or rather, a nascent version of neo-liberalism watered down (though only barely) for a northern audience. Nor do I believe that any of the major political parties possess the sole vision of "Canada" that adheres strictly to a rejection of plutocratic neoliberal politics, and socio-economic policies. Scenes in Tunisia and Egypt of jubilant, liberated masses, and similar -- though guarded -- displays throughout the region remind all of us of the central promise of democracy, and the potential the electoral process represents for so many. The current revolutionary milieu in the Middle East should not be lost upon the current generation of Canadians fighting to uphold our social welfare state. We must seize this moment to recognize the potential the scenes in Cairo and Tunis represent to our political destiny here at home.

Let us contemplate, and indeed, celebrate our principal socio-economic distinctions from the United States -- but take them further. A truly progressive Canada must prioritize investment in education and fight its attempted commoditization; fight to protect our natural resources against privatization and their subsequent deportation to the U.S.; fight to protect the central mechanisms of the social welfare state -- such as universal health care -- that protect those who cannot protect themselves; and fight to re-prioritize diplomacy as opposed to war. Harper and other senior politicians from every Canadian political party rely heavily on an electorate that they perceive as either uninterested or unwilling to engage their political leaders for substantive change. As voters, let us seize this moment to expose this myth of political disaffection as simply that -- a myth -- that has no place in the Canada of the 21st century.

If we wish to continue to assert tangible distinctions from the United States, it's time to start proving it in a far more substantive manner. In addition, if we want to continue perceiving of, and portraying our country as a bastion of social welfare and democracy, it's damn well time to start fighting for it -- before it's too late. The impending federal election affords us this opportunity.

Zachary Stockill is a Master's candidate in Globalization Studies at McMaster University. He has worked with human rights organizations in India and Canada, and blogs about culture and politics on the Huffington Post.

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