The Suburb of Canada

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I certainly had my fingers crossed last week, hoping President George W. Bush would mention Canada in his State of the Union address. Otherwise, I figured, Canada would be in for another round here of that most vacuous of all Canadian debates — whether we should feel slighted the United States President failed to identify us as among his most trusted allies in his crusade to establish American military control over the world.

This was more or less the debate that happened in September, after Bush’s fire-breathing speech in which he divided the world into two — the U.S. (and its allies) and everyone else.

The fact Canada wasn’t highlighted among the United States’ most trusted allies in that speech sparked a fierce debate among Canadian commentators. Was Canada’s loyalty to Washington so clearly established that no such tip of the hat from the Commander-in-Chief was necessary (in which case we weren’t supposed to worry)?

Or did Bush intend to slight Canada because he considered our enthusiasm for his war insufficient (in which case we were supposed to ratchet up our war enthusiasm)?

Or did Bush simply forget the name of that large country north of the border (in which case presumably we were supposed to fully annex ourselves to the U.S.)?

Now this is what I would call a “suburban” debate. I confess to borrowing the term from writer Michael Bliss, whose front-page analysis in the National Post last week repeatedly referred to Canada as a“suburb” of the United States.

Bliss used the term to suggest, as he often has before, that Canada is a pale, sleepy version of its sassy, vigorous southern neighbour. I am using the term somewhat differently, to suggest we are far too subservient to American power, that we are behaving more like a suburb of the U.S. metropolis than an independent country.

While Bliss seems to want us to be more like the U.S., I wish we’d be more assertive about charting our own course. In my view, if Bush doesn’t mention us among his pet allies, it shouldn’t upset us any more than if the Governor of the Bank of Canada has a bad hair day.

I’d argue that, in the wake of September 11, it’s all the more important that we feel free to do things differently than the Americans.

Anyone who ever had qualms about modelling our tax and social systems more closely on those of the United States should certainly feel qualms now. Bush favours transferring even more wealth and power to corporate America, and is hoping his current popularity will help him sell this to the American people.

It’s amazing what a war can do for a guy’s image. In only a few months, Bush has transformed himself from an inarticulate frat boy into an inarticulate frat boy leading the country in a popular war. Bush is now trying to capitalize on this to push through a package of aggressive corporate tax cuts, including the repeal of the corporate minimum tax.

(Of course, many companies have managed to avoid paying any tax despite the corporate minimum tax. Enron, for instance, used stock options and tax havens to avoid paying corporate income taxes between 1996 and 2000, despite profits those years totaling US$1.7-billion, according to the Washington-based Citizens for Tax Justice.)

Another reason we might want to distance ourselves from some of the things going on in Washington is that the Bush administration has pretty much declared itself the rightful ruler of the world, with the moral right to do whatever it wants anywhere in the world at any time, in the name of fighting “terrorism.”

Of course, failure to show our enthusiasm for this U.S. approach might make George Bush petulant at times, even cause him to leave Canada off his list of favourite countries. It’s clear he would prefer, for instance, that we just let him make up the rules for his war, and not be such sticklers for details — like insisting that prisoners seized on Afghan battlefields be protected by international laws laid out in the Geneva Conventions.

Commentators here have bent themselves out of shape trying to suggest this is a non-issue, that life is soft and cushy inside that U.S. military prison in Cuba.

But surely this misses the point. No matter what the conditions are there — even if the place is like a giant spa where prisoners are given full-body massages by topless female dancers — the issue is: why is international law not being observed?

Why shouldn’t we protest that George Bush is flaunting internationally agreed upon rules of war to suit his own purposes? (and, let’s not be naive; the reason the United States wants to avoid the Geneva Conventions is, most likely, to give itself a free hand to extract information through tried and true methods like torture.)

Of course, some commentators here will note George Bush can do whatever he likes and Canada should just get on board if we know what’s good for us.

Those would be the voices of the suburb of Canada.

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