Something very peculiar is happening to the United States and Canada.
The two countries have been joined at the hip since they’ve been countries. Prime trading partners, allies (except for that unfortunate dust-up in 1812) and home to many cross-border families, we’re thoroughly intertwined.
And yet, Canada and the U.S. seem to have been growing apart for a while now. And the COVID-19 pandemic is accelerating that in a way that nothing else could.
For decades, the assumption in most of Canada – particularly English-speaking Canada – was that we were becoming more Americanized. We were absorbing U.S. TV, movies, books, video games, and eventually the internet. Our news and culture was saturated with Americanness.
But pollster Michael Adams’ 2003 book Fire & Ice showed survey data about basic beliefs suggested the exact opposite – Canadians were diverging from Americans in important ways, including our opinions on everything from consumerism to relationships to authority figures.
At the time, this seemed to be a quiet drift, one moving Canadians and Americans apart across a broad spectrum of small changes in their values and beliefs. For the most part, however, all it did was feed into the average Canadian’s smug view that we were a bit more enlightened than the Americans, with our public health care and slightly-less-deranged politics.
But now, Canada and the United States are more truly separated than at any time in the last century.
The borders are largely closed to tourists and most family visits, and are likely to stay closed for months, or until the U.S. gets their coronavirus infection rate down from “really freaking scary” levels – and it’s hard to see that happening right away.
Canadians find themselves, for the first time since cheap airfare became common, largely confined to our own borders for the summer.
At the same time, we can’t help but compare our reaction to the coronavirus to that of other countries – especially our neighbour to the south.
A combination of physical separation and the wide divergence in how our two countries have handled this crisis is going to have long-term effects.
I don’t know what those effects will be. Perhaps we will simply deepen our sense of smug superiority.
One thing I hope is that we stop defining ourselves so much by our relationship to the States, for good or ill.
Isolationism is toxic. But our temporary forced isolation should make us take a good look at ourselves.
Canadians often define themselves as “not Americans.”
I’m not one to suggest we need some kind of strong national identity – frankly, I’d rather it was a permanent work in progress – but when the border opens again, we’ll find ourselves even more economically and politically distinct from our nearest neighbour. It’s going to change our diplomatic and trade relationships, in ways we can’t yet predict.
We’re about to see how much a shared border defines our future.