Two North American nations had birthdays last week, Canada on Wednesday, July 1, and the United States three days later, on Saturday, the Fourth of July. Argue as you like that these dates are points in a timeline leading to nationhood, yet each treats the date as a fit one to celebrate.
This year’s celebrations coincided with a remarkable declaration that helps define each of the nations. It came from abroad, from the “Old World,” that is from Europe and its modern expression, the European Union.
Canadians, the EU said, are welcome but Americans are not. The reason? Each country’s response to the coronavirus pandemic that has cut off contact between most citizens of the two nations, leaving cash registers emptier in towns on either side of the border than they might otherwise have been.
Responses to the pandemic differ in each country, so much so that Canada’s Premier Justin Trudeau has labeled the U.S. “a threat from the south.” European countries clearly see the United States as a threat as well.
Should we wonder then how Canada’s response has limited the outbreak there while the U.S. response has left this country, for the time being at least, the world’s most affected nation?
The difference is stark. North Dakota is among the least affected of the 50 states, having recorded 3,816 cases of Covid-19, the formal name for the virus, and 80 deaths, as of Sunday, July 5. The number of cases in Manitoba, the Canadian province closest to Grand Forks (home to 1.36 million people, compared to North Dakota's 760,000 – both estimates from December 2019) was 325 cases and seven deaths. In Saskatchewan, just to the west of Manitoba and sharing a boundary with North Dakota, the total number of cases, again as of Sunday, was 796 and 14 deaths. Saskatchewan’s population is 1.2 million.
Why these disparities? It’s a good question, of course, but a question without a simple answer. Any answer would be speculative, but let’s try:
First, Canadians seem less aggressively individualistic than Americans, more likely to respect authority and more inclined to build and respect collective institutions. It would be possible to create quite a long list, from universal health care to local credit unions to multi-tiered hockey programs that draw in almost every interested athlete, without the huge cost that American parents face.
Leadership may play a role, too. Canada Premier Justin Trudeau entered quarantine early in the pandemic, and an oft-repeated quip says that Canadians tell the duration of the pandemic by the length of Trudeau’s hair. Americans measure time by the vehemence of Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
Proximity to the United States may be another reason. The American colossus has long seemed a threat to Canada’s own existences and identity, and Canadians have come together to resist. Bill Waiser makes that point on Page 3 of his 500-page tome “Saskatchewan: A New History,” mentioning “fear of absorption by the aggressive United States” as a motivating factor for the new province. An annexationist party was active in the Red River Valley during settlement days; several counties in North Dakota are named for its most prominent proponents.
Then there’s the nature of Canada’s political system. It is a parliamentary democracy, with multiple parties, rather than a congressional one with just two parties. Canada’s leadership is tied directly to the legislative body, and the head-of-state is a parliamentarian. The party that elects the most members or can build the most stable coalition forms the government, creating a need for compromise that reduces the level of polarization.
A peculiarity of American history is sometimes cited for a significant difference, the attitude toward firearms. In Canada – the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – generally opened much of the country; in the United States the rush of settlers came first, and sometimes vigilante justice was the rule. This underscores a larger point, that Canada emerged from a political process within the British tradition while the United States threw off British rule through a revolution and established a wholly new way of government.
Finally, and speculatively, the influence of conservative Christianity, with its emphasis on divine will, may be less in Canada, while in the United States, the so-called “religious right” is a powerful force.
These circumstances may have led to a more communitarian society in Canada, with less gun violence and fewer coronavirus cases.
Of course, Canada has its troubles; there’s a deep rift between the coasts and the prairies and between English and French speakers, a reality that novelist Hugh MacLennan notably labeled “two solitudes.”
While there’s some rancor about coronavirus north of the border, in this crisis Canadians have proven themselves better able to address the pandemic, and Canadians are consequently welcome in the world while Americans are increasingly isolated.
Addition and subtraction
In last week’s paean to Clay Jenkinson, I failed to mention an important outlet for his work. He’s editor-at-large of “Governing” magazine. Of course, he’s also well-known as an interpreter of Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt as well as other historic figures. The upcoming North Dakota book will be his 14th, Jenkinson tells me. Last week I made it his 16th.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.