Why are Canadians So Nice?
Some countries get all the luck. Canada is one of them.
Not only does it have a strong economy and high living standards, it even gets stereotyped well. Canada is a place where the weather is cold but the people are warm. They enjoy moose and maple trees. They cheer ice hockey. They don’t get involved in wars. They have a cool flag. Crime is low. Everyone has good health care.
People in the United States sometimes look north enviously, and wonder why their country gets more criticized and feels less civilized. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone was as nice as the Canadians? Or is it possible that Canada isn’t all it’s cracked up to be?
Much of why Canada and the US seem so different has to do with size. Geographically, the US is smaller than Canada but it dwarfs its neighbour’s population and economy. There are 320 million people in the US and only 36 million in Canada. The US economy is twelve times larger.
Neither of these measures make a country more or less pleasant to live in. But the world’s largest economy is always more likely to be in headlines and wars. Whether the US likes it or not, others expect it to take a lead in sorting out global problems, from TB to terrorism. They will then feel free to complain when American efforts fall short, as they almost always will.
No one expects very much from Canada, the 10th largest economy in the world, any more than they do from Italy (8th), Brazil (9th), or South Korea (11th). Canada doesn’t look bad on the global news because it’s rarely there. But that’s because it’s smaller, not because it’s nicer.
This isn’t the whole story, however: the world’s 12th largest economy, Russia, often looks bad on the news. The reason for that, of course, is that Russia and the old Soviet Union used to be extremely powerful, and Russia today wants to regain and reassert its strength.
Canada’s history is very different, and it helps explain how the country earned its sunny reputation. Before the Europeans came, there were few differences between Native Americans on either side of the border that now separates Canada from the US. But when the Europeans arrived they built different societies north and south. The British were the main players in the south, and they usually came with their families to settle and farm. That produced a lot of conflict with native Americans who were already there.
By contrast, when the French arrived further north, they typically came to trade not to take over. They wanted beaver skins to keep Parisians warm, and getting them required co-operation with native traders, not conquest.
This changed some after France lost most of its North American territories to Britain in 1763, but not as much as you might think. From the start, Britain injected an extra does of tolerance into Canada by allowing French Catholics in Quebec to stay Catholic, rather than making them adopt British Protestantism (requiring people to practice a particular religion was common back then).
Also, there was no revolution in Canada. From the beginning, the United States was richer and stronger and Canadians worried that they might be invaded. The US did attack, twice. The only way for Canada to survive was to stick close to its British protector. Revolutionary feeling was thus almost non-existent in Canada.
It’s hard to pinpoint how these different histories continue to shape Canada and the US, but pretty clear that they do. The restless energy that comes with a revolution never surged through Canada. The belief that life or society could or should be different was more vigorous in the US. The right to bear arms became important for Americans on the lookout for tyranny, but still puzzles Canadians who rarely saw the British that way.
That’s one of the reasons why the Canadian constitution gives more power to the central government than America’s. Fewer checks and balances makes passing laws much easier, which helps explain why all Canadians have free health care and most Americans don’t.
Then there’s the weather. As citizens of the United States looked across their country, they saw millions of acres of attractive, fertile land that they were eager to grab. The people already there would get out of the way or be pushed. For people living in Montreal or Toronto, their West looked much less inviting. The frontier mentality that caused Americans to look purposefully across North America and eventually over oceans as well didn’t exist in Canada to nearly the same extent.
Canadian author Margaret Atwood suggested that Canadians have an equivalent of the frontier mentality—the idea of survival. In their harsh climate, staying alive was an achievement in itself. So was resisting their powerful neighbor to the South. In their stories, Canadians are often victims. Making it through is the mark of a hero.
If Atwood is right, it helps explain why Canadian commerce and culture have not been as dynamic as America’s. But it may also explain why suicides, crime, and drug use are lower, too.
The key differences, however, are surely population size and wealth. Whether the US likes it or not, it bears a burden that Canada does not have to. Canada can usually stay above the fray. It’s an enviable luxury, especially as it makes you more loveable.
There’s little point idealizing Canada. It has problems of its own. Whether you hate terrorists or dirty oil producers, Canada has them both. Canadians mistreated the First Nations (what the US calls native Americans), removing their children and putting them in awful boarding schools.
History may explain why Canada seems more peaceful and pleasant than the US, but it’s a big generalization. Besides, envy isn’t much use, unless looking at someone else’s green grass causes you to tend your own.