Understanding the Canadian-American disconnect – Part 1

January 12, 2010

Special Report: American-Canadian disconnect examined – Part 1, Part 2

NEW YORK, Jan. 12, 2010/ Troy Media/Canadians and Americans don’t understand each other.

There are many reasons for this; some are subconscious, others are subtle – lying beneath the surface, barely understood.

Canadians’ mixed feelings about their American neighbors run the gamut from apathy and disdain to distrust and intense dislike.

On the flip side, the average American sees Canada as a pretty place to visit and vacation — great for hiking, hunting and fishing. Quaint Quebec and Montreal, a short flight from major US airports, is a budget traveler’s perfect replacement for pricey France.

But the thought of moving to an enormous, frontier-like wasteland where temperatures in many parts routinely plummet to 30 degrees below zero Fahrenheit in the winter is an immediate turnoff to most Americans.

Americans quickly forget that Canada opened its doors during the Vietnam War to some 90,000 draft dodgers. And that Canada boasts a healthier, more stable economy, offering its citizens a national health-care system.

The “Ugly American” attitude

Some historians say the origin of Canadians’ intense feelings toward the US lies in Americans’ long history of arrogance and superiority – a broad-based thumbing of their noses at countries they deem inferior to the US in sheer numbers, not to mention industrial and financial might.

On the power scale, the US towers over Canada, ranking third on the world population scale (China leads with 1,338,612,968 followed by India with a population of 1,139,964,932, while Canada ranks 36th, with a population of 33, 600,000)

Yet Canada is the second-largest country in the world (by total area). Russia heads the list, covering more than a ninth of Earth’s land area.

Power criteria

In terms of gross domestic output, the US, despite its discordant politics, debt-ridden economy and troubled banking system, is still the global leader, with an estimated GDP for 2009 of approximately $14 trillion, compared with Canada, ranking 10th, with a GDP of $1.229 trillion, according to the Washington, D.C.-based International Monetary Fund.

If monetary strength and population are the sole criteria for determining power, then the US takes the Oscar. Sadly, the power image is responsible for creating the “Ugly American” image of the arrogant American who myopically judges the world with narrow-minded standards, failing to see that there is a sprawling, complex and often sophisticated world out there.

But it’s Americans’ ignorance of the world and, more personally, Canada, that irks many outspoken native Canadians, like writer and actress Heather Summerhayes Cariou and her husband, internationally-recognized actor Len Cariou.

Author of Sixtyfive Roses: A Sister’s Memoir, Summerhayes Cariou grew up in Branford, Ontario, and her husband is a native of Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Although Len Cariou has lived in New York City and New Jersey since 1964, he identifies himself as a “proud Canadian” who moved to the US because there were more career opportunities for actors.

As for the differences between Americans and Canadians, Summerhayes Cariou says, “Most Americans suffer from a serious attitude problem.”

Agreeing with his wife, Cariou says: “Americans think Canada is another planet. No wonder Canadians resent most Americans.”

Picking up where her husband left off, Summerhayes Cariou adds, “American history is taught in Canadian schools, but Canadian history is not taught in American schools.”

Jumping to the present, Summerhayes Cariou says Americans’ disinterest in and disrespect of Canadians escalated to insult during President George W. Bush’s second inaugural address on Jan. 20, 2005, when “he thanked a number of countries for helping out when US troops were sent to Afghanistan, but he left Canada out. “Canadian Special Forces played a key role in both invasions. We have a very small army — most of which is in Afghanistan – but they have contributed more than most countries to the war there, with little or no recognition from the US.”

Cultural ambivalence

On a cultural front, Canadians are both fascinated and repelled by American culture, according to Summerhayes Cariou. “Our Canadian networks buy American film and TV, while the reverse seldom happens,” she says. “It’s always been curious to me, and frankly bothered me, that this cultural exchange rarely works both ways.”

Canada has always been a favorite for US. film and TV production. “Canadian actors and crews are thrilled to have the work, but are generally treated by American producers as second-class citizens in their own country,” Summerhayes Cariou says. “They are seldom considered for leading roles, and are often paid less than their American counterparts working on the same show.”

On the other hand, “our current Prime Minister views the arts as a hobby, regardless of how much we contribute to the gross national product, whereas the arts are a valued industry in the US,” she adds. “This is perhaps why so many Canadian artists attempt to work on both sides of the border. Art is subsidized to a certain extent in Canada, and that’s a good thing as far as it goes.”

But, it bothers the Carious that the arts don’t flourish in Canada like they do in the US, where there are fewer subsidies. “One of the reasons so many American TV shows and films are shot in Canada is to take advantage of our subsidies,” says Summerhayes Cariou. “There are many dichotomies here.”

However, Len Cariou took a lot of flak early in his career for leaving his native country to build a career in America. The heat lasted until he became a Tony Award-winning star and a distinguished member of the Theatre Hall of Fame. Like many talented Canadian actors, Cariou built his career in the US because it was a major cultural hub. Rather than be a big fish in a little pond, he took a harder and far riskier road, and worked hard to become a giant fish in one of the biggest ponds on the planet.

Like many Canadians who built careers in the US yet whose roots are firmly planted in Canadian soil, they often find themselves in the awkward and frustrating position of justifying their lives. As Summerhayes Cariou put it, We spend half our time explaining Canada to Americans and defending the US to Canadians.”

 (Look for part 2 and find out more about the American-Canadian disconnect and how the two countries are losing out because of it.)

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