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Canadian Anti-Americanism: Before and After 9/11

Reginald C. Stuart explored five varieties of anti-Americanism within Canada, their historical roots, and lines of argument. He questioned what such expressions expose about Canadians themselves, their view of America, and their potential power in the current and future Canada-U.S. relationship.

Date & Time

May. 22, 2003
3:00pm – 5:00pm

Canadian Anti-Americanism: Before and After 9/11

By global standards, anti-Americanism in Canada is "anti-Americanism lite," yet understanding many of the sentiments involved in the Canadian experience is helpful when grappling with the unprecedented rise of animosity towards the United States globally. According to historian Reginald Stuart, the working relationships between Canada and the United States are on the whole exemplary because Canada and the United States share the world's longest undefended border, make up world's largest trading partnership, and share many core values. Anti-Americanism in Canada, he said, is rarely directed at American individuals and their freedoms; rather, it is primarily directed towards the U.S. government. The phenomenon is mainly an internal debate within Canada and not specific to one group or time period. However, the Canadian political project has historically engaged in a process of self-definition that has largely been in opposition to the United States, and real differences do exist. Stuart explored anti-Americanism by tracing five varieties and themes that characterize it, while noting that not all real world situations conform to this categorization.

The first of the varieties, policy oriented anti-Americanism, occurs when Canadians disagree with a policy position taken by the U.S. government. Stuart argued that U.S. policies post 9/11 (namely the war on Iraq and the disregard for the United Nations) acted as catalysts to policy oriented anti-Americanism in Canada, as manifested by controversial comments by senior members of the ruling Liberal party.

The second of the varieties, international philosophical anti-Americanism, is essentially a multilateralism vs. unilateralism debate, or a Kantian and Hobbesian debate, respectively. In the first case, multilateralism is seen as a goal in itself and the key to international peace; the other side bases its analysis on the realist notions of Hans Morgenthau and others, and sees the international system as anarchic and comprised of nation states pursuing narrowly defined self-interest.

The third variant he called ideological anti-Americanism, which is often expressed by the more left-leaning Canadians as represented by the New Democratic Party, many Liberals, and even some conservatives. For those who believe in a strong social welfare system, there is a real fear in Canada that the closer Canada gets to the United States, the more pressure will mount to open up public health-care and education to privatization.

The fourth theme is nationalistic anti-Americanism, one that perceives close identification with the United States as undesirable because it will destroy Canada's ability to act independently both internally and externally. This is a view espoused by many famous nationalists such as Margaret Atwood, Peter Newman, Stephen Clarkson, and Mel Hurtig, among others.

The final variety is partisan political anti-Americanism. This form of anti-Americanism is a tool used by Canadian politicians to advance an agenda that is "not American" and thus, "good." Here, Canadian politicians criticize a given policy as "too American" thereby appealing to reflexive anti-American sentiment, without having to evaluate the substance or merits of the policy.

Stuart then examined the historical roots of anti-Americanism since the 1780s, painting a picture of how the Loyalists who rejected the American Revolution later grappled with relating to the American state. He traced the beginnings of the internal debates on appropriate levels of flows and the debate on what type of social welfare system to develop back to the 1880s. He followed this with an examination of the cultural nationalist controversies of the 1920s, and then looked at recent manifestations of the phenomenon, such as the free trade debates of the 1980s in which John Turner articulated how Canada would become economically subservient and would eventually merge with the U.S if free trade were pursued.

Stuart argued that the major factor that distinguishes pre-9/11 anti-Americanism in Canada from post, is that what was previously an internal debate has since been exposed to the world through mass media attention, controversial statements by high ranking Canadian officials and the Canadian refusal to support the war on Iraq. He points out that Canadian news is also available via the Internet, revealing the extent of the debate to outsiders. However, while the debate continues, Stuart noted that the dynamics of Canadian anti-Americanism have shifted considerably. Maclean's magazine polls show consistently that Canadians feel unthreatened in their sense of self, that there is no longer as much emphasis on non-Americanism in identity formation, and that Canadian and American social and cultural outlooks are increasingly diverging. There is also less fear that free trade and greater economic integration equates assimilation, especially in light of the lack of "retaliation" on the part of the United States after Canada did not support the war on Iraq.

Stuart concluded by adding two dimensions to his five variations and themes of Canadian anti-Americanism: the horizontal and the vertical. The horizontal represents the internal debates in Canada about identity at home, abroad, and vis-à-vis the United States The vertical represents what pieces of the debate reach the United States, shaping both public and official perceptions of Canada. Overall, Stuart argued that Canada and the United States know that they are both sovereign governments that have rights to their own policies and the obligation to face their consequences. He cautioned not to allow the "political to become personal," because Canada and the United States remain neighbors by chance, and friends by choice.

David Biette, Director, Canada Institute
Drafted by Stefanie Bowles, Research Assistant

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Canada Institute

Bound by common geopolitical interests and strong economic and cultural ties, Canada and the United States enjoy the world's most successful bilateral relationship. The Wilson Center's Canada Institute is the only public policy forum in the world dedicated to the full spectrum of Canada-U.S. issues. The Canada Institute is a global leader for policymakers, academics and business leaders to engage in non-partisan, informed dialogue about the current and future state of the relationship.     Read more


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