Canada celebrates the 150th anniversary of its confederation — or the unification of the British colonies into one dominion — on Saturday. The festivities include a visit from the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, festivals and celebrations of First Nations and Métis culture.
Canadian journalist and media critic Jesse Brown, co-author of the book The Canadaland Guide to Canada, sat down with Worldview’s Canadian transplant, Amber Fisher, to look at how Canada and the U.S. have evolved alongside each other in the past 150 years.
On whether the U.S. does a better job at holding their government accountable
Jesse Brown: I would say so. I think that it probably goes back to the roots of both countries like protest and independence and asserting their rights, that is ingrained in American culture. America fought for its independence, Canada asked nicely for permission. And our slogan is ‘Peace order and good government’ not ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ Canadians really like things staying peaceful and calm. They like the status quo and even though we simultaneously consider ourselves really progressive, you don’t really get progress without protests and regardless of whether or not people agree with the protests, there is sort of this almost like colonial hangover, this British kind of, ‘why are you making a fuss?’ Canadians like to follow orders and stand in lines, we tend to be pretty skeptical when somebody takes to the streets and protest. Americans have, ‘Don’t Tread on Me,’ I think that the Canadian slogan would be ‘Tread Lightly on Me, It’s OK.’
On the culture of free speech in Canada
Brown: In the U.S., free speech seems pretty absolute. Like a lot of American things, it’s pretty definite, and it’s an essential, it’s a constitutional right. In Canada, we have this free expression, which is a little bit murkier, it’s a little bit more amorphous. We got our rights in stages and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms didn’t come into effect until the 1980s, so what is this free expression? It’s a lot more limited than free speech, and certainly not something that people are taking to the streets to die for. Our commitment to this is kind of conditional, and be it everything from our hate speech laws to our libel laws, to our application of copyright, there are a lot of things you can’t say in Canada and a lot of areas where the government would actually get in the way of you saying things. You look at the culture in the U.S. of satire - One of the reasons why we wanted to write this book is nobody had done this yet in Canada… Of actually kind of raking over the coals and taking the air out of the national mythology. Canadian satire tends to be pretty happy and chummy and comedy shows where politicians show up with comedians and do silly gags together. We wanted to write, frankly, a mean book about Canada that tells the truth about the dark side of the country, and nobody had done it before largely because of fear of ruffling feathers and this idea that the libel laws don’t allow you to do that. It’s more the application of the laws and the laws themselves.
On whether the U.S. media is bolder than Canada’s
Brown: Yeah, maybe to a fault, but Canadians don’t buy all this kind, nice, polite stuff, okay. We carry around ourselves a sense of smug superiority that we are better than Americans. That we are like America, but cleaner and less violent and less crazy, and one of the main ways we kind of justify this superiority is that we look at the people yelling at each other on cable news in the States and the American president, and think “Thank God we don’t have that here.” I think we could use a little bit more of that here. I know that that can get excessive and it can get ugly but whoever said this business of having free democratic discourse was supposed to be polite or nice? Our media kind of toes the line and we don’t have like a rigorous culture of holding power to account or rigorously debating things. It’s kind of like politics - Forget baseball, politics is really America’s national pastime. Everybody feels entitled to have a political opinion and a political identity. In Canada, most people don’t mess with it. We know more about your politics than our own. You don’t hear people arguing politics that much unless they are in that world, if they’re journalists or if they’re in the political bubble, or if you know maybe if you’re in a political science program at your university.
On whether he thinks Canada has the upper hand in civil rights
Brown: Absolutely not. And this is a really important thing and it’s a wake up call that Canadians need to take. If you think about Canada in terms of slavery that’s all that anybody knows on either side of the border it seems. We had slavery in Canada, it was legal in Canada. We didn’t have an industrialized slavery largely because the climate didn’t really support it here, but we had slavery, we had the public lynchings in Canada. What happened when people came to Canada escaping slavery in the States - I mean we abolished slavery before America - but that was largely just following the footsteps of Britain. There’s a horrible history of anti-black racism in Canada. A lot of free people ended up in Halifax where they were shunted off to this, just disgusting, ghetto called Africville, where the city refused to extend basic services for many many years, a government-enforced slum. And finally it was bulldozed by government, and people’s property rights were completely lost, and despicably when they had to relocate people to other neighborhoods, they delivered them by a garbage truck. They would show up in a new neighborhood by a garbage truck so that tells you about what their attitudes were like towards the black population and a lot of those attitudes are still with us today and we don’t like to look at that. And if you hear anybody talk about it at all, they’ll say ‘Well it’s not as bad as it is in America’ which is like a crazy way of dealing with problems in your country. America would go, “Well, we’re not as bad as Slovenia,” like no! You deal with the problems you have, it doesn’t really matter if somebody has worse problems.
On Canada’s indigenous community’s affinity with American hip hop
Brown: Well for sure. I think that hip hop is a global phenomenon that came from black communities in the States, and that a lot of people who were, you know, without, identified with it. And a lot of the values of it, although it’s always looked down upon by some people, for others it’s inspirational and it tells stories of people rising up and it’s empowering. Indigenous people who live in Canada are certainly part of that culture. They brought themselves into it and I think hip hop is a pretty inclusive thing. So we’ve got wonderful rappers and groups and people should check out A Tribe Called Red - and we’ve got people telling their own stories and there’s a lot of story to be told.
The situations in a lot of the Indian reserves, as they’re still called here in Canada, there are dozens and dozens of them, they don’t have drinkable water, there’s black mold disease. The conditions in some of these communities are really really dire and it’s not something that makes your candidate really want to look at or wake up to. Justin Trudeau talks a lot about like, this is the age of reconciliation. I always thought you had to have truth before you can have reconciliation and if that comes with it which some of it’s coming through, kind of by force, then that’s a good thing. We’ve got a long difficult history we have to contend with.
On Canada’s checkered history with indigenous communities
Brown: The Canadian government and the Catholic Church took children from their parents took Indigenous kids from their homes, forbade them to speak their native tongues, placed them from Divergent communities all in the same schools, also often with deplorable conditions. We’re just trying to get all the facts out there - kids, you know, the rate at which they died of disease in these schools was way higher than at other schools that were in southern Canada. And the federal government has since formally apologized. I mean, these schools were running up until the 1960s and later, if I’m not mistaken. This was an express program that was explicitly about ‘beating the Indian out of the child.’ This was about forced assimilation, it was about cultural genocide, and terrible abuse - sexual abuse. physical abuse took place in the schools. The government has apologized, they’ve tried to make economic compensation to people who were victimized at these schools. The legacy of this, people trying to return to their communities and their families, the whole family structure was destroyed by this. And a lot of problems that Indigenous people in Canada face today are a direct result of this program.
On Canada’s healthcare system compared to the U.S.
Brown: There’s all kinds of problems with it and because it’s supposedly a one size fits all program, there’s all kinds of irritations and discontent, it’s far from perfect and we should do everything we can to improve it, But I will say this: It’s always portrayed wrong. Either Americans are approaching it as a utopian, a perfect system to strive for, and it may be something to strive for but it’s not perfect. And then I hear conservatives in America talk about how awful it is and you’ll die there, it’s third world conditions and wealthy Canadians go to America for treatment, and it’s death panels and whatnot… It’s just total nonsense. The fact is that it is something to be proud of, I mean, if you can wait six months for an M.R.I., then wait six months for an M.R.I. And maybe you’d rather drive down to Buffalo or to the States and have it done quicker and pay some money. But if you need a liver transplant, like my aunt needed a liver transplant, and the whole thing was like a C$ 300,000 ordeal? That’s just on the house. Nobody is kicked out onto the street because they can’t pay the bill. And there’s just something that’s feels inhumane and just, uncivilized about people having a higher chance at living because they can pay for better treatment and not something that we have going for sure.
On Canada’s environmental track record
Brown: It’s incredible to me that Canada gets thought of as this global progressive leader on the environment, and Justin Trudeau has a role with the Paris Accord. That’s fine, and we’re very good at setting targets with the rest of the world involved. But when it comes to our own targets, our own contribution to greenhouse gases, Canada is a major pollutant. A lot of people don’t know this because when they think about Canada, they think of beautiful nature and woodlands and mountains, and they think of Justin Trudeau, who talks a big game about the environment, but in practice, every day we are extracting oil from northern Alberta through a very dirty process. This oil sands, tar sand project in Alberta is just wholesale environmental devastation. The tar sands itself releases tons of greenhouse gas emissions and then of course the oil that is produced there downstream gets burned again. So this is something that Canada is fully onboard with. Justin Trudeau is on board with, he says that no country would find all this oil in the earth and just leave it there.
Canada is making the planet hotter. We’re not pushing in the other direction, we are making the world warmer. And the dirty secret of Canada is that we actually benefit from that. Not just because we make a lot of money selling the oil but we are one of the few countries on the earth that economically will benefit from a warmer planet. We already have, and we benefit a number of ways. We have an incredible amount of the world’s fresh water here, we have other fossil fuel deposits. We have natural gas underneath the North Pole which we get access to as melting occurs up north, shipping lane ways that become navigable when ice melts. Canada is vast but most of us live within a 90 minute drive of America, because we want to stay where it’s warm, in the southern border. There’s a lot of Canada to the north of us, and it is becoming open for agriculture and development and for population spread. We are contributing to environmental devastation at an epic scale. So this is just a direct contradiction to this concept that Canada is sort of trying to push the world in a more progressive direction, so we are one of the countries that, while we recognize that this is the world’s misery, it’s our gain. And our policies show that we’re leaning into it, we’re perpetuating it.
On Canada’s mega-rich compared to the one percent in the U.S.
Brown: Our billionaires like to keep on the down low. In the States, your billionaires tend to do all sorts of show off-y things like fund hospitals, or run for president. They do good and bad things, they’re very philanthropic, start foundations, they tend to be really big personalities. Canada is a great place to be a quiet billionaire. Our inheritance tax laws, you can really hold on to a lot of your wealth generation to generation, and we have some billionaires who people don’t even know. Like the Irving family in New Brunswick - if you take the list of the world’s biggest landowners, and you remove the Queen of England, the Pope and a bunch of other royalty from that list, the only name left at the top will be the Irving family. They own a lot of New Brunswick and Maine, and they are in the oil business, they’re in the lumber business, they’re just a massively wealthy family. But philanthropy in Canada happens at a tiny scale. The Irving’s are rumored to engage in some philanthropy, but on the public record, there’s very little that they contributed back. So we have a bunch of families like that who you don’t hear much about, but they park their money here. Most of them don’t even live here most of the time and that’s sort of how we’re all here for the mega rich.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was edited by Vera Tan. Click the ‘play’ button to listen to the entire interview.