VANCOUVER, B.C. – Laid-back attitudes define this Canadian city dubbed the most livable on the planet.
Gay pride T-shirts on trendy Robson Street. An official “Welcome to Vancouver: A Nuclear Weapons Free Zone” sign near Stanley Park. A heroin injection clinic for addicts, the first in North America. Marijuana “compassion clubs” for sick people with a doctor’s note. Legal drinking at 19.
But some attitudes here have an anti-American edge. “I Don’t Wanna Be An American Idiot” blares on alternative radio. Media commentators and elected officials routinely blast the Bush administration for the Iraq war, what they term a punitive U.S. war on drugs, and the battle against same-sex marriage.
These aren’t simply isolated opinions from the “Left Coast,” Canada’s term for liberal British Columbia. The growing divergence in social and political attitudes between the United States and Canada is the topic of books, articles and a scholarly conference in Vancouver, B.C., next month.
Across this vast country of 32 million people, new research shows that Canadians are becoming ever more secular, multicultural and tolerant – more like Europe than their neighbor to the south.
In contrast, the United States, population 294 million, is veering to the right. A majority supports capital punishment and tax cuts, the administration has pursued a preemptive war abroad, and conservative Christians fight to ban same-sex marriage.
Even consumer tastes diverge. On the whole, Canadians prefer family-friendly mini-vans and small cars; Americans love their SUVs. Canadians save; Americans spend.
So, why the disparities, eh, between North America’s two most reliable allies?
Although the United States and Canada share the world’s longest undefended border, 4,000 miles long, have the continent’s largest trading partnership and share many core values, the similarities can be misleading, according to observers.
“We watch the same movies, we dress and eat alike. But these really are two very different societies,” said the Rev. Michael Treleaven, a Jesuit and political scientist who co-teaches a course called “Canada vs. the U.S.” at Gonzaga University.
This trend has escaped most Americans, who rarely think of Canada at all, said Paul Olscamp, president emeritus of Western Washington University and a former Canadian who lives in Coeur d’Alene.
“Americans assume we’re a really big state where they like to go on vacation. Americans know nothing about us, and could care less,” Olscamp said in a recent lecture. But Canadians, nearly all of whom live within 100 miles of the border, know a lot about the United States, Olscamp said.
The topic of U.S.-Canada divergence may get a shrug from most people, but it has caught the attention of scholars in both countries.
A much cited 2003 book, “Fire and Ice,” by Toronto sociologist and pollster Michael Adams, debunks the myth that Canada is becoming more like the United States because of free trade agreements and mass media.
“At the level of values, Canadians and Americans are markedly different, and are becoming more so,” Adams wrote in his book.
Canadians are shedding their deference to authority, rejecting established churches and the patriarchal family. Courts in Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec and the Yukon have legalized same-sex marriage.
“Over the past decade, Canadians have consistently felt that two people living together constitutes a family,” Adams said.
Meanwhile, Americans are becoming more religious, xenophobic and fearful after the 9/11 attacks and are abandoning some of their frontier individualism, said Adams, whose Toronto-based Environics company interviewed 14,413 Canadians and Americans from 1992 to 2000.
Simon Fraser University is planning a major academic conference on Canada-U.S. divergence next month in Vancouver. More than 90 proposals for papers have been submitted, said Karl Froschauer, director of the university’s Centre for Canadian Studies.
The scholars will explore the two countries’ dissimilar historical roots – the American Revolution vs. loyalty to the British monarchy – and their growing differences over taxation, international treaties, health care, drugs, guns and post-9/11 civil liberties.
These differences have been exacerbated since the election of President Bush. Most Canadians aren’t anti-American, but they dislike Bush far more than other recent U.S. presidents, polls show.
“Sixty-two percent of Canadians disapprove of the Bush administration and the U.S. role in Iraq,” said Treleaven, a Canadian citizen. Canada’s decision not to send troops to Iraq caused Bush to cancel a state visit to Ottawa and triggered a cover story titled “Wimps!” in the conservative National Review. But the decision was popular in Canada.
“It was Jean Chretien’s finest moment,” said Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell of the former Canadian prime minister.
During the week that Campbell was interviewed at city hall, Vancouver was again ranked by Statistics Canada as the city with the best-educated and longest-lived populace in the nation. In March 2001, the Economist magazine ranked Vancouver as the most livable city on the planet.
A decision in the 1960s not to build an urban freeway system kept Vancouver’s center intact, and the city is now hailed as a model of urban planning by many groups, including Northwest Environment Watch. Its stunning location near mountains and ocean is also a big asset.
“We live longer because we are less stressed here. We’re a half-hour from wilderness,” Campbell said.
British Columbians have the longest lifespan in Canada, an average 81.1 years. By contrast, the average lifespan in Washington state is 78.6 years – a year longer than the U.S. average.
Dealing with drugs
Campbell, a former Royal Canadian Mounted Police drug officer and British Columbia’s chief coroner until his retirement in 2000, was elected on a liberal platform to change the way Vancouver deals with hard-core drug users. It’s a huge problem in any major port city, he said.
The first supervised heroin injection site in North America opened last September in downtown Vancouver.
“When we opened it, there were 600 injections a day that weren’t occurring in alleys or in lonely rooms where addicts die. Someone is alive because of this,” Campbell said.
Campbell is a critic of U.S. crime laws that send drug users to prison. He also is critical of John Walters, the Bush administration’s hard-line drug czar. Walters often chastises Canadian officials over the prevalence of “B.C. bud,” a high-potency marijuana with an eager U.S. market.
“We butt heads with Mr. Walters, the most uninformed person in the United States, over drugs,” Campbell said. “U.S. drug laws are about power, with racial overtones. Addiction is a medical problem. Across Canada, we have a national attitude that we can treat them,” he added.
Canadians may sneer at U.S .drug policy, but the United States still spends more per capita on treating drug addiction, Walters countered.
“There’s a moral posturing from Canada, but they’re creating a straw man,” Walters said.
Canada has the right to determine its own drug laws, but B.C. bud is sold to Americans, he added. “Marijuana use is rapidly increasing in Canada, while it’s going down in the United States. That would be prudent for people to reflect on,” Walters said.
Vancouver’s heroin injection site was controversial. Police and neighbors were initially hostile. But city officials had a drug crisis with 150 overdose deaths a year in 2000 and a related AIDS epidemic, said Donald MacPherson, drug policy coordinator for the city of Vancouver.
“People were dying. For a city as wealthy as ours, this was alarming. The police were overwhelmed, and we were wasting money,” he said.
A report on the heroin center’s first year of operation will be released at the end of this month. It’s part of a $1.5 million, three-year research project funded by Health Canada, a federal agency. “I’m sure (the report) will be mostly positive – better public order, fewer discarded needles, and health improvements,” MacPherson said.
Not all of Vancouver’s drug scene is condoned by the authorities. Illegal “pot cafes” established by Canada’s Marijuana Party in the same neighborhood as the heroin center have earned the city a nickname – “Vansterdam.” The police sometimes crack down on the cafes, but they aren’t considered a major law enforcement problem, MacPherson said.
Washington state has allowed medicinal marijuana use, but it’s still not legal to buy the drug. Idaho doesn’t allow it.
Canada now wants to make marijuana available to medical users in pharmacies without a prescription and is considering a plan to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and use tickets or fines – not criminal charges – to deal with other offenders.
“That’s their sovereign right,” Walters said. “But from our experience, when you make consumption of a dangerous substance easier, you get more consumption.”
Left and right
Canada differs from the United States on many other social policies. British Columbia and laissez faire Quebec pull Canada to the left, while the South and the Midwest increasingly pull America to the right on gay marriage, abortion, guns and capital punishment, according to Adams.
Canada hasn’t had an execution since 1962, while Texas is the U.S. leader. From 1976 to 1998, Texas executed 167 people. Virginia in the same period was second with 60. Canada’s Parliament abolished capital punishment in the 1970s. “It’s not coming back,” Treleaven said.
There’s no Second Amendment in Canada ensuring the constitutional right to bear arms. Gun control has always been in effect, even during the 19th century settlement of the west. The RCMP, despite some scandals, is still a highly respected national government police force. There is no U.S. equivalent.
The Mountie is a revered father figure, said author Pierre Berton in his book, “Why We Act Like Canadians.”
“Like the Mounted Police, we prefer to ask questions first and shoot only as a last resort. Guns make us nervous,” according to Berton. Only 22 percent of Canadians own firearms, compared with 49 percent of Americans.
In the United States, gun ownership is seen as a right to protect individuals against the state, while in Canada, gun ownership is far more restricted and is seen as a privilege, according to American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset in his book “Continental Divide,” a 1990 study of the two countries
“Given the Canadian-U.S. differences in rates of violent crime, it is not surprising that Americans are more fearful than Canadians of being unprotected after dark,” Lipset said.
Canadians are more law abiding than Americans, statistics show. The violent crime rate in Canada is 10 times lower than in the United States., although there is gang activity in large cities.
Canada’s homicide rate in 2003 dropped to lows not seen since the 1960s – 548 across the country, according to Statistics Canada. In contrast, Chicago, America’s No. 1 city for murders, had 599 homicides in 2003. Total U.S. homicides exceeded 20,000 in 2003.
Although they sometimes grumble about taxes and waiting lists for surgeries, Canadians support a broad safety net including health care for everyone administered by each province, Froschauer said.
Americans, the least taxed people among the industrial democracies, spend 35 percent of their gross domestic product in the public sector, much of it for defense. Canada has a small military and spends 45 percent of GDP on public programs, said Adams in his book.
The United States spends more on health care per capita than any other nation, yet its life expectancy ranks 26th in the world, according to a 2004 study by Northwest Environment Watch. Canada ranks fourth and Japan is No. 1.
Canadians are “appalled” that 45 million Americans, many of them children, have no health insurance, Froschauer said.
“Canadians are still willing to tax themselves for the social good, as long as education is kept accessible and medical care is covered,” he said. Froschauer credits that to Canada’s long history of communitarianism and to the Great Depression, when people on the sparsely populated prairies pulled together for the good of all.
Rich and poor
There’s still a system of “provincial equalization,” where richer provinces send tax money to help poorer ones. Recently, oil-rich Alberta – the most conservative of the provinces – has complained about this, but the equalization policy is still in effect, Froschauer said.
As a result of Canadian tax policies, there’s far less of a “wealth gap” between the rich and the poor than in the United States, where 20 percent of the richest Americans now amass 50 percent of the country’s income – up from 44 percent in 1973. According to a recent report by the bipartisan Congressional Budget Office, U.S. tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration have shifted the overall tax burden to the middle class from the richest Americans.
Statistics Canada, in a 2000 report, said the poorest 25 percent of Canadians were better off than their U.S. counterparts in purchasing power. However, Americans in the top 20 percent have disposable incomes 25 percent higher than their Canadian peers.
“All of which proves, at least in terms of income, that it’s better to be poor in Canada and rich in America,” Adams writes.
In the most recent national election on June 28, Canadian voters rejected conservatives’ calls for privatizing parts of Canada’s medical system.
“That caused great concern, because U.S. insurance companies could have come in and gotten access to Canadian health data, which then would have fallen under the U.S. Patriot Act,” Froschauer said.
Although angry with the governing Liberal Party for several financial scandals, the voters refused to oust them. According to political analysts interviewed by the Associated Press, the voters feared the Conservatives would cut taxes, repeal same-sex marriage rights and move Canada more toward the United States.
The Bush administration’s policies helped sharpen the debate, Froschauer said. Canadians strongly support international accords that Bush opposes, including the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and a global treaty banning land mines. Canadians also support the Kyoto global warming treaty, the International Criminal Court and a ban on biological weapons. Sen. John Kerry, in a close race with President Bush for the presidency, is more aligned with Canadian attitudes on these international treaties.
“The more U.S. policy moves to the conservative right, the more Canada and the world will diverge,” Olscamp said.
There’s another important difference. Canadians are less religious than Americans, and evangelism is nearly nonexistent. Only two in 10 Canadians claim weekly church attendance, while four in 10 Americans do, Adams’ polling shows.
Americans are “more inclined to believe in an afterlife, God and the devil, and they inject religion into political debates in ways that make Canadians squirm,” Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote last year.
The most unchurched place in North America is the Cascade Mountain region of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, dubbed “Cascadia” by sociologists. Those claiming no religious affiliation have reached 21 percent in Oregon, 25 percent in Washington and 35 percent in British Columbia. But Cascadia is also full of gurus and spiritual seekers, according to a recent Vancouver Sun article. The Gulf Islands off the B.C. mainland may have the continent’s largest collection of Wiccans and other neopagans, the newspaper reported.
Why should Americans care about the growing differences between the two countries?
Despite superior national wealth and military power in the United States, Americans could learn a lot from Canada, Treleaven argues.
The United States may be richer, but Canadian society is fairer, with a social safety net that usually works, far less stress and violence and an international world view, he said.
“Here’s another free and democratic North American society that marches in a different direction. You can learn from your neighbor,” he said.