Canadians and Americans:  the same only different

I began my previous post by stating that it illustrates the different social mores of Canada and the USA. This view, that our countries sharply diverge on social issues, is a truism among Canadians — but arguably it is false.

Ipsos-Reid recently polled 1,000 Americans and 1,000 Canadians, and found there is a marked convergence between us with respect to social values. Here are some of the survey results, as reported in the May 9 Globe and Mail (available here):

  • Attitudes toward marijuana possession, often cited as a point of divergence, are almost identical. 57 per cent of Americans and 59 per cent of Canadians disagreed with the statement that a conviction for possession always should result in a criminal record.

  • A nearly identical proportion in both populations — 40 per cent of Americans and 41 per cent of Canadians — think the expansion of police powers to fight terrorism has gone too far, and threatens the “fundamental civil rights of all citizens.”

  • Overwhelming majorities in both countries — 78 per cent of Americans and 87 per cent of Canadians — agree that the government “has a responsibility to protect the poor.”

  • 88 per cent of Americans and 93 per cent of Canadians believe caring for the elderly is a government duty.

  • Asked whether people from different ethnic backgrounds “would be better off if they became like the majority,” nearly half of Canadians — 44 per cent — said yes. But only 37 per cent of Americans agreed. (“I think that would stun Canadians,” a former US ambassador to Canada is quoted as saying. “They believe themselves to be infinitely more tolerant than Americans.”)

  • Similar proportions of Americans and Canadians — 64 per cent and 57 per cent, respectively — say they don’t want economic growth to take priority over the environment.

  • Although more Americans than Canadians agree that their faith determines which political candidate they vote for, a solid majority in both countries — 76 per cent of Canadians and 62 per cent of Americans — disagree.
I must admit, I’m not sure how to account for the results of this poll. There’s another side to the story, it seems to me.

If Canadians had been voting in the last presidential election, John Kerry would have been elected in a landslide. And Iraq was not the sole issue. A majority of Canadians disagree with President Bush’s tendency to blur the line between church and state; with his enthusiasm for the death penalty; and with his positions on stem cell research and abortion.

Our legislature voted in favour of same sex marriage. President Bush has vowed to amend the US Constitution, if necessary, to protect the traditional “one man, one woman” definition of marriage.

A majority of Canadians are deeply offended by the constitutional right to bear arms, by the exaggerated concern about marijuana use (see the previous post), and by the view of many Americans that children may be scarred for life by the merest glimpse of a woman’s nipple.

(On this last point, I am of course thinking of the hue and cry over Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction”. In Canada, it is legal for women to walk down the street topless — honest! But I hasten to add that few women avail themselves of the right. I wouldn’t want my American readers to plan a vacation in Canada, expecting to see topless women smoking pot at every major intersection.)

Please enlighten me. How different are Canadians and Americans? Which of the supposed differences are nothing but a myth? Is it possible to reconcile the two streams of data I have outlined?

When scientific data contradicts people’s assumptions, I generally side with the scientific data. But in this case, I admit I am not so sure.

13 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Haley
    Aug 04, 2005 @ 23:42:00

    When I think about the differences between Americans and Canadians the first thing that sticks out in my mind is the difference in attitude towards our countries.

    Americans are very nationalistic. They pride themselves on being American. To be American is one of the greatest honours out there. And they have a lot to be proud of, but then, so do a lot of other countries.

    Canadians are not so nationalistic. Sure, we’re proud to be Canadian, but I think that is almost as valued as our determination to be Not American. To be so close, both in the geographical and political/economical sense, to a nation that is so reknown leaves Canadians somewhat desperate, I believe, to prove themselves different.

    So what do we do? We point to things like Bush’s abortion policies, the war in Iraq, the cultural “melting pot”, and marijuana laws to try to pinpoint the differences between our societies, and, generally, to attempt prove that we Canadians are more understanding of social structure, more protective of minority right, or less likely to “sweat the small stuff”.

    Yet all the Americans that I have met and spent time with have not differed in their opinions that much from my own Canadian views. Even when I spent a summer down in Ohio with family and friends I wasn’t shocked by any American beliefs. If anything I was shocked by the amount of blatant Bush-bashing that went on – quite comparible to the amount that goes on here in Canada.

    It surprises me that in a nation as supposedly protective of multiculturism we are so determined to be Not American. This is not to say that I don’t believe such a difference exists. There are definate differences, both political and not, but I do not see that we have to emphasize those differences to the degree that we tend to.


  2. 49erDweet
    Aug 05, 2005 @ 01:14:00

    Interesting food for thought. You may also wish to consider that for years many, many, many of your countrypersons have continued to be semi-permanent residents in the lower 48, and have blended in so smoothly with the general population as to cause nary a wrinkle.

    The Canadians I know are not very nationalistic. They pride themselves on being tolerant. To be Canadian is one of the greatest of honors. And they have a lot to be proud of, but then so do a lot of other countries.

    Some I know do pride themselves on being ‘Not American’, and I can understand that it must be extremely frustrating to be living so closely under the ‘elephant’s shadow’.

    But one difference not previously mentioned here, I think, is the general – but not universal – Yank trait of [under certain conditions] not shying away from confronting a presumed or professed attacker with at least enough violence or force so as to blunt his attack. Less than half a century ago several Canadians I knew also shared that trait.

    Three questions. 1. Does this observation contain any validity? 2. If yes, is this a positive or negative factor? 3. If yes, what caused the migration in national attitude?



  3. Q
    Aug 05, 2005 @ 07:02:00

    Interesting: both of you argue that Canadians and Americans are very alike; but each of you would add another trait to the list of differences.

    Haley raises a key consideration: the very cornerstone of Canadian identity is that we are Not American!

    Canadians have always suffered from an identity crisis. The French/English divide is quite pronounced, which makes it difficult to find features we all share in common. The size of the country also lends itself to diversity (which also happens in the USA, of course). A former Prime Minister once commented that Canada has “too much geography and not enough history” — again, speaking to our lack of a common identity.

    Happily, we all agree we are Not American! Except it begs the question … are we really as different as we suppose?

    49er, you propose another difference: that Canadians may be unwilling to use force to repel an attack. Your three questions are enough for a post in themselves, but here goes:

    (1) I think there is some truth to the charge that there’s been a migration in our attitude about war. But I would use the word “reluctant” rather than say we are completely unwilling to resort to force.

    (2) Whether the use of force is good or bad depends a great deal on context. In general, if force is used in defense, I would presume it to be justified. If military might is used aggressively, I would presume it to be unjustified (i.e., the onus would be on the aggressor to justify the use of force).

    Like most Canadians, I think the use of force in Afghanistan was a defensive act (since the state was harbouring the al-Qaeda braintrust). And, like most Canadians, I suspect the invasion of Iraq may have been a purely aggressive action. It’s hard to say definitively, since we still don’t know President Bush’s true motives for going in there. All we are confident of is that the motives he put forward at the time were a load of BS.

    (3) What caused the change in attitude is a big question; I doubt I’m qualified to answer it. But here are three factors that immediately spring to mind.

    Western societies (including the USA, if we can take public statements at face value) now disavow the colonizing mindset that used to motivate a lot of global aggression. We’re a lot less sure that we’re “right” and “cultured” while the rest of the world is “wrong” and “primitive”.

    The development of nuclear weapons also played a part. Hiroshima marked a turning point in global attitudes about war. With technological development came a tremendous increase in our capacity to do harm. That in turn resulted in a reluctance to use force at all.

    Vietnam (and WWI before it) also showed the utter waste of human life — i.e., with no return on the investment — which so often results from war.

    I’m sure there’s much more to say, but these are at least three of the big factors in the migration of attitude toward war — not merely in Canada but in the west in general.

    btw, there’s a cultural difference between Quebec and English Canada. Even in WWII, even though France was under German occupation, the Quebec population strongly opposed conscription (our word for the draft). English Canada strongly supported conscription in the later stages of WWII.

    I mention it because I think France is the western country most virulently opposed to the use of force (except in former French colonies in Africa). Personally, I think France is a bit “out there”, and I wouldn’t want you to lump Canada in the same category. But Quebeckers arguably share the mindset of France.


  4. 49erDweet
    Aug 05, 2005 @ 10:33:00

    Reluctant is the better word, IMO.

    I suspect Yanks will be among those debating GWB’s ‘true’ motives on Iraq for decades, long after the OFF situation is untangled. On that issue I’m a pan-IWist – it will all ‘pan out’ in the end, but I suppose that could be considered disingenuous.

    Yes, I’ve known since the early 50’s my northern cousins are understandably a bit bi-polar over the Quebec question. Sharing your national identity with Francophiles must be a bit like being married to a reformed axe murderer.

    And on a personal note I guess I’m about to amend the description of a liberal recently found on my site.



  5. Jack's Shack
    Aug 05, 2005 @ 12:42:00

    I think that there are a lot of similarities. I lived outside of Toronto during the summer of 1990 and got some more exposure than many Americans do.

    I have also spent time in Toronto on some separate occasions as well.

    One of the first things I noticed was that you use Monopoly money as currency and have a funny accent, but that is ok half of the US has accents too. 😉

    In all sincerity I have felt for a long time that the are few significant differences, at least based on time spent in Ontario and my exposure to Canadians from elsewhere.

    I have always enjoyed Canada and felt comfortable enough there that I could envision living there.

    I am not sure that offers anything of significance to the dialogue, but wanted to share something.


  6. Mary P.
    Aug 06, 2005 @ 18:41:00

    I lived in Buffalo for a couple of years, during which I conceived, gestated, and gave birth to my first child. I never expected any kind of culture shock. Heck, I could SEE Canada from my living room window. But I was shocked to find myself shocked.

    The differences?
    How much more extroverted Americans are, on average. I can’t think the number of people – total strangers! – who came and patted my bulging belly. Come on, now: would you pat my ass?

    They lean on their horns too much when they drive. The noise, lordy!

    Receiving an itemized bill for my prenatal care and hospital stay. It was covered by my Canadian health insurance, but it was a weird experience nonetheless. (Something, I might add, that would be good for the average Canadian to see: an invoice, marked “Paid in Full” might give us a better concept of the expense, and what we have to be thankful for!)

    NO guaranteed maternity leave! Bizarre, bizarre, and shameful. Not that I could work, I didn’t have the right kind of visa (which was why we decided to start our family then), but I got to talking with other women about it, naturally enough.

    Which brings me to this obvious comment on supposed similarities: if our social attitudes are so similar, why are there such HUGE differences in our social programs?


  7. Q
    Aug 06, 2005 @ 20:15:00

    I’ve been planning to say this, but I wanted to let the thread run for a bit first. Mary P., you’ve given me a good opening.

    The poll shows agreement on values; but it doesn’t look further into the matter to see how those values are actually put into practice.

    For example, Canadians and Americans agree that government should look after the poor. But Canadians actually support universal social programs. For example, everyone is entitled to certain health care services for free: everyone, not merely those who can’t afford to pay. The poll makes it sound like Canadians and Americans are in agreement, but the practice is quite different.

    A second example: Similar proportions of Americans and Canadians say they don’t want economic growth to take priority over the environment. But I think it’s accurate to say that most Canadians support the Kyoto protocol, while I assume that most Americans don’t. A shared commitment to the value doesn’t mean we interpret and apply it in the same way.

    Mary P., I think you would agree with me on this. The most shocking difference you mention is the matter of paid maternity leave. We always hear that “family values” are a core value in the USA. Apparently there’s some other value or concept at work that results in such a disparity on maternity leave.


  8. Jack's Shack
    Aug 07, 2005 @ 11:24:00

    NO guaranteed maternity leave! Look at this link-

    Synopsis of Law

    Covered employers must grant an eligible employee up to a total of 12 workweeks of unpaid leave during any 12-month period for one or more of the following reasons:

    * for the birth and care of the newborn child of the employee;
    * for placement with the employee of a son or daughter for adoption or foster care;
    * to care for an immediate family member (spouse, child, or parent) with a serious health condition; or
    * to take medical leave when the employee is unable to work because of a serious health condition


  9. Mary P.
    Aug 07, 2005 @ 12:58:00

    Oops. Sorry, Jack, I wasn’t clear: no guaranteed paid maternity leaves. Sadly, despite it being a clear violation of the laws of the land, the American women I’ve spoken to on this since have uniformly told me that had they taken more than 2 – 6 weeks, they’d have lost their jobs. One woman arranged 4 weeks only by taking two holiday weeks on top of the oh, so generous 2 weeks her employer was willing to allow her. No underpaid, disempowered peon, either: she’s an engineer.


  10. The Misanthrope
    Aug 07, 2005 @ 19:24:00

    I’m jumping in a bit late, but there is also the matter of fake election results. I’m about to read the article in Harper’s about how Ohio in the last elections was hijacked. We really need accountablity in our elections. Also, many of the people in the U.S. who responded may not represent the midwest, because I doubt the truly conservative would take the time to talk to the liberal media.


  11. Q
    Aug 07, 2005 @ 20:30:00

    Two comments:

    (1) I hope everyone understands that my previous comment was not in any way meant as a “put down” of the USA. I chose three examples to illustrate my point. The first example, that Canadians actually demand universal social benefits, arguably makes Canadians look a bit ridiculous. The second example, the Kyoto accord, was meant to be a neutral one. The Kyoto protocol is very controversial: even if global warming is a fact, Kyoto may not be an effective response to it.

    Only when we arrive at the third example would I argue that the Canadian way seems more consistent with “family values”.

    Which brings me to my second point. The law in Canada is this:

    • Employees who have been with an organization for a minimum of six months are entitled to paid maternity and/or parental leave.

    • Maternity leave lasts up to 17 weeks; parental leave lasts up to 37 weeks; total leave, up to 52 weeks. And leave is not available only to moms. The two parents can divide the 37 weeks’ parental leave between them, if they so wish.

    • The parents’ jobs are protected: the jobs must still be available to them at the end of the leave period.

    [Source for the above three points]

    • Employment Insurance pays 55% of the parents’ wages during the leave period, to a maximum of $413 per week. [source]

    I assume this means that part time employees are also eligible (pay being calculated at 55% of their part time wage).

    The employer may offer benefits that top up the amount received from EI.

    I know you’ve temporarily sworn off writing about politics on your blog. But I look forward to learning the details from you when you’re done the Harper’s article!


  12. Scott
    Aug 09, 2005 @ 14:22:00

    When you point out how similar attitudes are, note that Bush only won in 2004 by 2% and actually lost the popular vote in 2000. Had things been shifted only slightly, things would have been very different here. That being said, I also feel that a lot of what drives Canada’s policies stems from being “Not the US”. Though when I wrote about it, asking, Are People Smarter in Cold Weather?, the Right-wingers came out frothing at the mouth.


  13. Q
    Aug 12, 2005 @ 12:03:00


    Very entertaining comments on your post! I agree with most of what you said, but not this line:

    It’s pretty clear that despite the widespread support, the timing is somewhat of a reaction to the US’s fear campaign against gay marriage.

    What’s clear is that our Prime Minister wrestled with his (Roman Catholic) conscience over this issue, and came to the conclusion that it came down to fundamental human rights. He could have allowed the courts to settle the issue in all thirteen Canadian jurisdictions (it was already done in nine of our ten provinces and one of our three territories). Instead, he decided to show leadership and introduce legislation.

    I will say this much, however: the reactionary response of the Bush administration made it easier for our government to legalize same sex marriage. To most Canadians, Prime Minister Martin couldn’t help but look good by comparison.


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