*O Canada! A National Swan Song?

Worth A Look, Trade, Frontier Centre

Canadian Border
U.S. Customs agents check cars at the U.S.-Canadian frontier in New York. Canadians say border is vanishing culturally, economically and politically.

TORONTO —- On a brilliant spring day, in the midst of a sustained economic boom, 200 of Canada’s most influential citizens gathered earlier this year in the grand ballroom of the Royal York Hotel to consider the country’s prospects in the global economy.

But as the corporate chieftains, university presidents and government officials rose to speak amid the ornate frescoes and gilded moldings meant to give expression to Canada’s 19th century ambitions, it soon became clear that many were haunted by a more disturbing question: Would there even be a Canada in 25 years, or would the country become, for all practical purposes, the 51st American state?

Canadian Pacific’s David O’Brien, whose railroad once stitched together an expansive and improbable nation, warned that a resurgent brain drain cast doubt on “Canada’s continuance as a real and rounded country.”

John McCallum, the chief economist of the country’s largest bank, reported that talk of the country’s demise had become “uncontroversial, even commonplace. . . . The possibility of the end of Canada–or, more cautiously, the possibility of Canada not mattering–has to be taken seriously,” he said.

Even Tom Axworthy, the staunchly nationalist former principal secretary to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, warned that if Canada failed to create a more productive and innovative economy, its corporate assets would soon be “picked clean” while the government would be unable to afford national health insurance and other cherished social programs.

With reluctance and resignation, Canadians are concluding that what they once celebrated as the world’s longest undefended border is quickly vanishing. Economically, culturally, socially, demographically, even politically, Canada, they say, is becoming indistinguishable from the United States.

“We are, for all intents and purposes, becoming part of the United States,” said Maude Barlow, for 15 years the voice of Canadian nationalism as chairwoman of the 100,000-member Council of Canadians. “The fight for Canadian distinctiveness is fundamentally over.”

“Put bluntly, the nation-state called Canada has become an empty shell of its former self,” playwright John Gray declared in his book-length cri de coeur, “Lost in North America.” “If you hold Canada to your ear, you can hear the ocean.”

In an era of globalization, the U.S-Canadian border is not the only disappearing international boundary, nor is Canada the only country coming under the spell of American economic and cultural influence. But perhaps no country feels these effects more keenly, or is more threatened by them.

In Europe, where countries now share a common currency and a common passport, enormous differences remain in language, history, culture and national personality: It is unlikely that the French will soon be confused for Italians or Germans. And with no dominant country, Europe’s integration can proceed more as a collaboration among relative equals.

But for Canadians, who already share with Americans common language, culture and history, integration with their bigger, richer and more powerful neighbor has meant nearly total assimilation.

The 80 percent of Canadians who speak English now read the same books, follow the same professional sports leagues and watch the same television shows and movies as Americans. By and large, Canadians eat the same food and buy the same goods as American consumers, increasingly from the same restaurants and retailers. For their vacations, they are as likely to visit the United States as to travel within their own country. And with the Canadian dollar having fallen to a value of 67 American cents, polls show a majority of Canadians now expect they will have to abandon the “loonie” for the greenback within 20 years.

Behind the scenes, top bureaucrats for both countries are at work “harmonizing” immigration, customs and criminal and national security laws to allow people and goods to move freely within a “common perimeter.” And what there is of a Canadian military is fundamentally organized to work in tandem with U.S. forces: In buying new transport planes, for example, the Canadian air force is expected to enter into what amounts to a time-share arrangement with the Pentagon. Canadians already feel so heavily affected by decisions made in Washington that one poll found 51 percent supported the idea of electing representatives to the U.S. Congress.

Nowhere has integration been more profound than in the two countries’ economies, which have been merging at Mach speed ever since the signing of a free trade agreement in 1989. Canadians now export more across the U.S. border than they sell to other Canadians outside their own provinces–a cross-border flow of goods and services that exceeds $1 billion every day. On both sides of the border, companies routinely organize production, distribution and sales as if there were a single, seamless market.

Among the 300 companies listed on the once-proud Toronto Stock Exchange, two-thirds are now listed on American exchanges, and one-quarter report their financial results in U.S. rather than Canadian dollars. Canadian investors have been pouring their savings into the U.S. stock market, while American firms have gobbled up so many Canadian firms that Canada now has the dubious distinction of controlling a smaller portion of its productive capacity–70 percent–than any other industrialized country.

Underpinning many of these developments is the uncomfortable reality that Canada increasingly lags behind the U.S. economy in productivity, innovation and the ability to generate high-income jobs. Already, the per capita income in Canada is about a third less than in the United States. Analysts like McCallum predict it could fall to 50 percent by the end of the decade.

Responding to this lack of opportunity, increasing numbers of the country’s best and brightest are seeking their future in the United States. In recent years, about 25,000 Canadians have permanently moved south each year, including 1 percent of taxpayers who earn more than $100,000 a year, significant chunks of the dean’s list from top universities and enough nurses and doctors to fill one-quarter of the seats in Canadian medical and nursing schools.

“Without Canadians being aware of it, the Americanization of the economy has entered a disturbing new reality,” wrote Peter Newman, the leading chronicler of Canadian business, last December in a special edition of Maclean’s magazine devoted to the vanishing border. “We find ourselves on the cusp of the millennium well on the way to becoming an economic colony of the Americans–self-governing still, but indentured to the Yankee dollah, just the same.”

As yet, no Canadian leaders are ready to embrace some form of political or economic union with the United States–in fact, Prime Minister Jean Chretien recently said that, as far as he is concerned, there is already enough integration. But the public mood is more ambivalent. While large majorities still express a desire to preserve Canada’s independence and distinctiveness, they also seemed resigned to the fact that it is a losing cause. A Maclean’s survey found that half of Canadians now describe themselves as “mainly” or “essentially” the same as Americans. Perhaps most striking, one-third said they were neutral or favorable toward the two countries becoming one–a notion unthinkable a generation ago.

“There is still a passion for Canada out there,” said Angus Reid, a leading pollster, “but as the years go by, that passion sometimes seems more romantic than realistic.”

Fretting about the country’s viability has been a central feature of being Canadian since 1776, when the first Loyalists crossed the border to escape what they considered the revolutionary folly of their colonial brethren. The uneasy merger of English- and French-speaking Canada to form the nation in 1867 was prompted by fears that the Union army, fresh from its Civil War victory, was planning an invasion. More recently, the threat of Quebec’s secession confronted the country with the very real possibility of political breakup.

But now, having beaten Quebec nationalism into remission and marginalized French language and culture in the process, English Canada has begun to face the disquieting reality that nothing so characterizes its identity as the absence of a distinctive national identity.

Over the years, Canadians might have coalesced around a shared sense of history but for the fact that they have so little of it they consider worth remembering. The country never fought a revolution or a civil war, pioneered no great social or political movement, produced no great world leader and committed no memorable atrocities–as one writer put it, Canada has no Lincolns, no Gettysburgs and no Gettysburg addresses.

For much of the last century, business and political elites in Canada responded to the challenge of building a national identity by cultivating strong anti-Americanism, which manifested itself in protectionist trade and independence on foreign policies. The high water mark of Canadian nationalism came during the late 1960s and the 1970s, when Canadians looked across the border at a United States beset by economic decline and torn apart by urban race riots, assassinations, the Vietnam War and Watergate. Their response was to adopt a stance of superiority to a neighbor they viewed as arrogant, overbearing, morally bankrupt and culturally shallow.

Reflecting the resurgence in national pride, Prime Minister Trudeau nationalized and modernized key industries, pumped millions of dollars into cultural subsidies, erected barriers to foreign investment and opened the borders to American draft dodgers. And when the charismatic Trudeau stood up to Presidents Nixon and Reagan on nuclear disarmament, Canadians cheered.

But time has not been kind to the Trudeau legacy. The spectacular rebound of the American economy has ended the debate over free trade and left Canadians scrambling to emulate its neighbor’s ways. And while cultural subsidies helped the rise of a generation of Canadian artists–singers Shania Twain and Diana Krall, movie-maker Norman Jewison, actors Dan Aykroyd and Jim Carrey, and writers Michael Ondaatje, Rohinton Mistry and Margaret Atwood–their success has more to do with their appeal to American and global audiences than with the development of a distinctive Canadian culture. Even in military matters, Canada shed its Vietnam-era pacifism and sent its troops to fight alongside Americans in the Balkans and the Persian Gulf.

“We have discovered after two centuries that you can’t make a country out of anti-Americanism,” said historian Jack Granatstein. The challenge now, he added, is developing a national identity out of something more positive and enduring than simply not being Americans.

Like many Canadians, Granatstein looks to a “civic nationalism” as a basis for holding together an increasingly nationless state. This approach holds that Canada is a kinder, gentler, fairer society than the United States because of national health insurance, generous welfare benefits, gun control, protections for minorities against discrimination and hate speech, subsidized university education and fiscal policies that redistribute tax money from wealthy provinces to poor ones.

But in recent years, even that consensus has begun to unravel. As incomes have lagged and tax rates soared, Canadians have become increasingly unwilling or unable to pay for generous social programs. Long waits for expensive medical tests and steep hikes in university tuition have convinced many that a more privatized, American-style system for health and higher education is inevitable. And there is a growing realization that years of subsidies to Indians, Cape Breton coal miners and Newfoundland fishermen have trapped them in a cycle of dependence on the government.

“The wealth differential between Canada and the U.S. has widened while the value differences seem to have narrowed,” said Axworthy, now a part-time teacher at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “There is an aching sense that we are becoming more like the U.S. with our own school shootings, thousands of homeless in the streets and a troubled health care system. . . . Our ability to build a more just society depends on our ability to stay competitive economically, and I’m not sure that we’ll be able to do that.”

These developments are causing a fundamental realignment in Canadian politics, not unlike the one in the United States during the 1980s. Gone are the days when Canadian politics were dominated by two national parties with strikingly similar left-of-center programs. Instead, when Chretien takes the country to the polls this fall or next spring, he will campaign to preserve “Canadian values” against a new and aggressive Conservative Alliance with an American-sounding platform of tax cuts, privatization and an end to many social programs.

While many nationalists recoil at the prospect of a Conservative Alliance victory, they are equally demoralized by Chretien’s failure to launch a bold program that could reinvigorate the country’s sense of self.

“Either we reinvent our traditions of egalitarianism and liberalism to accommodate the realities of today’s global economy or, some year, some decade, we will simply fade away, either to become another echo-image of the United States or to become a region within it,” warned Richard Gwyn in his book, “Nationalism Without Walls: The Incredible Lightness of Being Canadian.”

In the end, this anxiety about what it means to be a citizen of Canada may remain a key character trait distinguishing Canadians from Americans.

“Canada is not a country you love,” the novelist Robertson Davies once wrote. “It’s a country you worry about.”

Pearlstein recently completed a tour as The Post’s correspondent in Canada.

© 2000 The Washington Post Company