The roots of Canadian anti-Americanism

Robert Fulford rang a bell with his recent National Post column on the "golden era of anti-Americanism." On arriving here as a freshly minted immigrant at the tail-end of 1965, I only had two negative impressions. One was that winters really were long and very cold. And the other was the surprising presence of anti-Americanism, particularly in significant segments of the media.

Coming from Ireland, I knew about the "anti" business. In the world I grew up in, being anti-English was tantamount to a reflex.

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Mind you, it was a conflicted kind of "anti." As my father pointed out, large numbers of Irish people also watched English television, read English newspapers and magazines, followed English football and went to England in search of work.

And while the historical reality of Anglo-Irish relations is more tangled and complex than popular accounts portray, it's easy enough to see the basis for antagonism. When interests clashed over the centuries, the Irish generally drew the short straw.

Similarly, it would be easy to understand the likes of the Dutch resenting the Germans or the French. Or, indeed, a whole range of inter-European grievances. That continent has a long history of invasions, conquests, and general disregard for the concept of borders.

But, on the surface anyway, Canadian anti-Americanism is harder to understand. To be sure, "the world's longest undefended border" has the resonance of a cliché.

However, like most clichés, there's a substantial element of underlying truth.

Other than the War of 1812 and the ill-fated Irish-American Fenian raids, armed conflict has been conspicuous by its absence. Given the disparity in both population size and military power, that's quite something. Most countries would give their proverbial eyeteeth for such harmonious relations with a giant neighbour.

Intellectually, two of the most influential exponents of mid-20th century Canadian anti-Americanism were Tory university professors: George Grant and Donald Creighton.

Grant produced his major work in 1965. Entitled Lament for a Nation, the deeply pessimistic book took aim at what its author saw as the pernicious influence of American-style individualism. As Fulford describes it, Grant believed that Canada was finished, "its essence destroyed by the craftiness of the Americans and the lazy ineptitude of the Liberals."

The Anglophile Creighton shared Grant's antipathy towards both Americans and Liberals. To illustrate the depth of his passion, Fulford notes that Creighton even went so far as believing "it would have been better if the Confederacy had won the Civil War; that would have made the United States less dangerous."

Of course, anti-Americanism wasn't confined to crusty Tories. As the 1960s progressed, it became endemic on the left side of the political spectrum.

There was lots to add fuel to the fire. Vietnam provided grist for the mill, as did the rise of the academic New Left.

And with Peter C. Newman at the editorial helm of Canada's largest daily newspaper, The Toronto Star, there was no shortage of platform space.

Historically, Canadian anti-Americanism goes back as far as the United Empire Loyalists, those tens of thousands who, as a consequence of the American Revolution, fled from what was to become the United States. Seeking refuge in what remained of British North America, they provided the basis for a tradition innately wary of America and Americans. The "peace, order, and good government" associated with loyalty to the Crown was distinctly preferable to the rambunctiousness south of the border.

The American national personality undoubtedly egged things along. Seen as brash, boastful, materialistic, and self-absorbed, Americans simply got up a lot of Canadian noses.

And it didn't help that they were so successful. By the 1960s, the cumulative inflow of American capital had reached the point where it became fashionable to agonize over the extent to which Canada had allegedly become a "branch plant" economy.

Then there were all the American movies that Canadians flocked to in theatres, the American programs they watched on television, the American books they read, and the American music they listened to. If you were so disposed, it wouldn't be difficult to work up a head of resentment.

Fulford also notes that the one place in Canada where anti-Americanism didn't flower was Quebec. Perhaps that's because Quebecers were too busy resenting English-speaking Canadians. Human nature, it would seem, has its own imperatives.

A native of Dublin, Ireland, Calgary-based Troy Media ( online columnist Pat Murphy has lived in Toronto since 1965. He worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years and has a degree in history and economics. You can reach him by e-mail at:

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