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Canada: Analysis From Washington -- The Meaning Of Independence

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 6 September 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The forces of globalization are now so strong that countries which define themselves primarily in terms of not being like their larger and more powerful neighbors face an increasingly difficult time in sustaining their national identities or even their state independence.

That challenge and how best to respond to it is currently subject to an intense debate in Canada, a country of 30 million people whose cultural, economic, and political lives increasingly are shaped by the tidal pulls of the larger and economically more dynamic United States, with which it shares a long, common and open border.

In a series of recent conferences, articles and books, Canadians have begun to consider what was unthinkable: "the possibility of the end of Canada -- or, more cautiously, the possibility of Canada not mattering," in the words of the chief economist of Canada's largest bank.

For more than two centuries, Canadians defined themselves in terms of what they were not: They were not like the citizens of the United States. But in recent years, Canadians have seen their country become what playwright John Gray has called "an empty shell" because they lack the kind of differentiating characteristics that could sustain their separateness.

That sense has grown in the last decade, in particular as American media outlets gain ever greater dominance over the Canadian scene, as U.S. economic power allows American firms to gain an expanded place in the Canadian economy and to attract the best and the brightest young Canadians to move to the United States, and as a relatively weak economy has forced Ottawa to end social programs in which Canadians earlier took so much pride.

One result of this, polls suggest, is that 50 percent of Canadians think that they are "essentially" or "mainly" the same as Americans. Another is that 44 percent think Canadians would benefit from adopting the U.S. dollar as a common currency. And still a third is that more than 30 percent of all Canadians now think that it is "very" or "somewhat" likely that Canada and the United States will become a single country within the next 25 years.

And those developments have led Richard Gwyn to conclude his "Nationalism without Walls: The Incredible Lightness of Being Canadian" with the observation that "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."

But the very apocalypticism in which these prospects are being discussed provides three important clues as to why these prospects are unlikely.

First, the very vigor with which this issue is being discussed in Canada suggests that there is still a large group of people there who value the independence and uniqueness of their country, even if it is under pressure.

They are thus likely to do what they can to sustain their nation rather than simply let it pass from the scene. Indeed, it is likely to be precisely in those countries where the impact of globalization has not touched off a debate that will see their futures most at risk.

Second, any future unification of Canada and the United States would not depend on Canada alone. The benefits it would seek from joining the U.S. would likely mobilize Americans who would be against taking on the burdens that such benefits for Canadians might appear to be.

And third, even as globalization may make the economic, cultural, and political shape of such countries more similar, this process almost certainly will heighten the importance of the remaining differences for people on both sides of the divide, a trend the founder of modern psychotherapy, Sigmund Freud, called "the narcissism of small differences."

In short, as people become more alike, they are likely to care even more about maintaining their remaining differences.

But the situation in Canada, one replicated in a number of other countries around the world, suggests that the tension between the acceptance of this aspect of globalization and the defense of national identity and even independence is likely to define politics in ever more countries.