Moose, Molson and Messier: What Americans know about Canada

OTTAWA _ In their hilariously funny book, How To Be A Canadian, brothers Will and Ian Ferguson, in their trademark witty style, reveal the source of the deep discontent many Canadians feel towards their neighbours to the south.

“Why do we Canadians hate Americans so much?” they ask rhetorically. “Is it because the United States sent in their troops and toppled our government? Is it because the CIA assassinated our head of state? We should be so lucky. No. It’s far worse than that. The ongoing, long-simmering, deep-running rage that most Canadians direct towards Americans is based upon the shocking fact that Americans — brace yourself! — don’t know very much about Canada.”

The Ferguson brothers hit the nail on the head. Most Americans haven’t the slightest clue that their country is in fact Canada’s largest trading partner, or even that Ottawa is the capital of Canada (most think it’s Toronto.)

Americans’ knowledge of Canada is usually limited to Molson, Moose and Messier.

“Canada has never given the United States any kind of trouble,” said Chistopher Kirkey, director of the Center for the Study of Canada at Plattsburgh State University of New York. “There has never been a necessity to look north.”

Mr. Kirkey is trying to change that. His Canadian studies program is among the largest of the 60 that exist in American universities. Along with Andre Senecal, a professor of Canadian studies at the University of Vermont, the Cornwall native recently established “Connect,” a comprehensive project focused on recruiting and mentoring of new “Canadianists” in the American higher education system.

However, even Mr. Kirkey acknowledged that there “is no real compelling reason” for Americans to show a great interest in Canada.

“It is much more important for Canada to know the United States than for the United States to know Canada,” he said. “It’s a question of where you sit in the world. The reason why Canadians know so much about the U.S. is because it is the great power in the world. Americans can afford to ignore Canada. Canadians can not afford to ignore the United States.”

University of British Columbia political science professor Michael Byers agrees.

“The centre of gravity is the United States,” he said. “Every time the United States sneezes we get a cold. They have the luxury of being indifferent to us.”

Mr. Byers recently returned to Canada after spending 13 years as the director of Canadian studies at Duke University. He said the further you go south, the less Americans know about Canada.

“They know broad stereotypes,” he said. “They know we exist and that we are mostly harmless. It is a benevolent ignorance.”

This equation seems to hold true at the highest level of government as well.

On the eve of George W. Bush’s first visit to Ottawa, it should come as no surprise then that Canada has traditionally been unable to pique the interest of the leader of the free world.

“I can’t think of an American president who had a distinct interest in Canada,” said Mr. Kirkey.

He added that U.S. presidents are well briefed on the pressing issues between the two countries, but usually have had very limited connection with their neighbour prior to assuming power, at least compared to their Canadian counterparts.

“Presidents are elected, while prime ministers are usually groomed through the party system,” he said.

Canadians should not be surprised by this, he said. While the U.S. is the target market of 90 per cent of Canadian exports, Canada is merely just one of many countries the U.S. deals with.

The lack of American knowledge and interest troubles Canadians a great deal.

“It’s a perpetual exercise in torture,” noted Mr. Kirkey. Once again, Mr. Byers agrees.

“We obsess about it to an almost unhealthy degree,” he said.

Mr. Byers called the Canada-U.S. dichotomy the quintessential example of a “close relationship of inequality,” noting other cases in the world such as Scotland-England, New Zealand-Australia and even the most recent example of Ukraine-Russia.

“I bet you most Russians don’t care what’s going on in Ukraine,” he said, before adding a personal preference. “But I’d rather have the U.S. next door than Putin’s Russia.”

This imbalance in knowledge of one another also leads Canadians to emphasize their differences from Americans. As any beer commercial will tell you, the Canadian sense of identity can be summarized in three words: I am Canadian. But, as the Fergusons argue in their book, these words could easily be replaced with four others: I am not American.

While Canadians know a great deal about the United States they don’t seem to think very highly about their neighbour. This contrasts with Americans who, according to Mr. Byers, “think very well of Canada, even though they don’t know very much.”

He added that, by and large, Americans view Canadians as quite similar to themselves.

This also seems to be the sentiment of many of their leaders.

“Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies,” John F. Kennedy said in an address to House of Commons in 1961. “What unites us is far greater than what divides us.”

“You know, it seems ridiculous,” said Dwight D. Eisenhower, in a conversation with Canadian cabinet minister Lionel Chevrier, in 1956. “We both speak the same language. We think alike. We behave the same. Don’t you think you would be better off as the 49th state?”