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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Part 6: Not very Canadian

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2003

It was supposed to be a friendly game of team Frisbee. But now fists were striking flesh, hands were gripping necks, two big men were rolling on the twilight playing field in a spasm of punching, choking and loud curses. As the flailing men were pulled apart by their teammates, the captains launched into their own screaming fight on the sidelines, each blaming the other's excessively assertive players.

Much later, when calm play had returned to the field, one of the captains regained his composure enough to realize he'd betrayed his national image. "Sorry you had to see that — that's really not supposed to happen in this sport," he told me. "That really wasn't very Canadian of us."

Wasn't it? After days of observation and study, I was no longer very sure just what was supposed to be "Canadian."

A week later, in a nearly identical field in a very similar town 2,000 kilometres south in Virginia, I witnessed another game of Ultimate — the popular Frisbee sport that combines the rules of basketball and football. Also played by co-ed students in their 20s, this game was much more peaceful, with children running on the sidelines and the intense competition reduced to a chessboard calm. The Americans, in almost every other discernible way identical to the Canadians, played a much more peaceful game.

This I was willing to chalk up to coincidence. One game of pick-up Frisbee does not define an entire country. I was searching for more profound and fundamental distinctions, divergences between core beliefs and behaviours that had become shockingly apparent in recent surveys and polls.

If the latest research is to be believed, young Canadians and Americans seem to be moving in dramatically different directions. As someone who has never really believed in such major differences, I decided I had to see for myself.

The game, a very casual but elegantly played affair, had taken place on a muddy field at the centre of the University of Virginia campus, whose showy brick buildings had been designed by the school's founder, Thomas Jefferson.

Afterwards, the exhausted and dirty team joined me for pizza at a strip-mall restaurant on the edge of town. For two hours, and in lengthy interviews at their homes and workplaces throughout the week, I questioned them about their lives and beliefs.

I had found two towns that were as similar as possible. Guelph, Ont., is about an hour from Toronto, has a population of around 100,000, and is home to a mid-sized public university. Charlottesville, Va., is just south of the Mason-Dixon line, about an hour from Richmond and two hours from Washington, D.C., has a population of around 50,000, and is home to a mid-sized public university.

I settled on Ultimate players because their sport is casual, international, universal, non-contact, co-ed and attracts people with many daytime pursuits. These weren't going to be average Canadians and Americans, but they would be similar in most respects.

Around the pizzeria table in Virginia, I learned that I had assembled a roughly equal number of Northerners and Southerners, urbanites and small-town folk, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, religious churchgoers and non-believers.

After we'd talked a while, I dropped what I thought would be a simple question: "Do you trust the government?" One by one, the Americans blankly shook their heads. It was as if the idea of trusting Washington has never crossed any of their minds.

A week earlier, in another pizza place, I had put the same question to the Guelph students. Every one of them said yes reflexively, without a moment's hesitation, as if the idea of distrusting the government is utterly alien.

I asked a series of questions about loyalty: Are you loyal to your country? To your state? To your university, your family, your friends, the company you work for? Or to certain brand names?

This, too, produced striking differences. One after another, the young Americans said they are not loyal to their country — of the 10, only four said they are, and one of them, 28-year-old Jake Altimus, made it very clear that his national loyalty is trumped by his loyalty to his state: "In my heart," he said, "I live in Virginia."

The Canadians all said, without reservation, that they are loyal to Canada. In individual interviews, this came out dramatically: The Canadians, regardless of their political beliefs, are flag-waving patriots. The Americans are much more reserved about their national identity — family, church, corporation and pastimes are far more likely to draw their loyalty.

"Canadians consider themselves more Canadian than ever," writes Queen's University social researcher Matthew Mendelsohn in a review of dozens of polls and surveys. He notes that "the Canadian is stronger than the provincial in all provinces except Quebec."

In Guelph, I visited the comfortable apartment of Vince Filby, a 24-year-old who is studying the unlikely combination of classics and computer science — subjects he chose out of passion, rather than strict financial interest. Mr. Filby was stringing his guitar, and preparing to sew a maple leaf onto his backpack. "I'm very patriotic," he said, "but I'm against dogmatism in many ways." His is not a naive patriotism. He has spent time in the States, and says he likes Americans, although it would take "a lot of money" to get him to work there. Most of his teammates share this view.

None of the Americans, even the loyal George W. Bush supporters among them, wears a stars and stripes, and most are highly skeptical of their government. Has the image of the flag-waving American and the dispassionate Canadian become obsolete?

Some other things stand out. Half of the American team members are married — one couple, aged 23 and 24, wed more than three years ago, and one couple has a toddler — while none of the Canadians plans on marrying any time soon. Most of them say they want a family at some point, but marriage isn't an important institution.

Likewise, while half the Canadians say they are religious, none attend churches or temples regularly. Half the young Americans are regular churchgoers. The young married couple are Baptist (her) and Roman Catholic (him); she compromises by attending a Catholic church, which allows them both to attend service every week.

Are these diverging allegiances a result of some deeper belief?

When I dropped in on the Charlottesville architecture firm where 26-year-old Allison Hill works as a structural engineer, I expected to find a hard-driving woman devoted to her career. After all, she is an aggressive Ultimate player, a star engineering graduate and the wife of a fast-climbing doctor.

Ms. Hill said she is working in engineering because it is her family's trade — but not for money. "I'd love to work 30 hours a week, and take a long maternity leave," she said. A family, which she plans to begin in two years, is far more important to her than her work.

When I asked her what she considers the biggest problem with America, she surprised me by answering: "The work ethic." At first, I didn't understand: Did she think people were becoming lazy?

Quite the contrary. "There's too much work," she said. "Everyone's expected to spend all their time working, to make it their entire life. If you're not working all night and thinking about work all the time, you're not considered successful. I think this is really hurting the whole country."

Later, I dropped in on Peter Gee, a 23-year-old from Massachusetts who was spending a lazy afternoon at the university's physics lab, where he is working for the summer. A piece of equipment was broken, so the project was moving slowly, which was just fine by him.

"I continued with school because I didn't want to get a job," he told me. "I just want to spend some time not doing too much." When I asked him his country's problems, he told me he couldn't think of any. "I don't really deal with problems — I just like to live in my own little world and I figure those things will take care of themselves."

In Guelph, I dropped by the campus office of Avin Duggal, 27. An environmental-science student, he is one of the more aggressive Ultimate players, competing in matches across Ontario and the northern United States. He is also involved in a number of student organizations and a busy social scene, on top of his research into soil purification.

"I don't get much chance to see my family," he said. He feels close to them — his parents are Indian immigrants who live in nearby Mississauga — but his own trajectory does not allow enough time for visits.

He worked in the United States for four years for an environmental-consulting firm, and noticed something about his American friends. "They were way closer to their families," he said. "They were much tighter-knit, they put family above career all the time and they wanted to go out and have children as soon as possible."

His own ambitions are somewhat different. "I have a very specific plan for what I want to do with the next 15 years," he said. His graduate work will lead to a series of employment opportunities. He will start a family at 31.

So it was with Krista Straus, 22, who had come from the farm town of New Hamburg, Ont., to study environmental biology at Guelph. She lives with a group of young women in a townhouse, where they gathered to discuss their futures.

Ms. Straus wasn't sure exactly what she'd do, but it had to be her choice. "Probably a lot of my future depends on where I live, who I marry," she said. "But I want to get my own career started before I get married. I'll start a family in my early thirties."

Together, the Canadians seemed to be devoted more to engaging personally with the world, to setting themselves up as individual successes. The Americans often did this, too, but they were trying to fight it: For them, the hard work and sacrifice of their parents isn't worth it, and it's preferable to escape into the comforts of family, community, church and school.

This was getting into the terrain of a controversial new thesis about Canadians and Americans, one popularized by Michael Adams, the head of the Canadian polling firm Environics, in his bestseller Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values.

Mr. Adams believes that Canadians are becoming more individualistic, more entrepreneurial and autonomous, while Americans are "retrenching," rediscovering traditional values and institutions, becoming more deferential to authority and excluding themselves from larger society.

This is a dramatic change. The United States has always been based on collective projects driven by a sense of renegade individualism, while Canada has long relied on deference to a strong state and on employment, rather than entrepreneurship.

"We're living in different worlds," Mr. Adams told me when I visited his downtown Toronto office. "The Canadians have tried moving away from the church, holding off having big families, reducing the size of government, and the younger generations have discovered that you can do this and the world doesn't cave in around you. But in America, the world seems much more dangerous, it's not to be trusted, and people are seeking the safety of family and church and secure communities."

Some of his data are impossible to refute. For example, he asked Americans and Canadians in every region whether they believe that "the father of the family must be the master in his own house." In Canada, "yes" answers range from 15 per cent in Quebec to 21 per cent in the three Prairie provinces. In the United States, it ranges from 29 per cent in liberal New England to 71 per cent in the Deep South. Among people in their 20s, the distinction remains just as strong.

Indeed, there is considerable indication that young Americans are far more anxious and uneasy about their world than their Canadian counterparts.

A major survey of attitudes in five countries conducted last year by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that Americans aged 18 to 29 are twice as likely as young Canadians to worry about crime, ethnic and racial conflict and "moral decline." While the first two categories may reflect real political conditions, the third indicates that the anxiety may be rooted in deeper beliefs about the world. Other polls show that young Americans are far less trustful of immigrants, international bodies such as the United Nations, and that they are more likely to believe that politics is corrupt.

Did my Frisbee players bear out the radical thesis in which Canadians and Americans seem to be swapping places? Not entirely. None of them believed the father must be the master of the house (these were, after all, co-ed teams). And it would be a caricature to say that the Virginians were cocooning themselves and avoiding the nasty outside world, while the Ontarians were taking risks, abandoning comfortable institutions and discovering their roles in the larger community.

But at the end of my travels, contrary to my own long-held prejudices, I was left with the distinct sense that young Canadians and Americans, indistinguishable as they may seem at first, really do see the world through different eyes. They look the same, talk the same and play the same, but their hearts occupy different lands. ROBTv Workopolis