By WILLIAM THORSELL
Monday, May 12, 2003
Your impression of somebody you don't really know arises from many factoids and hazy images. The stranger's personality is a composite sketch in your mind, loosely drawn, but decisive nevertheless in defining your attitude to them. You act on what you know, whatever you know.
This is certainly true of American attitudes to Canada, which looms small in the U.S. psyche. Americans used to feel a fuzzy warmness about Canadians, based in the four-letter word "nice," pretty pictures of Banff, and our reputation for "being there" with the Yanks when the going got tough. But consider a few recent stories from The Wall Street Journal and ponder how things can change.
"Canada is boosting security at its seaports following stinging criticism that they are rife with crime and could be used to smuggle weapons of mass destruction into North America," reported the Journal on April 21. Critics "warn that Canadian ports could provide a back door into the continent for terrorists targeting the U.S."
This was one of many stories in recent months that examined the weak flank to the north in a time of American vulnerability. Just three days after 9/11, the Journal ran an op-ed piece by their own "Americas" editor, pointing to the danger from Canada's queasy tolerance of terrorists.
No matter that none of the men engaged in the horrors of that week had come to the United States through Canada: The columnist remembered the arrest of an Islamic terrorist driving down from Vancouver through Washington to bomb the Los Angeles airport in December, 1999. The knee jerked, and Canada took it on the chin.
Now it is almost an article of faith among Americans that killers, bombers and weapons are leaking south into the American homeland -- a mirror reversal of Canadians' own attitudes to the United States in recent decades. Who has more to fear from cross-border traffic? Count one for the revolution that the Americans feel they do.
Earlier this spring, the Journal carried several stories about illegal imports of cheap prescription drugs into the United States from Canadian Internet drugstores operating out of Manitoba. A growing number of sick Americans are ordering their drugs by mail from Manitoba to benefit from Canada's somewhat looser rules on generic drug manufacturing. This is contrary to American law, which regulates the quality of drugs and status of patents in the United States.
The Journal noted that the Manitoba government was supporting this new export industry, despite the legal niceties, and you could almost feel the furrowed brows in Washington and on Wall Street.
Then comes heroin. "Angering U.S. officials fighting the war on drugs, the Canadian city of Vancouver, British Columbia, is opening North America's first injection sites for heroin users," reported the Journal on April 1.
"Critics, including U.S. drug czar John Walters, warn the sites will encourage heroin addiction and worsen the city's drug problem. The Bush administration already is fuming over Canadian government moves that allow some chronically ill people to smoke marijuana legally. Mr. Walters says the U.S. administration has increasing concerns about 'Canada becoming a major drug producer.' "
Since that, of course, Canada has announced that it will decriminalize pot for everyday users, further enraging American officials and many others.
Canada's support of the French position on Iraq was clearly noted in the Journal, without much malice it must be said, but with disappointment. Worse came the headline on April 17: Golf War? Canada Gloats as Weir Wins Masters. The writer efficiently described the breadth of Canadian perfidy in abandoning the Americans over Iraq, concluding, "Never mind the American military has swept through Iraq. Canada has shown who is boss where it really counts: on the putting greens of a great nation. Official relations are in tatters, but the Canadians have beaten swords into sand wedges, and thus emerged triumphant."
As Barbara Frum might have asked: "Are you bitter?"
Canada is moving toward recognizing gay marriage -- another social gulf with the Americans. Imagine a story in the Journal that reports: "A Canadian landed immigrant from Libya was late for his lesbian sister's wedding to a black activist, who runs Vancouver's public heroin-injection site, because he became confused about the location of the church while smoking pot on the rapid transit train from New Westminster on Saturday. The betrothed couple are planning their honeymoon in San Francisco."
So much for nice; we're getting interesting.
William Thorsell is director and CEO of the Royal Ontario Museum.