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Crossing the Rock Island Line: Civil Society and Politics in Canada and the United States

If anything can be said generally about a common North American experience which Americans do not share, it is fear of the US itself.
Joel Schalit

Issue #17, November 1994

When the Cold War ended, the world literally turned upside down overnight. As I finished my senior year in college in 1990, The Oregonian was flooded with a different news story everyday, about how democracy was spreading over the world for the first time in world history. Victory was attributed to the free market's overwhelming power to bring good things to life. The irony of victory could not have been more appropriate. By 1994 genocide had once again come to visit Europe in the form of the Balkan War and Fascism resurfaced in Germany, Italy, and even France. With UN forces reluctant to assume the responsibility for stopping a second Holocaust, American corporations buying up and laying off whole industries (such as General Electric recently did with the state power company in Hungary), and two million Italians protesting losing their health care as a result of the policies of the neo-fascist government they elected, we can see how clearly the free market has won.

When speaking of a postwar period in North America, one must come to similar conclusions. Mexico got another corrupt government as a consequence of election fraud. The US elected an entirely Republican congress for the first time in forty years. And Canada began to seriously dismantle its welfare state. All three countries signed an agreement unifying their economies into one open market, with tariffs and taxes eliminated for cross-border trade. In the meantime, a guerrilla war similar to the conflicts that arose in Nicaragua and Guatemala in the sixties started in Chiapas, Mexico. Two years earlier the US military had been be called out to quell a chaotic rebellion of the African-American community in Los Angeles and other cities. Canada had a similar revolt at Oka, where Mohawks picked up arms and fought the Canadian army over a piece of their land destined to be made into a golf course. As much as it may seem one can have pretty much the same political experience anywhere these days, there are ways to appreciate a place for its unique qualities despite the increasing homogenization of political life in the West. Still, although I only recently moved to Canada, I have been at a loss to explain what it is about my experience of a new social geography that is different from the one I had in the United States. While Canada is indeed a distinct country, it is hard to distinguish everyday life in Ontario from that of many other places in the US. If anything can be said generally about a common North American experience which Americans do not share, it is fear of the US itself. The US is the common denominator here, however subtly. It looms over culture, politics, religion and everyday life as though it were an intruder slowly being let in.

Export USA

When my Canadian friends refer to the US at all, it is usually in order to lament the Americanization of Canada that threatens to destroy their quality of life, the benefits they are accorded by universal health care, and their ability to attend a relatively cheap, good public university system. In contrast, mainstream Canadian newspapers like The Globe and Mail will on one day run a feature-length piece about how easy and convenient it is to move to the US, while on the next it will run stories about the increasingly high rate of violent crime and hopelessness in Canada. Almost every time it will explain such events in relation to or in fear of similar, more institutionalized trends in the United States. For example, a 27 year-old Vietnamese immigrant attending a school for adults shot both his auto mechanics teacher and the principle of his high school. The first thing that a spokesperson for the Ministry of Education said was that Canadian schools now have to contend with the possibility of students possessing firearms just as they do in the US. Law-and-order-minded advocates for tighter security in public schools called for the introduction of armed police and metal detectors on secondary school campuses, citing the American employment of such strategies as a model worth emulating given the threat posed to teacher's lives. Other recent violent incidents outside of education are also evaluated through comparison to precedents in the US, with obligatory examples of the ways in which state institutions respond even more violently to similar events in American society.

On a more subtle level, it is curious to observe how Canadians evaluate US legislation and federal policies' in terms of their effect on Canada. An excellent example is the recent debate in Ottawa over the consequences of the American deregulation of genetically engineered food products, such as Geep meat (a cross between a sheep and a goat) and certain forms of new vegetables. On a CBC broadcast about the debate sparked by the visit of American genetic politics activist Jeremy Rifkin, the program's news analysts took it for granted that the introduction of such foods to the Canadian market should have been a Canadian decision. Instead, as the story presented it, this challenge to Canadian consumers was a fait accompli, because if the USDA had decided to let such foods into the world market, then there was nothing for Canada to do about it. Not once did the news analysts refer to the issue as something for Canadians to decide for themselves, except when they quoted the visiting American activist saying that Canadians should 'just say no' to the consumption of genetically engineered foods.

Like the US did in the 1980s, Canada has developed a huge deficit which it is seeking to eliminate through massive cuts in federal spending. Among other things, Finance Minister Paul Martin has called for huge reductions in government subsidization of universities and student fees. Citing recent figures on students defaulting on their college loans, government officials propose withdrawing tuition subsidization, doubling university fees, and offering much larger loans to students as an incentive not to borrow from the government what one can never pay back. Whenever objections are raised to such a plan, it is the size of debts taken out by American students to pay for a university education that are brought in as examples. One news analyst on a Toronto radio talk show recently pinned the tail on the donkey when he said that 'the state of California has percentage-wise more college graduates living in it than any other state, yet eighty percent of recent graduates are unemployed, and owe on the average forty-thousand dollars each after having had larger loans made available to them when the US began cutting its funding of universities and colleges in the late seventies. If we were really following the American example closely enough, we would not be making the same mistake.'

Unfortunately, changes in government spending on education are concomitant with a rise in conservative politics. Even though Canada had its own version of Ronald Reagan during the 1980s in the tenure of Conservative Party Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Canada did not appear to drift so quickly into a state of chaos and disrepair as the United States did under Republican rule. Rather, what did occur here was the preparation for a new tide of ultra-conservative politics approximate in tenor and content to that which emerged at the end of the Reagan-Bush era in the US: 'Family values' politics, anti immigration sentiment, debates over the legitimacy of homosexuals having equal civil rights, Protestant Evangelical terrorism, and a new, more severe law-and-order mentality encouraged by the breakdown of civil society, and the increasingly violent, sectarian divisions drawn between white, ethnic, religious, and indigenous communities.

When Canadians speak of a brave new world scenario in their own country, they point to the province of Alberta as the laboratory out of which a new national order for English-speaking Canada will emerge. Frequently referred to by my friend Jeremy as 'The Texas of The North,' Alberta, under Progessive Conservative Premier Ralph Klein, has become a model province for the post-welfare state. Echoing the free-market rhetoric of Eastern European anti-communist reformers such as Boris Yeltsin and Lech Walesa, Klein began privatizing all state holdings in civil society, first by selling off the state-owned liquor business, and most recently putting an end to the tenure system in provincial universities. As we might expect, the economic rationality behind such policies is the desire to make more money. By subjecting state owned institutions to the laws of the free market, Klein's government pretends to believe that it actually will stimulate growth and profit while minimizing public spending.

An even more haunting cloud of conservative politics hovers over English-speaking Canada and it is called The Reform Party. Led by Preston Manning, a more composed version of Lyndon Larouche, the Reform Party looks to the Republicans as its mentor. Reform Party morality is even more conservative than that of your average 'professional' Republican. At a recent party congress in which new national strategies to take over parliament were formulated, the primary themes on the agenda for discussion were the civil rights of homosexuals, law and order, capping immigration, an English-language only domestic policy, and a 'three strikes you're out' law patterned after the one recently passed in California. By the end of the conference, the party had agreed upon limiting the civil equalities of gays, increasing the size of the police force to deal with a rise in violent crimes, denying education to the children of recent immigrants, and giving life sentences to those persons who commit more than three crimes regardless of the gravity of their offense, a platform in step with the 'revolutionary' rightward led in the US by Newt Gingrich.

What distinguishes Reform Party conservativism from right-wing American politics is the lack of explicit emphasis upon religion as a basis for such values. However, despite the seemingly non-sectarian character of Reform Party morality, Evangelical Christians have an incredibly strong presence in the politics of western provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia. Two years ago they blew up an abortion clinic and this November inaugurated a new stage in the struggle against abortion when a Protestant sniper shot a Vancouver physician with an assault rifle while he was having breakfast in the kitchen of his home. These developments signal a trend in the same direction as the civic piety of mainstream American conservatives, who increasingly emphasize the sectarian foundations of their values in order to historicize their politics by anchoring them in a divine-command morality that can't be questioned, and who are also finally willing to use violence to prove it.

Clearly Canadian

Although American conservativism looms large over right-wing politics in Canada, the same could hardly be said of the American left's influence over its Canadian counterpart. While a degree of American New Left-style thinking still predominates in certain academic circles, it is obvious that mainstream leftist politics in Canada do not look to the US for counsel. Unlike the American labor movement even before its leadership was bought out by Hoover, Canadian labor is connected to labor movements in other countries. The International Socialists are extremely active, and claim to be taking responsibility for combating local fascists. They are always organizing actions and staging rallies. Contrast this fervor to the US, where you can't even get anyone to go to a demonstration of any kind unless it has aesthetic value. If for some reason people do attend a gathering, they are usually perceived as either stupid, or members of a cult-like organization such as the Spartacist League or the Hari Krishnas.

The fact that organized fascist groups openly exist in Canada marks a real political distinction with the US, as does the existence of a socialist left. In this case the difference appears to be that more identifiable forms of political power still exist in Canada than in America. What Americans tend to call fascism is an authoritarian diffusion of legitimation, embedded more deeply in our everyday lives than in the simple uniform of a fascist screaming for more order and more homogeneity. Of course, the same could be said for all 'advanced' first-world societies, but in the case of Canada remnants of a political order from a previous phase of history remain visible and alive in a country a lot that looks and feels a lot like the US. Party members even read books and continue to argue with 'bourgeois revisionists' that the early Marx is too immature, that The Grundrisse is really the only book worth reading. Fascists persist in their time-honored persecution of undesirables, as they did recently when skin heads attacked a homosexual in Toronto, and ambushed a group of socialists with knives.

As much as it may be nostalgic to know that older forms of everyday politics still survives, it is the visibility of Native Americans engaged in political struggle that constitutes the biggest political distinction between Canada and the US. In Quebec the Cree are engaged in a huge battle with the Partis Quebecois over what the sovereignty of the Cree will be if Quebec becomes independent. In a recent article in The Globe and Mail, Cree leader Matthew Coon explained that Quebec will not allow the Cree to make their own decision about seceding from the federation, because Quebec wants to hold onto Cree territory because the Partis Quebecois want to retain ownership of James Bay for its natural resources and hydroelectric uses. A revolt by an Inuit band occurred in Davis Inlet, Nova Scotia, when an isolated Innu community would not physically allow Canadian law enforcement officials to exercise criminal justice because they believed that federal law does not respect their needs or reflect their own indigenous culture. After prohibiting judges from sitting in court on their land for seven months, the Innu forced a standoff with the provincial government, barred government helicopters loaded with Mounties from landing with burning tires and debris, destroyed the police station, and finally persuaded the federal government to force the province to negotiate with them. Most recently six hundred Native Americans stormed a hotel in Winnipeg where the G7 were meeting in order to protest the province of Manitoba giving fifty million dollars worth of economic assistance when, as the demonstrators insisted, indigenous Americans required such assistance themselves.

As commonplace as such political action may seem in Canada, no similar activity takes place in the United States anymore with the exception of the Rodney King rebellion in Los Angeles and other cities two years ago. The lack of any such forms of activity in the US stems largely from the FBl's COINTELPRO program begun in the early seventies primarily as a way of suppressing the American Indian Movement, culminating in the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1974 when FBI agents put down a rebellion on the Sioux reservation in South Dakota. Carried on throughout the eighties against Central American and anti-nuclear activists, COlNTBLPRO's activities reached a new height during the Redwood Summer campaign conducted by Earth First in northern California in 1990, when the organization tried to reach out for the first time to timber workers made unemployed by the over-harvesting of pacific coast Redwoods. As evidence later established, the FBI bombed a car carrying activist Judi Bari, a member of the IWW largely responsible for planning and directing the first attempt in American history to reconcile radical environmentalists with labor.

The continuous repetition of such events prevents America from being able to develop a new political culture that allows the practice of even the most basic forms of traditional political action. Instead, the only objectively identifiable form of politics in the United States is practiced by the right, through the waging of class warfare, foreign military expeditions, religious terrorism, anti-crime measures, and the building of more prisons. When Canadian leftists express fear of a new continental order such as the one envisaged by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and General Agreement On Tarriffs and Trade (GATT), it is these sorts of political developments that they are afraid of importing.

When I try to think about what it really is that exemplifies the new experience of North American social geography best I cannot help but recall the story a doctoral student at York University told me recently about how one of the undergraduates he instructs informed him of her career plans after college. 'I'm going to be a police woman' she said. 'Here in Toronto ?' asked my friend. 'No,' the student said, 'In either New York, Chicago, or hopefully Los Angeles.' 'Are you an American?' my friend asked. 'No,' she answered, ' of course not, I'm Canadian.'

A member of the Bad Subjects Production Team, Joel Schalit is a Ph.D. student in the Program in Social and Political Thought (SPT) at York University, near Toronto, Canada. He is also a member of a crank-call 'band', the Christal Methodists, noted for their biting critiques of the Christian Right.

Copyright © 1994 by Joel Schalit. All rights reserved.