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Consider This... Canadians redefining themselves

Posted by Chris Simms on October 16, 2019 in News

Canadians have long compared themselves to the US to help define who they are and who they are not often citing domestic items such as Medicare, violence and gun control. However, this has changed over recent years with the rise populism, tribalism and anti-immigration sentiments in many regions of the world. Although the US remains a principal reference point, the context has gravitated towards “global citizenship”.  

This shift is partially explained by two factors. First, the Canadian government has asserted itself on a range of international issues, many related directly or indirectly to the health and well-being of populations across the globe. Policy positions (and actions) have often been in sharp contrast with those of other liberal democracies and in the case of the US, Canada’s apparent intent has been to be provide the global leadership where it had been otherwise been abandoned or relinquished.

For example, in 2017 President Donald Trump issued an executive order prohibiting U.S. government financial support for international organizations that provide abortions or give abortion advice – negatively affecting maternal and child health, nutrition, HIV, malaria, TB and other disease priorities according to the Kaiser Foundation. In direct response Canada announced $650 million new foreign-aid spending for sexual, reproductive and maternal and child health “helping to fill a global funding gap left by the United States’ rescinding of international abortion spending”. In June 2019 Trump broadened the policy prompting Canada to announce a tranche of hundreds of millions of dollars to again fill the gap.

In August (2019) after the Trump Administration introduced a controversial “public charge” rule that would obstruct low income immigrants from entry in the US, Trudeau did the opposite and pledged $20 million in legal aid funding for immigrants and refugees. When Trump issued a ban on non-Americans from seven Muslim dominated countries Canada immediately responded with the promise “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith”. As a result, thousands of refugees fled to Canada and according to a recent UN report, Canada took in more refugees than any other country in 2018.

The second factor contributing to the shift was the spectacle of Canada and the US simultaneously tackling the same set of issues (many of them global) yet moving in opposite directions – one assembling and the other dismantling. For instance, while Canadian scientists were being de-muzzled after a decade of constraints on their ability to publish freely, to speak openly of their research to the media and present at conferences – the US administration embarked on a policy to silence its scientists, preventing EPA experts from discussing climate change, their research or testifying before Congress (even banning the CDC from using words such as “global warming” “science based” and “evidence based” in its communication).

In like fashion, as control of the Department of Foreign Affairs was returned to Canadian professional diplomats in 2016 (thus reestablishing its presence in global health diplomacy) the Trump administration “hollowed out” the US State department, losing 12% of staff in the first year and treated its career workforce with “contempt”. Similarly, as the US began wholesale deregulation especially the resource sector, Canada did the opposite; it established Environment and Climate Change Canada and scrapped the Energy Review Board (widely seen as a rubber stamp for industry) and forced resource project proposals to undergo thorough environment assessment – again, helping to re-establish Canada’s global citizenship.  

On a range of “respect issues” once considered domestic until the rise of Trump and the “#MeToo” movement” (a global phenomenon) the President’s use of executive power, rhetoric and legislation has not only undermined the constitutional rights of racial and ethnic minorities, LGBT, Americans and women but, sometimes appeared as a deliberate attempt to create societal divisions – an endeavor mimicked by leaders in other OECD countries. In contrast, the Canadian Parliament moved in the opposite direction introducing LGBTQ legislation and establishing the Department of Wage and Gender Equality and by more or less placing diversity and inclusion items at the top of its agenda.

The evidence suggests that although Canadians still reference the US when defining who they are and who they are not, the context has shifted towards international issues. The rise in right-wing populist, xenophobic and nationalist trends in many OECD countries in Europe and elsewhere means they too have become points of reference for Canadians who have been generally resistant to these trends. Indeed, Canada is conspicuous on the world stage by the absence of an “us and them” mentality, by its notion that national identity is enhanced by diversity and seen as a mosaic not a melting pot.

Canada’s record and reputation as global citizen over recent years has been notable for its pro-immigration and pro-refugee attitudes, its contribution to discourse on diversity and inclusion, human rights and democratic values. As a consequence, Canadians are more likely to define themselves against a global backdrop and by who they are rather than who they are not.

Consider This features submitted commentary and perspectives from faculty members, tied to news events of the day. If you want to contribute an article to Consider This, email with your story pitch.