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America should get to know Canada

The other night I was watching an old flick in my film class. At one point, a distinguished-looking narrator appeared on the screen and announced that he was Canadian. Everybody laughed. I don't know why they laughed -- the guy wasn't doing anything foolish, and the statement seemed rather important in the course of the film. For some reason, Canada is a standing joke in the United States.

Not that I dislike Canadians; quite the contrary. Some of my best friends are Canadian, and more than a few of my relatives and ancestors grew up north of the border. But however close, the Canadian political culture is different in a lot of ways from the US culture. Sure, Americans know that Canadians have mass and take space, and have brought forth to this planet hockey, mounties, good beer, comedians, and bacon, but aside from that, I really don't think we understand them.

It's hard not to like Canadians. They've been trusty allies to the United States, and fine, stable members of the global community. They bear no international grudges, contributed to the gulf coalition, like the environment, and don't invade countries. They look like us, act like us, and sound like us (just about). As all Americans know, if you're taken hostage overseas, just scream "I'm Canadian!" and you'll have no problems.

If there is anything about Canada that Americans don't like, it would have to be currency. Massachusetts Turnpike toll booth officers seem always watchful of the mythical major Canadian-American crime scam, the passing-off of Canadian money for American coinage. I've never tried to do this, and I don't know anyone who has. It all sounds very xenophobic to me. Canadian currency is far from worthless -- I guess having its own cash is a nation's greatest sign of independence.

Americans have always held a mystique about Canada. Every since Henry Clay claimed in 1812 that he could sack it with 1000 Kentucky riflemen, and even long before, Americans have always waited for the time when they could explore this last great frontier and incorporate it into their new political framework.

Amazingly, the only nation that has ever invaded it, the United States, is tolerated by Canada. Sure, the Canadians have little practical choice, but they manage to make their opinions clear and remain cordial at the same time. One Canadian wrote of America as the "big, slightly crazy giant that we have to be nice to." Sharing the world's largest undefended border seems to sit well with both nations.

The Canadians, though, think very differently than Americans when it comes to patriotism and international affairs, for instance. For the most part, they don't express love of their country or identify themselves nationally with the fervor that many Americans do. Canadians' seemingly contradictory loyalty to the British monarchy, another aspect of their culture, has independence-minded Americans stumped. Sure, in wartime Canadians will rally around the flag and fight with their allies, but most of the time, when it comes to patriotism, Canadians seem to get about as excited as Jim.

Not to say that Canadians are slow -- with their constant level-headedness they always seem to know something that we Americans don't.

IN the rare instances that Canadians political fervor awakens, Americans often just don't get it. The biggest brouhaha in the Great White North over the past years has been the question of Quebecois autonomy, a type of political conflict that the United States never had to deal with. A large number of the inhabitants of Quebec, the French-speaking province of Canada, wants out. Unlike in the United States, where multiple ethnicities have intertwined, Canada still maintains a territorial division between English-speaking and French-speaking citizens. This issue is far from new, and has flared up every now and then with increases in French nationalism in the Old Country.

Americans have trouble visualizing how such a polarized society can function -- Montreal, the almost-French Paris in North America is always a big tourist attraction just for its strangeness. Even during the American Civil War, the fight was political, not ethnic, and was fought among a largely homogeneous group. Having a whole state that speaks a different language is incomprehensible to us. For all of our differences, Americans are largely the same.

My point: Get to know the Canadian who lives next door. Some Americans may already view Canada as the 51st state, but better relations between the United States and Canada can never hurt.