Canada is not the USA

One hears it quite regularly from Canadians.  Americans, on the other hand, rarely think about it.

I heard it again yesterday in the words of a news article covering the hasty withdrawal from Canada of Target, the giant American retailer.   As it turns out, Target is only one of a long list of American businesses which have tried and failed to enter the Canadian marketplace.  Part of the challenge is pure logistics: operating in a country that is larger than the USA in area but a tenth of the size in population calls for a completely different logistical strategy.

And yes, we can all think of a number of relatively minor cultural differences in the realms of vocabulary, sports, etiquette and the like.  During a recent conference held on the border town of Blaine, WA, where the 200 participants consisted of roughly equal numbers from Canada and the USA, I passed a woman coming the other way down the hallway in the hotel.  As it happened we crossed where a hotel employee had parked his cart outside a room, making our shared pathway somewhat narrower.  There was still plenty of room for both of us to get by, which we did, but as she passed me she issued a quite genuine-sounding, apologetic “Sorry!”.  I would be willing to put money on this woman being a Canadian.

However, the Canada-is-not-the-USA claim is, I believe, a plea to recognize and appreciate cultural values which are considerably deeper than those behavioural differences we find variously so quaint or annoying about each other.  I’m no expert – I’ve lived in Canada for four years and have been married to a Canadian eight times longer than that – but here, to begin with, are three pointers for Americans hoping for a successful venture in Canada:

1) The Past Looms Large.

Canadians and Americans share a similar view of how the present time relates to the future.  The future is optimistic, not-too-far-away, and is directly connected to the present.  Decisions taken today will affect our futures, in our lifetimes.  The future is important, it’s right around the corner.

However, when it comes to relating to the past, our predominant national cultures part ways.  To Americans the past is truly in the past: it is relatively insignificant and distant.  For the American, the past is all shot in black & white film, as it were.

Not so for the Canadian.  Here the past is very near, in a sense overlapping with the present.  The past is what makes us who we are today and so it needs to be remembered, honoured, and (here’s the rub!) preserved.  This is true not only of significant national events, but also of quite local and peculiar customs.

Practically speaking this means that Canadians seem overly traditionalist to Americans; yes, they are willing to embrace the future but not if it means leaving the past behind.  “Why do we need to keep doing it this way?” asks the American.  “Because our memories make us who we are,” replies the Canadian.

2) Patchwork – vs – Melting Pot.

Okay we all know this one.  Or we think we do.  You know, the classic comparison of the immigrant histories in our two countries: that in Canada the result was a society like a patchwork quilt of separate communities holding fast to their ethnic identities; in the USA, on the other hand, the fires of liberty burned away those former allegiances and forged a new, common identity, the “American”.

What we often fail to appreciate is that this preference is not only at work on a grand scale, but also in how we relate to other groups or jurisdictions in general.

Recently, while interviewing for a position within the Anglican Church of Canada and trying to understand the context of the parish, I asked a group of representatives from the congregation whether they ever did “joint activities with other churches”.  It was interesting to me that what they heard me say was “joint activities with other Anglican churches”, which they told me all about.  This was not the first time I’ve received such tribal-like responses to similar questions.

Until very recently it was illegal to take British Columbian wine with you over the border into Alberta.  I once sent a nice bottle of wine to a friend in Ontario as a gesture of thanks for a favour he had done.  It was confiscated by the postal service and he received a stern note threatening a hefty fine the next time he tried to “import” alcohol.  Again recently: my application for a criminal records check was rejected by the clerk at the police station because it was “not on our form”; she handed me “our form”, which was exactly the same in every detail to the one I had just attempted to hand in, but printed on different paper.

All of this boggles the mind of Americans.  I believe, however, that there is an admirable cultural value at the back of it, and it is this: Canadians value and respect each other’s group identities more than Americans do; their patchwork is purposeful.  It is a consistent – if not conscious – rejection of the melting pot approach.

3) Yes, m’ Lord.  (You jerk.)

Americans are famous for their relatively flat hierarchies.  Good leaders are accessible, have acquired their status by virtue of their achievements, and relate well to those who serve below them in rank.  When push comes to shove the boss is the boss (“the buck stops here”), but when the crisis is over and the dust settles, you’d expect the boss to have a beer with the rest of the team.

To understand hierarchies in Canada one needs to remember that the country is much more tied to its British heritage than is the USA.  There is a hint of Downton Abbey here, but not so extreme.  While operating “upstairs”, on the level of office, role or function, leaders are afforded greater respect and deference than their American counterparts.  But this is counterbalanced by the hidden world “downstairs”, away from the task at hand, where loyalty to the leader is a different matter altogether.

To put it another way, Canadians have greater respect for the office and less for the person filling it.

Any more?

I may add other cultural values here as I identify them.  Also, I will be happy to amend what I have written above if you want to comment and leave me your wisdom.


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