I lived in Canada for six months. Most Americans can’t say that.
I visited Canada to join an exchange program at the Dalhousie University School of Law. It was 1994, Twitter had not been invented yet and Donald Trump was a New York real estate mogul known principally for extra-marital dalliances and looming bankruptcies. The Toonie didn’t exist. It was that immediate post-Berlin Wall era when pundits on the news gushed effusively about “the end of history” during the five years following the breakup of the Soviet Union, a time when the sunny uplands of political and economic liberalism seemed finally within reach of all the world as the West carried the torch of liberty forward.
How different it all seems now.
Perhaps you can forgive me for indulging in a certain nostalgia for that era. I remember my arrival in Halifax that January, when my reception in Halifax was as warm as the winter was cold. I felt myself immediately embraced by the proprietors of the inn and their extended family, and quickly found the ferocity of the Halifax winter weather more than matched by the hospitality and goodwill of my hosts that I remember fondly across the decades. I was fed by my innkeepers, advised, lightly teased, introduced to other family members, questioned and otherwise made to feel thoroughly at home. Supporters of Preston Manning and the NDP, all of the same family, gently faced off across the dinner table. It was a discussion held in good humour, and marked my first introduction to Canadian politics.
When I took up my studies at Dalhousie University, my new classmates adopted me in much the same way. It was impossible to study law in Canada as an American and not reflect on the divergent destinies our countries have pursued. The fact that aside from occasional grumblings we have coexisted so peacefully together and with so little strife seems forgotten of late, a mute testament to our mutual commitments to values of democracy, freedom and to one another. My respect for the policy divergences that persist across the world’s longest unguarded border, sometimes subtle in nature yet at other times more distinct, increased during my sojourn in Canada and continues to endure. It is a respect born of time and experience that I wish more of my fellow Americans could possess. Not everyone gets the chance to live abroad and absorb a culture, rather than just view it though the oft-distorted lens of increasingly histrionic news.
Our currently inflamed political discourse, within and between our two countries, seems agitated by nothing so much as our collective, willful ignorance of one another’s true nature – which despite all the Tweets and rancour remains characterized by ordinary men and women who possess and exhibit good taste, goodwill and decency on both sides of the border. Their contributions may not often rise to the level of news coverage, but are no less important for all that. Both nations possess persons of civility and integrity. We just need to remember who we are.
In the world in which we live, it is an unparalleled achievement to govern ourselves peaceably while we appreciate one another’s differences. Canadians and Americans both seek to do this and, despite the vitriolic politics of the moment, I suspect that we always will. The profound commitment to freedom and respect for human rights sets apart Canada, America and our partner nations, though we may seem to have forgotten that for the moment. Dedication to those principles marks our common element. That is what makes us family.
Canadians and Americans may speak for democracy and freedom with a different accent, but we both stand for those values and have both shed blood to defend them. We travel by different roads, a few steps apart, but in the same direction. Though I now live far from the border with Canada, I will continue to fly her flag next to our own, and I will do so with pride. I will look to the day when rancour may diminish, reason will return and we will shake hands once more across the boundary that gently divides our common home.