27 June 2003

Suddenly, America has a brash neighbor up north
Canada has long been the United States' virtually invisible neighbor to the north.

But suddenly it is coming out of its shell - and sharpening an identity that increasingly looks like a slice of Europe on America's back porch.

It's moving to become the third nation on the planet to legalize gay marriage. It's primed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. And it vocally opposed the US war on Iraq.

These moves reflect a growing cultural assertiveness - especially on the importance of tolerance and multiculturalism, which are enshrined in Canada's version of the Bill of Rights. The shift is increasingly putting the US and Canada - the world's biggest trading partners - on a cultural collision course.

"We look at you Americans and see the [National Rifle Association], rigged elections, Christian fundamentalists, and pre-emptive wars," says Michael Adams, author of the best-selling "Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values." By contrast, Canada is a place that prizes "peace, order, and good government." It's "a social welfare state where we raise taxes to pay for transit, housing, and more," he says.

Canada's newfound assertiveness stems, in part, from a growing confidence in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982. It's akin to the US Bill of Rights. But it guarantees, for instance, equality for women, aboriginal groups, and minority-language groups.

It's led to Canada even having a cabinet position for multiculturalism.

And it's one reason for Canada's wide-open immigration policy. Fully 18 percent of Canadians are foreign born, compared with about 10 percent of Americans. In Toronto, 40 percent of residents are foreign born.

Recently Canadian courts have also interpreted the charter to guarantee rights for gays, including the right to marry.

All in all, "It's not just that Canadians are comfortable with diversity," it's something they are increasingly proud of, says Andrew Parkin, codirector of the Center for Research and Information on Canada in Ottawa. "They're now saying this is what makes them proud to be Canadian."

I know that neither Howard nor Crean are especially strong on envisioning what Australia stands for, other than assuring that refugees do not achieve their preferred migration outcomes, but there should be room in our politics for a vision of what Australia might and should be. A better reaction by the traditional parties to the idea of a charter of rights might be a good start.

No comments: