Responding to American politics with Canadian complacency

OPINION: Many Canadians greeted news of Donald Trump's election with horror; many also met it with a form of national smugness. But the racism, sexism and xenophobia he made vivid have counterparts here, and we need to combat them
By Panel - Published on November 10, 2016
two women watching election results
How great should we be feeling right now, as America’s neighbours — and as neighbours, how should we respond? (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

How do Canadians feel about the results of the U.S. presidential election? Based on public responses over the last 48 hours, a couple of trends seem to have emerged. One is something close to a deep sigh of relief: that no matter how seemingly ugly campaign race politics have become over the past 18 month, or how this dynamic may carry over into a Donald Trump presidency, Canadian qualities of inclusivity and kindness still make this a pretty great place to live.

But there have also been warnings. “A number of Canadians seem to be taking smug satisfaction in [Trump’s] victory over Hillary Clinton,” writes Desmond Cole over at the Toronto Star, while Metro’s Vicky Mochama suggests that the development of Trump’s style of divisive politics in Canada is only a matter of time: “Like waiting for the West Wing to get onto Netflix, Canada tends to get everything America does only a couple years later.”

How great should we be feeling right now, as America’s neighbours — and as neighbours, how should we respond? Is Canada truly smug, and are we too sanguine about the divisions and inequities that exist in our own country? We asked four writers to hash this out in a discussion prompted by three post-election events: a tweet, an email and a website crash.   

While poll predictions still had Donald Trump pegged as an unlikely victory, the social media team at Canada's federal Twitter account posted this:

a tweet sent out during the U.S. presidential election

Many people saw it as a tongue-in-cheek dig at Trump’s views on immigration.

Navneet Alang: At the time, it really bothered me. It’s become par for the course when it comes to how we think of our relationship to America: the sense that, no matter what, “we’re not as bad as them.” But I’m also starting to think these sorts of gestures also have a function. Trump broke through a veneer to validate the prejudice that many, many people carry around with them, and that’s something that can be either forcefully rejected or slyly fostered by people in power. It’s not just a question of inherent racism unleashed; it’s encouraged racism versus discouraged prejudice. As dumb as a tweet might be — and as important as it is to not sugar-coat Canada’s many, obvious problems with race and misogyny — I do think it’s important to repeat these types of sentiments. It’s a way of faking it ‘til you make it. Is that a crazy thing to say?

Namugenyi Kiwanuka: My immediate response to that tweet was: “Which immigrants?” I’m also sure our brothers and sisters in the Indigenous community would see that tweet through a very different lens. I love Canada; I really do. I’m a former refugee and I’m alive today because I had the opportunity to come here. But racism does exist here too, and all of the other -isms that exist in the U.S. Unless we acknowledge how we’ve treated Indigenous people and other marginalized groups, we’re really no better.

Andray Domise: I think the @Canada Twitter account was maple-washing. Keep in mind: this is the same account that claimed “Canada has a long history of welcoming immigrants," in reference to Sir John A. Macdonald’s Scottish origin. This is the same man who fought for the Chinese Head Tax, and once said “the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics ... The cross of those races, like the cross of the dog and the fox, is not successful; it cannot be, and never will be.”

Also keep in mind the photos in that tweet. When @Canada talks about “immigrants” and “cultural traditions,” they’re also talking about Caribana — which has existed in this country for 50 years. At what point does something become a “Canadian” tradition instead of an immigrant one? That is what infuriates me about the way Canada gloats about its tolerance and diversity.

Anne Thériault: I mentioned to someone the other day that my grandfather had emigrated from Northern Ireland, and she said: “Oh I didn’t know you were a second-generation immigrant!” Strangely, neither did I. Of course I’d heard the terms first- and and second-generation before, but I had never considered that any of them applied to me.

This is directly related to the fact that the part of my family that immigrated here was white and English-speaking. Caribana, which has been in Canada for nearly as long as my grandfather, is still an “immigrant tradition.” Meanwhile, my grandfather was a Canadian the moment he stepped off the boat.

Next up: a website. News outlets the world over have been reporting about Citizenship and Immigration Canada’s election night website crash.

a website showing an error message

Whether or not this means large numbers of Americans are actually serious about moving to Canada, how do you feel about the rhetoric around it?

Kiwanuka: This bothers me so much because it’s only an option for those who can just pick up and move countries. You’re not just moving down the street! I don’t know if Americans realize that our immigration system works on points and if you’re not skilled in a particular profession, the chances of you becoming a resident or getting a visa to live here are slim.

And what about all of the poor people who will probably feel the effects of a Trump presidency? What happens to them? What about American's own support system for them? And most importantly why would you allow someone that you’re so afraid of to become the president of your country? The percentage of people who didn’t vote is shocking to me. Why is everyone so surprised that we are where we are today?

Domise: I think I said everything I need to say about that in in this article. If Americans of colour, LGBTQ Americans, non-able bodied Americans, and other groups marginalized by Trump feel they need to leave, I’m happy to have them. But the white progressives whose activism stopped at sharing videos of John Oliver “destroying” Trump can keep their feet south of the 49th, thanks.

Thériault: The American rush to immigrate to Canada taps into a couple of very deep emotions for Canadians. The first is that great insecurity: to feel flattered that so many Americans suddenly want so badly to live in Canada. This hokey sense of “Gosh, you want to come live with little ’ole us?”

The second emotion is that toxic smugness we’ve been talking about — the one that says that sure, maybe they want to come now, but if that’s the case, maybe we don’t want them. It’s what led countless Canadians to write tweets or Facebook posts yesterday saying that they sure glad they live in Canada. On the surface, those comments look like a pure Canadian humblebrag, but underneath lies the much-touted idea that Donald Trump could never happen here.

I would even go so far to say that in some ways, Canadian smugness carries with it an even more insidious idea: that Americans, all Americans, are somehow complicit in the rise of Trump, purely by virtue of being American, and that these Americans have made their bed and ought to lie in it. Which of course is ignorant, hypocritical and cruelly passive-aggressive. Much like Canada itself.

As for any Canadian who thinks that Trump would never be elected here, I have two words for you: Rob Ford.

Alang: I think in the American consciousness, Canada has become fantasyland — a more convenient version of Scandinavia. Cold, idyllic and socialist, and a convenient escape for the people who have the means to even think that picking up and moving is something you can just do.

I do think we have to be careful about how we read things like this, though. People often sit in front of computers and dream, and looking at the immigration site might just be a form of catharsis, not a plan. But it’s interesting the way this gets picked up by Canadians to further our sense of superiority — a phenomenon that has always been a problem, but even more of one now.

There’s both our reluctance to deal with issues at home, but also global problems we’re not dealing with well: climate change, the loss of good jobs to macro-economic and technological forces, and a continued ignoring of the cycle of poverty. As Anne says, it’s about appealing to our insecure egos — and then using it that to not deal with the problems we have here

And finally, an email. Yesterday morning Conservative Party of Canada leadership candidate Kellie Leitch sent a note to campaign supporters, describing Trump’s win as an “exciting message and one that we need delivered in Canada as well.”

an email sent during the U.S. presidential electionHow does this square with your understanding of Canadian politics?

Domise: I spoke with someone, yesterday morning, whose boss texted her to say “I can’t imagine what you’re going through right now, but if you need a day or two off, just let me know.” And she took that day, because the e-mail blast sent by Kellie Leitch’s team reached her inbox the previous night.

When Leitch talks so carelessly about bringing Trump’s values up north, she is owning the entirety of the violence Trump’s supporters inflicted on others, the racist characterizations of Black people as having “no jobs, no education,” the description of Mexicans as “rapists,” the cavalier discussion of sexual violence ... all of that. And the woman who took that day off falls under the category of people whom Leitch believes need to prove their Canadian bona fides for the comfort of white folks.

How does this square with my understanding of Canadian politics? It fits right in. Indigenous Canadians and people of colour have been shouting into the ether for decades about the harmful outcomes of institutional racism. The staggering population of Indigenous and Black Canadians filling our federal prisons. The children ripped from our homes and remanded to the state’s care. The teachers and administrators who punish our children and expel them from school for the crime of being children. Nothing in our politics suggests to me that Leitch is out of line. If you go by this CBC poll, all she’s done is be truthful about the way white Canadians feel about the rest of us.

Thériault: It’s very tempting to write Leitch off as someone who doesn’t represent this country, but frankly, we do so at our own peril. Canadian smugness is obnoxious, yes, but it’s also dangerous in the sense that it allows us to become complacent in our politics and our actions. Sadly we are still a long, long way off from the Great White Utopia so many of our citizens imagine us to be.

Kiwanuka: I love that Anne: the Great White Utopia. She didn’t even wait a day to jump on his bandwagon. It’s also disturbing that as a woman, Leitch would support what Trump stands for — but looking at the demographic groups that elected him, it shouldn’t be surprising.

Alang: Anne, I think you’re spot-on. Leitch, and things like the religious symbols ban in Quebec, prove that there is a racist, prejudiced streak just waiting for approval here at home. And calling it dangerous is exactly right. What we’ve seen in America is that only takes a tangerine monster (backed by a right-wing, media-derived team) to tap into it.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that Canada is actually more lopsided in its white to non-white population ratio: around 80 per cent/20 per cent in Canada versus 70 per cent/30 per cent in the U.S.). So in a way, we are potentially more susceptible to mob mentality.

What the American election has made me realize is that it isn’t about a racist country versus a non-racist one. The issue is how you deal with the fact that racism and misogyny are part of all contemporary societies, and how you talk about those things. Do you approve of and foster them, or repudiate and condemn them?

At my old university campus, there’s a message that pops up on an electronic billboard that says “Why is prejudice wrong?” And it seemed so strange to me! Isn’t it obvious?! But I now see that it’s not. You cannot assume people understand that bigotry is wrong and destructive — or even accept that people recognize what it looks like.

Andray Domise is a community activist and writer.

Nam Kiwanuka is a multi-platform journalist and host of The Agenda in the Summer

Navneet Alang is a technology and culture writer based in Toronto. 

Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based writer and activist. She is the author of My Heart is an Autumn Garage, a short memoir about depression.