Canada And The United States, A Centennial Retrospective

In our issue of December, 1965, we published a survey of Canadian history, written especially for a United States audience by Hugh MacLennan, eminent Canadian novelist, and illustrated by an extensive picture portfolio. Now, as Canada completes her first century as a nation and celebrates with a world exposition at Montreal, we present an article by another well-known Canadian, the political reporter and, historian Bruce Hutchison, editorial director of the Vancouver Sun and author of Mr. Prime Minister, 1867–1964 and The Struggle for the Border. Mr. Hutchison addresses himself to a more specific theme than did Mr. MacLennan: relations between the United States and Canada during the one hundred years since Canada’s Confederation in 1867. Those relations show surprising turns and juxtapositions, and they are more familiar to most Canadians than to most Americans. But Americans would do well to pay closer attention, for some very good reasons that Mr. Hutchison expresses here with insight and wit.—The Editors

The Canadian nation will be one hundred years of age on July 1, 1967. Throughout its first century, according to a major North American myth, Canada has lived in happy symbiosis with its neighbor the United States. Although certain minor and regrettable clashes occurred along the frontier in earlier days, they now belong to the ages and to the history books (in which they are comically distorted, on both sides).

This pleasant myth, like all myths, contains some truth. Not nearly as much, however, as the American people believe, if they can spare a glance for the birthday party next door, they will see behind the myth at least three contemporary facts surprising to them but deeply engraved on the Canadian mind.

The first is that Canada has made itself more important to the United States than any other foreign nation, for reasons at once geographical, political, military, and economic. The second is that for Canadians the supposedly perfect relationship across the border has always been and remains an ambivalent love-hate complex, interesting to psychologists and baffling to most Americans, who are conscious of no such spiritual stresses and feel only a genial indifference. The third is that the actual relationship, while the closest and best in our disordered world, has lately entered a new and very difficult phase: America, Canada’s enemy in pioneer times, has today become her friendly seducer.

Before a Canadian, with all his native prejudices, attempts to trace the misunderstood history of a relationship unique in human affairs, let it be said at once that the United States, during the last century at any rate, has treated Canada with a good will that is equally unique, though not always with good sense. Outside this continent, a great power requiring Canada's resources would have taken them long ago, by force if necessary, as the United States could easily take them now. The primary American mistake in its treatment of Canada has never been moral, for Canada is the supreme test of the United States’ international morality, and thus far the test has been passed with first-class honors. No, the mistake is one of judgment and manners. On her side, Canada’s mistake is to count on the United States’ unbounded benevolence; to assume that she can escape her own wrenching internal problems by living with Uncle Sam on her own terms, and to underestimate both his onerous world-wide burden and the limitation of his patience.

To understand the affair of the century, as it were, between the Dominion of Canada and the United States, we must look back to 1841, when English-speaking, Protestant Upper Canada and French-speaking, Catholic Lower Canada were joined in a rather unworkable legislative union. A generation of deadlock between the two racial elements was to convince them that they must bring the Atlantic colonies into a larger union of some sort or remain poor, defenseless, and an easy prey to American invasion.

No such threat appeared for a while, however, and an era of good-will on the border produced, in 1854, a reciprocal free-trade agreement between the United States and Canada. But that integrated continental economy, which would have affected the whole future of both countries, did not last long. The American Civil War changed everything.

Though the Canadian colonies remained neutral, they were dragged into the developing quarrel between Britain and the warlike republic beside them. Once Grant’s Grand Army had defeated the Confederacy it could easily have marched northward and taken Canada. Since Britain had backed the South, almost to the point of intervention, there appeared to be good reason for American revenge at Canada’s expense.

Canada’s alarm, while exaggerated, was genuine, and her abler politicians, like Sir John A. Macdonald, skillfully used it to promote the idea of a union of all the colonies. Commercial motives played a large part in this enterprise, but it probably could not have succeeded to the extent that it did without the supposed American threat. The ancient Canadian nightmare, more than anything else, drove the colonies together in their Confederation of 1867.