The accepted wisdom following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks was that Canadians would forge a much closer bond with Americans. Out of the twin impulses of empathy and threat, we would see our common interests aligned and our destiny linked within the boundaries of our shared continent.

What a difference a year can make. Our 2002 year-end poll indicates that, far from drawing closer together, Canadians are expressing a growing desire to chart a distinct path, independent of our neighbours to the south. Over the past year, we have seen the number of Canadians who describe the United States as “family” or “best friends” shrink by a third — to only one in five — as the vast majority have come to characterize our relationship as either “friends, but not especially close” or “cordial but distant.”

Similarly, since we last asked this question in 1999, the percentage who believe we are “mainly” or “essentially” different from Americans has grown to a significant majority of 57 per cent.

We also see a solid sentiment that the United States is acting like a bully and a majority who fear that “we are losing our independence to the United States.” In policy terms, these underlying beliefs have created a population that is unconvinced that Iraq warrants attack; that has serious misgivings about supporting our allies in any assault on Saddam Hussein done outside the sanction of the United Nations; and that is unprepared to follow the U.S. lead in rejecting the Kyoto accord.

While these findings may fly in the face of expectations, there were signals, even in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, that Canadians were not going to be marching in lockstep with the Americans into the War on Terror. A year ago, with the image of jumbo jets scything into the twin towers of the World Trade Center still fresh in our minds, the 2001 Maclean’s poll nonetheless found a majority of Canadians accepting that the Middle East had legitimate grievances about its treatment by the West. And while any discussion of “root causes” of the attack was treated as borderline treason in America, overwhelming numbers of Canadians reported their willingness to allow those who opposed the war in Afghanistan to “speak out.” Finally, it was clear that Canadians were not seduced by the considerable efforts to demonize Osama bin Laden and, instead, felt the threat went well beyond any individual or his potential demise.

These “clues,” however, were found among other sentiments that suggested a population that had not only been traumatized by the assault on North American territory, but was also signalling its willingness to accept measures that seemed out of character according to attitudes we had unearthed in the 17 previous year-end polls. Where we had shown a progressive tendency toward individualism throughout the 1990s, the post-attack period saw a majority of Canadians willing to curtail individual freedoms in support of the federal government’s anti-terrorism legislation.

They felt that way even as they acknowledged that the authorities might abuse those powers and apply them to non-terrorist activity.

Even more surprisingly, for the first time in two decades a majority of the electorate supported increased military spending, as well as active engagement in the attack on Afghanistan. Together, it appeared that while we resisted all the rhetoric trumpeting the War on Terror, we had become galvanized by both the magnitude of the threat and our duty to support our aggrieved American allies.

Because that analysis made common sense last year, and was subsequently buttressed by the behaviour of virtually all our political and media elite, few were able to detect (or perhaps felt no compunction to look for) the subtle but important evolution in our outlook taking place over the course of the past year. When Bill Blaikie, the burly United Church minister and NDP leadership aspirant, called for increased funding for our armed forces in September, that should have given us a hint that something was afoot.

Coming from a leading member of the party of pacifism, those exhortations were not the mere aping of a more militaristic posture on the part of Canadians but a fundamental shift in the nature of Canadian nationalism and in attitudes toward our role in the world.

Over the past year, the public opinion agenda has grown more multi-layered and less focused. In a nutshell, Canadians see more complex problems and fewer simple solutions. Even as the economy functions well, they are experiencing a joyless prosperity. At least as many report an improvement in their financial situation as in any year in the past seven, and only half as many think we’re going into a recession compared to last year. Yet levels of optimism, far from recovering, have actually declined since last year’s post-Sept. 11 poll.

Frustrations over levels of taxation and government had literally fallen off the public opinion agenda by the end of 2001. A year later, there is evidence of an uptick in anxiety over a prospective “tax and spend” resurgence in government. Concerns about social issues — overwhelmingly health care — which had come to dominate Canadian attention at the end of the millennium similarly fell following the terrorist attack. Now they are rising again, reflecting a growing view that, with our preoccupation elsewhere, Canada’s social safety net continues to unravel. Top-of-mind mentions of the environment as an issue of concern are higher than at any time in the past decade. And while it may seem less immediate, Sept. 11 has left its mark — a majority continue to believe that attacks on our own soil are at least “somewhat likely.”

In the minds of Canadians, our nation — and the world — have clearly become more complicated, problem-filled and threatening in the past 15 months. But again perhaps flying in the face of expectations, Canadians have not responded with timorousness or retreat from these problems. Nor have we rushed to find refuge in the bosom of America. To the contrary, Canadians seem to accept the permanence of these new realities and are demonstrating a willingness to confront them in a uniquely Canadian way.

For the first time I can ever recall, this new nationalism is calling for Canada to play a larger role in the world. In the past, Canadian nationalism tended to manifest itself in a desire to protect ourselves from the vagaries of the outside world. The new nationalists are demanding we engage them.

Historically, one of the hallmarks of Canada’s culture has been our insularity. Not only did we feel we had little impact on the world, we came to believe the world had little impact on us. We did not aspire to be a
military or economic power in global affairs. The grudging acceptance of North American free trade and the prosperity that ensued on the heels of globalization began to change that outlook. But even then, we viewed the world outside our borders primarily as a market — a place to buy and sell things.

Last year, Canadians told us that the single greatest change in their lives since Sept. 11 was that they were consuming more news. We know this is still true, for we experience it in day-to-day conversations with friends, neighbours and casual acquaintances. That learning has been driven by more than morbid curiosity. It has become a tool — a means of understanding and coping with an uncertain and encroaching world. We have now come to relate to the world not merely in commercial terms but as a place that can hurt us, that has profound needs and that we must take some responsibility for.

What is more, this new nationalism seems to rest on a different way of defining ourselves vis-a-vis the Americans. We have tended, of course, to see ourselves in terms of what they were not — where Americans were warlike we could lay claim to peacefulness; if they were intolerant, we would be tolerant; if they were uncharitable, we could maintain that we are our brother’s keeper. But now, the image we see of Canada is not only different from someone else’s, it is increasingly our own. And that sense of uniqueness is more than a defensive reflex to ward off the creeping influence of American hegemony on Canadian culture and institutions.

Our “need” to be distinct from the United States today is not based on our fixation with our proximity to the Americans, but on our understanding that their view of the world is increasingly different from ours. A stronger Canadian military, therefore, becomes necessary. That is not so we can become a more truculent world power, but to give us the latitude to make our own decisions, without the need for a mandatory tip of our cap to our neighbours. Our refusal to succumb to (what may be viewed as) U.S. unilateralism finds its voice not in knee-jerk anti-Americanism, but in a sense that we have the wherewithal and knowledge to make our own decisions.

Sept. 11 did not change Canadians’ basic character. On the contrary, it seems to have reminded us of our unique heritage, while at the same time opening our eyes to a world we barely knew. Most importantly, it has reconnected us with the true sense of who we are. We are North Americans, in taste and temperament. But our values are uniquely our own. Our readiness to embrace diversity, at home and around the globe, makes us distinct from other inhabitants of our continent. In fact, part of the expression of this new nationalism is the epiphany that the movies we watch and the hamburgers we eat are not what define us as a nation. Our values do. And as our horizons have broadened, we have gained a renewed confidence and courage to face our responsibilities to a changing world, on our own terms.


Percentage describing Canada’s relations with the United States as . . .

Like family/like best friends
2001 33
2002 22

Friends but not especially close
2001 47
2002 49

Cordial but distant/openly hostile
2001 19
2002 28


Percentage agreeing that . . .

The U.S. government is acting like a bully
with the rest of the world 67

I am concerned we are losing our
independence from the U.S. 57

As the world’s sole superpower, the
U.S. has the responsibility to intervene
in the affairs of other nations in the
interests of global security 48

We don’t need to spend much money
on armed forces since we have the
United States next door 21