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culture

Luminato 2012: Coveting Canada

Has the United States yearned for the Great White North since the War of 1812?

Naval action on Lake Ontario, 1813. Illustration by C.W. Jefferys. The Picture Gallery of Canadian History Volume 2 (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1945).

“Are we still fighting the War of 1812 every time we cross the border?”

Moderator Michael Bliss’s joke about the occasional hassles Canadians face when visiting the United States set the tone for the debate that unfolded at Koerner Hall Friday night over the resolution “The U.S. has coveted Canada since the War of 1812.”

The evening, which was part of a lecture series run by Luminato, the Royal Ontario Museum, and Heritage Toronto, brought together two seasoned debaters. Speaking for the resolution was political economist Stephen Clarkson, who received a hearty round of applause when Bliss referred to his run for mayor in 1969 and asked if he was considering a comeback. Speaking against was historian Jack Granatstein, whose confident tone and smooth prose contrasted against Clarkson’s slow, seemingly off-the-cuff building up of arguments (which at one point included a recitation of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows).

The case for:
Clarkson’s position was that the Americans have long had a “strategy” toward integrating Canada within its economic and military sphere, through efforts like free trade and border security agreements. He noted that the power of the U.S. is such that it’s hard for Canadian homegrown industries to compete, which has led to our acceptance of American branch plants dominating our manufacturing sector.

The case against:
Granatstein argued that Canada is strong and prosperous because we share the continent with a great democracy. We may think we are different, but there are in fact many similarities between the two nations; he pointed out the ease with which we have adopted American fashions and entertainment, for one. Another example Granatstein cited, to show our own attitude to such matters: a contest on CBC Radio’s Morningside, which asked listeners to fill in the phrase “As Canadian as…” The winner was “As Canadian as possible, under the circumstances.” He did, however, concede that our southern neighbours wanted our territory long before the War of 1812, even if usually it was to protect themselves from the British. As Granatstein joked, “who would not want to covet this great country?”

The questions from the audience leaned toward the “covet” end of the debate, starting with one person’s belief that Canada was still enslaved by the United States. When the second questioner called Canada “a fur-lined prison,” Granatstein shot back with “it’s pretty good fur.” After Clarkson brought up Sweden as an example of an independently innovative country, an audience member replied that thanks to social problems, Sweden was “a failed state.” That particular speaker proceeded to rant about how the National Energy Program ruined Alberta and about the horrors of multiculturalism. (We barely heard the last of his points, as the audience was busy urging him to shut up.)

Bliss took straw polls of the audience before and after the debate. Before words flew, the audience was evenly split on the resolution. After, there was little question there was a shift over to Clarkson’s position: the U.S., those in the room agreed, really did covet us. Such a shift was unsurprising, given that Granatstein’s defense of the closeness of our relationship tended to reinforce the notion that the United States already effectively controlled Canada, along with his insistence that we shouldn’t get too uppity when questioning American economic and military policies. Perhaps a stronger resolution than one which both debaters seemed to question the wording of might have produced sharper contrasts between their positions. Meanwhile, we hope anyone who raised their hand in support of the resolution won’t be questioned about it next time they cross the Niagara River.

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