Don’t Blame Canada
“Sing to the noble eagle
Help is on the way
A government team of experts
Is a rushin’ to your aid
I know you’re not excited
An eagle is no waif
Fly on up to Canada
This country isn’t safe
anymore. That’s for sure.”
– Stephen Stills in The Fallen Eagle (a song by the band, Manassas)
Wilfred Laurier, who served as Prime Minister of Canada from 1896-1911, once said “Canada is free and freedom is its nationality”. We’ve done a few things to help the cause of liberty in the world. And yet, if you took aside a typical cross-section of Americans and asked them for their thoughts on Canada’s contribution to their American liberties, you’d probably get more than a few blank stares.
Misconceptions abound, and I’m sure you wouldn’t have to look under to many rocks to find Americans that would either see Canada as (a) a perfect progressive paradise or (b) a horrible totalitarian and socialist nightmare. The truth is, neither is a true or helpful when we evaluate Canada.
We are neither a paradise nor a wasteland. We are neither totally free nor totally socialist and totalitarian. We are a complex society that can’t be easily characterized on a simplistic left-right or freedom-totalitarian scale.
So, how free is Canada? We live in a complicated world and assessing freedom has never been as easy as dividing up countries between the “free” and “non-free” world (rantings of Gung-ho culture warriors notwithstanding).
Be that as it may, by most accounts Canada is comparatively free. Many, if not most, of the rankings of economic and personal freedom that are out there, rank Canada above the U.S. I wouldn’t necessarily put a lot of faith into those metrics, but they do tell us something.
I will audaciously, as a Canadian myself, put forward a terribly self-serving argument here. That said, I’m not nationalist or a starry-eyed patriot. I’m aware of my country’s flaws. Like just about any nation you can find, Canada has had a complicated relationship with liberty, with many ups and many downs. And even if I am correct to say that “we” helped “you” see a few things more clearly, I don’t believe there is some sort of generational obligation “you” have towards “us”.
So, I contend that in at least three moments in history Canada played a subversive role, making it more difficult for the American government to maintain repressive policies which attempted to curtail the right to self-ownership. In a way, we taught Americans that having a noble tradition of liberty, having independence, have a statue of liberty, etc., is not enough to maintain liberty itself.
Incidentally, two of these events are not only tied to Canada, but were closely linked with the Windsor, Ontario border crossing, which is about 20 minutes away from where I live.
Captivity And the “Land Of The Free And The Brave”
At one time, slavery prevailed in both the U.S and Canada. In 1793, Upper Canada (now Ontario) abolished the importing of slaves, and from then on slavery began to be abolished in phases, until 1833, when it was totally abolished.
It appears that Canada began to realize, along with Booker T. Washington, that “You can’t hold a man down without staying down with him.”
Somewhere between 30,000 and 100,000 of America’s children, who were unable to reconcile their enslaved situation with the concept that they were “created equally”, found the pull of Canada to be quite strong. Northern states still possessed quite a bit of risk in terms of being re-captured by enterprising “slave catchers” and subsequently sent back to their owners. Hence, the underground railway sent many escaped slaves into Canada.
In fact, Canada was often called the “promised land” at that time. One song, penned about a man that escaped slavery in Tennessee, went as follows:
“I’m on my way to Canada,
That cold and dreary land,
The dire effects of slavery
I can no longer stand,
My soul is vexed within me more
To think that I’m a slave,
I’m now resolved to strike the blow
For freedom, or the grave.
Oh, righteous father, wilt thou not pity me,
And aid me on to Canada, where colored men are free.”
There is a small ghost town near where I live that is called “New Canaan”, a name which clearly captures the way the freed slaves perceived Canada. New Canaan was settled in the 1820’s exclusively by expatriate African Americans, especially from Kentucky.
Was Canada the idealistic haven they expected? In most cases, probably not. Abolishing slavery and eliminating racism is not the same thing, and Canada remained a fairly racist society. However, the new free men were thankful for their new home and Canada allowed them to find and enjoy the principle of self-determination, which is so fundamental to libertarianism.
“We Have A Statue, You Have Liberty”
It would not be long before Canada would again be a bright star of liberty, this time in the era of alcohol prohibition.
Al Capone, when asked if he knew about a particular Canadian gangster, once said “I don’t even know what street Canada is on!” And, yet, Canada would play a huge role in the production and import of alcohol into the U.S.
Once again, Canada was not much different initially, enacting the prohibition of alcohol along with the U.S. And yet once again, Canada was, generally speaking, able quickly find the course of liberty—much earlier than the U.S. did. Whereas prohibition lasted until 1933 in the U.S., it was abolished in most of the Canadian provinces by 1924.
Windsor, Ontario became a central hub of an effort to ensure the free market in alcohol was maintained, regardless of the Volstead Act. The “Whisky Sour City”, as the city has been sometimes called, would fill America’s cups. The laws of supply and demand would ensure that America would not go thirsty, legalities notwithstanding.
It has been said that 75% of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. during the prohibition era came through the Windsor-Detroit border region. Anyone who is fascinated with this history would do well to pick up a beautiful “coffee table” style picture book, called Rumrunners: A Prohibition Scrapbook.
Canada stood example to the U.S. that you could overthrow prohibition and not unravel as a society and would help to subvert what was widely seen as a repressive law in the U.S. At one anti-prohibition rally in the U.S., an individual held a sign that was directed at Canadians. It read as follows: “We have a statue, you have liberty”
America’s Children Flee Once Again
The U.S. would continue to utilize the military draft until the ramifications of the Vietnam war hit the fan. Even now, in 2013, the “Selective Service” is still in place! Canada, on the other hand, has a long and noble tradition of rejecting the idea of a compulsive military draft.
From the very beginning of World War I, conscription was controversial in Canada. Wilfred Laurier, who was Prime Minister from 1896 to 1911, would be a formidable opponent against conscription until his death in 1919. By World War II, Canada had completely eliminated conscription.
Canada would not only set an example in this matter, it would also help to subvert the U.S.’s policy of conscription.
When American went to war in Vietnam, Canada officially retained “non-belligerent” status. And it became a haven to American individuals “of interest” to Selective Services, who could not in good conscience, for whatever reason, beckon the call of Uncle Sam. Many so called “draft-dodgers” and “military deserters” would flee to Canada, and many of them would remain here to this day.
Initially, Canada did reject the settlement of those who had not been properly discharged from the military. However, Canada took a stand on May 22, 1969, and the government announced that immigration officials ought to show an official disinterest in immigration applicants’ military status when they sought permanent residence in Canada. Military deserters would be accepted.
How many draft dodgers and deserters would settle in Canada? It’s unclear, but it could possibly be as high as 30,000-50,000. And many more who were not draft eligible settled here merely out of protest.
I have in my personal library an anthology of poems, Crossing Lines, which is exclusively by poets who settled in Canada during the Vietnam War era.
If you look among Canada’s poets, musicians, politicians, lawyers, and doctors, you will find many of America’s children who found in Canada the freedom to choose whether they would be involved in a war, a freedom they couldn’t find in the U.S.
The purpose of this article is clearly not to put down the U.S. Nor is it to assert that Canada is necessarily more truly free. It is, rather, to show the great tradition of liberty that Canada has and to show how Canada has contributed to the history of liberty. And, specifically, Canada has had a lot to do with the development of liberty in the U.S.
As Peter Jennings accurately observed, Canadians “have an abiding interest in surprising those Americans who have historically made little effort to learn about their neighbour to the North”.
I hope this article has broadened your view of Canada’s role in the history of liberty. Hopefully, such a contribution will continue.