Andrew Cohen on the converging character of Canadians and Americans

Best-selling author and award-winning journalist Andrew Cohen delivered the annual J.R. Mallory Lecture in Canadian Studies on what he calls the “converging character” of Canadians and Americans.
Andrew Cohen believes Americans and Canadians are becoming more alike, but that it's nothing to worry about. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Pascal Zamprelli

“In many ways I think we are quite similar and becoming more so,” said best-selling author and award-winning journalist Andrew Cohen as he addressed the audience gathered for the annual J.R. Mallory Lecture in Canadian Studies. “Some of this is on account of how we’ve changed; some is on the account of how Americans have changed.”

This is what Cohen calls the “converging character” of Canadians and Americans, and he made his case by scrutinizing a few of the myths that Canadians have, often smugly, held up as proof of our being different from “them.” For each, Cohen described how these myths, which may have been true once, have eroded over time.

Figures show, for instance, that Canadians are becoming more obese and bigger spenders – disheartening news for anyone who has taken comfort in the accepted wisdom that we are a fitter and more frugal people.

On the flip side, we tend to think of America as a place with more crime and less openness to multiculturalism. But on these points, Cohen demonstrated that the evidence suggests they are becoming more like us, as U.S. crime rates fall to lows not seen in decades, and the U.S. Hispanic population, 35 million of which speak Spanish at home continues to grow.

Other commonly cited distinctions are slowly disappearing, such as capital punishment, which the U.S. is increasingly moving away from, and health care, the recent U.S. reform of which was a big step toward more universal coverage. Canada, for its part, is increasingly adopting American political mores, such as fixed election dates, recall initiatives and political attack ads.

“My point here is not to deny the differences; they’re real, they exist,” Cohen said, citing religion and gun culture as two examples. “It is, though, to show that differences are not as sharp and distinct as we think or perhaps we desire.”

This type of reflection, he said, may cause an “existential crisis” for some, in that to be too similar is to reinforce lingering enduring doubts about our own identity.

“We have Medicare, therefore we are. But take away health care and other cherished touchstones of identity, and what’s left for us and between us? Winter? Yes, but it’s threatened by global warming. Peacekeeping? Well, we don’t do it anymore. Hockey? Yes, but our dominance is threatened. So what’s left.? Maple syrup? The inflection ‘eh’? I jest, but those who continue to define this country only in counter distinction to the United States, a converging character is a big problem.”

For Cohen, however, it is anything but a problem. He suggests that while our character is converging, we need not worry about it. “Our nation is not threatened. We’ve grown up; we’ve shed our adolescent fears. Our sovereignty today is not only economic, political or territorial; it’s the sovereignty of the mind. We’re Canadians, and let us hope that means something more than just not being Americans. After 144 years as a nation we know who we are, and we are here to stay.”