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Wary of the government; at one with the people

DISCUSSIONS | June 05, 2006

John Geddes, Ottawa

2003 Nieman fellow; Ottawa bureau chief, Maclean’s

Many Canadians are more wary of the American government now than they were before Sept. 11, 2001. The main reason, of course, is the war in Iraq, which is enormously unpopular here. Various polls confirm that Canadians are, by and large, relieved not to have troops in Iraq. And that spills over into a broader disinclination to be linked too closely to U.S. foreign policy. The Pew Global Attitudes Project, to cite one bit of evidence, found last year that 57 per cent of Canadians favor their government taking a more independent approach from the U.S., up from 43 percent two years before.

Yet the picture is not a simple one. In our recent federal election, Canadians elected a Conservative government that is seen by most voters as closer to the George W. Bush administration than the defeated Liberal one was. To be sure, Stephen Harper, our new prime minister, didn’t win because of his pro-Washington bent—but it didn’t prevent him from winning, either. I draw this conclusion: popular misgivings in Canada about the Iraq war have not skewed perceptions of the U.S. to the degree that empty anti-Americanism is a prerequisite for political success here.

I know many Americans fear that President Bush has squandered the international goodwill that followed 9/ll. No doubt that’s true to a large degree at the level of coalition-building among national governments. But the shock and grief that washed over Canadians in the minutes and hours and days that followed the attacks never had much to do with government-to-government ties anyway.

About 100,000 mourners converged on Ottawa’s Parliament Hill on Sept. 14, 2001, for a memorial. Many cried quietly; I won’t forget it. It felt less like an official gathering than a communal one. At its root, our reaction to your tragedy had nothing to do with nationality, everything to do with—I don’t know, fellow feeling, a shared sudden awareness of mortality, black anger with no outlet. It’s hard to find fitting terms. But it’s true there was also, expressed over and over in different ways, this element to the way many responded: poor Americans, they didn’t deserve this.

On one hand, there was no way for that grief-struck wave of sympathy to be sustained; on the other, a flood of emotion so powerful is bound to leave behind a layer of sediment, a memory, that will stay with those who lived through it. If that didn’t subtly change our “dominant perceptions of America,” nothing could.

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