What Uncle Sam wants isn't us
Jim Travers

PREDICTIONS OF CANADA'S precipitous slide into the waiting, welcoming arms of Uncle Sam are as exaggerated as they are pessimistic. Despite galloping economic integration and the security pressures of the post-Sept. 11 period, the flag, the national rodent and our infamously ambiguous identity are surprisingly secure.

"Those people who think we are becoming part of a North American community, or are headed fast in that direction, are packing their bags for a trip we may never take," says Frank Graves, president of Ottawa-based Ekos Research Associates.

Graves has good reason to be optimistic. Now deep into a continuing cross-border study of continental relationships, Graves is quantifying opinions and qualifying trends that require Canada to radically rethink its traditional approach to safeguarding sovereignty.

Those opinions and trends effortlessly blow away many of the myths now shaping political policy. Graves' research has found that Americans are confident that Canada will adequately protect U.S. homeland security. Unlike the European Community, increasing North American economic co-operation is not promoting cultural blending. Support for a common currency, particularly in the United States and Mexico, is weak. And nationalism is thriving among Gen-Xers.

There are, of course, striking similarities between Canadians and their southern neighbours. From Tijuana to Toronto, core values are commonly held close to the collective heart. National identities are strengthening across the continent. There is a broad consensus that free trade, while most beneficial to the United States, is generally positive for everyone and has great potential. And Canadians are still stereotypically seen as hewers of wood and drawers of maple syrup.

As important as those similarities are, it is the emerging North American mosaic that is most intriguing. Not only are there significant differences among the three amigos, those differences, particularly between Canadian and U.S. citizens, are growing.

Since 1999, when Ekos last looked at these issues, the world's largest trading partners have drawn closer economically but are reinforcing key attitudinal disparities.

Painted with the broadest brush, Americans take on the primary colours associated here with the minority that supports the Canadian Alliance. They are more religious, individualistic, materialistic and shaped by family and conservative values than mainstream Canadians. In contrast, there is much more support north of the 49th parallel for secularism, state intervention, collective social policies and a cosmopolitan, less insular, less ideological, world view.

Those distinctive values manifest themselves in the issues that top national priority lists. Not surprisingly, freedom is pre-eminent everywhere but after that, Canadians and Americans order their worlds differently. In the United States, those familiar family values, integrity, ethics, security and the all-inclusive need for respect fill out the next five spots in a list of 17 possible national goals. Here, health and a clean environment are the ultimate objectives for a country that also puts greater value on tolerance and less oh blush on hard work.

It is equally interesting that issues that have dominated Canada-U.S. relations in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon slip into a second tier of concerns. As important as continental defence and cross-border transport clearly are, they fall into the far less sensitive category of essentially logistical accommodations between friends linked by the common interests of prosperity and security.

For Graves, the growing ability to distinguish between what is defining and what is transactional offers a sneak preview of the future. Instead of building defensive firewalls around culture and identity culture and identity that are alive and well the federal government now has the option to strengthen what is best about a country that thinks of itself, but is not always, the envy of the world.

"It opens up some very bold opportunities, it opens new horizons for the 21st century," he says. " More and more, I think Canadians are focused on how you invest in people and quality-of-life issues."

That will require the federal government to find the fine balance between sharing economic space with a superpower and making the social policy choices that will reinforce the emerging sense of what is important about being Canadian. Inevitably, economic decisions, particularly those touching taxation, productivity and competitiveness will shape social programs that are now as much a part of Canada as the maple leaf, the beaver and the sanctity of hockey.

What is encouraging is that those critical decisions can be made with the confidence that comes with knowing who we are and what is important. Most of all, those decisions can be reached without the fear of impending assimilation.

"We are not about to see the nation-state swept away by globalization or North American integration," Graves says.

For now and the foreseeable future, Uncle Sam, like heaven, can wait.

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