By Don McCormick
I am finding it quite interesting and revealing to watch the American reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic as compared to the Canadian reaction.
Some Americans have taken to the streets, rebelling against their governments’ direction for self-isolation, demanding a return to their normal lives in spite of suffering the greatest loss of lives to COVID-19 of any country in the world.
Most but not all Canadians, on the other hand, are largely heeding the call of their governments to self-isolate and are suffering much fewer infections and deaths. What could possibly account for this difference?
I have a theory for this. I acknowledge at the outset that this is probably an over-simplification but I believe, in concept, that this is a reasonable explanation.
We have to go back to the late 1600s through to the early 1800s when Britain, with the world’s most powerful navy, was expanding outwards and colonizing large parts of the world, including the future Canada and United States. This was the formation of the British Empire. These colonies were established to feed the wealth of those colonies back into the coffers of the British Crown. The British Empire remained dominant in the world until 1945.
In 1765, the British parliament imposed taxation on the Thirteen Colonies—the future United States—while allowing them no representation in the British parliament. The people of the Thirteen Colonies strenuously objected and this led to confrontations. The Tea Act of 1773 was the last straw and they rebelled. They took up arms and fought a war against the Brits—the American Revolution—and won, gaining their independence from Britain in 1783.
So, the United States was born out of a deep distrust of government that continues to this day. And, they won their personal liberties with their blood so they value their personal liberties above all else. This created a very individualistic society dedicated to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” with individual rights taking precedence over the common good. Most Americans tend to be more focused on themselves and less aware of the rest of the world.
It is their distrust of government and dedication to personal liberties that drives almost every aspect of their lives—the pursuit of wealth and power even at the expense of their fellow Americans, no nationally coordinated healthcare system, their gun laws, huge gaps in the quality of education, and so on.
Canada, on the other hand, had a very different birth. The process of becoming a fully independent nation was much more evolutionary. An early form of self-government was put in place as early as 1840. And, while Canada was established as a country in 1867 the transference of governance from Britain to a fully independent Canada evolved over the period from 1867 to 1982.
So Canada gained its independence from Britain relatively peacefully through an evolutionary process spread over quite a long time span. No war of independence against Britain. Relatively little blood spilt, very little violent demand for personal liberties, independence gained in an orderly and measured way. As result, Canadian society is more dedicated to “peace, order and good government”.
Following America’s establishment as a country separate from Britain, the Americans started a massive expansion outwards from the Thirteen Colonies. And the future Canada was in their sights as well. Americans made attempts to expand into Canada (the War of 1812) but they were repelled by combined British and local forces.
America, occupying the most bountiful part of North America with the most benign climate, grew and prospered, becoming the economic and cultural centre of the modern world. It was a place with ample opportunity for an individual to carve out their own destiny.
Canada, on the other hand, with its much smaller population spread out over a massive land mass and having a much more hostile climate, was less amenable to succeeding as an individual. Canadians had to work together, to depend on each other to succeed. In Canada, individual liberties had to work hand-in-hand with communal needs. And sometimes our individual liberties must give way to communal needs.
That’s why we can have a national government-coordinated medical system, high quality provincial government-coordinated education systems, national gun laws, and so on.
The aftermath of the Second World War left Europe, and Britain, in ruins. Insolvency and a rising anti-colonial movement caused the British government to adopt a policy of disengagement from its colonies.
In the post WWII era we have two separate countries—Canada and the US—with common roots and, in many ways, alike. But we’ve been shaped by different histories, different geographies, different climates, different needs.
Most Americans are more individualistic, more dedicated to protecting their liberties, and more suspicious of governments. While most Canadians also value their personal liberties they are prepared to accept limits when it is for the common good. And they are more trusting that their governments will act with their best interests in mind.
The Americans in the streets today see their government—which they distrust—infringing on their personal liberties by enforcing self-isolation to combat COVID-19 and they are rebelling.
Canadians, on the other hand, have more trust that their governments are looking out for their best interests and they are prepared to allow their personal liberties to be limited in the interests of our communal need to protect our health. So we self-isolate and allow the government to do what we see as “their job”.
But we are not naïve and we will also be watching very carefully for their strategy on the restoration of the economy. It’s a very delicate balancing act and, for the moment, we’re giving our trust to the governments and their scientific advisors to make the right decisions.
It will be interesting to see which of these strategies is the more successful in restoring the economy while, at the same time, subduing the COVID-19 virus.
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