Geography, Politics, and Northiness
Given the recent interest in moving to Canada being expressed (and indeed rejected) by so many Americans, I thought this might be a good moment to clear up some common misconceptions about the country’s geography and politics.
As Paul Krugman has observed, because most of Canada’s people “live near its southern border,” the country “is effectively closer to the United States than it is to itself.” This is a true but rare observation, and investigating what makes it both true and rare reveals some interesting truths and fictions regarding Canada’s place in the American imagination.
Let me begin with some geographical facts about where Canadians live that, in my experience, people often find quite surprising.
Ottawa, the nation’s capital city, which has a reputation for being remote even within Canada, lies at a latitude of 45.4° N. To draw a comparison to a well-known city on the other side of the continent, this is actually slightly south of the latitude of Portland, Oregon, which is 45.5°.
Although it’s obvious to anyone familiar with American geography, it’s probably useful to point out here that the state of Oregon is Washington State’s southern neighbour.
Montreal, perhaps the most well-known Canadian city and the biggest city in the province of Quebec, is also situated at the Portlandian latitude, 45.5° N.
It’s easy to underestimate just how far south Canada projects itself into what are popularly considered to be American latitudes.
At 43.7° N, Toronto, Canada’s biggest city and the capital of the province of Ontario, lies at almost the same latitude as the biggest city in the state of South Dakota, Sioux Falls, which sits at 43.5° N. That also means the capital city of the Canadian province of Ontario is south of the American state of South Dakota’s capital city, Pierre, which is located at 44.3° N.
It turns out South Dakota is a pretty good comparator when it comes to understanding where Southern Canadians live. According to Wikipedia, the state’s latitudinal range extends from 42.3° N to 45.6° N. By comparison, the city of Windsor in Southern Ontario sits at 42.3° N, and Quebec City, the capital of the province of Quebec, is at 46.8° N.
Which brings us back to Krugman’s observation. The fact is that by far the most densely populated part of Canada is a southern area sometimes called the Quebec City–Windsor Corridor, but which would be much better described by the name of Southern Canada, or the Canadian South.
What this means is that if you are an American living in North Dakota, you’re living on a latitude north of most Canadians, because most Canadians live at the same latitude as South Dakotans.
Most Canadians live at the same latitude as South Dakotans.
An image I like to invoke is that, if you picture the contiguous United States as a kind of squat torso, then the Canadian city of Windsor, situated just to the south and east of Detroit, is right where America’s heart would be.
The final irony is that there are far more Americans living in what many consider to be the “far” north than there are Canadians. The entire population of Canada’s northernmost regions, at the same latitudinal range as the main bulk of Alaska, is just over 100,000. The population of Alaska? Over 700,000.
If you find any of these facts surprising, you can blame it on a lot of anachronistic nonsense about Southern Canada being “the north” that is commonly perpetuated by people and institutions on both sides of the border.
My favourite institutional example of this is the slogan for the Raptors, Toronto’s NBA team: “We The North.” Far from being “an example of how an identity-shaping truth can spark a brand crusade,” as the creative services agency Sid Lee likes to describe it, this slogan is instead an example of how a people’s sense of themselves can be shaped by we might call “identity anachronism.”
At this point it will probably not come as a surprise that, despite Toronto’s pride in its northiness (which is more of a feeling than a fact, of which more later), there are not one but two NBA teams with a superior claim to geographical northitude than the one shouted from the Raptors: the Portland Trail Blazers and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
NFL fans may be interested to note that if Toronto ever gets an NFL team, it will actually be located on a latitude south of three American teams: the Seattle Seahawks, the Minnesota Vikings, and the Green Bay Packers.
Just as America functions as a foil to Canadians’ sense of their own identity, so does Canada function as a foil in the American imagination, though with the important caveat that for Americans this foil-function usually takes the form of a sort of cheerful diversion, rather than being an existential matter of fundamental importance to their sense of themselves, as it is for many Canadians, especially Southern Canadians.
At least for left-leaning Americans, there seems to be some need for Canada to be a place that offers proof that a certain set of their social, economic and political hopes can some day be realized in their own country. As a result, psychologically speaking, belief in Canada’s progressive essence takes priority over cold engagement with facts that might contradict a strong desire for Canada to be a certain way.
Here’s a trivial but concrete example of this imaginary Canada taking precedence over fact. On the night of Canada’s last election, when Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party lost the to Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, I remember seeing an excited tweet from an American that said something to the following effect:
“Canada just voted out of office a prime minister who supported the Keystone XL pipeline!”
The thing is, Canada had also just voted into office someone who supports the Keystone XL pipeline: Justin Trudeau.
Americans who enjoy the idea of Canada’s environmental progressiveness might also be surprised to hear that Trudeau recently approved a massive $36-billion LNG project based in British Columbia that will have a significant environmental impact on the entire region, not to mention the consequences for climate change more generally. According to a group of climate change experts, “the project would raise B.C.’s total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 22.5 per cent” and “would make it virtually impossible for B.C. to meet its GHG emission reduction targets.”
Trudeau’s support for pipelines and the energy industry generally will come as no surprise to close followers of Canadian politics, given the connections one of his co-chairs from the campaign was revealed to have with the energy industry, but I’m pretty sure more far people are familiar with the fact that one time Trudeau held two pandas, because, well, the environment.
Here are some more myth-busting facts that Americans of all political stripes might find surprising about where Canadians live, politically speaking:
- The Trudeau government recently hired an investment bank to look into privatizing Canada’s excellent airports.
- Across much of the country there is a publicly-funded religious school system.
- There is an entire Canadian province where women cannot get abortions.
- For decades Canadians imposed a residential school system on First Nations people where the “policy was to remove children from the influence of their families and culture, and assimilate them into the dominant Canadian culture.” It was active until 1996.
While there is an obvious lack of diversity in race and gender at the highest level of Canadian politics, industry and finance (notwithstanding the single, symbolic example of Trudeau’s cabinet), I think many Americans might be surprised by the even narrower enforcement of ethnic homogeneity here.
A striking and important example is this list of the past leaders of the Liberal Party.
Pause and take a moment to take a look at their names. You’ll notice there is only one name on that list that is not French, English or Scottish (someone please correct me in a comment if I am wrong about this): the Iraq war supporter Michael Ignatieff, whom the Liberals chose to run as their leader in Canada’s next-to-last election.
With that single exception, on this list there isn’t even anything as exotic as a German name like Eisenhower, or a Dutch name like Roosevelt, nor is there an Irish name like Kennedy or anything close to Obama.
The upshot here is that politically speaking, Canadians actually live in a fundamentally conservative place. I don’t mean that in the way the word conservative is currently being used in the American context, more or less to mean “right wing.” I mean it in an older sense of the word conservative, which is manifested in Canadian politics and society in a number of ways, including Canadians’ complacency about the fact that their country is a monarchy, and, crucially, the systemic institutional conflation of the arts with patriotism.
Institutions based in Southern Canada persist in portraying themselves as being the north, and spend so much time indulging in all that northiness, because where those Canadians really live is in a country that feels like it exists north of where America was born, embodying a culture that represents a conservative resistance to America’s revolutionary rejection of tradition, of monarchy, and of primogeniture in politics, where the true north devotes itself instead to the preservation of an incumbent social and economic hierarchy defined by ethnicity, region, and a particular moment in history that took place near one small, southern, corner of the country.