Steve Lafleur: It’s time to stop importing American debates, Canada. We’ve got our own country to run

Despite our similarities, we are different countries with differing political priorities
Anti-Trump protesters burn an American flag during an anti-Trump protest in the streets of Montreal, Friday, January 20, 2017. Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press.

For the love of God, stop uncritically importing American political debates

Well, it’s here. 2024. U.S. election year. Which means that, regrettably, we’re going to be talking a lot more about Donald Trump—whether it’s because his legal troubles get the better of him, or he finds his way back into the White House. Maybe both. It’s almost too depressing to contemplate, but here we are. 

This has wide-ranging implications for Canada, and the world at large. The world will be watching—particularly America’s adversaries. Canada, Europe, and our allies need contingency plans in case America turns its back on the world.

I’m not here to talk about the geopolitical implications of letting Vladimir Putin walk through Europe, or the prospect of our closest ally potentially tearing itself apart over a geriatric nepo baby with a severe allergy to the law. I’m getting off track here.

Let’s try this again. Canadians will be rightly fixated on the American election. Who can blame us? But our cultural commonalities with the United States often make it tempting to uncritically import American debate. We’ll need to try even harder than usual to avoid that. No good comes of it. 

Canada is, in many respects, a collection of bi-national regional political cultures overlayed by a loose national culture. Vancouver is basically Seattle with Canadian characteristics, for instance. We often have as much in common with our regional neighbours south of the border as we do with Canadians on the other side of the country. 

With a population largely strewn across the American border, an economy oriented towards southern exports, and a media ecosystem filled with American content, it’s easy to forget that Canada is its own country with distinct challenges, opportunities, and history. There isn’t always an off-the-shelf American policy solution that we can just slap a maple leaf on.

This may seem painfully obvious, but Canadian politicians have a long history of seemingly forgetting which side of the border we’re on. And it’s not getting any better. Whether it’s Danielle Smith fawning over Ron DeSantis or Justin Trudeau conflating Pierre Poilievre and Donald Trump, all indications are that our political class wants to keep cosplaying American politics. 

Canadians should demand better. We deserve our own policy debates focused on actual Canadian issues. It’s up to us to ask for it.

Take immigration, for instance. It’s hard to think of two immigration systems as different as Canada’s and the United States’. Canada has very high levels of legal immigration focused on highly skilled immigrants. Our biggest immigration problem is that we haven’t built enough houses to accommodate people. By contrast, America has relatively low levels of legal immigration, but a porous southern border that people cross through for a chance to pick crops or clean hotel rooms. 

Canada has high but selective immigration; America has low but chaotic immigration. It’s understandable that irregular crossing sucks up a lot of the political oxygen stateside, but it’s a relatively niche topic here. Frankly, temporary foreign workers are a bigger political challenge in Canada than illegal immigration (specifically, housing them). Different countries, different issues.

Let’s take another thorny example: diversity. Canada is a far more multicultural country than the United States. While large American cities like New York or even Houston have very diverse populations, there are vast swaths of the country that are largely white and Black, with a smattering of Latinos. This has an enormous impact on discussions of diversity—particularly when it comes to religion. If you encounter Muslims on a regular basis, it’s hard to fearmonger about them. There’s a reason why the “Muslim ban” happened in America, not Canada. 

The fact that diversity in Canada looks different than in the United States isn’t merely a statistical curiosity. It has implications for some of the cultural debates that are increasingly monopolizing our political discourse. 

Take the term BIPOC, for instance. It’s a term often used in American progressive circles that has managed to seep through the border. BIPOC—Black, Indigenous, People of Color—is a very specific American term. Note the order of the terms. Slavery was America’s greatest sin. Racial segregation persisted until the 1960s. Discrimination continues to this day. Of course, the historical treatment of American Indigenous People wasn’t much better. But sharing an acronym isn’t entirely unreasonable. 

In Canada, it’s not reasonable. The frequency, severity, and persistence of mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples is Canada’s most shameful legacy. Lumping Indigenous issues in with broader racial issues in Canada isn’t just silly, but insulting. Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples is one of the most important tasks facing the country. Indigenous issues deserve a more prominent role than the second letter of an acronym. 

Finally, there’s guns. A lot of them if you’re on the American side, but not so much here (unless you’re talking about farm rifles). Canada’s cities, contrary to the rhetoric, are much safer than American cities. The fact that we don’t have yahoos walking around with semi-automatic weapons probably helps. Nevertheless, firearms policy gets a surprising amount of oxygen on both sides of the political spectrum, even if it isn’t kitchen table talk. Conservatives take up gun rights issues to appease rural elements of their base, and Liberals use guns as a wedge issue. Despite the very different realities of firearms policy in Canada and America, sometimes it sounds like our politicians live a few hundred miles south. That isn’t to say there isn’t room for debate about firearms policy. But Canadian politicians should not make policy decisions based on American news stories, nor should they adopt gun rights rhetoric. Uncritically importing American gun debates isn’t going to make our policies smarter. It will almost certainly make them dumber.

Look, I’m not trying to dump on Americans here. For all its faults, America is one of the greatest countries on earth. They’ve led the peaceful post-war international order since the end of the Second World War. I desperately want America to continue doing so. But America is a unique country with a very different political, social, and historical context. Uncritically echoing American talking points doesn’t enrich our political discourse. Quite the opposite. We can, and should, think for ourselves. 

So, now that we’re in the backstretch of the white-knuckle ride to the 2024 election, Canadians need to be especially on guard against allowing the increasingly poisonous American political discourse to pollute our debates. By all means, tune in to the most bewildering show on earth. But, please, remember that we’re just viewers. We’ve got our own country to run. Let’s try to focus on that.

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