Canada: Hippie Nation?

July 2nd, 2003
By Naomi Klein

Canadians can’t quite believe it: Suddenly, we’re interesting.

After months of making the news only with our various communicable diseases-SARS, mad cow and West Nile-we’re now getting world famous for our cutting-edge laws on gay marriage and legalized drugs. The Bush conservatives are repulsed by our depravity. My friends in New York and San Francisco have been quietly inquiring about applying for citizenship.

And Canadians have been eating it up, filling the newspapers with giddy articles about our independence. "You’re not the boss of us, George," Jim Coyle wrote in the Toronto Star. "So much for nice; we’re getting interesting," wrote conservative columnist William Thorsell in the Globe and Mail. Polls are showing that it’s not just that Canadians are becoming more forward-looking and groovier, it’s also that the United States is lurching backward, retrenching into more conservative values. According to Canada’s summer bestseller, Fire and Ice: The United States and Canada and the Myth of Converging Values, by pollster Michael Adams, Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 are twice as likely to worry about crime, "moral decline" and ethnic conflict as their Canadian counterparts.

Four events have contributed to Canada’s newfound status as Hippie Nation:

(1) The Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien didn’t support the US-British invasion of Iraq ("opposed" would be far too strong a word, since we maintained troops in the region).

(2) On May 27 the Chrétien government introduced legislation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. People caught with up to fifteen grams will get the equivalent of a parking ticket. US drug czar John Walters has promised to "respond to the threat."

(3) On June 17 the Chrétien government announced it would introduce legislation to legalize gay marriage. This will bring the entire country into compliance with a court ruling that has already made it legal in the province of Ontario. US gays and lesbians have been flooding into Toronto to get hitched.

(4) On June 24 the government announced the opening of the first "safe injection site" in North America in Vancouver, which averages 147 overdose deaths a year. The publicly funded facility will provide needle exchanges and health assistance to heroin addicts. Walters calls this one "state-sponsored personal suicide."

So, does all this peace, love and drugs really mean that the United States and its closest neighbor and ally are parting ways? Much as I’d love to report that I really do live in "Soviet Canuckistan" (as Pat Buchanan has taken to calling us), it’s mostly hype.

When he was elected in 1993, Chrétien pledged to reopen the North American Free Trade Agreement and negotiate a better deal for Canada. He immediately broke the promise. Now, months away from the end of Chrétien’s decade in office, Canadians are keenly aware of how much independence we have lost under the agreement. Our economic dependence on the United States is staggering: Almost 40 percent of Canada’s gross domestic product comes from exports to the United States. More troubling, particularly given the Bush Administration’s unquenchable thirst for oil and gas, we have traded away our right to put Canadian energy needs before those of the United States. A little-known clause in NAFTA states that even in the event of a severe energy shortage, Canada cannot cut off its oil and gas exports to the United States-we can only reduce the flow south by the same rate as we reduce our own domestic consumption.

This dramatic ceding of power to the United States is Jean Chrétien’s true legacy, which is why, in his final months in office, he’s racing to be remembered as a principled man. But Chrétien’s last-ditch attempts to declare Canada’s independence-significant as they are-can’t mask the fact that on trade and security, the Liberals are following Washington more obediently than ever.

We are pushing, with the Bush Administration, for NAFTA to be expanded into all of Latin America. Our government has made only tepid efforts to save Canadian citizens born in countries identified by the US government as "sponsors of terror" from being photographed, fingerprinted and otherwise humiliated when they enter the United States. Immigrants and refugees inside Canada suspected of having terrorist ties are being detained for long periods without charge, then tried in secret, with key evidence withheld from their attorneys. And to bring our policies further in line with the United States, Canada has also lifted its ban on deportations to Algeria, where returning refugees face serious dangers.

It seems there is no peace and love left for the most vulnerable sectors of our population.

There is another reason Chrétien’s nose-thumbing at Washington should be regarded with skepticism. Every poll shows that when Chrétien steps down, he is going to be succeeded by his archrival, Paul Martin. By passing a bunch of laws that piss off the Bush Administration and then retiring, Chrétien wins on two fronts: He gets to be remembered as the man who rescued Canada’s sovereignty, while Martin gets stuck dealing with the fallout. Watch for Martin, who represents the right of the Liberal Party and is the favorite of the business community, to do whatever it takes to get back into Bush’s good books, even if it means overturning Chrétien’s last-minute laws.

This much is predictable. The wild card is how the Canadian people will respond. Will we embrace obedience once again, or will we demand more of this whole independence thing? Well, so far there are no signs of retreat.

The Pentagon may be developing a high-tech form of "gaydar" to monitor the northern border, and John Walters may well be diverting funds from Colombia to launch "Plan Canuckistan." But we are not afraid. For a country that has been boring as long as we have, there may be something more addictive than sex and drugs: being interesting.

This article first appeared in The Nation.