A Letter to My American Friends and Partners: Canada is A Foreign Country

Some of the news coming from the U.S. of late has been quite shocking, and not just the COVID death statistics. George Floyd’s murder and the reaction to it, including the burning of a police station in Minneapolis and President Trump’s tweets have been alarming. I don’t want to overstate the case here, as Canada and the USA are close neighbours, and we have our own share of tragic stories. But we are different countries. I’m not sure my American friends always fully appreciate this, and current bi-national deliberations in my denomination seem to reflect this oversight.

Dear American Friends and Colleagues:

We call it pop, you call it soda. We watch more hockey than baseball or football. Guns for sale beside bottles of alcohol at the corner store make many of us cringe. We embrace the metric system, learn French, and make public university education generally affordable. We have public health insurance and a year-long maternity leave option. Our money is is multi-coloured, and dollars fall as coins. We are national neighbours, not neighbors.

Driving across the border, which I have done umpteen times, has become more of a significant transition of late (and during COVID, virtually an impossibility). Yes, there are generally the same traffic laws, similar signage, equivalent foods, and many of the same brands (no ketchup potato chips in the US, apparently). Yet I am struck by the immediate change in the quality of the infrastructure, by the large billboards spotting the highways, including the numerous ads for hospital emergency services. We not only have different laws: we have different views of community, care, citizenship, and what it means to be a nation and a church. This means a larger welfare state, more taxes, but also less abject poverty and no one who misses basic surgery because they can’t afford it.

I remember being at a conference in Colorado in the early 2000s with about 50 of my American colleagues–church reps from all across the USA. In Canada, we had elected a new Prime Minister a few months earlier, so I began my presentation asking if anyone knew the name of our new national leader. Out of 50 Americans, those in the know totalled zero.

Canada is a foreign land to you. Because we share a peaceful border, a similar language, common pop cultural reference points, and many shared defense interests, this effort below at contrast and comparison may seem like a narcissism of small differences. But it may also be that those superficial similarities obscure a multitude of deeper differences—which are especially less visible to you, our American colleagues, family, and friends. We are not the 51st state; we are a whole different country.

Our vastly different reactions to COVID and its precautions, and the gaping contrast in COVID cases and COVID deaths is one vividly clear, and telling illustration of just how different our cultures really are. Canadians are generally a more compliant type, and this has saved lives. American contentiousness is not just Trump’s influence, as much of it has to do with grassroots attitudes and behaviours, too. Read here about one American’s testimony to this contrast during COVID, and how she sees Americans polarized in a way seldom found so prominently in Canada.

Let me make clear, theologically speaking, we are not more virtuous human beings in the North. We can be less patriotic, more secularized, and less friendly. Colder, maybe. And given the content of this letter, we might also be more insecure and touchy (!). But that’s in part because being misunderstood is annoying.

I deeply value and appreciate my American friends and colleagues, and I have no chip on my shoulder from some particular past incident (although some border guards can be mean). There is much to applaud about American culture. Most of the movies I watch, the books I read, and the ideas I engage have significant connection to the USA. Some of the landscapes of the states–both wilderness and city–are deeply meaningful to me. Moreover, I wonder if we would be speaking German or Russian now if it hadn’t been for American military power. But this letter is not meant to catalogue my affections for things American (or Dutch, Hungarian, or Cuban–other countries with which I have emotional bonds). In fact, this brief is meant to convey my passion for my own country, as something special–and not just to me.

Our family trip to Gettysburg, March 2018. We had a CD guide us through the monuments. Not an easy history lesson.

To be clear, my national identity is not the core of who I am, although it is significant. My faith in the resurrected Christ is more central, but that means I relate to brothers and sisters not just in the USA, but in every nation around the world. So if I were to write about common things, I would start with our common humanity and then with spiritual bonds that transcend national borders.

Here, however, I want to talk about some significant cultural differences. So while obviously the tax and legal systems of Canada and the USA are distinctly different, our cultural context is also different. Yes, there is a Canadian culture that is distinct, and it even has regional variations. And I don’t just mean Quebec. There are numerous websites that catalogue our differences, and there was even a CBC show that made fun of American ignorance of Canada, but I’m going to focus on historical difference and religious differences below. So this is not a comprehensive study.

Its Both National and Personal

Let me say I have been thinking about this for years. In the early 2000s, I worked out of the Grand Rapids office for the Christian Reformed Church in North America (a bi-national denomination), coordinating campus ministries in both countries (while living in Ontario). I currently am the executive director of Global Scholars Canada, an agency with ties to an older American organization (Global Scholars) but with distinct legal, charitable and governance structures. Finally, I recently published a book entitled The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch, in which I explain how being associated with American evangelicalism in Canada undermines the credibility and appeal of a Christian witness in our own country. Especially in the season of Trump (81 percent!).

This letter is a request for your understanding, and it comes in a number of layers—some minor but meaningful, and others relating to subterranean cultural and religious dissimilarities. I write because I have followed organizations like the Brethren in Christ (see my Christian Courier article on this—its now “Be In Christ” here in Canada!), The Bible League and Edu Deo that have shifted from being branch offices of American agencies to become equal partners or even distinct organizations, and I have been told that some of their American board members and leaders did not understand how this could be important to Canadians. The American partners were upset and even angry that Canadians wanted their own place at the global table of churches and parachurches.

We value our partnership and friendships, and that’s why I’m risking this letter. I am talking about more substantial matters than the stereotypes of Mounties, moose, and maple syrup. My goal is to intensify our mutual respect and thus solidify our partnerships, as the one representing often the weaker and smaller partner. We live in your shadow, and so we need to speak up to be recognized. We have a different accent, different values and different priorities (as Christians!), even as we share a continent.

Different Myths to Mold/Mould Us

Before I give my list of differences, entire books have been written on our differences, including Continental Divide by Seymour Martin Lipset (1990) and Fire and Ice by Michael Adams (2003) and there are even more books on the elusive quest for a bona fide Canadian identity. I can’t think of any similar books published in the USA that compare American and Canadian culture, and that suggests something important: the need to differentiate comes from we the North.

In her book Canadians are Not Americans: Myths and Literary Traditions (2003) Katherine Morrison argues that our two countries have different myths, different views of nature, place, gender, race and class—and even humour. In light of this, America’s strength may be its biggest weakness—it does not depend so heavily on other nations for much of anything. But isolation is not strength, contrary to Orwell’s Big Brother. Being great (again) may not be so great.

Regarding American social problems, Morrison suggests: “The persistent presence of violence and a reluctance to learn from other people’s experiences may be the greatest obstacles.” A rugged hyper-individualism alienates and tears the social fabric, as seen during COVID. This critique comes just as much from within the US, as NY Times David Brooks’ writing over the last decade is just one example.

Anyways, here are some differences to consider.

1. Violent Revolution to Independence vs a Slow Evolution to Maintain Peace

Let’s begin with the broadest scope of cultural difference. While we both have ties to Britain, Americans chose the path of armed revolution and independence, while in Canada we chose the way of evolution mostly through government reform (we did not become fully independent from Britain until the Constitution Act of 1982!). We remain “mid-Atlantic” in our ties to Britain and France, while you have carved your place as a global superpower. We remain interdependent as a nation–leaning on the commonwealth and on you, our largest trading partner and defence ally. We like to talk of our “peace-keeping role” in foreign affairs, although that comes with nuances, to be sure.

“All Canadian revolutions are failed revolutions,” said Canadian writer Margaret Atwood. We just can’t seem to do it right.

Here is another major contrast: we have had no Civil War, and thus no monuments, tourist destinations or re-enactments of such an internal conflict. We have different histories when it comes to slavery, and thus different tensions around race and ethnicity today. The volatility around black/white perceived differences just isn’t as pronounced in Canada.

These are significant wide-sweeping historical differences that play out in a hundred smaller ways, including our current attitudes toward authority, government, war, and immigration. Although they are no stranger here, racism and violence loom significantly larger in your country, and your church ministries need to address these issues in culturally sensitive ways that don’t always apply directly in Canada. On a national level, I think indigenous issues and French/English tensions make the news here more often than black/white divides, and that shapes our consciousness–and our hopes and fears–differently. We are racist, divisive, prejudiced, too, but in a distinctly Canadian way.

2. Freedom From vs Freedom With

Your national slogan of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” has a strong, individualistic character that is more subdued in Canada. Our Canadian motto of “peace, order and good government” suggests a more communal posture, with a less suspicious eye towards political institutions.

While your perceived threats to freedom most immediately come from over-reaching government, and especially distant monarchs, we historically been more concerned about our unity threatened by regional discontent and distance—think of Quebec’s drive for separation or what we call Western alienation—and so we have cultivated pride in the commonwealth and even the Queen and her royal family.

In fact, there is a bigger, more socially engaged government in Canada, and we tend to have less citizens of the libertarian stripe, and less churches of the congregationalist type. We have three major political parties (plus a few more) that fragment us rather than two parties to polarize us. The federal parties sometimes even work together. That cooperation among diverse partners can be said to be our Canadian myth. On our good days, its real.

John Ralston Saul in A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (2008) offers one articulation of this character of Canadian culture, positing its origins in Aboriginal civilization, especially a “Metis mindset” that embraces difference and social complexity. The official multicultural policy of Canadian society since 1971 has tried to cultivate values of tolerance, diversity, and accommodation. For some, this ethnic mosaic is precisely what it means to be Canadian, and it has been contrasted with the melting pot of American culture. That’s perhaps too simplistic, but it is one heuristic that often begins a conversation about our national differences.

In her book Survival, Margaret Atwood makes the case that its the drive to survive that holds Canadian literature together. “If you were a rocky, watery northern country, cool in climate, large in geographical expanse, small but diverse in population, and with a huge aggressive neighbour to the south, why wouldn’t you have concerns that varied from those of the huge aggressive neighbour?” Not only are our concerns different, but if “the true and only season is winter” we will always be dependent on others. Self-sufficiency is not only a myth, its impossible if we are to not only survive, but thrive as a 6,000 kilometre string of communities within 100 kilometres of the American border. To say we are a cold bunch up here in Canada borders on stereotype, but literature intends to delve into myth. Novels, after all, have taken the place of religious texts for modern (secularized) Canadian citizens. Atwood is our modern priest. More on this secular trend below.

3. No Core Identity in Canada, Except One

While conservative Christianity seems to maintain some iconic value in the USA, similar to apple pie, in Canada that sense of cultural privilege no longer holds. In fact, a playful CBC survey asked for the Canadian equivalent to the phrase “as American as apple pie” and the winning response was “as Canadian as possible, under the circumstances.” Our current Prime Minister has even said, “There is no core identity, no mainstream in Canada.” Our identity seems to constantly be adrift between our three oceans. Justin Trudeau calls us “the first post-national state.”

In Survival, Margaret Atwood says, ““If [an immigrant] does wipe away his ethnic origin, there is no new ‘Canadian’ identity ready for him to step into: he is confronted only by a nebulosity, a blank; no ready-made ideology is provided for him.” To construct a Canadian identity takes years of deliberate work!

Except for this one common value: we are adamantly not American—especially of late, specifically right-wing American.

Let me explain this from the standpoint of religion and culture. While some American evangelicals may feel embattled in their political arena, sociologist Lydia Bean concludes in her book The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada that Canadian evangelicals are “embattled as a religious minority, in tension with Canadian society as a whole.” In the USA, they remain a political force to contend with. To illustrate, consider journalist Marci MacDonald’s book The Armageddon Factor (2010), which absurdly claims that conservative Christians in Canada are a “dark and dangerous vision” threatening the rights of secular Canadians and a “retrograde and exclusionary… militant charismatic fringe” that undermines Canadian democracy itself. Its far from reality, but it demonstrates that in the mind of Canadian elites, religious values that clash with the dominant secular liberal values of Canada are now stigmatized as right-wing American imports and hardly tolerated by powerful cultural players.

Liberal culture leaders celebrate their tolerant attitude toward anyone who shares their liberal values. This is not just Canadian, but it is more pronounced in Canadian politics, media, and our public academy, because the USA is perceived as the heart of right-wing capitalism in this hemisphere, if not in the world.

4. Post-Christian Values

Our church cultures in the US and Canada, while sharing the same Lord, faith, and baptism, carry distinct cultural practises and even variations in theology. Its not just that we have Anglicans and the US has Episcopalians, that Canada is about 40 percent Roman Catholic and the USA is just 22 percent of the same, or that African American churches are so much more prevalent in the US. This is telling: we are much less likely to have a flag in our church sanctuaries. Civil religion is much more subtle in Canada, to be sure.

When it comes to the big picture of Christian North America, historian Mark Noll says in “What Happened to Christian Canada?” (2006) there has been a “dramatic inversion”. Canada used to be more Christian in terms of church attendance and clergy’s national influence when compared to the US, and certainly much less anti-Catholic. After the 1960s, however, he says that Canada has become more secularized—I would say especially in its politics, education, and media. Canada, which appeared more Christian than Europe and the USA, “now appears in its religious character to resemble Europe much more closely than it does the United States.” The power, popularity, and prestige of churches has significantly declined here, and Canada is significantly more post-Christian than its southern neighbour. This makes an immense difference in terms of Christian ministry—in terms of our posture, our sense of privilege and our political power.

I remember attending a religious studies conference in my area where papers were presented on “de-Christianizing public space.” As a Kuyperian Christian, I’m all for pluralistic public institutions, but this was about secularizing the public square, not encouraging multi-faith participation as a public good. Quebec is “progressive” on this matter: Bill 21 prohibits the display of religious symbols by public-sector workers in the work place. Its controversial, to be sure, but evidence that the Great Reversal continues.

5. Subtler DifferencesIn the Details

There are other differences, for example, in the details of our immigration patterns. Proportionally, there are seven times as many Sikhs in Canada than in the USA, and one of our major federal parties has a Sikh as a leader–and he wears his turban in public (even when he’s in Quebec!). Conversely, you will almost never see a Hispanic person in the Canadian news, while in the USA their numbers are climbing up to 20 per cent of the total (in Canada its less than 1 percent). That’s a huge difference.

Consider this: we only have 200,000 Mormons (0.3 percent of our population) compared to the US 6.5 million Mormon population (2 percent of your total). Mormonism is a home-grown and “quintessentially American religion,” centred on the writings of Joseph Smith (and it has a undeniable legacy of racism).

Here is another personal church-related example. It is well-known that the majority of Canadian congregations in my own Christian Reformed Church are made up of the descendants of Dutch immigrants who lived with Abraham Kuyper as their Prime Minister and their theological beacon in the early 20th century. Most Canadian CRCs sprung up as community homes for these post-war Dutch immigrants. The American CRC started in the 1800s, and while American Reformed church members knew of Kuyper, they didn’t share proximity and language with him like most Reformed folks did in Canada. His deliberately Christian participation in journalism, unions, academics and politics was an inspiration for a piety that fearlessly engaged a diversity of cultural sectors and this translated into numerous Christian agencies that exist in Canada in ways they never have in the USA: consider the Christian Farmer’s Federation, the Christian Labour Association, Citizens for Public Justice, and Shalem Mental Health Network. Similarly, the Institute of Christian Studies in Toronto, a Christian graduate school in philosophy, championed thinkers like Dooyeweerd in a way not replicated by Calvin University in Grand Rapids.

I was just talking with a parachurch ministry leader, whose board had hired an American to direct their organization (something that happens frequently in Canadian Christian agencies, including my own Redeemer University!) and they immediately noticed a more hierarchical, authoritarian approach to leadership with a pronounced interest in metrics. Americans come in many stripes and colours, but generally speaking, there is something more democratic, collaborative and consultative in Canadian management styles. Our politics are less partisan, less polarized, and less predictable. If the movie Canadian Bacon is any indicator, we are also more polite, more open to compromise, and more apt to apologize. Its often portrayed as a dubious virtue, which is no doubt perceptive.

World’s Longest Undefended Border

Loyalty to one’s country is like faithfulness in marriage. Speaking as a Christian, these are not your ultimate commitments, but they are commitments we make for the common good, and they are steered by the character of our faith in Christ. We are also called to be cosmopolitan–world citizens–and that contextualizes our national bonds as well. So there is a larger context to this contrast in contexts.

Much of what comes between us is the result of a vast population, production, and power difference. Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said Canada is like a mouse sleeping next to an elephant. If the elephant even twitches, the mouse feels the earthquake. Still, we share the world’s longest undefended border. We are not like Ukraine and the USSR, or China and Tibet. Perhaps more like Australia and New Zealand, although Canada is slightly larger geographically than the US. Unlike Lesotho and South Africa, we have not been threatened by annexation of late. Although there has been talk in the past of such…

We are always giving gifts to the USA. Canada often watches the best of its actors (Micheal J. Fox), musicians (Neil Young), comedians (Jim Carry), preachers (Ravi Zacharius), and even politicians (Michael Ignatieff) move south. This article on the Avro Arrow jet (a Canadian icon from the 1950s) shows how all our best aviation engineers left Canada when the jet was scrapped and became the brains of NASA that landed a man on the moon. The author states that “there is an old Canadian joke that says the best thing that happened to America was the cancellation of the Arrow.” The next sentence talks about our “southern ‘frenemy'”–an interesting way to capture the ambivalence of many Canadians for its closest neighbour.

We Canadians and Americans are allies, partners, neighbours, and in many ways, friends, for which I am grateful. But we will need to assert ourselves as Canadians from time to time in this relationship, lest we be treated like just a side-kick.

To summarize, generally speaking, there is a different history in Canada with regards to authority, political violence, racial tensions, and multiculturalism. We have a less defined identity, except when it comes to our relationship to you, sorry to say (there I go apologizing!) Its a negative identity, and we can wear it like a badge when we are overseas: we are not Americans. We have more public social institutions, our dominant culture is more secular, and more averse to right-wing evangelical politics.

There is much more that could be said, but I hope you get a sense for our concerns about “contextual differences.” We are still good friends and colleagues (I hope!) Insofar as we are Christians, we share a faith; but we minister in different cultures. We tend to be more alert to these differences, and if that is hard to understand, maybe its something we have to ask you to just accept. I hope this leads to deeper mutual respect and permission for us to do and say things with a different accent and different priorities.


Peter Schuurman

“We are friends and neighbours, have fought together in the two great wars of the last century, and the United States has been… Canada’s largest trading partner… Canadians are intensely aware of the economic and cultural giant on our doorstep… But we are acutely aware that the sheer cultural and economic mass of the United States almost inevitably has an impact on our way of life, and we therefore examine every interaction between our two countries with great self-consciousness and rigour, lest some portion of our statehood, our way of life and identity, be diminished, obscured or even obliterated. We are on a jealous watch up here.”

“Home Truths for Both Countries” Rex Murphy, journalist, 2005

7 thoughts on “A Letter to My American Friends and Partners: Canada is A Foreign Country

  1. Thanks for this, Peter. Your analysis is helpful in understanding the differences (and similarities) between Canada and the USA, especially at the ecclesiastical level. It helps to explain the real reasons that there have always been tensions between the USA and Canadian branches of the CRC. The Canadian CRC has always felt a bit like a branch plant of the USA “headquarters” in Grand Rapids.


  2. Appreciating this piece, Peter. When I as a Korean immigrant to US studied at Calvin Seminary, I felt connected with Canadian students (one of them became my wife!). I thought it had something to do with more recent immigrants history and more prevalent multiculturalism (less individualistic). I also felt a bit more relaxed atmosphere when visiting Canada. Your points confirmed many of my hunch feelings. Thanks


  3. Appreciating this piece, Peter. When I as a Korean immigrant to US studied at Calvin Seminary, I felt connected with Canadian students (one of them became my wife!). I thought it had something to do with more recent immigrants history and more prevalent multiculturalism (less individualistic). I also felt a bit more relaxed atmosphere when visiting Canada. Your points confirmed many of my hunch feelings. Thanks


  4. Appreciating this piece, Peter. When I as a Korean immigrant to US studied at Calvin Seminary, I felt connected with Canadian students (one of them became my wife!). I thought it had something to do with more recent immigrants history and more prevalent multiculturalism (less individualistic). I also felt a bit more relaxed atmosphere when visiting Canada. Your points confirmed many of my hunch feelings. Thanks


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