Canadian privilege: Picking up after Trump and the United States

Canada, speaker
Michael Ball/File

“I’m going to move to Canada.”

On the day that the U.S. presidential election results were announced, the Canadian immigration website crashed. The idea of fleeing up to the great white north seemed to make its rounds on social media after every major U.S. policy decision, but seldom had it manifested in mass, panic-fuelled visiting of regulation websites. For the most part, the thought of incoming Americans was hilarious. During one instance, Canadians took great pleasure in reminding those tapping out their outraged soon-to-be defection over the U.S. Supreme Court legalization of gay marriage that marriage equality had in fact been enshrined in law for 10 years up north.

Other times, such as in the days after Nov. 8, the familiar phrase was received with a quiet self-satisfaction, the sort that is distinctly Canadian. “Why yes, of course you’d want to come here to escape the election madness, the xenophobia, the perennial partisan deadlock. We have it great here! At least, compared to you.”

As a Canadian, the idea that Canada was seen as a utopia, or at least a storm shelter, by our neighbours down south was immensely — and selfishly — comforting for me. Even though I had committed to UC Berkeley for the next few years, there was the thought, warm and self-indulgent as a mug of Tim Hortons French Vanilla on a cold, blustery day, that I could always retreat back home if things got too bad. It was an invitation to pick and choose what I wanted out of an American education, because ultimately, I won’t ever have to live with it if I choose not to.

“Why yes, of course you’d want to come here to escape the election madness, the xenophobia, the perennial partisan deadlock.”

But on the flip side, the “I’ll just move up north” ideology reveals a perception of similarity between the United States and Canada that is fundamentally misguided — and untrue. Though both nations share surface similarities in terms of language and style of governance, the divide between the two sets of cultural values and national identities has only become more pronounced with President Trump’s election.

In some instances, the discrepancy is political. The price of sharing the world’s longest undefended border and forging what some have called the world’s most mutually dependent partnership with the reigning global superpower must be paid. Oftentimes, that price is responding to the immediate ripple effect of each major U.S. policy, which far suppasses a few defeatist tweets. After Trump blocked all Middle Eastern immigrants, refugees or otherwise, from entering the United States with his notorious, previously court-defeated “Muslim Ban,” Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a pointed statement reaffirming Canada’s commitment to refugees and diversity. Canadian universities have also been targeting U.S. students, who matriculated this school year at record numbers. In response to Trump’s “America First” doctrine, Canada fast-tracked its visa program for highly skilled workers this past summer, attracting many immigrants with valued STEM degrees who might, according to Politico, have turned away from Silicon Valley.

But just as the nation has been careful to keep the United States at a polite arm’s length, it also cannot afford to alienate its closest ally. Just two weeks ago, the fourth round of the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations began, and while President Trump has made no secret of his isolationist tendencies, the United States is the largest consumer of Canadian exports. President Trump has threatened an approximately 20 percent increase in taxes against Canadian lumber — 70 percent of which the United States purchased in 2015 — and pushed for the opening of dairy markets in Canada for U.S. products. An ominous tweet, sent out in April 2017, reads: “Canada has made business for our dairy farmers in Wisconsin and other border states very difficult. We will not stand for this. Watch!”

In other instances, the cultural differences between the nations is impossible to ignore, especially for Canadians working and studying abroad. UC Berkeley freshman Catherine Wang calls her move from west coast British Columbia “the biggest cultural shock.” Jerilyn Sambrooke, a Canadian graduate student studying rhetoric at UC Berkeley, in turn sees her decade of living in the United States as a study in her own privilege.

“I’m the invisible foreigner,” she explained. Because she speaks English with no accent and is a white woman, her self-identification of being Canadian to Americans is always met with mild surprise. As she recounted the number of times she’s heard the phrase, “Oh, you don’t look like an international student,” a note of frustration entered her voice. What does that show about their definition of the United States, for her to “blend in” so indistinguishably?

“I’m the invisible foreigner.”

— Jerilyn Sambrooke

And how do Americans identify who’s “Canadian”? From a citizen of a country that prides itself on its diversity and multiculturalism and whose defining qualities of being “Canadian” can deviate drastically from being white and speaking English, the underlying acceptance of homogeneity in its citizenship chafes. It’s a vision of the United States that, implicitly or explicitly, excludes minorities. I am reminded helplessly of my own experience of my own moment of frustration on my first trip to the United States, my Chinese Canadian parents trailing behind me, and the well-meaning shopkeeper’s smiling question: “No, where are you really from?”

The deeply ingrained assumption for what it means to be American, and in turn Canadian, more often than not homogenous in airbrushed images of perfection, is only reinforced by the election of Trump. With his inflammatory rhetoric against those who have made a life in the land of the free, who have contributed to building of a country that does not even recognize them as its own, Trump has fed into the id of the American psyche and emerged with one clear doctrine: “America first,” but only one version of the United States — one that’s white and speaks fluent English.
In the age of Trump, Canada, with all our differences, has been thrust into the spotlight as both a foil to rampant populism and a bulwark against proud intolerance. Reports of refugees fleeing to Canada in fear of the commander in chief’s mercurial temper and policies continue to arrive each day. These asylum seekers are just one reason why Canadians must stand firm and united in our commitment to inclusivity, in their service and in our own. It’s the somber reminder that in 2017, no one can practice escapism, not by moving to Canada, and especially not as a Canadian. We’ve had our laughs; it’s time to get serious.

Contact Anna Ho at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @anna_j_ho.