Unbeknownst to most Americans, there's much to learn from - and
about - our northern neighbor
For more than a decade, Canada has been
rated as the best country — or one of the top eight in the world — in
which to live by the Human Development Report, commissioned by the
United Nations Development Programme. In the latest report issued in
2004, Norway was ranked first, followed by Sweden, Australia and Canada.
The United States ranked eighth out of 177 countries last year, based on
per-capita income or standard of living, education and literacy, life
expectancy and health.
For Canadian studies expert Stephen Hornsby, the report confirms what he
and others in his field have long known about America's northern
neighbor. The irony is, too few Americans know what's above the 49th
"Many Americans who see the U.S. as a superpower view the American model
as the only way to live," Hornsby says. "That's one of the main points
about going to Canada: to see that people live in a modern way and yet
do important things differently and, in some ways, in a better and more
enriching way for their society. The American way is not the only way.
There are alternatives."
In recent years, some in the world have done a double take when it comes
to the traditionally unassuming nation with a population less than that
of California. From 1992–2000, the UN's Human Development Report rated
Canada as the best country to live in, as reported by the Canadian
Broadcasting Corp. In 2003, Canada was in eighth place, the first and
only time it ranked below the U.S. Yet that same year, Britain's
Economist magazine looked at Canada's social liberalism, economy and
"certain boldness" in social policy, and concluded "Canada is now rather
cool" (as in hot, happening, in a Renaissance sort of way). The
magazine's five-year survey of the 60 most prosperous nations, conducted
by international economic analysts, cited Canada as the best place in
the world to do business.
Because of its proximity and growing stature, Americans need to know
much more about Canada, says Hornsby, who directs the University of
Maine Canadian-American Center, the largest institute for the study of
Canada in the United States. Increasingly, the U.S. and Canadian
economies are integral as a result of the North American Free Trade
Agreement. (More than 80 percent of Canada's trade is with the U.S.) The
two countries also share environmental concerns, particularly
over-harvesting of natural resources, and pollution of common waterways
In addition, the nations have long-standing social and cultural ties.
Many Canadian social policies and issues are relevant to the United
States, including the continuing debate in Canada about the role of the
government in social and welfare issues, and efforts made by Canadians
to develop a distinctive cultural tradition in the face of homogenizing
tendencies of mass culture.
"While Canada has a standard of living and material existence like the
United States, there are fundamental social differences — a more
collective social safety net ranging from healthcare to education to
social security," Hornsby says.
Among its many distinctions, Canada has established an official
bilingual policy, strict gun control, and state-supported colleges and
universities. Most recently, it approved same sex marriages. Canadians
rate universal healthcare as the most important aspect about their
nation, Hornsby says.
However, no nation is a utopia. Canada struggles like other countries
with such issues as high taxes and poverty. But what Canadians are
showing Americans is that there are different ways of living on this
continent, says Ray Pelletier, associate director of the
"From them, Americans could learn cultural tolerance and the importance
of being able to communicate in a second language. While we do a lot of
things right in the U.S., we need to recognize the strengths of other
countries. Canadians, for example, seem to be more respectful of
UMaine's Canadian-American Center, founded in 1967, promotes
cross-border research in the humanities, and the social and natural
sciences, and directs educational outreach programs. Both duties are
particularly pertinent in Maine, which is bordered by two Canadian
provinces. Possibly as much as half of the state's population has
ancestral roots in Canada.
The Center's outreach initiatives include professional development
workshops and Atlantic Canada summer institutes for teachers, both in
English and French. Last summer, 32 teachers from 12 states participated
in two institutes in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Among them was
"I never knew anything about the Acadian people before this trip," says
Blake, who grew up in Massachusetts and teaches school in New Hampshire.
"It seems since we're such close neighbors, we ought to do more. It's
such an interesting story, even beyond the historical significance, that
it should be shared."
At a time when the American image abroad is tarnished by claims of
cultural insensitivity, learning about the largest, nearest nation to
the U.S. could be a stepping-stone toward greater international
understanding, Canadian-American Center officials agree.
"It's easier to relate to Canada because it's similar in many ways to
the U.S. For many Americans, it's far more difficult trying to
understand other countries," Hornsby says. "That's why the center's
outreach is so important. We have the opportunity to take students and
teachers and immerse them in Canada. They not only come to better
understand that nation, but to see the U.S. from a different
by Margaret Nagle
for more stories from this issue of UMaine Today Magazine.