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Oh! Canada?


Oh! Canada?
Unbeknownst to most Americans, there's much to learn from - and about - our northern neighbor

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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 parallel.

"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 19922000, 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 and airspace.

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 Canadian-American Center.

"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 cultural identity."

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 Debbie Blake.

"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 perspective."

by Margaret Nagle
March-April, 2005

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