on canada and the us switching places, or, why canada, part 3

Canada and the US have switched places. The US is now an open, free society, marching steadily to the left, and Canada is "the new US," regressing ever rightward.

Wherever there is punditry, you can find this theme.

Too bad it's bullshit.

Ever since Barack Obama was elected President of the United States - at roughly the same time Stephen Harper shut down democracy in Canada in order to maintain his government, and Michael Ignatieff backed him up because that's better for his party - this has been the easy headline.

Whenever I see a column or blog post on this theme, I wonder if the writer knows anything at all about the US, or indeed, has forgotten some basic facts about Canada.

* * * *

First, on the US side. There's no doubt Obama casts a better shadow than the last person to live in the White House. But are we so shallow as to be fooled by window dressing, no matter how pleasant the appearance or more advanced the vocabulary?

How is the US changing?

War? Empire? The same, or worse. The US bases in Iraq are permanent, at least in terms of our lifetimes. Someone will be needed to defend them, and whether a privatized security force, US-trained Iraqi puppets, or actual US military, the defending will be done by the US.

In case there is any loss of military-industrial contracts from a step-down in Iraq, Obama is insuring the maintenance of profits by stepping up the war in Afghanistan. And of course, there will be more invasions and wars to come, although they might not be called wars. A change from Republican to Democrat to Republican does not change US foreign policy substantially. No, strike that. It doesn't change foreign policy. Period.

Health care? No sign of single payer now or on the horizon.

Abortion rights? That happens under state law. Obama has no control over it, except indirectly through the Supreme Court. Twenty-five years in the US pro-choice movement taught me that the focus on Roe v. Wade is wishful thinking for the uninformed. The damage has already been done, as the Supreme Court through the late 1980s and 1990s allowed the states to make Roe irrelevant in most of the US.

Equal marriage? Obama has no control over that. I'm not familiar with the inner workings of the US equal marriage movement, and I imagine there is a lot of work going on to move something federally, but states right are states rights. That is, when it comes to limiting the rights of citizens.

Fair elections? No change.

Unchecked, deregulated capitalism? The Globe and Mail scare-graphics notwithstanding, Obama is not a socialist. In case you missed it, Canada's self-proclaimed national newspaper ran a front-page, above-the-fold illustration of the US flag, with communist hammer-and-sickles replacing the stars. Cute. I guess I missed the part where Obama nationalized the vast corporate wealth and distributed it to the people.

All the President is going for is a little accountability, to quell some of the well-justified rage of taxpayers who financed bailouts only to see CEOs retire with more money than they will see in ten lifetimes on their Wal-Mart poverty wages. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt before him, Barack Obama will rein in capitalism to secure capitalism.

Death penalty? There does seem to be some movement away from capital punishment - but it started ten years ago, as activists using DNA evidence helped exonerated many death-row prisoners. How far the movement will go and whether it will have traction on a federal level remains to be seen. That has little to do with which party is in power, as the Democrats will follow public opinion on this, not lead it.

I'm not saying nothing is changing in the US. But in the ways that matter most to me, the US is still the US.

* * * *

On to Canada.

Things are changing here. There's no doubt that the Harper-Ignatieff coalition is moving the country to the right. When you're a political immigrant, the political blends seamlessly into the personal. How many times have I been asked, Are you sorry you moved here? Are you going to move back? I wish I had been keeping track.

I detest the Harper Government, what it stands for, how it stays in power, where it is taking Canada with its de facto majority government. But the Harper Government is not Canada, and it has not yet re-made Canada, in the ways that are most important to me.

When I first started this blog, while still living in New York City, I answered the question "Why Canada" like this:
National health insurance, legal gay marriage, no death penalty, full abortion rights, less crime, less poverty. Canada didn't support the invasion of Iraq, and they don't keep a huge military with which to bully the rest of the world. Religious fanatics do not control the government.

So which of these has changed?

Of the above, there are only three areas Canadians could possibly dispute.

Poverty. Obviously, there has been an increase in poverty here, as there has been everywhere on the planet. Too many people are unemployed and social services are inadequate.

But Canada could not have been immune to the global recession, no matter who formed the government, and the party that will be trusted to help the economy the most will form the next government.

Relative to the US, Canada is booming. Because of the de-regulated banking industry and the subprime mortgage catastrophe, millions of USians have lost their homes, unemployment and underemployment has skyrocketed. And remember, in the US, if you lose your job, you lose your health care.

Crime. I know many Canadians are upset about an increase in crime in Canadian cities. If a US city the size of Toronto - roughly speaking, Philadelphia or Boston - had less than 100 murders in a given year, they'd appoint a Mayor For Life and hail him as a national hero. I know Vancouver is currently in the throes of crime hysteria, but when a city is in the midst of that, it's difficult to distinguish between reality and media-fueled hype. From my US-raised perspective, Canada is very safe.

That only leaves the religious influence on government. Having lived in both countries, I can tell you that the US at its most secular is ten times as religious as Canada at its most religious. If we want a secular society, we must continue to be vigilant and take an active role in ensuring that. But that's always the case.

A few months after we moved to Canada, I wrote "Why Canada, Part 2," and added this:
We knew life in Canada would be different, if only for how we see the United States: foreign wars for profit; unchecked poverty and its twin, rampant violence; increasing government intrusion into citizens' personal lives; media controlled by the government, and a government controlled by religious fanatics; a corrupt, antiquated election system.

Elections. The Canadian election system is still first-past-the-post, so it is not truly democratic. But the votes are counted fairly, with independent oversight. There is at least a legitimate movement fighting for proportional representation.

And although the Canadian system is not not fair - and not democratic - if you are a Conservative voter in a traditionally NDP riding, or a Liberal voter in a riding the Conservatives have a lock on, and your vote is consistently thrown away, at least a riding is a relatively small slice of the population. The US first-past-the-post system divides 306,000,000 people into only 50 voting blocs!

Add to that partisan, politically-appointed "oversight", electronic vote-changing, and byzantine rules that disenfranchise millions of citizens. And only two parties!

There are, sadly, many liberal Canadians who don't understand this: having more than two parties at the federal level helps keep Canada, Canada. When people call for the NDP and the Liberals to merge - as if they stand for the same things! - they are calling for Canada to take one massive step towards becoming the US.

* * * *

I didn't leave the US because of which party was elected. As I always say, anyone who would have been happy enough in the US had John Kerry been elected wasn't moving anywhere. Nor did I come to Canada because I was in love with the Liberal Party of Canada, who formed the government when we got here.

I don't like the Harper-Ignatieff government, but for me, Canada is still Canada. I'm proud to be working to keep it that way.

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