What happened to “nice” Canada?

A Canada goose, being not so nice. Photo: Ken Slade, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

A Canada goose, being not so nice. Photo: Ken Slade, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Canada and Canadians have a long-standing reputation for being nice. While there are worse labels to wear, “nice” can feel bland and tiresome at times – sort of like some Miss Congeniality runner-up award.

Sure, other words come up too: friendly, polite, compassionate. Sometimes admirers throw in additional terms like progressive. I’m not here to trash that cheerful storyline. By and large, this is a pleasant country with helpful, well-intended citizens who value compromise and co-operation more than is usually the case in the U.S.

But there are plenty of examples of a less-kind Canada, from past to present. Here are a few worth pondering, in chronological order.

First, something that challenges the view Canada has been much nicer to its native inhabitants than the nasty old U.S.A. As reported in the Canadian media this past week, much is being made of a discovery that during the 1940’s some hungry aboriginal children (and adults) in Canada were used for nutritional research. Here’s how the CBC summarized what government researchers did::

They found people who were hungry, beggared by a combination of the collapsing fur trade and declining government support. They also found a demoralized population marked by, in the words of the researchers, “shiftlessness, indolence, improvidence and inertia.”

The researchers suggested those problems — “so long regarded as inherent or hereditary traits in the Indian race” — were in fact the results of malnutrition.

Instead of recommending an increase in support, the researchers decided that isolated, dependent, hungry people would be ideal subjects for tests on the effects of different diets.

This came to light through research published in the May 2013 issue of Histoire Sociale/Social History by food historian Ian Mosby. It’s generated considerable attention and the source article can be viewed here. Ian Mosby speaks about the subject in this CBC interview on “As it Happens”:

“…my sense of it was that they saw this as a problem that would not be solved, and so therefore their experiments were not making the children’s lives worse – this is what I imagine them to be thinking.”

Mosby’s guess about motives sounds bang-on to me. These days there’s general consensus that governments confronted with hunger are obliged to at least try and supply relief. But safety-net mentality is pretty much a post-war 20th century social contract. In the bad old days, plenty of countries thought little of letting those on the ladder’s bottom rung fend for themselves, or simply fall off. (Please note I am not condoning the racism, cruelty and neglect those practices reflect. I’m simply suggesting that present outrage is often viewed through the lens of modern expectations.)

If some “travesty scale” for violence against original inhabitants existed, the U.S probably retains a commanding lead over Canada. But things like this recent revelation, or a beating caught on video, challenge the common assumption that Canada treats its native populations comparatively well.

Moving to more current events, here’s one I don’t even like to bring up. Remember that gory murder and dismemberment in 2012, allegedly committed by Luka Magnotta? As detailed by Wikipedia, Magnotta is a “… pornographic actor and model accused of killing and dismembering Lin Jun, a Chinese international student, then mailing his severed limbs to political parties and elementary schools.” (No one has been convicted for that murder yet. Here is a time line of the case from the Montreal Gazette.)

This week, though, the owner of a website based in Edmonton, Alberta was charged with one count of “corrupting morals” for posting a video that allegedly showed the murder/dismemberment. Mark Marek runs something called “Best Gore”. As reported by the CBC:

Marek has defended his website’s role in the case, saying it provides a public service by educating the public about the dangerous side of human nature.

As you can imagine, the charge of “corrupting morals” can be difficult to apply in general, and it’s really problematic in case of the Internet. Here’s more on that law from Global news:

Toronto criminal lawyer Jonathan Rosenthal says that the section is an “old-fashioned section of Canada’s law,” that is rarely used.

“It’s a law that is used for offenses where it’s not pornography, but you know it’s wrong,” said Rosenthal. “Cases involving this law would be very difficult to prosecute as you have to prove intent.”

I have blogged before about my own belief that excessive media attention can function as oxygen for criminals and would-be criminals. So beyond observing that the Canadian legal system now gets to wrestle with the complex issue of Internet freedom in the context of posting snuff videos, I’m ready to move on.

And then there’s a new area where Canada starts to feel uncomfortably like the U.S. – the political “enemies list”. Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently shuffled his cabinet. A fairly standard event. What seems less standard was this allegation, as reported by the National Post:

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office asked Conservative political staffers to develop lists of “enemy” lobby groups, as well as troublesome bureaucrats and reporters to avoid as part of preparations for incoming ministers named in Monday’s cabinet shuffle, according to leaked emails sent to Postmedia News by an unidentified source.

Whoa! Shades of Richard Nixon! What’s the deal there?

To be fair, few people and even fewer countries are 100% squeaky clean all the time. And I’ve also cherry-picked examples to suit this post’s theme. There’s also a sizable faction in Canada that is convinced Prime Minister Harper and current Conservative Party practices take the low road as a standard strategic choice. There’s a ready audience for facts or stories which support that view.

So, was “nice Canada” ever real? Or just a myth?

If you think Canada has become less nice, so to speak, would you care to postulate on the how and why of that decline?

Modern times?

An “evil prime minister”?

The pollution of American culture? (This theory is quite popular in Canada!)

Do tell.

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5 Comments on “What happened to “nice” Canada?”

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  1. The tone is set from up top. Prime Minister Harper’s government has operated with a harshness that feels like an increasing American-ization of the Canadian political scene. From the cult of personality around the leader to his control freakery to the enemies’ list. He’s setting the tone. It’s not a partisan thing. Previous recent Conservative prime ministers were nothing like this.

    A recent article in Maclean’s highlighted increasing discomfort in the Tory caucus over his tactics. They should be. Harper and his inner cabal forget that his party has never received even 40% of the popular vote in any general election since he became leader. This means that over 60% have consistently voted for left or center-left parties. His overreach may be sowing the seeds of his own demise.

  2. TomL says:

    Canadians of Japanese descent would likely question how “nice” Canada was in the past. By many accounts, the treatment of people of Japanese descent in Canada was worse than the US during and after WWII. David Suzuki was a child in one of the internment camps.

    “It is the governments plan to get these people out of B.C. as fast as possible. It is my personal intention, as long as I remain in public life, to see they never come back here. Let our slogan be for British Columbia: No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.'” Ian MacKenzie, the federal cabinet minister from British Columbia http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP14CH3PA3LE.html

  3. Canada Nice?,maybe the country itself is but it’s citizens,NOT,since moving to The North Country here in NY 2002 I have had the displeasure of dealing with inconsiderate pompus rude canadians and wish they would just stay out of Watertown,NY,they think they dont have to abide by our laws on our roads,many do not use their turn signals when they turn or make illegal lane changes,they leave their garbage in our parking lots which some have the price tags cut off their newly purchased items,and I take offense to Ian MacKenzie’s term JAPS,my oldest child is 1/2 Japanese and would like him to say that nasty term to my face because he would not have one if he did!

  4. Harry Wall says:

    Many need to realize that the image the US projects of itself is set by those (supposedly) elected to a position that is to speak for it’s citizens. Those in power now DO NOT listen to the people and appear to have an agenda of their own. Hopefully this will all change when re-election time rolls around.

    We “The People” agree the US needs to stay out of other countries business and focus more on the problems faced within it’s own borders.

  5. Irish: I live in a region that gets tourists from Quebec, the rest of Canada, NYC, Long Island, Jersey and many other parts of the country and world. I can tell you that ALL of these groups have their annoying elements when being tourists. There’s something slightly presumptuous about the tourist mentality. It’s not unique to Canadians.

    Whenever I’ve gone to Canada, I’ve found the people overwhelmingly friendly, big city or small town, francophone or anglophone.

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