The moose is 'cool'... again: Neil Macdonald

British magazine The Economist says some nice words about Canada in its latest issue, which not surprisingly became a hot topic here online. Even as our country turns 150, we still seem to crave the world's approval, Neil Macdonald writes.

Canada is nearly 150 years old but still craves the world's approval

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets fans after speaking at a news conference at the end of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit back in November. Canada seems to crave the world's approval, Neil Macdonald writes. (Reuters)

The moose is not the most flattering animal to have as an avatar. It's a lumbering, awkward, bad-tempered, gigantic doofus of a beast, with the appearance, at least, of slow-wittedness. It certainly lacks the predatory majesty of, say, a bald eagle.

And yet Canadians are stuck with it.

"Follow the moose," The Economist advises its worldwide readership in the current edition, the cover of which is a gushy, oleaginous flattery that will make the naughty bits of Canadian nationalists positively tingle.

The moose, says the influential British magazine, is resolutely upholding the torch of liberal decency and openness, while other Western nations are succumbing to meanspiritedness, nativism, isolation and general ugliness.

"Today, in its lonely defence of liberal values, Canada seems downright heroic," declares the lead editorial. There is also a longish, equally admiring report, unsigned as always, datelined Winnipeg.

"In an age of seductive extremes," the editorial continues, "[Canada] remains reassuringly levelheaded."

The cover of the latest edition of The Economist suggests Canada is an 'example to the world.' (The Economist)

This is the third time in 13 years The Economist has judged Canada. Both previous instances were treated as news here.

The first was in 2003, after Jean Chrétien's Liberals had, using the now-unpopular tool of austerity, turned Canada's federal deficit into a surplus.

"A cautious case can be made that Canada is now rather cool," was the verdict back then.

In 2003, The Economist declared Canada cool on its cover. (The Economist)

Unbearably, the cover art was a moose wearing Oakley-like sunglasses, which might actually have been cool in 2003. I don't remember.

The second was in 2013, after several years of Stephen Harper. Same picture of the same moose, but with the Oakley-like things dangling on the end of its nose, its uncovered eyes staring stupidly at the reader.

"Canada loses its cool," the piece declared, blaming Harper for "entrenching policies that are decidedly uncool, such as promoting exports from Alberta's tar sands while doing the minimum on climate change, and backtracking on the social liberalism that The Economist found so refreshing a decade ago."

In 2013, The Economist changed its mind about Canada. This photo ran with a story headlined: 'Uncool Canada.' (The Economist)

The "tar sands" reference was an enjoyable Economist-like rebuke of the more approving "oilsands" orthodoxy Canada's media collectively embraced during the Harper years.

But now the love is back. The latest cover is a snipe at the Americans; a Statue of Liberty wearing a dopey Maple Leaf hat, clutching a hockey stick, under the caption "Liberty moves north."

(Another wave of cringe at that; I find hockey about as cool as a moose, but we do seem forever identified in the American mind with men in mullets zinging around rinks.)

This week's edition praises Canada for its embrace of immigration, proportionately more than any other rich nation, and the Liberal government's decision to welcome far more Syrian refugees than America, a nation that is far more responsible for creating Syrians' misery.

Terribly exciting 

It praises Canada for pursuing free trade, for maintaining a sound social safety net, for its sane gun laws, for its embrace of multiculturalism, for its willingness to suspend austerity when necessary and for its progressive, redistributive fiscal policies.

It even makes a great virtue of Canada's gelid equanimity, its lack of spice and fire, quoting Dickens's relief at finding in Canada, after an 1842 visit to America, "public feeling and private enterprise in a sound and wholesome state; nothing of flush or fever in its system."

"Irredeemably dull" lumpen-ness, the magazine concludes, is far better than the untempered scream of America's political discourse, especially right now.

Trudeau greets Syrian refugees at Pearson airport in Toronto back in December. The Economist praises Canada in its latest issue for its immigration policies. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

This tone, especially the subtext of superiority to Americans, is terribly exciting to Canada's chattering class. The coverage seems to be mushrooming eagerly on social media here.

Because a great many Canadians do indeed regard their system as superior to America's, in just about every respect.

It's almost a form of Canadian exceptionalism, something Canadian liberals deeply believe in and yet cannot, as good Canadians, possibly acknowledge believing, because it's a little too much like the chosen-people-in-a-shining-city-on-a-hill stuff that's almost a second American religion.

Today, in its lonely defence of liberal values, Canada seems downright heroic.- The Economist

Stephen Harper was mocked in 2005 when he began ending speeches with "God Bless Canada," but only because it sounded so American, and because most Canadians regard unashamed public religiosity as ticky-tacky.

If Harper had been a liberal, and had found some other way to say it — somehow asserting Canadian superiority while simultaneously decrying jingoism — it probably would have been a hit.

Cool, uncool, cool again

Anyway, none of this is to impugn The Economist's journalism. It's an excellent publication.

If it appears precocious, endorsing a nation, then withdrawing the endorsement, then bestowing it again, the rapture it inspires in Canadians simply by paying such close attention to Canada would seem to justify its mild British arrogance.

And it does point out a few glaring truths: Canadians are less productive, poorer and less innovative than Americans. Canada may be a free-trader in a post-Brexit world, but also remains highly protectionist, using borders and tariffs and a thicket of regulations to nurture a dependent private sector that would otherwise be annihilated by the creative destruction and hypercompetitiveness practised by Americans.

Further, it is easy to be pro-immigration when your borders are protected by oceans, ice floes and the very existence of the United States. Uncontrollable migrations of the world's wretched and desperate happen elsewhere. Canada gets to be choosy.

I do wonder, though, whether in my lifetime Canadians will grow indifferent to praise or criticism from abroad. It's hard to imagine the French or Italians or Russians giving a toss about an Economist cover.

This column, I suppose, is my answer. We remain easily courted and even more easily hurt, even as we turn 150.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.