World·Point of View

Farewell, America, Canada could learn a few things from you

Yes, there is much to criticize about the U.S., Neil Macdonald writes, and readers know he certainly has. But as he takes his leave from Washington, he also says there are many American values that countries like Canada could learn a few things from.

Yes, there is much to criticize, but the U.S. penchant to do the right thing can't be ignored

Doing the right thing? Actor Ben Affleck, founder of the Eastern Congo Initiative, and Microsoft founder and philanthropist Bill Gates, make their case for development aid before a Senate committee in March. (Yuri Gripas / Reuters)

A couple of weeks ago, my mother was trawling the Apple e-book website for some good beach reading.

I suggested she try the Game of Thrones fantasy potboilers, which, my iPad informed me, could be downloaded for $19.99 — not bad for five books.

No, Mom replied, they're $45.99. No they aren't, I insisted, holding up my device. Yes they are, she snapped, holding up hers.

She was right, of course. I'd forgotten we were sitting in her living room in Ottawa.

My iPad is wired to the U.S. Apple site. Mom's tablet forces her into Apple's Canadian corral for the customary fleecing everyone "up there" seems to endure with such fatalism.

This is pure gouging; there are no customs inspections or shipping complications or other cost escalators associated with delivering an e-book. It's just a burst of ones and zeroes.

Apple hoses Canadians because it can. To the corporate world, Canada is a protected enclave of sheep.

And now, 17 years after I left, I'm moving back to the enclave and rejoining the flock.

Never a best price

I realize it doesn't sound terribly noble to cite crass economic self-interest as what comes to mind most quickly about returning to Canada, but there it is.

The prospect of spending more for just about everything is sort of depressing.

After 12 years in Washington, I've grown used to free delivery in a relatively borderless economy, and the ability to go online and find the best price.

My fear is that in Canada there's never a best price.

But transition really isn't all about money. Here are a few other things I'll miss about America, and a few I won't.


It's a favourite word for politicians everywhere these days, but in this country it actually means something.

Freedom of information in America is a defined public right, not a silly concept to be circumvented or ignored by smug officials and politicians.

Eric Garner Jr., son of chokehold victim Eric Garner, joins in one of the many protests against police violence that ripped across the U.S. in December and January, and which led to procedural changes and charges in some jurisdictions. (Andrew Kelly / Reuters)

Presidents and congressional leaders hold regular news conferences. They never stop answering questions.

Politicians here routinely disclose personal finances (imagine that?). Call a U.S. government department, and you'll probably find an official who's liable to call back with real information.

As my friend, the author and political scientist Jim Thurber at American University, puts it, "the American public would not tolerate any other approach."

Well, it seems pretty clear the Canadian public would, and does.

Ottawa's default setting is secret, as I've discovered on the odd occasion I've had to call across the border for information.

Officials there prefer to communicate by email, if at all, and the answers generally amount to "We're dealing with it. You don't need to know any more than that."


There is more of it in America. A lot more. (See the foregoing).

Yes, yes, I understand the corrupting power of money in U.S. politics.

But I've also come to understand the power of ordinary American voters, especially those with compelling ideas who get behind ballot initiatives or legal challenges or political movements.

An example: like Americans, most Canadians don't regard possession of cannabis as worthy of prosecution. The difference is that because of voter activism, recreational cannabis consumption is now legal in four states, and, in dozens of others, possession is treated in the same manner as a traffic offence.

In supposedly progressive Canada, meanwhile, even simple possession remains a crime nationwide, and the government actually had to be told by the Supreme Court that medical marijuana users have the right — not a government-conferred privilege — to consume the drug as they please. Even in cookies.

Another example: In this country, when you need an elective medical procedure, you can get it done in a few days, rather than a few years. Even if you're indigent or on Medicare.

Canadians can't be nearly as smug any more about health care now that the U.S. Supreme Court has given its stamp of approval to Obamacare. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

I'm afraid my co-citizens can no longer hold up health care as final evidence of our greater social compassion. Since Obamacare became law, the number of uninsured Americans has dwindled noticeably.

And why we don't have an easier movement of goods and labour across the 49th parallel is mystifying. "Free trade" has turned out to be anything but.

Doing the right thing

I have no other phrase to explain it, but it is a powerful motive in the American public mind.

Americans work harder, give more to charity — far more — than Canadians, and there is a touching reverence here for public service.

Neighbours of mine regularly go to Reagan Airport in D.C. to cheer the arrival of aging veterans, most of whom roll through the arrivals section in wheelchairs. "Honour flights," they're called.

This superpower also sometimes expends blood and treasure to end the suffering of innocents (Kosovo and Somalia), rather than to pursue a national interest. 

Now, I can already hear the response to all this: What about all those other countries the U.S. invaded? And why don't you stay in America if it's so wonderful?

Well, I'm not shouting unreservedly that this nation is, as many of my American friends so declare, "the best country on Earth."

American exceptionalism remains a licence to trample through the affairs and even territory of other nations.

It also seems unfair that America's rapacious banks nearly destroyed the world's economy eight years ago, and that now its economy has recovered much more quickly than everyone else's.

As well, the tolerance for guns here, frankly, borders on insane. The economy seems to require a permanent pool of subsistence labourers, none of whom seems to be Caucasian.

And the level of Christian moralizing in political discourse, with all its spoken and unspoken implications, still makes me uncomfortable.

But this country is, ultimately, exciting. It crackles. It has places like New York City, and Americans are serious about free speech.

The best of America — its elite journalism, its universities, the risk-taking, the passion over the rule of law, the brash disregard for classist etiquette, the unrivalled transparency of its economy — may not reappear together in several more lifetimes.

The comments-section harpies on foreign websites who screech and deplore and secrete bile at any mention of America are wrong; most don't seem to know a thing about this place.

Anyway, farewell to it all. I'm going home. 


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.