"Where else would you go when you have an ax to grind?"

Sunday, May 18, 2003

Once more polishing the apple of Canadian self-esteem - any comments from those living in the Excited States?

canadians nicer than americans and getting nicer

We're nice — and getting nicer
Yankee-Canuck differences keep growing: Pollster

Americans might be more fun, but we're so pleasant



Hang on to your mukluks, folks. It looks as if there's a future in being Canadian, after all.

Just when it was beginning to seem pointless even to entertain the idea, along comes Michael Adams to insist there's a distinctive northern identity to celebrate still — and an ever-widening cultural gap between Canucks and Yankees.

"Canadians and Americans are markedly different, and are becoming more so," writes the 56-year-old pollster and author in a new book entitled Fire and Ice, which explores the collective psyches of both countries. (No prize for guessing which of the title's two terms refers to Canada.)

Based on nearly a decade of research into the attitudes and beliefs of people on both sides of the Canada-U.S. frontier, Fire and Ice provides a persuasive and arresting antidote to the popular wisdom du jour — the notion Canadians as a people are hanging up their snowshoes, wiping away their coy, deferential smiles, and forsaking both publicly funded medicine and weird, six-character postal codes, to pledge allegiance instead to the dark trinity of gods that increasingly seems to rule America — the triple-headed Hydra of money, materialism and the military.

This dreary thesis of a nation fumbling toward its own demise has been aggressively marketed by a number of Canadian pundits lately, and it's what a great many Canadians have no doubt come to believe. But Adams is on the case now, and he says it ain't, er, isn't so.

In fact, he says, the opposite is true. Not only are Canadians still a distinctly different society from their neighbours to the south, they are steadily becoming even more different, a trend Adams expects to continue for a good long time. Maybe forever.

"You've got this shy, deferential people becoming more liberal, more autonomous, more inner-directed, more tolerant of diversity than Americans," he said in an interview this week in his ninth-floor office, suspended high above the courteous urban hubbub at the corner of Yonge and Bloor. "It seems counterintuitive."

And maybe it is.

But Adams has the numbers to back his conclusions up — three major public-opinion surveys, based on more than 14,000 interviews his social research company has conducted in Canada and the U.S., first in 1992, again in 1996, and most recently in 2000 — and he says the numbers do not lie.

For Canadians, they tell a rather gratifying tale.

To put it bluntly, the age-old northern conceit continues to hold true. Yes, Americans might be richer, and meaner, and scrappier, and no doubt more exciting to be out with on a date, but Canadians are — you guessed it — nice.

And getting nicer.

Or, as Adams puts it in his engaging, 208-page paean to the virtues of being Canadian: "Canada is becoming the home of a unique post-modern, post-material multiculturalism, generating hardy strains of new hybrids that will enrich this country and many others in the world."

Why, thank you, sir. Merci. Grazie. Obrigado.

And what about those damn Yanks?

Well, dateable they might be — but they don't have the look of marriage material.

Adams' data show Americans to be: "materialistic, outer-directed, intolerant, socially conservative, and deferential to traditional institutional authority."

This last trait is another example of the counterintuitive ways in which Canadians and Americans seem to be proceeding along very separate paths.

As everyone knows, the U.S. has long identified itself with the cult of the warrior hero, the lone everyman fighting a courageous battle against the grinding oppression of a harsh, impersonal state.

Think John Wayne. Think Gary Cooper. Think Harrison Ford. Think Cowboys R Them.

Now consider what Adams has to say on the subject. The poll results, he maintains, show the U.S. is increasingly becoming a land of yea-sayers, of conformists reluctant to question authority and eager to fall into line behind one powerful leader.

Out of many, Homer Simpson.

In 2000, 49 per cent of Americans over 15 agreed with this statement: "The father of the family must be master in his own house." This was an increase from the 42 per cent of Americans who agreed with the statement in 1992.

By contrast, in 2000, just 18 per cent of Canadians were willing to grant unquestioned household authority to dear old Dad, a decrease from 26 per cent eight years earlier.

So who are the rebels now?

Canadians, it seems. It's just that Canadians are nice rebels, peaceful rebels — rebels with a pause button.

On a raft of other social and personal indicators, the results follow a similar pattern.

Americans on the whole do not seem to be especially cuddly or congenial — and they are not about to change.

Instead, it seems, they are becoming more intolerant of racial minorities, more approving of violence, more given to shallow ostentation, and less concerned about community affairs.

Canadians, in all these areas, present a much kinder, gentler public face, one that seems to be improving with age.

Most of Adams' data was obtained before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in September, 2001, but he says the trends he writes about would only have been bolstered, not weakened, in the wake of those shattering events.

Meanwhile, he notes, Americans are twice as likely as Canadians to suffer from obesity, and they watch 30 per cent more TV.

It all might seem too benign to be true, at least as far as the Canadian results are concerned, but Adams points to the numbers, and the numbers tell the tale. He should know.

Trained as a sociologist, the lanky, avuncular pollster has been surveying people's attitudes, behaviour and beliefs for a good long time. He founded Environics Research and Communications in 1970 and has watched it grow into a formidable enterprise with offices in four Canadian cities, as well as New York and Washington, and with annual revenues of more than $50 million.

"We're surveying regularly in more than 30 countries," he said.

Married with two children, Adams has a curly fringe of grey hair, pale blue eyes, and a rambling, loquacious manner. He doesn't so much participate in an interview as conduct the entire operation himself, posing and answering his own questions and only rarely pausing to field a query from the person seated on the other side of his desk.

He has written two previous books, both about Canadian traits and behaviour — the best-selling Sex in the Snow, followed by Better Happy Than Rich? — and says the idea for Fire and Ice came to him when he examined the results of his company's third comparative survey of popular attitudes in Canada and the U.S.

This time, the numbers leapt from the page. What he had previously merely suspected could now be presented as a clear and quantifiable trend. Canadians really are different from Americans, he says, and the two societies are diverging more from each other as time passes.

"I thought, `There's a book. I've got to tell this story.'"

Born in Walkerton, but raised in Toronto since he was 10, Adams himself is a product of a traditional Canada, a land of white-skinned people with rural roots, that is steadily being eclipsed by changing trends and shifting demographics.

But he believes the emerging country, while both more urban and far more multicultural, is nonetheless managing to remain true to itself, despite the cultural and economic pressures exerted by the U.S.

Although his book presents an almost relentlessly bleak picture of Canada's southern neighbour, its writer insists he himself bears no rancour toward Americans, a great many of whom — in fact, about 70 million of them — are very much like Canadians. Unfortunately, this particular group does not currently have much influence in Washington.

Part owner of a winery in California's Napa Valley, Adams travels to the United States frequently. "Probably half of my friends are Americans," he said.

It would be interesting to know what they think of his latest book. But it's fair to say Canadians will be pleased — and very polite.

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