From economy to psychology, from environment to diplomacy, what happens in the U.S. election will have a profound impact on Canada. Northern Exposure is a series of stories looking at what’s at stake for us as America decides its future. WASHINGTON—Canadians are watching this strange U.S. election season closely. But many of them are fighting the urge to cover their eyes. “We’re all glued,” Meera Thakrar, an immigration lawyer with Larlee Rosenberg in Vancouver, told me recently. And yet she said that since Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the effect of watching the upheaval that’s followed has led to exaustion, and puzzlement. And dread “My mind wanders to what happens geopolitically, like to Canada, what happens? I haven’t even — I kind of feel a bit nauseous.” Canadian author Andrew Pyper, whose new novel “The Residence” takes place in the White House, described a similar feeling. “It makes me think of that wonderful horrific moment that had everyone screaming in the cinemas when it first came out, that moment in “The Ring” where the character is watching the television of the well, and the ghoulish girl climbs out of the well and approaches the screen — and then crawls out of the camera and grabs us. I think that is about as apt a metaphor of what it feels like to be a Canadian watching the U.S., and specifically the U.S. election, as anything else.”
When you look at what’s at stake for Canada in this U.S. election, there are many areas that are obvious and perennial: the importance of the economic relationship with a country that accounts for 75 per cent of Canada’s trade; the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its effect on the border; the reliance for military security Canada has on the U.S., and the fate of decades of mutual participation in international relations; the environmental impact of one of the world’s largest economies, with which Canadians share coastlines and pipelines and breathe the same North American air.
Those issues are both real and urgent — and we’ll explore them in the coming days — but at this particular moment, under this particular incumbent president, there is an overwhelmingly dark shadow hanging over the perspective of many Canadians. It comes from watching a neighbour, the country that has been Canada’s closest friend in the world and partner in democracy, go through a crisis that increasingly feels like it could end in chaos, authoritarianism and even a kind of civil war.
“I’m very bullish on the U.S. generally,” said Peter Loewen, a political scientist at U of T’s Munk School who once headed up the Centre for the Study of the United States. “But boy, I’m more bearish now than I’ve ever been on it. It’s not clear to me that November is going to play out as it should.”
Loewen says the “deeply worrying” possibility that Trump could successfully claim victory even if he lost the election, or could win because of voter suppression, massive misinformation or corrupt election administration, even the “surrealistic potential of serious violence on election day” is “deeply, deeply dangerous territory.” Which it’s impossible to feel indifferent to in Canada.
“Which one of us doesn’t share sadness and feel it viscerally when we see a family that we’re close to break down? The analogy is pretty apt, I think, right?” Loewen said. “This is a group of people for whom Canadians have good reason to feel proximity and affinity and concern. Contempt in some cases and frustration and others. But this is more than just simple economics. This is fellow feeling, and it’s really reasonable for Canadians to look at it and say, ‘Boy, I wish this wasn’t so.’ ”
Yet many Canadians fear it is so. This summer, 79 per cent of Canadians told EKOS Research they agreed with the statement, “I really worry that the United States is on the verge of chaos and this could have negative impacts on Canada.”
EKOS president Frank Graves says Canadians are following U.S. politics at least as closely as they’re following Canadian politics, and are alarmed by Trump, by the coronavirus response, by civil unrest and episodes of violence in the streets. He says Canadians “wouldn’t write off” the idea that the election could result in the U.S. descending into “a civil war along the lines of what went on in Ireland for many, many years. I think they see those kinds of images, and they go, ‘Oh, wow, could that then spill over into Canada?”
Historian Daniel Bender, an immigrant from the U.S. who has lived in Toronto for 20 years, is an expert in American cultural history at the University of Toronto. He describes watching a Black Lives Matter march earlier this summer through his parents’ window in St. Louis, the one during which a couple waved guns at protesters in front of their house. “I didn’t get to see what was happening in their front yard, but we did get to see the rally as it went into that neighbourhood,” Bender said. “And it was a kind of a surreal thing — of kind of hope? — that has increasingly given way to just sheer despair for me.”
Bender describes watching, among other things, the apparent efforts to sabotage the mail system in the U.S., and the suppression of voting among African Americans in some states, the efforts to violently suppress protests and what he sees as Trump’s transparent authoritarianism. “Fascism has a way of not staying within borders, let me put it that way. And, you know, you wonder how long ill winds can stay just there,” he said. “It’s really hard to live next to a civil war, as much as it can provoke a really deep searching conversation. The question is, are people willing now to say, let’s get busy on protecting democratic government here, before it’s too late?”
Pyper expressed a similar fear — that “if Trump is reelected or if he seizes power, having lost the election,” then the presumed distance the border provides, both culturally and physically, would collapse. Suddenly, formerly unthinkable scenarios — from a military invasion to a Canadian embrace of authoritarianism, he says, seem possible. “To me, equally worrying to a military invasion is just, you know, throwing up your hands and falling in line.”
Graves mentions that U.S. extremist groups such as QAnon and the Boogaloos have a foothold in Canada, and says his own research on the authoritarian outlook that research shows drives support for Trump is a force that’s “definitely in play in Canada” — partly due to the first-past-the-post electoral system and the fragmentation of the centre left. Indeed, in the most recent Canadian election, Graves says in a paper published this summer, that outlook was the most reliable predictor of voting for Conservatives.
For Canadians who fear that outlook — and the results it is producing in the United States — how to react to it is unclear. “The question of, what does the everyday Canadian do in the face of a sort of genuine authoritarian state south of our border? I don’t quite know what the answer is,” Pyper said.
Bender suggests leaders may need to stop being so laser-focused on the economic relationship with the U.S. “As long as Canadian foreign affairs gets focused on protecting Canadian trade, then it makes it that much harder for Canadians to talk about protecting Canadian democracy.” That can’t be done solely from home, he says, but must be part of a global movement — one that becomes harder to see forming in a world where potential partners like the U.S., the U.K. and India all appear to be embracing right-wing populism, and other large powers such as China and Russia are longtime anti-democratic regimes.
“Is it reasonable then for Canada, as a country and as a government, to think of ourselves as allied with nations?” he asked. “Or should we be allied with democratic movements?” He admits he doesn’t know what that looks like in action for a leader like Justin Trudeau or Jagmeet Singh, trying to distance themselves from an America in crisis and its potential spread to Canada. But he’s convinced that a conversation needs to happen, and that a traditional self-congratulatory impulse among Canadians to feel good because local problems aren’t as bad as those in the U.S. — as they have on racism, gun violence or health insurance, for instance — shouldn’t lead to complacency if the U.S. comparison becomes one of anti-democratic civil war.
Of course, even the avoidance of the worst-case scenarios for chaos or violence in the U.S. after the election won’t make some of these trends go away.
“The deep cultural trenches into which the U.S. is digging itself are going to be there. Those aren’t going away with a Biden presidency overnight,” Loewen said. “Now there’s a possibility that he’s able to do some healing, I hope, but they’re still deep wounds.”
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And it might restore some Canadian confidence in their neighbours — some sense of hope. It was noteworthy in the recent Pew Research survey of global attitudes toward the U.S. that Trump’s unpopularity among Canadians seems to have led for the first time since measurements began to poisoning Canadians on the U.S. itself. Never, before Trump, in the history of the survey, have a majority of Canadians held a negative view of the U.S. Now, roughly two-thirds of Canadians do. It is as if watching the Trump presidency has shattered the faith of Canadians in the American public.
Pyper describes the feeling of recent experience of watching the U.S. as “that shock” from “coming to learn that they, perhaps in some fundamental way, aren’t who you thought they were.”
A peaceful election, or a clear Biden victory that roughly 80 per cent of Canadians tell pollsters they’d prefer, wouldn’t lift all of the darkness many Canadians feel, and wouldn’t eliminate the strain of authoritarianism simmering in North America and around the world. But perhaps it would restore a bit of the sense that Americans are a people Canadians understand — and, with that, provide a bit of hope.