The assignment: ‘Write a perceptive hour’s programme about Canada and its relations with the United States. Your title is Living with a Giant.’
As always at the start of a job, I looked for the books which would signpost the way most clearly. I read about a dozen, half-forming a confused picture of a vast country populated by lumberjacks and college professors, the former being studied and written about by the latter.
The books did give me the facts: second largest country in the world by sheer area; 97 per cent literate; half British origin; third French origin; almost everybody crowded along Canadian-U.S. border; most dependent country in the world on foreign trade; forests, prairies, mines, Mounties, Red Indians, Eskimos. . .
All the books agreed that Canada was living beyond its income and was dependent to a large extent on the United States. And they all seemed much taken up with something called ‘the search for the Canadian national identity.’
For a country to be so concerned with its own inner image struck me as somewhat bizarre. As an Englishman I knew very well what Englishmen were like (or thought I did): stolid, reliable, eccentric, freedom-loving, quietly-humorous; and whoever heard of a German or an Australian or a Mexican worrying about his ‘national identity?’ Obviously this Canadian obsession was important, if only symptomatically.
Once in Canada, I discovered that far from combining the worst of the United States and Britain, in many ways it was a combination of the best, not only of the United States and Britain, but the United States and Europe. I found the excitement, stimulus, hygiene and gadgetry that I love so well in the U.S.A. But I found, too, the human warmth, love of the finer things in life (including food) and tolerance that makes Europe such a civilised place in which to live.
Of course, in Canada these two poles sometimes affect each other adversely as well as favourably, but the result seemed mostly delightful to me. Canada adds something of its own too: involvement in open-air life that I most appreciated at a friend’s week-end log cabin on an island on a lake a few miles from Toronto.
First with Intertel’s Associated-Rediffusion editor, Aidan Crawley, and then later in company with director Rollo Gamble, cameraman Adrian Cooper and unit manager Eric Martin, I went to Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal. Then all over southern Ontario searching for a typical community which would act as a microcosm of British-originated Canadian life. Then over a large section of French-speaking Quebec to find a French-origined small town to show life as the French-Canadians live it.
We found our Anglo-community in Guelph, Ontario, a charming stone-faced small town, the nearest city to the centre of population in Canada, as it happened.
The French town we chose was Ste. Hyacinthe, about 30 miles from Montreal, where, claimed newspaper editor Yves Michaud, who appears in the film, ‘there is a higher proportion of French-speaking people than in Paris, France.’
Another community we decided to film was at Rock Island, Quebec, so much on the border with the U.S.A. that several houses are actually in both countries. One woman we filmed had to sleep in the Canadian part of her house, because she would have forfeited her Canadian pension (due at an earlier age) had she slept in one of the American rooms.
Only a few Canadians have such a dramatic proximity to the United States, but all of them, particularly the 90 per cent who live within 200 miles of the U.S. border are highly vulnerable to American influence. This influence is sometimes obvious, sometimes subtle.
As I walked round Guelph, surrounded by American signs, American stores with American goods, American magazines, American cars (they are assembled in Canada, but are all designed in the U.S.A.), I could easily imagine that I was back in Higginsport, Ohio, where I once lived.
Now I understood why Canadian intellectuals are on that worried search for their ‘national identity’. It is part of the desperate reaction against the U.S.A.
In 1911 the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives was rash enough to say: ‘I hope to see the day when the American flag will float over every square foot of the British North American possessions clear to the North Pole.’ Today the Stars and Stripes flies cheerfully over many Canadian factories, garages and motels. The American installed radar defence system, ‘the Dew Line’, is established practically at the North Pole, certainly beyond the Arctic Circle, and Canada depends wholly on the U.S.A. for its defence.
So are the economics of Canada – the banks, the factories, the stock exchange – entirely dependent on Big Brother south of the border. And Canada’s culture – television, radio, music, magazines, publishing, press and so on – is strongly dominated by the U.S.A.
As finally conceived, our programme falls into two halves, the first showing just how strong American domination is, and the second answering the question: ‘if the two countries are so alike, why don’t they join up as one country?’
You will hear the people of Guelph give part of the reason. You will see how Ste. Hyacinthe and the rest of French-Canada are so French that the ‘giant’ they live with isn’t the U.S., it’s British Canada.
The extent of the growing dominance of Canada by the U.S.A. may be as disturbing to you as it was to us. It is the task of the Intertel Series to record countries in transition. Just how far this transition towards complete Americanisation may go is what Living with a Giant, Britain’s third contribution to Intertel, is about.