Published:August 9, 2021
EDMONTON, Alberta — When I heard in late June that my fellow Americans were angry that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cautious pandemic strategy meant keeping the Canada-U.S. border closed for at least another month, I wondered if his real plan was to shutter it until the Republicans repudiated former President Donald Trump and stopped threatening democracy.
I ran the theory past my neighbors in Edmonton, where I’ve lived for 29 years. They snickered knowingly. One, a political scientist, agreed I was on to something.
Encouraged, I texted the idea to a friend in Washington, D.C.
“That is ridiculous,” he shot back, pointing out that Americans and Canadians from Maine to Vancouver were equally outraged about the ongoing closure, which has separated people from their loved ones and is destroying local economies in both countries. “This is beyond politics,” he added.
Then he apologized for being grumpy and asked a question that has nagged at me ever since: “Do a lot of people in Edmonton really see America’s messed-up politics as a reason to keep the border closed?”
I don’t know — and Trudeau made clear that it wasn’t a matter of democratic values when he announced the border was finally reopening to fully vaccinated Americans on Aug. 9. But America’s messed-up politics are definitely making me reassess my feelings about my erstwhile homeland, something I never imagined possible.
I’m a second-generation American, the grandchild of immigrants who fled Eastern Europe with more optimism than money. Growing up, I was proud to be from what I believed was the greatest country in the world. When I traveled abroad for the first time during college I discovered the Ugly American stereotype, but it didn’t bother me; I knew most of us weren’t like that.
I want to believe most of us still aren’t, but being confined to this side of the border, watching as Trump repeatedly lies that he won the election and millions of Americans believe him (including federal legislators who took an oath to uphold the Constitution) is testing my faith. I learned about the storming of the U.S. Capitol in January in a snarky text from a Canadian relative: “How is America today? Is this a banana republic in Central America?”
Watching what looks like the slow death of American democracy doesn’t exactly engender pride. Especially disconcerting is that I can’t tell if my feelings have shifted because my perspective has changed or the U.S. has. In the past, a trip over the border to visit family and friends would remind me that there’s more to the U.S. than bad news about bad politics.
But the pandemic has confined me to this side of the border, surrounded by people who, like me, are appalled at what’s happening down south. Watching the news in Edmonton in what is essentially a progressive echo chamber makes me grateful to be a Canadian citizen, something I would not have thought possible when I moved here in 1992.
Back then I was a reluctant immigrant — I used to joke that I was dragged here kicking and screaming by my husband, a Canadian who was offered a good job in his hometown. I had never wanted or intended to live anywhere except the U.S. But while I’m well aware of Canada’s shortcomings — among them its systemic mistreatment of First Nations peoples and, in my province of Alberta, a shockingly laissez-faire attitude about Covid-19 — the country grew on me for a number of reasons, including its open-minded population, sensible gun and banking regulations, taxpayer-funded health care, relatively affordable college tuition and an immigration policy that celebrates multiculturalism.
I also noticed something I’d totally missed while living in the U.S.: our troubled family dynamic. The U.S. is the bolder, brash, attention-grabbing sibling; Canada the quieter, gentler one. In 1969, then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s father) defined the relationship this way in a speech to the press club in Washington: “Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”
During the Trump administration, the beast was neither friendly nor even-tempered. Trump imposed tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum imports, insulting Canada in the process by calling the move a matter of “national security.” He demonized NAFTA, the trade deal that sealed the U.S. and Canada’s economic interdependence. And in a textbook case of projection, he labeled the younger Trudeau as “dishonest,” “weak” and “two-faced.”
I know plenty of Americans are also frustrated about having to live every day with Trump’s legacy of divisiveness. That makes me feel lucky to have wound up on this side of the border and guilty for feeling that way, like I imagine Titanic survivors felt after watching the ship sink from the comfort of their lifeboats.
“It’s a complex country,” my D.C. friend told me by way of assuring me that things aren’t as bad as they look on the nightly news or what is filtered through my judgmental Canadian neighbors and relatives. But I’ll believe him when I see it. While Canadian businesses eagerly welcome vaccinated American tourists (even the ugly ones), I’m eager to take a trip in the other direction.
I need to experience firsthand the complexity that my friend spoke of. Doing so, I hope, will confirm there is more to my homeland than the anger and polarization that are making a mockery of E Pluribus Unum and threatening everything that, once upon a time, made me believe it was great. Which is why, despite my glib assessment about Trudeau keeping the border closed, I’m more than ready for it to open.