To pass from the United States to Canada or from Canada to the United States at any of the border crossings is certainly to enter a different world. But this is also true when one passes from Indiana to Kentucky, or Utah to Nevada; or, within Canada, from Ontario to the Maritime provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (I set aside the special case of Quebec); or within the countries of Europe, from the Côte d’Or to Provence, or the canton of Geneva to the Valais, or from Tuscany to the old Kingdom of Naples, or from Castile to Catalonia. It was the perception of such differences, puzzling and troubling and stimulating, that seems to have suggested to Max Weber the hypothesis set out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

The case of the United States and Canada offers, as well as contrasts of the sort I have described, a contrast of a different, broader, and more elusive kind. Indeed, it may often seem that there is no marked contrast between, for example, Montana and Alberta, Michigan and Ontario. The externals seem much the same. At the entrances to small towns one may see the same names outside supermarkets, the same sleazy magazines at the checkout counters, the same signs for hamburgers and ice cream, the same exhortations to repentance with references to the same Biblical texts. Such externals may indeed suggest that one is in the same country and immersed in the same culture. Yet a chance encounter in an eating place or a shop (how affable the Americans are, how reserved—even glum—the Canadians!), a medical emergency, the enveloping atmosphere of a Canadian Sunday afternoon, all can make it plain that these are indeed profoundly different societies, and that the differences are national and political and are fundamental in a way that regional and provincial differences are not. (Once again I set aside the special case of Quebec, where the difference from the rest of Canada is so plainly more than regional or provincial. Here one may feel compelled to speak of a national difference. The same difficulty occurs over Catalonia or Northern Ireland or Slovakia.)

Professor Lipset is interested in the comparative study of national cultures and political institutions. It is a way of coming to know more about one’s own culture and to measure the qualities of one’s own society. One may come to have a keener feeling for what is at stake in the discussion of this or that issue. For instance, Americans are properly anxious over some features of their legal and political order. It seems to be a worry, to take one example, that the principles of the legal system may lead to painful consequences, as in litigation over damages in civil suits, or in the virtually interminable processes of appeal in some criminal cases. A comparative study of such problems in the setting of another society, similar enough and different enough (and Canada fits this requirement nicely), may help in two ways. It may show that even at the level of fundamental principle there is more than one way of organizing a decent society. It may also help the student to decide whether or not certain legal principles are a part of the sacred substance of the political order, as it has been often decided by the Supreme Court that freedom of expression is in the United States.

The United States has a population composed of the aboriginal peoples, of the descendants of enslaved Africans, of Spanish-speaking Americans, of a variety of European peoples, of Chinese, East Indians, and other Asian peoples. Canada draws its population from much the same sources, though the proportions are very different. Both countries share certain crucial experiences, notably the experience of advancing their frontiers to the West. Large numbers had, and many still have, the experience of rapid movement over great distances in a relatively short period. The kind of movement that in Europe occupied millennia, for instance the movement of the Celtic-speaking peoples, was in North America compressed into three or four generations.

The most important differences, Lipset argues, are between the political and religious antecedents of the two countries. This is his master thesis and it is expressed with many illustrations in Continental Divide and, more sparely and succinctly, in his short monograph on North American Cultures: Values and Institutions in Canada and the United States* The United States originated in an act of revolution, a conscious and deliberate repudiation of the political tradition and constitutional forms under which the country had grown up. This revolutionary act was sometimes repeated in fact, as in the War of 1812, more often in recollection and imagination. The revolutionary regime picked up a set of founding principles from the political philosophies of Europe and from selected fragments of British constitutional history. But the result, set out in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution as amended, is unique. It is the only surviving monument of the great age of revolution.


All the other revolutions from 1640 to 1848 have indeed stamped their societies. The notion of the English Constitution as rooted in the Great Charter is a piece of mythology (not absolutely groundless) invented by the parliamentary lawyers of the seventeenth century and is deeply impressed in the English imagination, especially perhaps in the imaginations of the English historians after Hume. (Hume himself was too acute to be beguiled.) In France the centralization of administration, the state’s concern with public education, the sacredness of the frontiers on the Rhine and the Pyrenees, the crushing of regional particularism, are consequences of the great revolution and of its consolidation under Bonaparte, even though we may say that such things are also the realization of the ambitions of the monarchy. But there is no sacred document, not even the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen, that stands to a European society in the way the American Constitution and the Declaration of Independence stand to the present United States.

Lipset goes steadily through an examination of social life in Canada and the United States. Much of his evidence is necessarily anecdotal, much of it consists of the obiter dicta of literary critics, novelists, politicians, businessmen, university teachers. He attempts generalizations about social and political attitudes in the two countries, and these are strengthened or weakened by the evidence of the replies to a multitude of questionnaires, of which there have in recent years been a great many.

Some of the generalizations can scarcely be challenged: for instance, that the United States is a more violent society than Canada. In 1987 the murder rate per 100,000 population was 2.2 in Canada, 8.3 in the US; though it is worth noting that in both cases the rate is down as compared with 1977, slightly in the United States (from 8.8), substantially in Canada (from 3.0). (I insert this last comment simply to emphasize how public perception may stray from the facts, for I think there can be no doubt that it one had asked Americans and Canadians about the murder rate between 1977 and 1987, one reply would have been that the rate had increased over the period.) Many Americans think it is all right and may be glorious that private citizens should carry weapons; Canadian sentiment is against it. There are gun lobbies in Canada, but they make little impression; few Canadians are seduced by such sophistries as “People kill, not guns.”

Lipset notes that the fathers of the Canadian Confederation spoke of “peace, order, and good government,” not of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Peace, order, good government, these sound like goals that can be attained with diligence and prudence. Liberty and the pursuit of happiness are transcendental goals. It is as though the boredoms and frustrations of social life, inequality and exploitation, slavery and domination, all that seems to stand between us and the realization of the good society, can be overcome by a single liberating act. The pursuit of transcendental goals may breed violence, often rhetorical, sometimes physical. “The libation of freedom must sometimes be quaffed in blood,” as Dickens’s Mr. Jefferson Brick observed.

It is commonly remarked that Canadians are slow to anger. They are thought not to be a vivacious people and may strike the traveler as slightly withdrawn and melancholy. This sobriety of manners is infectious and may even be caught by the Italian components of the cultural mosaic of Toronto. The characteristic response to the blunders of government, or to the spectacle of politicians with their hands deep in the public purse, is irritation rather than rage. Loyalties are regional and limited. The Maritime provinces, the prairie and Pacific provinces, celebrate their beauty and health and their deep differences from Ontario and Quebec, great centers of industry and finance. But there is perhaps something theatrical, without much emotional pressure, in the celebrations and resentments of the provinces. It is in the relations between the Quebecois and other Francophone minorities, and the rest of Canada, that political passion comes out.

Canada is a “residual” country, as Lipset calls it, residual in the sense that it was the part of British North America left over after the Revolutionary War, and populated by those who fought against and fled from the revolution, together with those who stood aside from the struggle between the two British factions. Thus, as soon as some degree of stability was established in the nineteenth century, the English-speaking inhabitants of this residual country began to ask themselves the great question: What is it to be a Canadian? What binds together the descendants of the English, Scots, Irish, Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, Italians, Chinese, and Japanese, and, now, East Indians and people from the Caribbean, in such a way that they constitute a single people?


It is moving to be present at a naturalization ceremony, conducted by a judge, with a splendidly dressed and physically impressive member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police standing as a witness and guardian of the law, and the national flag with its maple leaf presented as a cult object; and all of it enveloped, as it were, by the mystical presence of the Queen of Canada, as though by a luminous cloud. These black, brown, yellow, and white peoples certainly love Canada, with a strong if temperate love. They are grateful for their Canadian citizenship, grateful for physical security and education, for freedom from tyranny and caprice; and many of them come to be grateful for the beauty of the scene, for the rocky shores and the ceaselessly moving waters of the Atlantic and the Pacific, for the lakes, the forests, the mountains, the streams, the mines and quarries, for so much beauty, and—perhaps not often adverted to, but there, as a perpetual miracle—the long, undefended, easily penetrated frontier with the great neighbor to the south.

Indeed, the question of what it is to be a Canadian is connected with the physical and spiritual presence everywhere of the United States. Few members of either nation wish to be mistaken for a member of the other. There is no guarantee that all citizens of the two countries have an infallible knowledge of the facts of the situation. Americans in the deep South for whom a Yankee is exotic may well think a Canadian is a species of Yankee and Canada itself a remote part of the United States. But to be clear, as people are for the most part, about who is an American and who a Canadian, doesn’t imply that one has at one’s command an account of just what the distinction is.

Lipset’s explanations, that the distinctiveness of Canada and the Canadians is derived from their having stood apart from the revolution in which the United States were conceived and born and that the distinctiveness of the United States comes from their revolutionary origin—these explanations have no serious rivals. There are other factors that account for the particularities of the two societies, most obviously the climatic and geographical conditions, and the relations of the Quebecois with the other Canadians. How different, one conjectures, would the United States have been had the conquest of the Spanish West been that of a numerous and energetic population with a lively political and national consciousness. Again, the sheer diversity and richness of the territory of the United States are a fermenting ingredient of American society. Canada has its diversities too, but they are less rich and various. Still, the formal characteristics of the two societies are firmly connected to the American Revolution: the pursuit of the goals set out in the 1776 Declaration and the conduct of social life in the pattern set by the Constitution; and the rejection of revolution, and its transcendental goals, by English-speaking Canada.

It may seem tiresome to keep on referring to English-speaking Canada. But it is now plain, after the recent failure of the Mulroney government to get the support of all provinces for the Meech Lake Accord, with its characterization of Quebec as “a distinct society within the confederation,” that Canada is two countries, not one. The story of a country founded by two peoples whose languages enjoy parity of esteem is a myth that no longer has power. It is hard to make out just what it is about the fact of French Canada that provokes hysteria and rage in a significant minority of Anglophone Canadians. Their attitude has some similarity to that of the Paisleyites to the Catholic majority in Ireland. It is racist in a confused way. The attack upon French culture is fed by the strange, groundless fear that the French Canadians will try to “take over” English Canada. It is linked with the attitude of other paranoid groups and seems to have something in common with the Klan, which has occasional outbursts of fanaticism in the prairies, and with other groups who maintain that the Holocaust never happened.

There are, of course, perfectly rational grounds for thinking it best that Quebec should be a province like any other and that the offical bilingualism enforced by the federal government is unnecessary and has bred a lot of humbug. But if, as seems to be the case, the Quebecois simply won’t put up with Quebec’s staying just one part of Canada, the failure of the Meech Lake compromise has about it an air of finality. Whatever the saving formula—“sovereignty association” or some other—it seems certain that Quebec will become a politically distinct society. If, as seems likely Quebec is associated with the rest of Canada in a common market and with a common currency, the change from the present doesn’t seem great.

Whether or not a cosmetic change can give new life to Quebec society and can give it self-confidence and a happy opening to the future, this is the great question. At the moment Quebec is, demographically speaking, a dying nation. The birthrate is lower than in the rest of Canada and is far lower than what is needed to keep the population at its present level. This is the bitter fruit of the quiet revolution in Quebec life that began in the 1960s. The fear of extinction accounts for the linguistic policy that requires the children of immigrants to use French, and only French, in the schools. This seems a desperate policy. It is hard to believe that such a policy can turn the children of immigrants into patriotic Quebecois within a generation. The rigorous language policy of Quebec, which goes far beyond defending the linguistic integrity of Quebec society, proscribing, to take a petty example, the use of English on signs outside shops, shows how lacking in confidence in the inherent power of the culture to maintain itself are the rulers of Quebec.

Lipset’s book was written and published before the recent debate over the Meech Lake Accord. He gives an admirable account of the accord but doesn’t seem to find its complete rejection likely, perhaps because he thinks of Canada as a British successor state with a large French minority. He is not evidently wrong. But it is this easy and natural assumption that angers the French Canadians.

The historic importance of the debate is that at the last moment the government failed to gain the unanimous support of the provinces for the recognition of Quebec as a “distinct society” with greater autonomy. Manitoba and Newfoundland were the dissenting provinces and they undoubtedly spoke for a substantial number of Anglophone Canadians in all the provinces. Since 1987, when the accord was first open to general discussion, the amount of anti-French sentiment has been surprisingly large. It has been expressed in quarrels over the linguistic policies of school boards and, especially, in a rancorous opposition to the linguistic legislation of the Trudeau years, which requires a great many printed announcements in English to be accompanied by a French translation. Thus, every package of breakfast cereal, every packaged over-the-counter drug, every container of detergent, as well as theater and railway and airline tickets, is in both “official” languages. Angry feeling, coarsely expressed, against the French language and against speakers of the language is a xenophobia that has grown into paranoia, in which the metric system and ecumenism in religion are grouped along with the encouragement of the French language as evidences of a sinister conspiracy against Anglo-Saxon culture. Marx remarked that anti-Semitism was the socialism of fools; a throughgoing enmity to French culture in Canada is the patriotism of fools.

It is the Francophone minorities outside Quebec that suffer directly from the hostility of the Anglophones. Some have suggested that, in equity, the Francophone minorities in Ontario or Manitoba have no claim to be treated better than Quebec treats its Anglophones. They do in fact have a valid claim in law. But the point about equity doesn’t impress the Quebecois, for it presupposes that Canada is a single country with a common ethos, something Quebec denies. Just as anti-French feeling in “British” Canada sometimes reminds us of the mean-spirited racism of populist groups in Britain and France, so expressions of Quebec nationalism may sometimes remind us of the doctrines of Charles Maurras. For Maurras the ills of French society, from sexual degeneracy to political corruption, came from the influence of les métèques, resident foreigners, especially Jews and Protestants. Some of the early shapers of French nationalism in Quebec held just such a doctrine, so that a few enraged clerics held not only that Catholic-Protestant marriages ought to be discouraged, but that the marriage of French Catholics to Catholics “of foreign tongue,” that is, Anglophones, ought also to be discouraged.

A distinguished refugee from Nazi Germany who came to live in Montreal, the psychologist Karl Stern, who was a Christian convert from Judaism, once told me that he had never before felt so spiritually isolated as in Quebec. He was a foreigner and a Jew and, to confuse everything, a Catholic as well. I suppose that for a Maurrassien he would have been a métèque wearing a mask.

Lipset concludes his study by asking if the broad contrast he has drawn between Canada and the United States will remain. The history of the two countries suggests that Canadian society is more deferential, more conservative, than that of the United States. But since the adoption by Canada of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, Canadian society shows some signs of becoming Americanized. The judicial interpretations of the Charter are swiftly changing the tone of Canadian society, especially in the field of family law. Feminist and homosexual rights groups are successfully challenging traditional attitudes. It is being argued, for example, so far without complete success, that stable homosexual unions of men or women ought to enjoy the same rights and privileges as heterosexual unions. Not to allow this is to deprive the homosexual partners of their rights.

Further, Canada is now commonly perceived as more socialist, farther to the left, than the United States. This is in part an inference made from Canadian social legislation, especially in matters of national health insurance, in part it follows from what is believed to be a slightly more left-leaning position in world politics. The United States is seen by Lipset as Whiggish in outlook, Canada as Tory. (This use of Tory may seem odd. Lipset justifies the label on the ground that the Tory tradition has always emphasized group rights and has been more benevolent to state enterprise and state regulation of social and economic life.) At just this moment, with the passing of Reaganism and the deep changes in East European societies, the old landmarks seem to be shifting and it isn’t easy to be confident that the broad contrasts between the two countries will remain the same.

Lipset has no doubt that the contrasts between Canada and the United States are pretty much as they were.

The United States and Canada remain two nations formed around sharply different organizing principles. Their basic myths vary considerably, and national ethoses [sic] and structures are determined in large part by such images. One nation’s institutions reflect the effort to apply universalistic principles emphasizing competitive individualism and egalitarianism, while the other’s are an outgrowth of a particularistic compact to preserve linguistic and provincial cultures and rights and elitism. Ironically,…the conservative effort has stimulated an emphasis on group rights and benefits for the less privileged; the liberal one continues to stress more concern for the individual but exhibits less interest in those who are poor and outcast.

It is possible—I don’t think Lipset would deny this—that Canada is on the eve of a great social transformation and that the differences between the two countries will diminish, either through the Americanization of Canadian society or through the effect of social legislation in diminishing the harshness of attitudes toward the poor in the United States. These are great questions for both countries. Professor Lipset has given us a splendid account of where we are and a guide to our possible futures.

This Issue

August 16, 1990