Come From Away is one of the hottest tickets on Broadway. It was nominated for seven Tony awards last year and won the prize for Best Direction of a Musical. A film adaptation is in the works.
The musical tells the story of what happened when 38 airliners en-route to and from the United States were forced to land in Gander, Newfoundland when American air traffic was grounded following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The people of Gander welcomed the passengers and crews – mostly Americans – with open arms. It is a story of a shared humanity, of the kindness one extends to a friend and neighbour in a time of need.
Canadians pride ourselves on our hospitality. When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally welcomed Syrian refugees at Pearson Airport in Toronto in 2015, he was channeling a broadly-held and deeply cherished Canadian virtue. What would have seemed mawkish behaviour for virtually any other national leader was perfectly in tune with how Canadians perceive ourselves.
No country’s national self-image ever fully corresponds to reality, of course. While we invariably celebrate Canadian “decency,” we often fall short of the mark. Racism, particularly against indigenous people, is endemic, the treatment of First Nations by all levels of government ranges from neglectful to oppressive, and the federal government’s energy policy is nothing short of shameful.
Yet, for all of our shortcomings as a country, decency is a mark, a target to aim for. I heard the great Canadian social democrat David Lewis speak in Montreal when I was a child, and one thing that he said has resonated in my memory for more than 40 years: “Other countries aspire to be great,” he said. “Canada aspires to be good.”
It has not been easy. The economic, political, cultural, social, and geopolitical challenges of the 20th and 21st centuries and the limitations of our humanity make binary moral judgments of “good” and “evil” impossible. At best Canadians, as a culture and as a political community, have tried to find balance in a complex ethical calculus. Perhaps this is why the greatest Canadian philosophers have been ethicists like Charles Taylor and John Ralston Saul.
In some ways, the most difficult and persistent challenge to Canadian decency has come from our neighbour to the south.
Almost without exception, Canadians love American culture. We listen to your music, we watch your movies and television, we admire your energy. Canadians who make their mark south of the world’s longest undefended border – Margaret Atwood, Neil Young, Morley Safer, Margot Kidder, Drake, Leonard Cohen, and so many others – are national heroes. I suspect that few Canadians actually like Justin Bieber, but the fact that so many Americans do makes him kind of special.
I came to the United States 13 years ago to pursue a PhD in American history at an American university. I had spent most of my life listening to John Coltrane, Dave Brubeck, Pauline Oliveros, John Cage, and Aaron Copland, reading Philip Roth and John Dos Passos, watching Hollywood movies, and I wanted to dedicate my life to studying the pulsing American heart of modernity. In fact, my passionate love for American art and culture – high and low – is resolutely Canadian.
Yet, at the same time, the United States is often hard to love. The same qualities that make your country so exciting and compelling – its energy, its confidence, the sheer volume of everything it produces – make it infuriating and oppressive. When it crosses the border, your energy feels like selfish grasping, your confidence reeks of arrogance, and your vast production of everything seems to be nothing more than cultural and economic imperialism.
Although we share a border, a language (one of our national tongues), tastes, and history, there is much in the United States that we find perplexing, if not deeply disturbing. The unending, keening racial hatred that has dominated so much American history is one thing. The constant drumbeat of American militarism is another. And gun control? Most Canadians can’t understand how that is even a question anymore.
Ironically enough, health care – the one issue where Americans invariably compare themselves to Canada – isn’t something we talk about. Canadians cherish our national health insurance system as much as Americans cherish the Bill of Rights, but few have any idea how the American system works. Once, when I told a Canadian friend that I rode out a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction rather than go to the hospital 500 metres away because I had no health insurance, she wondered “how is that even possible?!” Canadians rarely comment on American health care because we mostly have no idea how bad it really is.
We do comment on other things. Among ourselves, the debate about “what the hell is going on down there?” rages on, as it has been raging at least since the end of the Second World War. Sometimes we criticize, sometimes we defend. We find the United States exasperating and maddening but we have always been there for you when your planes needed a safe place to land, when you needed our water bombers and smoke jumpers to fight forest fires, when you needed supplies to rebuild Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Maria. That is what friends do.
The United States is our exciting, creative, loud friend who invariably drinks too much, gets into bar fights, refuses to pay the tab, has questionable associates, and treats everyone like shit. We make apologies when you’re passed out in your own vomit in the snowbank; we make excuses for your bad behaviour. You can be really fun sometimes and we have so much shared history that we have been willing to put up with a lot of crap and look the other way. We love you.
But love has limits. We need respect.
That is what makes President Trump’s actions and words, culminating with the G7 summit last weekend in La Malbaie, Quebec, so painful. The president’s disdain for Canadian sovereignty, his willingness to tear up the North American Free Trade Agreement on the flimsiest pretext, his preference for blustering lies over constructive conversation articulate the kind of coarse disrespect that will sunder even the best friendship.
My expat life in the United States has become increasingly difficult over the last 18 months as I have watched American political culture and values drift further and further from the principles I embrace as common decency. I recognize that this is a different country with different priorities, and that it is unfair to expect the United States to be Canada. Indeed, I have defended the United States to some of my more critical Canadian friends on just those grounds. But I cannot do that anymore. What was once difficult is becoming intolerable.
This weekend, the most mendacious president in recent American history called the Prime Minister of Canada a liar after blatantly lying about trade imbalances to feed his political base at home. He derided diplomacy as weakness. His surrogates attacked as “betrayal” the efforts of sovereign nations to respond to his arbitrary and punitive trade policies. He treated allies as vassals.
The message is clear: friendship no longer matters. The priorities of this American administration are not merely an intolerable fact of life south of the border, but they seek to colonize the north as well.
There is, of course, little that Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet ministers can do, despite their heroic rhetorical restraint. The Canadian economy is so closely tied to the United States that Canada cannot easily seek new partnerships with better friends without profound, and possibly disastrous consequences. And although the #BoycottUSA hashtag is trending on Twitter this week, it is unlikely that a Canadian consumer boycott would be effective, let alone possible. For now, at least, we are stuck with an arrogant, abusive partner and we will have to find a way to make the best of it.
So the prime minister is left speaking over the president’s head to the Americans who have made Come From Away’s story of cross-border friendship and hospitality a Broadway hit. “This is not about the American people,” he said, announcing retaliatory tariffs on American aluminum and steel last week. “We will continue to make arguments based on logic and common sense and hope that eventually they will prevail against an administration that doesn’t always align itself around those principles.”
Those are fine and politically expedient words, but they do not necessarily correspond to reality. Almost half of those Americans voted for President Trump in 2016; the latest polls show that more than 40 percent continue to approve of his policies; the bulk of his Republican Party supports, or is at least willing to go along with, pretty much everything he does. As flawed as it might be, the United States, like its erstwhile friends in the G7, is still a democracy; this is the government the American people voted for, so its policies are ultimately their responsibility.
It is not only President Trump who is destroying a friendship that has endured across the world’s longest undefended border for almost a century, it is the United States.
Come From Away looks now like a relic of a long-lost past; sepia-toned memories from novels by Lucy Maude Montgomery, when the world was simpler, warner, and more decent. Should Canada’s southern neighbours ever need our help and hospitality again, I have no doubt that we will provide it – but only out of the obligations of common decency, and not in the warm embrace of friendship and love.