I happened to be in Canada on June 28, the day of national elections. But I might not have known it judging from the headlines I saw and heard the next day while passing through the USA on my way home to Mexico. The gist of the news was, "The Liberal Party has lost power in Canada."
The implication of those headlines, at least in the USA with its "two-party" political system, was that Canada's national government was moving to the right. When actually, the elections moved it to the left.
The Liberals, having lost a majority in Parliament, are forming a coalition government with the New Democratic Party (NDP), a left-wing party that calls for higher corporate taxes, supports labor unions, aggressively favors the Kyoto climate-change treaty, and wants to create a government-owned corporation to fund and sell renewable energy sources (as well as build 10,000 wind turbines by 2010).
In short, the NDP pursues democratic socialist policies, and it will move the Liberal-NDP coalition government in that direction. But you wouldn't know that from the news reports I saw in the USA.
Canadians generally claim Americans know little to nothing about Canadian politics, and now I see their point. A conversation in the USA about Canada is apt to go like this:
"It sure is a pretty country. Lots of wilderness."
"A good national health care system, too."
"Yeah, but it's going bust. Socialism can't work."
Well, we'll see, because the June 28 election results in Canada were a clear statement by Canadians that they don't want to follow the political and social policies of the USA. Canadians I spoke with said the elections in part were a referendum on the influence they feel from their Big Brother to the south. In particular, the neo-conservative influence of the Bush administration. In fact, most Canadians, like most Europeans, hope Bush loses in November.
Up to the election, I had spent the two weeks in the Yukon Territory, a sprawling wilderness that borders Alaska on its west. It's a pristine land, the Yukon, despite its boisterous history with the Klondike Gold Rush a century ago, a time described in the writing of Jack London. Companies (and individuals) still mine for gold in the Klondike area, and mining remains the number one private industry in the territory, barely ahead of tourism. But the number-one employer there is government.
In a territory larger than California, with mountains, boreal forests and glacial lakes and rivers to the south, and the tundra to the north where the Arctic Circle passes through, the Yukon supports a total population of about 30,000 people, of which about 20% are Native American (called First Nation peoples). Two-thirds of the population live in Whitehorse, the capital. The second largest city, Dawson City, center of the Klondike, has 1,800 residents.
It's safe to say that most of the people in the Yukon chose to be there. They moved there from Eastern Canada (usually Ontario), the USA, Germany, France, Iceland, even Cuba. Craving wilderness and space, wanting adventure and a greater sense of independence, they found it. Rugged individualists, you might call them. But they also tend to be well-educated. They appreciate the arts. They expect decent health care. And in their relative geographic isolation, they get those things because of government funding: about 70% of the territorial economy is subsidized by the national government.
Why? Because for the Yukon to remain part of Canada, you got to have some Canadians there. Or at least folks who now call themselves Canadian. At the same time, a wilderness does not stay a wilderness if you mine it to death, or cut down all its trees for lumber, or plunder its tundra for oil and gas.
So unlike the western Canadians further south in Alberta and Manitoba and Saskatchewan (the base for the Conservative Party is western), Yukoners elected a Liberal to Parliament. Liberals believe government has an essential role in human civilization. As the director of the Yukon Art Centre told me, "If the Conservatives had won, my budget would disappear. They don't support the arts and cultural programs."
Still, the mass media in Canada sure acted like they expected a Conservative win. The election would be close, they promised, very close. The night of the election returns, the journalists were breast-beating and soul-searching: "How could we have been so wrong?" Well, mass media is mass media, even in Canada, and a close horse race breeds excitement and suspense, with stronger media revenues being a circumstantial by-product. In this respect, Canada does resemble its southern Big Brother.
But in other important ways, it does not. The civility of its people who serve as airline security personnel, for instance. You know you're back in the USA when the security personnel act like bullies instead of helpers. (Generally, one senses that Canadians in the service industries are actually trained in service and human relations, unlike their USA counterparts. Or maybe they just get paid better. Or both.)
In any case, the Yukoners I spoke with wanted two results from the national elections, and they got both. First, they wanted to send the Liberal Party a message to get off its butt and produce. "After 11 years in power, they've become lazy," a voter told me. And second, they wanted a centrist to left-wing government, not a conservative one. "I'd like a minority Liberal government," the owner of the Dawson Trading Post observed before election day, "but how can you vote in such a way as to guarantee that?"
You can't, of course. But that's exactly what Canadians have now. And judging from the residents of the Yukon Territory, who might in fact represent a fair cross-sampling of the Canadian population, that's exactly what they wanted.
"We wanted some change," one Yukoner said, "but not from the Conservatives. We aren't the USA and don't want to be like the USA. We're Canadians."
To which I could only say, "And more power to you, eh?"
Christopher Cook is a former journalist and the author of the novel Robbers and the short story collection Screen Door Jesus & Other Stories. He currently lives in Mexico.