Go to Top

“Canada as seen through the eyes of foreigners,” Dennis Browne, Ottawa, ON

My wife and I have just retired following 31 years in Canada’s foreign service. I might as well say right up front that our experiences while representing Canada abroad have made us extremely proud to be Canadian and acutely aware of how lucky Canadians are. The challenge to us all, especially these days, is to recognize our good fortune and build on it.

One of the things the foreign service taught us was to look at the Canadian experience in a relative way. How does what’s happening in Canada compare with what is or might be happening in other countries?

Readers of this article probably know that the United Nations has developed a Human Development Index that measures the quality of life in various countries. You might also know that Canada has been ranked first on that index more often than any other country. Canada has good people and Canada has bad people, just as any other country. But one of the things that makes Canada such a wonderful country is the nature of our public institutions and the ways in which their roles are implemented. I have the impression that Canadians who have not experienced comparable institutions and officials in other countries often fail to realize how well off they truly are.

When we were posted in Moscow in the mid-’70s, I often walked to work and my route took me past the “Ukrayina” railway station. There were always Ukrainians waiting outside the station for a train that would take them home later in the day. Maybe it was the train they had planned to take or maybe they had had to wait an extra day because they had missed their train or it had been cancelled or something else had happened. Every morning I would see a policeman walking up to individuals, bidding them good morning and asking to see their “dokumentie”. The policeman was almost excessively polite, but the citizens were terrified. If their documents were not in order, if they gave the wrong answer to a question, if they had overstayed the time permitted on their internal “passport”, the personal consequences could be crushing. And they knew they could not hope for humane or compassionate treatment from the policeman. It was, after all, a police state. The policeman was there to catch them out and ensure they learned any lessons that might be needed.

Contrast this with some events in Toronto in early 1996. A woman there told the police she had been mugged and lost her purse containing what little money she had along with bus tickets she needed to move her seven-year-old to relatives in Winnipeg as she was on welfare, could not get a job and was suffering from terminal cancer. The police checked her out and found her circumstances to be much as she claimed (except that she was dying of a kidney ailment rather than cancer) and they also discovered that she had a police record for fraud. Nonetheless, their benevolent fund gave her a few hundred dollars and, when the press publicized her story, more than $100,000 of donations poured in to help the woman and her child. Unfortunately, her claim to have been mugged proved ultimately not to be true. Her purse had not been stolen and she had had neither money nor bus tickets to lose. Members of the press were furious. They had been duped as had the general, and generous, public. Reporters demanded explanations from the police and assurances that procedures would be changed so that such instances could not be repeated in future. But the police refused to react to the reporters’ demands. Although the police had been briefly misled until further investigations uncovered the truth, changes in procedures were not necessary and none would be made. In other words, individuals in desperate circumstances will continue to be treated humanely and compassionately by the Toronto police force, even if they are known to have been liars in the past.

Notwithstanding the justifiable anger of some of those who had been duped, Canadians should be proud of the fact that the police force in their largest city treats individuals in desperate circumstances compassionately and is determined to continue to do so despite possible attacks by some disgruntled members of the press. Perhaps the role of the Mountie in the television sitcom, Due South”, is not as far fetched as it seems.

But the purpose of this article is not to make a lot of general comparisons between Canada and other countries. It is tell what my experience has taught me, and it is through the eyes of foreigners that Canadian diplomats learn what it means to be Canadian.

I will begin with an almost frivolous example. Seven or eight years ago I attended a conference on Canadian studies at a European university. One of the speakers was the editor of a prominent German architectural magazine, probably the leading such magazine in Western Europe. The title of his talk was, “Canada Leads the World in Modem Architecture”. Quite frankly, I was surprised by his title and doubted its accuracy, but he showed us scores of slides that proved his point. As a Canadian, this is probably something that would never have occurred to me if a respected foreigner had not pointed it out.

When I was Ambassador to Sweden, we found that the Swedes have a very positive image of Canada and are very fond of Canadian literature. Canadian books sell well there because the Swedes find them to be well written and feel a commonality with the underlying values often expressed. Canada is seen there to be a country attuned to nature, where neighbours are ready to help each other to meet the challenges presented by a difficult climate.

Each of the three autumns we were in Sweden, my wife and I went to the annual “Book and Library” fair in Gothenburg. This is the largest annual cultural event in Sweden and the largest book fair in Scandinavia. The first year we were there, Canada was the featured nonNordic country and in two of our three years a Canadian writer was the most prominent guest at the show; first Margaret Atwood and then Robertson Davies. Every year the fair had at least three Canadian writers (sometimes five) giving readings and talks about their work. For us it was a great experience to meet so many talented and truly interesting Canadians and to see their work held in such high regard.

Contrast this with our experience in Canada. I don’t know how many Canadians have told me over the years that I was wasting my time trying to promote Canadian books. In their view it is just not worth it. I have even heard Canadians say something like, “I read a Canadian book once. It was terrible. I am not going to waste my time reading any more of them.” What a peculiar attitude. I imagine the same people have occasionally read an American or English novel they did not much like, but that does not lead them to conclude that all American or all English novels are no good.

Similar things could be said about Canadian films. When serving as Canada’s Consul General in Los Angeles, I spent quite a bit of time promoting Canadian films. My wife and I went to four or five film festivals a year to highlight the Canadian films being shown. I have to admit we saw some pretty awful films from Canada. But we also saw some pretty awful films from other countries at these festivals, including the USA. The point is, we did see some wonderful Canadian films, films that received very high critical acclaim. But popular Canadian opinion continues to be that Canadians are pretty well incapable of making good feature films. In all fairness, Canadians have very little opportunity to see Canadian feature films in Canada because the big American film-makers are able to monopolize over 95 % of our theatre screen time. What a shame it is we have to go to film festivals to find that really good Canadian films are being made every year.

While Canada may not have a well developed feature film industry, it is certainly doing well in television. I wonder how many Canadians know that Canada is now the second largest exporter of television programming? Needless to say, our biggest market is in the USA. Canadians are particularly successful in children’s programming. Probably because our writers and producers seem to be able to tell engaging stories without resorting to excessive violence.

But I am making generalizations again. We had best get back to the eyes of foreigners.

Many of the people I met in the USSR had a stereotypical view of Canada and Canadians that almost inevitably centred on hockey or ice skating. When I travelled in Russia and Siberia almost always the first word said to me when I introduced myself as a Canadian was, “Hockey”. Most Siberians I met knew more about Canadian hockey than I did. They could rattle off the names of all the prominent players, which teams they played for and how well each of them was doing in the current season. And they loved the competition. The highlight of their year would be when the Canadians and the Soviets squared off for the Canada Cup.

Just a few months after we arrived in Moscow the second half of the second Canada Cup series was played there. I believe Team Canada had won the first series in the final game played in Canada. This year, 1974, the fmal games were to be played in Moscow and there was no way the Soviets were going to lose. They brought to bear every type of pressure they could think of. Phones rang in the players’ hotel rooms in the middle of the night. Some of them had lice in their beds. Soviet officials claimed, of course, that these were normal conditions in Moscow hotels. Nothing to complain about.

For the games, the embassy had secured enough tickets for all the Canada based staff and their families. In typical fashion though, we were isolated from the fans who had come from Canada. They were all in one end of the arena and we were seated just the other side of the centre line. We all wore red sweatshirts to the games and we were a little island of red in a sea of drab. Everyone could spot us and the Soviet fans around us were quick to harangue us if they did not like what was going on on the ice.

The first game was very tense. The Soviets accused Team Canada of rough play. Canadian players were penalized at the drop of a hat and tempers were always on edge. But Team Canada won, and that only increased Soviet determination to bear down even more heavy handedly at the next game.

The Soviets increased their pressure tactics and it was a bitter game. Just as it ended, a fight broke out that spilled some blood of a Soviet player on the ice. The near rage around our little group in the stands was clearly palpable. We had to get out of there without being pommelled or knocked down and beaten. The exit from the arena to the foyer was through a short tunnel in the middle of the stands and we felt that would be the real danger point. So we linked arms and snaked through the tunnel making sure that our colleagues on each side of us were safe. Thank God one of the Soviets’ tactics of intimidation had been to put a lot of policemen near our seats whose job was to get after us every time we cheered too loudly for our team. The presence of those policemen probably saved us all from a good thrashing.

In the end, of course, the Soviets won the series. It was not a happy experience for the Canadians, but the Soviets loved it and in the heat of the moment they loved to hate us.

How different things were the next time we were in the same arena. We returned to the arena a few months later for a free-skating event associated with a figure skating championship. Toller Cranston was there. Not to compete, but to perform. As usual, he performed brilliantly. The Soviets were captivated and all of us who were identified as Canadians were seen to be among the most wonderful people in the world. They seemed to love us, even more that night than they had hated us at the end of that terrible hockey game.

On another occasion I did meet a Russian man on a train who had practically no impression of Canada and wanted a little reassurance. I say he wanted a little reassurance because the people in the Soviet Union were subject to a constant barrage of anti-American, anti-West propaganda and many were led to believe that we were war-mongering monsters.

A colleague and I were returning from Helsinki to Moscow by train and, at the station on the Russian side of the Finnish/Soviet border, scores of Russians got on the train en route to Moscow. Two of them were assigned to our cabin, a young woman and a forty-something Russian forest Tabourer.

The young woman would not speak to us, but she was clearly fascinated to be so close to Westerners, probably for the first time in her life. The man, however, was quite willing to talk. He wanted to talk. He had never met a Westerner and he wanted to know what we were actually like. What he really wanted to know was this: At the end of the day when the woodsmen or lumberjacks (whatever you might call them) had finished their work and were sitting around the fire in the evening, did they talk about sports and women? Yes, we assured him, they did. In that case, he concluded, we were really all alike and he did not have to worry about us going to war with each other; and he promptly fell asleep.

I guess it is in America where the Canadian image is most confused. Most readers of this article will have travelled in the United States and I am sure almost all have shared similar experiences. How many times has an American, as a sincerely friendly gesture, assured a Canadian visitor that Canadians are really no different from Americans?

Richard Staines is quoted as saying, “Canadians are generally indistinguishable from Americans, and the surest way of telling the two apart is to make that observation to a Canadian.

There is a certain irony in the fact that my Japanese counterpart in L.A. made more than a hundred speeches each year trying to assure his American audiences that the Japanese are really not that much different from Americans. Meanwhile, I made fewer speeches, but many of mine were intended to assert that Canadians are different from Americans. Which, of course, justifies our need to take measures to protect and preserve what distinctive culture we have.

Americans’ odd impressions or lack of knowledge of Canada does lead them to do some funny things. When we were posted to Washington our older daughter was entering grade 9 at Bethesda Chevy Chase High School. Thus we were told that she should take some scholastic achievement tests so that she could be placed appropriately in her classes. She had always been a very well spoken, well read youngster and this was borne out by her English proficiency tests which placed her at first year college level when she had just finished grade 8.

After a few days at her new high school, she began to tell us each night at dinner about her experiences in her English class. She could not understand what was going on, and neither could we. Each day, the students in the class had to read aloud and it was apparent to her that they could not read. Most of them sounded out each word, or sometimes each syllable, and she had the impression that for a lot of them, by the time they got to the end of a sentence they had forgotten how it began. And she found their language especially colourful. She had never heard so many swear words used so frequently.

We were baffled. B.C.C. was supposed to be a very good school with high scholastic standing. Could their students really be illiterate? Well, as it turned out, our daughter’s S.A.T. results had got lost in the shuffle and, as she was a foreign student (from Canada) it was assumed she would not know much English and so she was put in the remedial reading class. The administrators of one of Maryland’s leading high schools clearly had much different expectations of Canadians than anyone reading this article would have.

There was a time while we were in Washington when the image of Canadians was as high as it could possibly be.

When we arrived in Washington during the summer of 1979, Americans were in a state of real perplexity. The Ayatollah’s revolutionaries had occupied the American embassy in Teheran and taken the Americans hostage. The United States seemed helpless to do anything about it and they did not seem to be getting any meaningful support from their allies. Americans were feeling hurt, confused and friendless.

What they did not know at the time, however, was that twelve of the Americans stationed in Teheran had been outside the embassy when it was occupied and they had eventually made their way to the Canadian embassy where they were being sheltered in the homes of the ambassador and our senior counsellor.

The day finally came when they were all spirited to safety. The strategy that was used was simple, but very risky. Iranian government offices were in a state of some turmoil as the revolution was being consolidated and the new rulers were getting themselves established. Canada contributed to the confusion by running an enormous number of Canadian officials, all holding diplomatic passports, in and out of Teheran. The objective was to confuse Iranian officials so that they would not have clear records as to how many Canadian diplomats were actually in the country at any given time. Then Canadian diplomatic passports, stamped with appropriate Iranian visas, were issued to each of the American house-guests and all the remaining Canadians and their Americans guests left at once. It was a high risk operation. Had an Iranian official at the airport caught on, all our people would almost certainly have been executed. But it worked and everyone got out safely.

As soon as the news broke in Washington, all Canadians were heroes. Practically every day for weeks some tribute would arrive at the embassy, coming from practically all regions of the United States. We got lots of flowers, but the favourite seemed to be huge cakes with special greetings of friendship written in the icing. One fellow even showed up with his corvette sports coupe specially painted with crossed Canadian and American flags on the trunk and slogans of undying friendship on the hood. It was a highly professional paint job that must have cost him a bundle. He kept his car parked at the front door of the embassy for a whole week.

That winter in Washington it snowed three times and each time it snowed in the night our sidewalk was spotlessly clean when I came out the door in the morning. It took us quite a while to figure out who was shovelling the snow. We eventually learned that it was one of our neighbours, a journalist for the New York Times who lived three doors down. He explained that he felt a personal debt of gratitude to Canada, and to Canadian diplomats, for what had been done to save his countrymen and this was one small personal gesture of thanks he could make.

Needless to say, our “hero” status did not last very long. Within a few months our government had implemented the “National Energy Policy” and every time I or any of my colleagues went to a meeting with American officials, no matter what the subject, the first few minutes of the meeting had to be spent with us listening to a lecture about the evils of socialism and the damage Canada was doing to the free market system.

So life was back to normal.

In closing I might just mention one other area where Canada has a very solid and enviable reputation. That is the area of international relations and diplomacy.

Canadian diplomats like to say in their speeches that Canada is an effective middle power, especially skilled at building bridges, resolving differences, finding common ground, making the gears of international relations turn smoothly. Well, it is all true. That is our reputation and, in my experience, it has been well earned.

On two of my assignments I have done quite a lot of multilateral diplomacy. For three years, 1976-79, I was back and forth between Ottawa and Geneva like a shuttlecock, leading Canada’s efforts in what was called “The Integrated Programme for Commodities” at the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, the UNCTAD. The objective of the developing countries was to use this program to re-write the rules of international markets for agricultural commodities and industrial raw materials, thereby launching what they called a “new international economic order”. Needless to say, the stakes were high for Canada and other Western countries.

This was my first venture into multilateral work and I found from the first day of my first meeting that diplomats from other countries, especially the developing countries and our partners in the Commonwealth and NATO, automatically turned to me to find a solution when the meeting got stuck on conflicting objectives or an inability to find the right words to express our areas of common ground without getting into other difficulties. The reputation of my colleagues who had gone before me had set very high standards that every Canadian representative was expected to meet. It presented a wonderful challenge. It ensured I worked diligently for long hours. And it made me very proud to have the opportunity to carry Canada’s reputation forward.

The other similar assignment a few years later had me in Paris several times a year as Chairman of the OECD Joint Working Party on Agriculture and Trade. I had not worked with this group before, but I had worked in other areas in the OECD and although I was an outsider, I was acceptable to the group and elected chairman at the first meeting I attended because I am Canadian and because Canadians have a certain reputation and standing in diplomatic circles.

As stated at the beginning of this article, my work for Canada in the international arena has made me extremely proud to be Canadian. Since 1981, I have managed ten times to spend July 1, “Canada Day”, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa and although it’s very “un-Canadian” of me, I cannot help but shed a tear of pride at some point in the ceremony.

And I cannot understand what is going on in Canada now. I do understand some of the reasons francophone Quebeckers feel their language and culture may be threatened as they are progressively becoming a smaller part of the total Canadian population. But Canada has accommodated many of their concerns in the past. We have put in place a milieu in which French Canadian language and culture have flourished. There must be a way for them to continue to flourish within Canada.

I am confident that the people of Quebec do not really want to leave Canada. All polls have consistently shown that what they want first and foremost are changes in the way Canada functions. The way Canada functions has evolved over the years and there is nothing stopping us from evolving further in directions that will satisfy the legitimate needs of all Canadians.

Our capacity to accommodate each other’s genuine needs is limited only by our imaginations and our sense of humanity to one another. I fervently hope soon to see some initiatives taken by Canadians outside government to reach out and find a solution acceptable to all of us.

As a Canadian who grew up in British Columbia, I have absolutely no sympathy with some of the attitudes towards Quebec coming from the west coast or for any notion that British Columbia might be better off on its own. In my view, anyone who advocates BC’s separation, with or without Quebec separation, simply has not thought it through.

So what have I learned about this situation through the eyes of foreigners? The only foreigners I was exposed to in the past couple of years were Americans, and I spoke to many American groups about Canadian unity and the Quebec issue. I told them that what happened in Canada last October 30 was a truly remarkable exercise in democracy. Fully 97% of eligible voters cast their ballots in a referendum that had no basis in Canadian constitutional law and would probably not even be allowed to take place in any other modem federation. Many Americans seemed to react to that sort of claim along the following lines: “It may have been a remarkable exercise in democracy, but it sounds pretty foolish to us.”

I also had trouble convincing some American audiences that, should the people of Quebec take a clear decision to separate from Canada, the rest of us will find a way to accommodate their wishes in a peaceful and reasonably orderly fashion.

Looking more broadly, I believe most foreigners friendly to Canada would find its dissolution highly distressing. Canada is seen to be a strong actor on the international scene, an honest broker, a voice of moderation, a beacon of tolerance, and a strong and articulate opponent to all forms of prejudice and exclusion. If it were to break up, its voice would be weakened or even silenced. And, I believe, the international community would be the poorer for it.

I also believe that any Canadian who could be as privileged as I have been to see Canada through the eyes of foreigners would share my determination that the country must never be broken up.

– Dennis Browne,
Ottawa, ON