Fifteen years ago this autumn, during a leaders' debate, John Turner put the case against Brian Mulroney in nine fierce words: "I happen to believe you have sold us out." It was an accusation of treason, uncommon in Canadian politics, and it made a deep impression. The debate was the biggest event of the 1988 election, and Turner's attack was so startling that it briefly looked as if it might win the election for the Liberals.
But what seems most remarkable today is that Turner was dead wrong -- and so was just about everyone else who discussed the future of Canada that year, present company not excepted.
In 1988 there was only one issue: Mulroney's free-trade agreement with the United States, which many Canadians believed would destroy Canadian autonomy. Turner planned to unmake the treaty, if he and the Liberals were elected.
"What is at stake," he said, "is the future of our country." Turner and his sympathizers claimed that the agreement ceded Canadian control over the economy, agriculture, water, energy, culture, and health services, which meant Canada's ability to remain independent would vanish. If Mulroney won, Canada would be reduced to a U.S. colony. Americanization would reach into "every facet of our life."
As Graham Fraser wrote in his book on that election, Playing for Keeps, Turner accused Mulroney of furtively "turning Canada into a pale replica of the United States." Even those who favoured the agreement (as I did) acknowledged that Canada might change under American pressure, in certain minor ways, though we thought the economic advantages well worth it.
Artists threw themselves into the debate. Margaret Atwood saw the FTA as one more grave encroachment on Canadian sovereignty. Mordecai Richler, speaking from the other side, said "I will drink only so much bad wine for my country." (The wine industry, of course, was one sector the FTA transformed.)
But here's what no one said in 1988: In the next 15 years Canada and the United States will grow much farther apart than they have ever been. Canada will seriously discuss legalizing marijuana. We will endorse same-sex marriage, to the consternation of certain Americans. In Vancouver we will have legal injection booths for addicts. We will resolve our own battles over the environment, without a U.S. veto. In world politics, Canada will take the American position sometimes and sometimes not, as the people (especially the Quebec people) decide. If the United States goes to war we may help them or we may not.
Were we on the way to absorption by the United States, as so many believed? If we were, we took a sharp turn in another direction. We are now so different from the United States that Clifford Krauss's worried article about our dissimilarities made the front page of the New York Times early this month: "Canada's View on Social Issues Is Opening Rifts With the U.S."
This week the news magazines emphasized the point. Time decided that the Person of the Year was the American Soldier (in 1950 they also chose an anonymous soldier, but called him the Man of the Year). Time called the soldiers "the bright, sharp instrument of a blunt policy" who are executing "American idealism in all its arrogant generosity," a brief masterpiece of ambiguity that allowed Time to come down squarely on both sides of the issue.
Gesturing politely to Canadian readers, Time also chose "the Canadian newsmakers of the year," who turned out to be Michael Leshner and Michael Stark, the first gays who married after the Ontario Court of Appeal said the province must grant marriage licences to same-sex couples. Time also remarked, just like the New York Times, on "the unprecedented acceleration of social liberalism in Canada," a change Time attributed to structural changes in Canadian society, now "more urban and more multicultural."
That's the explanation Canadians give for just about anything. It seems likelier to me that the late-1980s rhetoric filled us with a subterranean fear of extinction that made us incline toward non-American solutions, which we considered distinctly Canadian solutions, to all problems.
Meanwhile, over at Maclean's, they were choosing their Canadian of the Year, the first in the magazine's history. They picked Stephen Lewis, the UN's point man on the AIDS crisis in Africa. Maclean's piled on the praise, cramming five of Lewis's qualities (vision, perseverance, passion, energy, optimism) into two short sentences, throwing in as well "white-hot anger," apparently an admirable trait. They did not, however, say exactly what it is that Lewis does for Africa or the UN. One thing for sure, he likes to describe his righteous emotions ("I'm in a great rage now") and thinks that nations failing adequately to support the struggle against AIDS are guilty of "mass murder by complacency." He'll never be American of the Year.
Far from converging, Canada and the United States are heading off in opposite directions. Michael Adams, the pollster, called his recent book Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values. "Myth" is the key word there. It's chastening to remember how many of us took that myth seriously, only 15 years ago.