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‘O Canada’ – getting to know our neighbor: A Piece of My Mind

The classic L. Frank Baum book, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” includes a scene of disillusion that was not included in the movie.

When Dorothy unmasks the Wizard, he reveals that “to make the name (Emerald City) fit better, I put green spectacles on all the people, so that everything they saw was green.”

“But isn’t everything here green?” asks Dorothy.

“No more than in any other city, my dear,” the Wizard says.

I felt a little like disillusioned Dorothy during part of my recent trip to Canada.

I confess that I knew very few facts about our northern neighbor, especially its recent history. When I thought about Canada (which I didn’t, much), I imagined it as a sort of alternate-reality version of the U.S., where power was shared between the Francophones of Quebec and the government center in Ontario, where ethnic groups mostly got along, where immigration policy made sense, where Indian tribes were respectfully referred to as First Nations, where the western sections were mostly empty and mountainous, where national health care was noncontroversial, and where people were so civilized and well-behaved that we didn’t even have to patrol our mutual border. Sort of a northern Oz.

I knew Canada had provinces instead of states. I knew that the province of Quebec is mostly French-speaking and used to talk about seceding from Canada but doesn’t any more, that British Columbia is mountainous and forested and ecology-minded and that Alberta has wheat fields and tar sands – the latter producing oil that some folks want to ship via pipeline across the U.S. to New Orleans.

After a week in Canada, reading Canadian newspapers and talking with Canadians, I learned that:

• The Quebec separatist movement is still alive and its Francophile policy threatens to morph into a “we don’t like any minorities except our own” anti-immigrant xenophobia.

• The political power has shifted westward along with the money flowing from the oil-shale sands of Alberta, the wealthiest, fastest-growing and most libertarian province. Its residents pay the lowest taxes per dollar of income in Canada.

• The current prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, is doing his best to bulldoze approvals for a pipeline from Alberta to Vancouver, despite opposition from local ecologists and First Nation groups.

• Harper is also taking incremental steps to dismantle the national health system (Too costly! Too complicated!) by directing responsibility for health care back to the provincial governments, leaving them free to set their own standards for care.

• The traditional union power brokers (based in Quebec) are appalled by Harper. The traditional liberal government workers (based in Ontario) are also appalled. They accuse Harper of undermining traditional Canadian values.

Canada’s different road seems to have led to many of the same perplexing places as our own. I was happy at the end of a week to discard my green specs, click the heels of my slippers together and return home to the witches I know.

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