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Dear American partners

Canada is more than an extra state with great campgrounds.

We the North can be cold and prickly, especially when we talk about American cultural dominance.

You see, Canada is a foreign country to you. We call it pop; you call it soda. Our favourite sport is played on ice, yours on grass. We count in metric units, mostly, and French words like poutine signify one of our two national tongues. Our money comes in a rainbow of colours. We eat ketchup chips with a Moosehead lager. Watch our news to learn we initiated a federal election a month before the vote and see the leader of a national political party wearing a brightly coloured turban. In sum, we believe we are national neighbours, not neighbors.

What I’m saying is that we are a distinct culture, and as a result we do church ministry different. We talk differently, we count differently, and we eat and drink differently. I’m over-stating the case, but it’s because many of us feel we’re misunderstood. Taken-for-granted, like an extra state with great campgrounds.

I say this as someone who worked as a denominational bi-national leader in the Christian Reformed Church, someone who works in a global mission organization today, and who has published a book on critical Canadian perspectives of American religion. I say it as someone who loves to partner with Americans. But our working relationship has some flaws, and they’re based on the assumption that we’re pretty much the same. It’s simply not true.

Here are a few things to consider.

Revolution and rifles

First of all, let’s state the obvious: you are big; we are small. You have about 333 million people whereas we hover around 38 million. Feeling small can lead to insecurities. It’s like a beaver whose lodge happens to be right where the grizzly bear fishes. You are always living in the shadow of a larger animal, and, in our case, one with a military budget of just over $700 billion.

Second, we can be warmer to taxes. While you celebrate the free, rugged individual, we have more tolerance for social institutions and government regulations. Like gun control.

America was born in revolution and the right to bear arms, followed by a bloody Civil War. In contrast, “all Canadian revolutions are failed revolutions,” said writer Margaret Atwood. We just don’t have the heart for it. In Canada, we have few if any monuments, tourist destinations or re-enactments of internal conflict. Such American cultural commemorations seem oddly peculiar to us.

And it’s not just that revolutionary spirit. You have more guns than people: 121 civilian firearms per 100 inhabitants. Canada has about 35 per 100. The homicide rate is three times higher in your country. These are hugely significant contrasting statistics that alone suggest vast cultural difference.

This we share: we, too, are racist, divisive and wrestling with a colonial legacy; but we address this in a distinctly Canadian way. We have different histories when it comes to slavery, and thus differently framed racial tensions. The volatility around black/white injustices isn’t as pronounced in Canada. Recently uncovered mass graves of Indigenous children on the grounds of old residential schools remind us that we have a dark legacy to own up to, and that has sent shock waves through our communities. We need to address these old wounds. We stumble for truth and reconciliation.

COVID & Compliance

Many Canadians have been shocked by the way COVID has been handled in the U.S. True to its individualist creed, regulation and compliance seem weaker in your country. We often joke about how compromising and apologetic Canadians can be. How quickly we donned our masks when asked by our political leaders. We can be meek to a fault.

This pandemic response is complex, I know, and each state and province can tell their own story. But here are the totals: due to the coronavirus, as of August 2021, the deaths per million in the USA stand at 1,921 per million. Canada’s numbers are almost a third of that at 701. Same with infected cases: Canada reports 38,246 per million, while the USA tally is 113,635 per million. Again, these statistics need interpretation, but the differences are staggering.

One more number: when you do get sick, 30 million working Americans have no health insurance. That is an undeniable travesty, and for those 30 million – almost the equivalent of the population of Canada – a potential personal and familial catastrophe.

Post-Christian Reversal

Our church cultures in the U.S. and Canada, while sharing the same Lord, faith and baptism, carry distinct cultural practises and even variations in theology. It’s not just that we have Anglicans and the U.S. has Episcopalians, that Canada is about 40 percent Roman Catholic and the USA is just 22 percent of the same, or that African American churches are so much more prevalent in the U.S. This is telling: we are much less likely to have a flag in our church sanctuaries. Civil religion is much more subtle in Canada, eh?

When it comes to the big picture of Christian North America, historian Mark Noll says in What Happened to Christian Canada? (2006) there has been a “dramatic inversion.” Canada used to be more Christian in terms of church attendance and clergy’s national influence when compared to the U.S., and certainly much less anti-Catholic. After the 1960s, however, he says that Canada has become more secularized – I would say especially in its politics, education and media. Canada, which appeared more Christian than Europe and the U.S., “now appears in its religious character to resemble Europe much more closely than it does the United States.” The power, popularity and prestige of churches has significantly declined here: in a word, we are more post-Christian than you. There is also an intensifying allergy to American religious polarization. This makes an immense difference in terms of Christian ministry – in terms of our posture, our sense of privilege and our political power.

In sum, obviously our political, tax and legal systems are distinctly different – but our cultures are too. I’m suggesting more substantial issues than Mounties, moose and maple syrup. We are the little beaver looking for some respect from the grizzly bear. In fact, this cross-border dynamic shapes much of our cultural, economic and political life – more than you realize!

Despite tension across the border, we want to risk a mature and perhaps frank conversation about a few things (and more than I could fit here!). I hope we can do this politely and also playfully, as national identities are not our ultimate identities. There are larger kingdoms to seek first.

Sincerely, in Christ,
Peter Schuurman

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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