By Barbara Kleban Mills
April 14, 1986 12:00 PM

“The average American thinks of Canada either as a haven for draft dodgers or as a pretty place where the inhabitants drink tea and eat biscuits,” says Andrew H. Malcolm. “Both countries have to realize that although they share the world’s longest undefended border, and each is the other’s largest trading partner, they hardly know anything about one another.” Malcolm, 42, the Cleveland-born son of Canadian parents, is doing his best to set things right. After four years as Toronto bureau chief of the New York Times, traveling from bustling Yonge Street to the desolate Arctic, he wrote The Canadians (Times Books, $17.95), a best-seller in Canada for 30 weeks, which has now been published in paperback (Bantam Books, $9.95). The book is a perceptive portrait of the world’s second largest country, a nation searching for and finding its own sense of self. Malcolm, now the Times’s bureau chief in Chicago, discussed those mysterious people to the north with correspondent Barbara Kleban Mills.

Why do you think Americans are so ignorant about Canada?

It shocks Canadians that Americans don’t know who the Prime Minister is, or that they think Trudeau is still running the place. However, a lot of Americans don’t know the name of their Congressman or the number of their congressional district either. Americans may think they know Canada because they have been there on a fishing trip, and Canadians may think that because they’ve been to Florida they understand how the U.S. works. It’s just not the case. They are two very different national personalities.

What does the average Canadian think of Americans?

The Royal Bank of Canada once published a pamphlet that said, in effect, Americans are those persons who speak English with a slightly different accent; who say faucet instead of tap and frosting instead of icing; who don’t put vinegar on their french fries; and who like their beer weak, their cigarettes strong and their tea ice cold. In fact, Canadians think Americans are often pushy, inconsiderate and boastful.

How do the Canadian and American personalities differ?

Americans are raised to believe that if you work hard, everything will turn out. Canadians believe things are going to get a lot worse before they go bad They are always saving for a rainy day. In Canada there are three million more savings accounts than there are people. Canadians are also one of the most heavily life-insured people in the world, and you’ll find people in their 20s talking about pension plans. Canadians have always felt at the whim of powers far larger than themselves—economic, climatological and geographic—and this has shaped the way they think.

When did Europeans begin arriving in Canada?

In the 16th century the French came looking for the fabled Northwest Passage to the Orient. Explorer Jacques Cartier landed in what is now Quebec City in 1535, hoping he was in Asia. One legend has it that he asked a local Indian, “What does one call this place?” The Indian replied, “Kanata”—the Huron-Iroquois word for “settlement.” Cartier returned to France to announce his discovery of a new land with a strange name. It was a suitably symbolic beginning for Canada—misnamed, misunderstood and mistaken for somewhere else.

How has Canada’s history shaped its national character?

Many settlers came to Canada not because they had a vision that could only be fulfilled there, but because they were running away from something else, like the Irish potato famine. The original English-speaking settlers were British loyalists fleeing the American Revolution; they considered Benedict Arnold a hero because he remained true to King George.

What impact has geography had on the Canadian personality?

Canada is not a melting pot but a conservative collection of regions, each retaining its own identity. U.S. immigrants came to America’s East Coast and worked their way across the continent, gradually coming to know the land and to change it for themselves. Whether they came from Italy or Africa, they became American. After 1890, Canadian immigrants were often recruited by the government to specific places, such as Alberta, British Columbia, North Ontario. Once they got there they stayed, living in pockets divided from each other by geography, by climate and often by religion and ethnic heritage. The result was a collection of fiefdoms frequently feuding within the country of Canada.

Are Canadians patriotic as a nation?

In the sense that people think “We’re all Canadian and therefore not American,” yes; but in terms of “We’re all in this together,” no. Americans are raised with a lot of common heroes—Paul Revere, Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone and have a sense of shared nationhood. The only common national hero Canada has is Louis Riel, a half-breed rebel in the West who was hanged for treason in 1885. So Canadians have postage stamps honoring not people like Betsy Ross but nickel and uranium. They don’t have heroes, they have resources.

Are Canadians less belligerent than Americans?

Here in the U.S., if we have a dispute over slavery, we say, “Let’s have a war and settle this sucker once and for all.” Canadians, who have been able to survive this long without a civil war or a revolution, have a wonderful way of compromising. They’re too busy fighting the elements to fight each other. There have been regional squabbles, but Canadian confrontations have tended to be more verbal than violent.

Do Canadians have any national symbols that bind them together?

The Queen. Some may laugh, but for a lot of Canadians this is a part of their heritage. They also have national pride. Last fall when U.S. baseball fans at Yankee Stadium booed the Canadian national anthem, Canadians were shocked. There was concern in Toronto as to how Canadians would react to the American national anthem the following week when the Yankees came to play there. No one booed. Canadians feel very strongly about showing Americans who is polite.

Do Canadians feel superior to the U.S. in any way?

Yes. In terms of their country’s size and scenic beauty. They also feel they are more civilized and more considerate of others. Their cities are cleaner, safer. They have not had any serious racial problems. Moreover, things work in Canada. Last fall an American movie company was filming in Toronto, pretending it was New York. But Toronto was too clean, so the director ordered trash thrown on the streets. When the crew returned from lunch, the sanitation department had cleaned it up, so the trash had to be put down again.

Do Canadians resent Americans?

In some cases. It’s rather like the poor cousin and the rich cousin. Donald Sutherland, who is Canadian, once described Canadians as standing outside the restaurant pushing their noses up against the window, watching Americans and wishing they were inside. But that is changing. Canadians are much more comfortable now where they are rather than thinking eventually they are going to graduate from Canada into the big leagues. They are showing greater aggressiveness on all levels—in business, diplomacy, athletics. In Search of Excellence has sold more copies per capita in Canada than in the U.S. Canadians are ready to feel good about themselves.

What prompted this change?

The number of Canadians with some kind of postsecondary education has gone from 1 in 30 before World War II to 1 in 3 today. Better-educated people are more open to opportunities. There has been a boom in Canadian culture because people have been educated to be more receptive to it. There is a new class of entrepreneurs in real estate, banking and trucking. If someone comes up with a better way to make a refrigerator, he no longer says, “I’ll never sell this in Canada, I’ve got to go to General Electric in Connecticut.” It’s not by chance that Chrysler decided to build its new Plymouth and Dodge minivans in Windsor, Ont. It’s because the expertise is there now.

What impact will Canada’s growing national self-awareness have on the U.S. ?

We have to be prepared for tougher competition. I liken the new relationship to that of two brothers. When one is 10 and the other 6, the 10-year-old always wins and the 6-year-old is just delighted to be included in the game. But when they get to be 16 and 20, the younger guy is tired of losing and one day tackles a little too hard. The older brother can react in two ways. He can get angry and tackle back hard, or he can say, “I’m just witnessing a perfectly normal maturation process.” I would suggest the latter.