Canadians and Americans are more similar than assumed

For many Canadians, comparing Canada and the U.S. is a national pastime, right up there with hockey and complaining about the weather.

But in a month with Canada Day and the Fourth of July, an expert on North American culture has news for anyone who takes our cultural stereotypes at face value. According to Ed Grabb, an award-winning author, teacher and researcher, Canadians and Americans are more similar than most people assume.

“Canadians and Americans are not identical, but they are much more alike than people think,” says Grabb, a professor and senior scholar in UBC’s Dept. of Sociology. “This is especially true if we look at their general populations, rather than each country’s elites, and especially if we focus on English Canada and the U.S. North.”

In his research, Grabb uses a variety of approaches to study Canadians and Americans, including analyzing the World Values Survey, the most comprehensive source for comparing attitudes and behaviours in countries around the world. Much of his work is summarized in the 2010 book Regions Apart.

“Research offers little evidence to support many of the stereotypes about cultural differences,” says Grabb, who is preparing a new course on Canadians and Americans for the upcoming academic year. “For most key measures, including attitudes about health care, religion, government, and individuality, we are surprisingly similar.”

Although people cite our different health care systems as proof of deeper differences, Grabb’s research shows that American support of national health insurance funded by tax dollars is actually quite close to that of Canadians. “This is an area where conservative politicians, right-wing media and lobby groups have succeeded in using misinformation and scare tactics to undermine the will of most Americans,” says Grabb, noting that the U.S. introduced social welfare programs before Canada during Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Grabb’s research also debunks the popular notion that the U.S. is a much more individualistic society that places greater value on personal freedoms. He finds that Canadians actually are similar to Americans on various measures of individualism and related values, including the acceptance of economic inequality if it is based on individual merit or effort.

Despite Americans’ reputation as fierce anti-government libertarians, Grabb’s research suggests that people in the U.S. exhibit more trust and respect towards their government and politicians than Canadians do.

While Canadians and Americans do differ on religion, Grabb’s findings suggest that the differences are shrinking as both societies become more secular. For example, in 1991, Americans were 16 per cent more likely than Canadians to go to religious services once a week or more, but by 2006 the difference had dropped to 11 per cent.

Faulty cultural stereotypes arise when people try to draw broad generalizations from specific personalities, such as George Bush Jr., Lady Gaga, or Don Cherry, Grabb says. “The cultural elites of a nation – politicians, thinkers, artists, celebrities, athletes – often stand out because they represent the extremes of a society,” he says. “But that also makes them poor stand-ins for the Average Joe on the street.”

Grabb says Canada and the U.S. are better understood as four distinct regional societies: the politically and culturally left-liberal Quebec, the conservative U.S. South, English Canada and the U.S. North. According to his research, each area is relatively distinct on a variety of topics, including levels of government spending and taxation, unionization rates, support for gay rights and interracial marriage, beliefs about the death penalty and criminal justice, and support for the military.

“English Canada and the U.S. North are very similar in their attitudes and behaviours,” says Grabb, who also studies social structures, political sociology, and inequality. “But then you have Quebec pulling the rest of Canada to the left and the South pulling the rest of the U.S. to the right. Both Quebec and the South are crucial for winning national elections. So, whenever we compare our two countries, it is important to account for these internal differences.”

According to Grabb, Canada and the U.S. go through regular periods of divergence and convergence on issues, depending on the historical period and the issue being considered. Examples include: the abolition of slavery (achieved in Canada first), participation in both World Wars (Canada entered first), the development of national social welfare policies (achieved in the U.S. first), and military involvement in Iraq (Canada joined the U.S. in the first war, but not the second).

Grabb says his fascination with Canadian-American relations began during his childhood in the 1960s, growing up in the small town of Chatham, Ontario, an hour’s drive from Detroit. “Like many Canadians, my early sense of the world was greatly influenced by American culture, music, sports, movies, television and radio,” he says. “The U.S. seemed so much more exciting than what was happening in my sleepy little town. So for the last 30 years, I have been working to advance our understanding of what makes these two countries tick.”

Learn more about UBC’s Department of Sociology  at www.soci.ubc.ca

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UBC Reports | Vol. 57 | No. 7 | Jul. 7, 2011

UBC Sociology Prof. Ed Grabb’s research debunks many cultural stereotypes of Canadians and Americans. Photograph courtesy of Ed Grabb

UBC Sociology Prof. Ed Grabb’s research debunks many cultural stereotypes of Canadians and Americans. Photograph courtesy of Ed Grabb

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“… you have Quebec pulling the rest of Canada to the left and the South pulling the rest of the U.S. to the right.”

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