Michael Adams’ Canada

Michael Adams’ polling firm, Environics, sells information about
Canadian-American tastes and attitudes to businesses on both sides of the
border. “Know your customer.”  He writes best selling books. Perhaps the
most widely read is, Fire and Ice, The United States, Canada, and the Myth
of Converging Values
(Penguin, 2003).

His data and books are often assigned in Canadian politics and sociology
classes. And they should be.

Why the interest? There’s the fact that few political scientists or
sociologists can match Adams’ polls in scope; considerable sums have been
invested. And they’re reliable. I don’t want to say completely reliable
because his results have been challenged. But then statisticians are always
quarrelling. As Adams himself says in the June 2008 issue of the Literary
Review of Canada
(page 31): “Arguing about Canada and the United States is
like arguing about the Bible: anyone can find a chapter and verse (or in
[my] case a statistic or policy outcome) to suit their ideological fancy.”

But what chiefly interests the professors, and the students and general
readers, is that Adams uses his data to argue that Canadians and Americans
are not alike. And that’s an idea with star appeal. The academics’ quarrels
about “chapter and verse” are chiefly disagreements about degree. Are
Canadians and Americans are very different, or only somewhat different? And
are we becoming more different? Or less? The short statement for Fire and
reads: “Canada and the United States are not coming together but are
diverging in significant ways. From the vehicles we buy to the deference we
pay to authority, Canadians prove to be firmly separate in their attitudes
and opinion.”

In the current Literary Review of Canada, Adams asks: “Why is the U.S.
murder rate three times the Canadian rate? Why do Americans incarcerate each
other at a rate nearly six times the Canadian rate? Why do Canadians have a
universal system of health insurance and the Americans not?” He’s hammering
home the point:  We’re not like our neighbours. We have a different society,
a different “culture”.

What’s my problem with Adams on Canada? Because obviously I have one. My
complaint is not so much with Adams himself. I’m complaining about the
professors who use his data on Canadian-American differences to describe the
Canadian political identity.

Adams professes to be telling us what the great majority of Canadians have
in common.  Well, O.K. But when you have a description of what most
Canadians think you don’t have a description of who we are as a nation. You
don’t know our “identity.” What are we supposed to say about the Canadians
who buy over sized cars? And the ones who enjoy challenging authority?
Especially  the ones who challenge authority by campaigning against what
they call “socialized medicine.” Are they are a little less Canadian? Not
really, really Canadians? Is their behaviour, for goodness sake,

Let me lay down the rule: you cannot arrive at a country’s “identity,” by
toting up attitudes, preferences and behaviours. You can say interesting
things; cultural studies are worthwhile. Sure. But cultural studies does not
yield a definition of the nation and national identity. Remember Cartier’s
powerful statement: “It was lamented by some that we had this diversity of
races, and hopes were expressed that this distinctive feature would cease …
The idea of unity of races was utopian – it was impossible. Distinctions of
this kind would always exist. Dissimilarity in fact appeared to be the order
of the physical world and of the moral world, as well as of the political
world.” (Canadian Legislative Assembly, February 7, 1865). Cartier and the
other Fathers were looking for a way to define the new country that would
include and apply to, each and every last person. Dissidents, conspicuous
spenders, even murders not excepted.

Canada’s identity is more than a bundle of majority preferences.

Hence my conclusion. We’ve described the Canadian identity adequately only
when we’ve said that we are a free country, governed by the rule of law and
representative political institutions. The rule of law and our
representative legislatures are what we all, without exception, have in

Adams helps us to describe the shifting patterns of political opinion and
social preferences in this country and in the United States. He illuminates
aspects of our history.

He doesn’t tell us what’s permanently and universally good about living in
this country, good for all of us without exception, the possession equally
of those whose ancestors arrived uncounted years ago, those whose ancestors
laid the foundations of the City of Quebec in 1608 [have I got the date
right?], those who fled north in the wake of the American Revolution, those
who took the Underground Railway, and – oh – the refugees and immigrants of
many years including those who gained their citizenship only today.

He doesn’t tell us who we are.

5 Responses to “Michael Adams’ Canada”

  1. 1 Christopher Moore June 4, 2008 at 9:54 am

    Date looks right to me, Janet. Good work.

  2. 2 John June 4, 2008 at 10:29 am

    “Canada’s identity is more than a bundle of majority preferences.”


  3. 3 anonymous June 16, 2008 at 10:27 am

    “Hence my conclusion. We’ve described the Canadian identity adequately only when we’ve said that we are a free country, governed by the rule of law and representative political institutions. The rule of law and our representative legislatures are what we all, without exception, have in common.”

    My understanding of this post is that you can measure a country’s identity by looking at its institutions.

    It’s a powerful argument, but I’m not sure if takes us very far.

    The components, “free country, governed by the rule of law and representative political institutions” doesn’t take into account change. Identity, without question, changes. The diversity that Cartier was speaking about is surely not the same diversity that exists today.

    I also wondered – would you agree that distinctive identities exist at the provincial level? How would you describe Quebec identity? How about municipal identities?

    Just some thoughts – thanks for the blog and I look forward to reading future entries.

  4. 4 janetajzenstat June 19, 2008 at 10:12 pm

    Here’s a short reply. Let’s make a distinction between civic identity – and cultural identity. The constitution and form of government determines the former, history, patterns of immigration etc. determine the latter. I worry about the tendency of students of the Canadian identity to dwell on culture. But there’s more to say. I hope we continue. I’m thinking about cities.

  5. 5 anonymous June 20, 2008 at 2:25 pm


    I think that’s a fair point. I agree that it is important to distinguish between civil and cultural identity when speaking of Canadian identity. And you are right to point out that students of Canadian identity tend to spend more time on the latter.

    But I think there’s two possible reasons why this has occurred:

    1) civic identity has remained relatively static, whereas cultural Canadian identity has been much more dynamic;

    2) that quite simply, civic identity has become less important to individual Canadians over time, and less influential among individual Canadians, their organizations and governments. When we think about Canadian identity, one might argue that political processes and outcomes are less determined by what you call civic identity, and more by what you call cultural Canadian identity.

    The fact that the U.S. and Canada are “legal” societies prone to use the courts to achieve social change, for instance, doesn’t stem from our civic identity, but rather from the individual preferences that mobilize or do not mobilize through organized litigation.

    Hence, individual preferences, whether bundled into majority/minority or not, are the crucial elements of Canadian identity and deserve more focus from students of political science, if at least to account for change in political processes and outcomes in Canada.

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