Yankees, Meet Your Neighbors

By Joseph Weber


A Biography of the New American Continent

By Anthony DePalma

Public Affairs -- 375pp -- $26

A popular Canadian TV comedy show, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, once dispatched its host to Harvard University to question students about America's northern neighbor. He videotaped young people venting their outrage at his statements that seal hunters had resumed their bloody work on the ice floes of Saskatchewan. When the piece aired, Canadian viewers roared: A seal is as rare in Saskatchewan as an American who can locate that prairie province on a map. (Hint: Look north of Montana.)

Another instance of U.S. ignorance, equally sad: Few Americans have any notion of the political sea change represented by the recent election of Mexican President Vicente Fox, the first non-Establishment candidate elected there in 70 years. (Imagine Ralph Nader or Pat Buchanan in the White House.)

Anthony DePalma's Here: A Biography of the New American Continent offers Yanks a much-needed tutorial. The volume is a richly detailed look at the uneasy coexistence of the three nations that make up North America. New York Times correspondent DePalma concocts a hearty stew of history, past and present politics, culture, and anecdote--ingredients gathered during successive three-year assignments in Mexico City and Toronto before his 1999 return to New York.

As DePalma shows, Americans haven't always ignored their neighbors. In colonial times, Americans coveted Canada, and in 1774 and 1812, they invaded the country. Before John Adams became President, he bluntly declared: "The unanimous voice of the Continent is `Canada must be ours; Quebec must be taken."' And after U.S. designs on the north came a cropper, Americans went to war in 1846 against Mexico, occupying its capital and forcing it to give up 40% of its territory. This eventually became Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and parts of Utah and Wyoming. No wonder that some Mexicans resent Yanquis, or that, as DePalma observes, "even today anxiety [about the U.S.] lingers, at least subconsciously, in the minds of some Canadians."

The U.S. rarely invades its hemispheric neighbors anymore--although Canadian cultural nationalists often complain that Hollywoodization of their art and media amounts to an intellectual occupation. But DePalma is a bit Pollyannaish in suggesting that a "certain synergy" now unites North America and in implying that a continental identity will eventually emerge. He says he feels transformed by his cross-border experiences into "a Newlander, a citizen of North America." But it's unlikely that many other citizens of these three distinctly different countries feel that way. As DePalma himself notes, Canadians make a parlor game out of stressing their differences with Americans. And Americans remain perplexed by Mexico's entrenched corruption and stubborn poverty. (In fact, DePalma elsewhere admits North America remains a "reluctant trinity.")

The author excels when he avoids gauzy philosophizing and concentrates on telling fascinating stories. His account of an August, 1994, Indian political convention in Mexico's Chiapas jungle--"a tropical Woodstock" presided over by the now-famous Zapatista Subcomandante Marcos--is riveting. Just minutes after the masked Marcos finishes fulminating about the unfairness of life in Mexico, a summer tempest swamps the conventioneers' tent, short-circuiting the lights and sending attendees scrambling. As if to confirm the country's seeming hopelessness, little more than shreds of canvas and jungle overgrowth mark the spot when DePalma visits six months later. And there is the occasional adventure: He once winds up at the wrong end of some Zapatista rifles in the middle of the night and wisely backs off.

Unlike Mexico's Indians, Canada's aboriginals, as they are known, win their battles in remarkably civil settings. In 1998, the Nisga'a take control of thousands of square miles of British Columbia by using the courts--a bloodless victory with implications for separatism elsewhere in Canada. A year later, DePalma is on hand in the Arctic when Nunavut, a sprawling new Inuit territory, comes into being. The development is bittersweet, since economics may dictate that the remote place forever remains a ward of Ottawa. In other fascinating tales, DePalma flies on a government jet to Cuba with Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian Foreign Minister who helped fashion Canada's maverick pro-Cuba policy. And his recounting of the loopy but persistent separatism in Quebec is an excellent primer.

Ultimately, DePalma's work is a solid bit of journalism that falls down on historical analysis. I would have welcomed more insights into why the nations developed so very differently--the U.S. into a global superpower and the others into tagalongs. Each country is a creation of immigrants and, as DePalma notes, his life would be very different had his Italian grandfather settled in Veracruz or Halifax instead of Hoboken, N.J. DePalma is eloquent on the "how," but a reader longs for a better idea of "why."

Still, citizens of all three countries who want to understand one another better would do well to check out Here. It is a must-read for Americans whose knowledge of Canada consists of threatening air masses and whose only associations with Mexico are drug lords and vacations in Cancún.

Chicago Bureau Chief Weber was based in Toronto in 1997-2000.

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