Canada: Just as Colorful and Vibrant, and Almost as Tawdry and Rapacious, as America

Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) at a parade Photograph by Oliver Bolch/Anzenberger/Redux

When I attended McGill University in Montreal, I had a friend from Chicago who loved to tell the story of his first visit back to his old high school, in a fairly rough neighborhood of the city.

“Canada?” a classmate he bumped into said when he told him where he was studying. “Bring me back a musket!”

I’ve never handled a musket, trapped a beaver, or chopped wood for a living (though I have for camping), but as a Canadian I have encountered my fair share of Americans embracing a sort of blissful ignorance about the reality of life north of the border. “Toronto, that’s near Vancouver, right?” a fortysomething entertainment executive who works in New York and lives in Connecticut asked me last year, only to be astounded to learn that no, Toronto is just a day’s drive north of her house. “Are there black people in Canada?” a Californian once inquired. A Floridian wondered whether the Mounties patrolled our cities on horseback, while a Bostonian once commented that it must be awful here in the summer, what with all the snow.

While these are the most egregious examples, the fact is many Americans continue to have in mind a vision of Canada ripped straight from the 360-degree film version of the country broadcast at Disney’s Epcot Center. It’s rooted in the notion that this is a sensible nation of prim Anglo-Saxon values, shaped by prudent caution, sane governance, and bad mustaches, an idyllic paradise of moderate progressives that Subaru Democrats threaten to move to each time a Republican wins the White House.

Which is why the news that Montreal’s mayor, Michael Applebaum, was arrested Monday morning on corruption charges was so surprising for Americans. Corruption in Canada? How is this possible? But Applebaum’s arrest is only the latest in a wide-ranging construction and bribe scandal in Quebec (he replaced the previous mayor, who resigned after allegations surfaced), involving shady, Mafia-connected construction companies in kickback schemes straight out of the The Sopranos. Meanwhile, here in Toronto, Mayor Rob Ford continues to dodge questions about an alleged (and still missing) video of him smoking crack cocaine, as well as an alleged association with street gangs.

A few miles away, in the massive suburb of Mississauga, 92-year-old mayor Hazel McCallion, who has ruled for over three decades with uncontested power reminiscent of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew, was acquitted last week of a conflict of interest involving her son’s pursuit of a lucrative real estate deal. In London, a city midway between Toronto and Detroit, Mayor Joe Fontana, who faced charges in the past that he used public money to pay for his son’s wedding, is now under fire from income tax authorities for deriving lucrative “consulting” fees from a charity that was supposed to support after-school lunches and HIV/AIDS medication. Senators in Ottawa (actual senators, not the pro hockey players—as if most Americans would know or care that Ottawa is the capital of Canada, or that the city has an NHL team) have to pay back hundreds of thousands of dollars in fraudulent expenses, and the ruling government apparently has secret slush funds. Even Winnipeg’s mayor, Sam Katz, hasn’t escaped the fray, busted by a watchful mother last month after he spit his gum onto a public lawn.

Just what the hell is going on up here? When did Canada turn into some maple-syrup version of Berlusconi’s Italy, without the bunga-bunga? Have we lost our moral compass?

The reality is that Canada is finally shedding its antiquated image in the eyes of America. It took the glare of the global media focusing on Rob Ford for the world to realize that Toronto is as big, complicated, and messy a metropolis as any of its size in America. Montreal’s corruption is as endemic as that in New Orleans. We are more alike than you think, America.

Which is a good thing. The less we’re thought of as the squeaky-clean, Ned Flanders neighbor to the north, the more people will realize that Canadians are as innovative, hungry, and prone to risk as America and other nations. Toronto’s property market is just as speculative as New York’s (if not more), Montreal has a tech startup scene, and our national wireless monopolies are as rapacious and anticompetitive as any below the 49th parallel. If it takes a bunch of corrupt, possibly criminal mayors to make America realize that, so be it.

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