Why Do Americans Think Canada Is So Pure?

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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Today's arrestof the mayor of Montreal, Michael Applebaum, on conspiracy and fraud charges, coming on the heels of Toronto's mayor apparently smoking something he shouldn't, is prompting some tut-tutting on the south side of the border.

"The mayor of a Canadian city was arrested early this morning and it wasn't even the guy who smoked crack on video," Gawker tweeted. Reuters ran the headline "Montreal Mayor Arrested in Latest Canadian Scandal." "Canada Mayor Crisis Spreads," wrote Josh Barro at Business Insider.

Canadians, or at least this Canadian, would like to note that American mayors aren't all choir boys either. Former New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin is set to go on trial for bribery, money laundering, conspiracy and tax fraud. Kwame Kilpatrick, the former mayor of Detroit, was found guilty in March of bribery, extortion and other charges.

And of course, Mayor Marion Barry was arrested in a Washington hotel room after being videotaped using crack cocaine. Canadians like to say that we follow the same trends as Americans -- it just takes them a little longer to reach us.

Still, you can see how the mayors of Canada's two largest cities being under legal clouds at the same time raises questions about the final third of the country's "peace, order and good government" motto. What's going on up north?

One answer is that Quebec has been stuck in a corruption scandal for years. The current Montreal mayor took office when his predecessor stepped down over corruption allegations of his own. The mayor of neighboring Laval was also arrested last year, amid a long-running inquiry into ties between politicians and organized crime in the province's construction industry.

Nor is Quebec the only part of the country struggling with less-than-pristine governance. The prime minister's chief of staffresigned last month, after the news broke that he gave a personal check for $90,000 to a senator who had claimed too much in expenses, and didn't have the money to pay it back. The police are now investigating. Meanwhile, police in Ontario, the country's most populous province, are investigating allegations that staff in the premier's office illegally deleted potentially incriminating e-mails.

And that's just the past month. Former Prime Minister Paul Martin was hounded from office after his Liberal Party took kickbacks from Quebec advertising companies on his predecessor's watch. Before that, former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney infamously received envelopes with at least $225,000 in cash from a German lobbyist, then allegedly tried to cover it up. An inquiry called his conduct "inappropriate."

So maybe the better question is whether Canada deserves its squeaky clean reputation -- the reputation that gives allegations of crack-smoking mayors an extra little kick, like watching the smartest kid in class trip in front of everyone.

We probably did deserve it, at least at one point. Canadians enjoy universal health care, a manageable deficit, reasonable taxes, a strong and well-regulated banking sector and affordable public education. Gay marriage is legal, gun crime is rare, immigrants are mostly welcomed and the right to an abortion is mostly unchallenged. It's as if somebody took Ted Cruz's worst nightmare and made a country out of it.

Those policies came from politicians making smart choices, which suggest Canada's reputation for good government isn't just wishful thinking. The problem is that not much of that good government seems to have happened lately. The country has slipped from first place in the United Nations' Human Development Index during the 1990s to 11th in 2013, as other countries pass it by.

Pick your explanation: the collapse of once-dominant parties, a weakened media, falling voter turnout and rising apathy, declining public expectations for politicians -- any or all of them could be at play. Maybe, having solved all the big problems, Canadians just gave up caring about politics and went back to watching hockey.

In the U.S., with its culture of intense and ongoing political debate, the latest news from Canada may look surprising. Not so for Canadians. After Toronto Mayor Rob Ford's crack tape surfaced, opinion polls suggest his approval ratingsbarely budged. Getting exercised over scandalous behavior now seems so -- what's the word? -- American.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net