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Moving Closer or Drifting Apart?: Assessing the State of Public Opinion on the U.S.-Canada Relationship

April 13, 2010 // 9:00am11:15am
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While Canadians may be more personally familiar with the United States, they have a negative view of cross-border integration, said Cameron Anderson. Anderson and his colleague Laura Stephenson, both professors of political science at the University of Western Ontario (UWO), presented their study, Moving Closer or Drifting Apart?: Assessing the State of Public Opinion on the U.S.-Canada Relationship, at an event hosted by the Canada Institute on April 13, 2010. Their study surveyed 1,002 U.S. citizens and 1,002 Canadian citizens in February of 2010 with the goal of gauging public opinion on the bilateral relationship and the key policy issues affecting it. The program also marked the launch of UWO's Canada-U.S. Institute—the first institute in Canada dedicated solely to the study of the Canada-U.S. relationship. Amit Chakma, president of the University of Western Ontario, was also present to celebrate the launch. He expressed confidence that the new Canada-U.S. Institute at UWO would become a leading source of scholarly and policy-relevant work on the bilateral relationship.

John Dickson of the U.S. State Department and Roy Norton of the Canadian Embassy in Washington, D.C. offered opening remarks for the event. Dickson noted the relevance and timeliness of the launch of UWO's Canada-U.S. Institute, which he said will provide a more comprehensive understanding of the close bilateral relationship between the two countries. He emphasized the necessity of academic institutions like this one in order to meet the lack of empirical study on this historic and expansive bilateral relationship.

Norton reminded participants that 8 million jobs in the United States are dependent on trade with Canada. Furthermore, he argued that Canadian interests are well-represented in Washington at both the federal and provincial levels of government. For example, President Obama's first trip abroad after his inauguration was to Canada to meet Prime Minister Harper, and the two met seven more times during the last year in the context of multilateral conferences. Additionally, there were 47 visits to Washington by Canadian ministers in 2009. These relationships with U.S. policymakers, which Canadians work hard to maintain, are only enhanced by initiatives like the Canada-U.S. Institute at UWO, said Norton.

Evaluating the State of the Bilateral Relationship

Looking at past, present, and future evaluations of the Canada-U.S. relationship, the survey results indicated a "cooler feel" from Canadians on the current state of the bilateral relationship, claimed Anderson. Only 15 percent of Canadians considered the countries "best of friends" compared to 28 percent in the United States. Twenty-seven percent of Canadian respondents answered that the relationship had "gotten worse" over the past five years compared to only 12 percent of Americans. Anderson noted that "Canadians are more familiar with the United States than Americans are with Canada across personal, social and, economic domains." However, less familiarity among Americans does not suggest a negative attitude towards the relationship. Despite this closeness and familiarity, Canadians generally have a more negative view of integration between the two countries than Americans have. Anderson said that Canadians maintain a glass half empty attitude towards integration with 41 percent of respondents evaluating Canada-U.S. integration as bad with an equal number evaluating it as neither good nor bad.

Despite this difference in opinion, the study revealed that Canadians and Americans agree that the key issues across borders are the economy, free trade, border security, and energy and the environment. Looking at the breakdown of the percentage in favor of government action on these core issues, Stephenson asserted that both Americans and Canadians demand government action on these issues. However, a higher percentage of Canadians want both governments to be more proactive in several policy areas, particularly the environment and free trade. For example, 77 percent of Canadians think that the U.S. government could do more on environmental issues versus 39 percent of Americans who think their own government could do more. Questions related to border security yielded different results, however, where 59 percent of Americans thought their own government should do more on border issues compared to 33 percent of Canadians.

According to Stephenson, the results of the study suggest that Americans have a positive view of the relationship despite being less personally integrated while Canadians tend to be more critical of the relationship. Data also indicate that Canadians have more nuanced opinions on major bilateral issues, which is valuable knowledge for Canadian policymakers, said Stephenson. Also of note, she maintained, was that Americans tend to believe that the Canadian government can have influence on the outcome of U.S. policies. Finally, Stephenson emphasized that the study of public perceptions ultimately illuminates the need for greater communication and exchange about the size and extent of the Canada-U.S. relationship.

Assessing the Results

Karlyn Bowman of the American Enterprise Institute began her remarks with the caveat that while public opinion polling is an important tool that is often under-utilized, it is also a blunt instrument that should not be directly utilized to make policy. She highlighted environmental protectionism as one issue that has had a long history of importance to the vast majority of Americans, which may help explain variations in public opinion on the issue between Canada and the United States. Because the environment has been an issue considered extremely important by Americans on both sides of the political spectrum since the 1970s, the American public is less attentive to the issue and assumes that their government will develop sound environmental policy. Such assumptions help explain why a higher percentage of Americans than Canadians view the potential consequences of climate change as "exaggerated."

Bowman also pointed out that such differences may be further explained by an American exceptionalism. Americans expect their government to do more while interfering with their lives less. With this uniquely American disdain for government intervention in mind, it would perhaps further inform the differences between Canadians and Americans if questions on government action were twinned with questions on taxes, concluded Bowman.

Maryscott Greenwood of the Canadian-American Business Council agreed that public opinion is important when looking at cross-border relations, and it is often distorted by media coverage. She noted that the Canada-U.S. relationship is still plagued by the "binocular effect," a phenomenon where a fictional pair of binoculars at the border makes Canada look small and far away to the United States, and the United States look big and too close to Canada. She also added that studies need to appreciate the differences in U.S. and Canadian foreign policy engagement. The United States, explained Greenwood, wants to engage Canada on broad, multilateral issues, while Canada often prefers to engage the United States solely bilaterally on smaller issues. In contrast to the findings of Anderson and Stephenson, Greenwood concluded that the rock-solid nature of the Canada-U.S. relationship is often taken for granted, and certainly studies like Anderson's and Stephenson's play an important role in understanding its complexities.

By Alex Kostura
David Biette, Director, Canada Institute

  

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