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Dale Smith: The Washington Post clearly doesn't get Canada
Someone reading these columns would not learn much about how our country actually works (or doesn't)
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By: Dale Smith
It’s becoming a bit of a habit; the Washington Post publishes an inflammatory column by one of its go-to Canadians, J.J. McCullough, only for the Canadian politics Twitter sphere to erupt in outrage and hate-clicks because McCullough had, once again, gotten something important totally wrong. But as much as people (rightfully) rail about how McCullough continues to get away with this in the pages of a major and prestigious American newspaper, a number of questions need to be asked of the Post itself, such as why it’s content to publish stuff that doesn’t accurately portray how things work (or don’t) in Canada.
A recent example was McCullough congratulating Barbados for ditching the monarchy, calling that nation a “role model” for the world while completely ignoring the fact that the constitutional mechanisms Barbados used to do so could not be replicated in Canada. There is a specific amending formula in our constitution when it comes to the Office of the Queen — that is, the unanimous consent of the provinces. So Canada could do it. But it’s politically unpalatable and we would face the same dilemma that scuttled Australia’s attempt, which is trying to find something that could replace it that would satisfy the population.
In previous examples, McCullough has “explained” to Americans that the unwritten portions of Canada’s constitution make it uniquely vulnerable to a prime minister who refuses to concede following a lost election. Similar to the Barbados column, McCullough’s thesis was completely wrong, with errors ranging from the realities of how unwritten constitutions work, to omitting the role that confidence plays, and completely ignoring the role of the governor-general as our constitutional fire extinguisher — and the fact that we have historical precedent from 1896 of a prime minister who refused to concede after losing an election until the governor-general refused to take his advice. In an August column about the then-just-called federal election, McCullough pretended, wrongly, that the governor-general could actually turn down a request to dissolve parliament to trigger elections; she could not in the practical political context. As well, the flip-side of allowing governments to fall on a matter of confidence is to allow them to choose the timing of an election rather than adhering to a fixed clock. It leaves the accountability for such decisions up to voters, and there are examples in Canadian history of governments being punished at the ballot box for being seen as too opportunistic in calling an early election.
Part of what is happening here is that editors of the Post’s Global Opinions section are simply guilty of a fundamental ignorance of their neighbouring country’s civics. When asked, the Post's communications manager, Naseem Amini, claimed that "Global Opinions columns go through a rigorous fact-checking process and there are several layers of editing before publishing. In addition, writers are required to provide sources, links or other necessary materials to back up their claims." This sounds on par or better than the process that most Canadian publications endorse; however, when a writer submits a piece about Canadian politics to a Canadian editor, errors and distortions are more easily sussed out via the smell test. Living in a political culture matters. A Canadian editor would be able to better spot some of these claims that someone who isn’t familiar with a foreign political system and culture.
Part of the modern realities of journalism is that there simply aren’t the staff and resources to be as rigorous with submissions as one might like. It’s also becoming a sad reality that clickbait columns generate more engagement than factual reporting. Nevertheless, I’m not convinced that this is entirely to blame for what is actually going on here.
Hate-clicks are still clicks, but maybe this is also about deliberately sending signals to their American readership about America’s place in the world with Canada as the foil.
Americans tend to view Canada as something of a non-entity — the weather map stops at the border. For the most part, the only time Americans think about Canada is when health-care debates play out, and both Democrats and Republicans will wrongly portray Canada’s systems to suit their own agendas. And then there is the usual refrain of Canada being the safe haven for disaffected Americans to escape to, stemming from the legacy of Vietnam War draft-dodgers. It gets a renewed spin whenever a president comes to power that they don’t like, as with George W. Bush or Donald Trump (though vanishingly few ever make the move).
Nevertheless, running nonsense about how Canada actually works does send a message to a certain segment of Americans — particularly the self-righteous west-coast dreamers who have visions of Cascadia, a hoped-for utopia where California, Oregon and Washington break away and join with British Columbia to become a left-wing eco-paradise. And then there are the urban elites, the limousine-liberals who threaten to use their economic clout to make change in the country by removing themselves and heading to Canada.
McCullough gives Post editors a chance to portray what a bizarre place Canada is (they still have a queen!). His columns present a false or simplistic image of a Canada that is as fundamentally broken as America.
What compounds this is Canadians’ own widespread civic illiteracy, and the fact that there are an awful lot of Canadians who like what McCullough says and treat him as an authority figure — he writes for the Washington Post, after all! His readers won’t know better. Ontario is the only province in this country that actually mandates a civics course, and its efforts have generally been panned as being inadequate. Hell, they were even using a wrong definition of what parliament is for decades until a group of teachers who did know better finally made a fuss. When I was in high school in rural Alberta, the most we were taught about how our system works is that bills get three readings before they go to the Senate for “sober second thought” — without any explanation of what that means — and then the governor-general gives it royal assent. And then we talked about the American political system in much greater detail.
This has become pervasive in Canada, where we think about our politics in American terms and using American concepts thanks to the influence of pop culture and news media that suffers from Washington, D.C. envy. We have been slowly disfiguring our Westminster parliamentary system to more closely resemble the Americans’ broken republican experiment by grafting on things like fixed-election dates, or turning leadership selection contests into presidential primaries. We discuss American Supreme Court justices and decisions, while most people couldn’t name any of the justices on our own Supreme Court, or what cases are before it.
Having someone like McCullough tell an international audience that Canada’s system is fundamentally broken and that we should more closely emulate America’s feeds into these feelings of America envy. And our civic illiteracy means that most people don’t catch on to the fact that he is often thoroughly wrong. It’s up to the Washington Post to decide whether this is something it really ought to continue doing.
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