The Canadian Cognitive Bias and its Influence on Canada/U.S. Relations.

Author:Holmes, Ken

The Canadian Cognitive Bias and its Influence on Canada/U.S. Relations

Our unsolicited advice to Washington about the war on terror goes mostly unheeded, our small military contributions largely unappreciated. And far from our cherished self-image as the world's "helpful fixer," a sort of moral superpower, both Democrats and Republicans have come to view us as unhelpful nixers. Like the know-it-all neighbour who never misses a chance to bend your ear over the back fence or critique your yardwork, Canada has become the block bore...Things between our countries are apparently getting worse all the time. And, the evidence suggests, the attitude problem is almost entirely our own. (1) Canadians have a deep subconscious bias towards its neighbor to the south that manifests itself in fear, awe, arrogance and admiration. One would think that by now Canada would have outgrown this challenge. Canadians watch the same television. Their media bombards its viewers with many of the same advertisements as their American counterparts, and millions of Canadians travel to the United States each year. However, the Canadian population has a subconscious longevity that breeds the same reactions today as it did 120 years ago.

Additionally, Canadians have a national characteristic best known as 'clam-up.' They manifest this trait when an event occurs that causes great sadness, fear, or embarrassment. When this happens, few people--if anyone--will talk about that issue, particularly those in the media, civil servants, or politicians. For example, one can see evidence of 'clam-up' in Canadian reactions to politicians who favor introducing government financial support for private schools, an unpopular issue in Canada since the 1890s. Security and intelligence initiatives that are historically nationally and regionally personal, such as World War I and responses to radical Islam, also cause "clam-up." This trait is very subtle and can only be detected if one understands the unique history in which the roots of this trait rest. The population will obliterate any public official that does not read the signs behind the silence and embraces the 'wrong' policy at that moment. This bias and the secondary effects are at times pervasive and can work in opposition to the policies and programs initiated by the nation's security and intelligence community. This study examines these themes from a historical perspective, studying how the past connects with the future.

The purpose of this research is to explore the extent of such cognitive bias, and reflect on its contemporary significance to Canada-U.S. relations, particularly in the area of national security. The conclusion identifies issues that policymakers should further explore that may require strategies to mitigate possible future negative challenges. Today, the Canadian security and intelligence community has an excellent working arrangement with the U.S. and with its Commonwealth partners. Richard Aldrich affirms this assertion noting, "The most remarkable example of cooperation is the English-speaking effort in the realm of signals intelligence known as UKUSA. Sharing in this realm between the United States, the UK, Australia, and Canada is so complete that national product is often indistinguishable." (2)

However, this cooperation is periodically squeezed by the stress generated when defense and intelligence realities differ from Canadian perceptions of the United States. In 2013, Paul Koring, the Washington correspondent for the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper, reported on a national poll conducted by Nanos Research and the University of Buffalo on the "Widening Gaps on Human Rights and National Security." Quoting Mr. Nanos, Koring wrote, "Across all the indicators, there is an increasing sense of drift in the Canada-U.S. relationship. It could be a result of a combination of factors including miscommunication and neglect on both sides of the border." Unless remedial steps are taken, the relationship will continue to deteriorate, Mr. Nanos said. "If we see the drift continue, then Canada-U.S relations will become just a series of irritants between neighbours that should have very good relations," Mr. Nanos added. He said he believed the drop reflected a range of American policies, from Mr. Obama's preference for missile-firing drones to kill suspects overseas, to U.S. spy agencies trolling of individuals' data and threats to attack Syria over its use of chemical weapons. "We see an accumulation effect ... on a number of fronts, including security surveillance and drones, but Syria is the signature event... It's an issue that Barack Obama has 100 percent ownership of," Mr. Nanos said before publicly releasing the survey's findings. (3)

When this cognitive bias activates Canadians on historically significant themes, the consequences can produce challenges for policymakers. A current example that parallels Canadian reactions to national security is healthcare, an area where Canadians believe their nation holds the high ground over Americans with respect to universal access and fairness. Nora Jacobson, an American who relocated to Canada in 2001, asserts in "Before You Flee to Canada, Can We Talk," that Canadian anti-American bias can generate 'policy blindness' as "Canadians often point to their system of universal health care as the best example of what it means to be Canadian (because the United States does not provide it), but this means that any effort to adjust or reform that system (which is not perfect) precipitates a national identity crisis: To wit, instituting co-payments or private MRI clinics will make Canada too much like the United States." (4) Notice in this health care example two significant points; Canadians believe (without question) that their healthcare system is better than the U.S., and many refuse to discuss positive change to the system if an idea emulates the U.S. system.

Students of history can view a similar trend with respect to national security. In 2011, confidential documents released by WikiLeaks revealed that Jim Judd, Director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) expressed dismay over Canadian attitudes about global terrorism, which could be described as willful bliss, similar to that in health care example. William Potter of the Toronto Star's Washington Bureau wrote:

Canadians have an "Alice in Wonderland" attitude toward global terrorism, the former head of Canada's spy service told a U.S. counterpart in 2008, according to a secret American memo disclosed Monday. Canadian Security Intelligence Service Director Jim Judd is also quoted as saying that Canadian courts have the security service "tied in knots," hampering their ability to detect and prevent terror attacks inside Canada and beyond. Judd's comments on Canadians and their courts echo private remarks made at CSIS headquarters in Ottawa, where security officials sometimes sarcastically refer to the legal obstacles as "judicial jihad." (5) The 'Alice in Wonderland attitude' is code for the mindset explained by Jacobson. The varied court rulings referred to above on terrorist suspects reflect the more so called 'tolerant' tendencies that many Canadians embrace compared with their American cousins, and hence explain the frustrations voiced by CSIS in their fight against global terrorism when national security requirements conflict with certain Canadian belief systems. Fundamentally, Canada and the U.S. must work closely together to address international security threats (i.e. ISIS and Ebola), and both nations do not have the luxury to engage in differences driven by inherent biases that could weaken a badly needed North American resolve.

This paper will address one research question that focuses upon the extent of the bias and whose answer will direct analysts to the following hypothesis: History demonstrates that Canada-U.S. relations are influenced by a national cognitive bias against the U.S. that has created difficulties and pose future challenges for policymakers who must make choices for the betterment of North American national security. The research question is: Does Canada's federal election of 1891 reflect the truism 'with change comes the status quo' concerning the attitude that many Canadians share toward the U.S., and is that bias sufficiently significant to warrant special attention by policymakers?

This research focuses on Canadian attitudes toward the U.S. that affected both actions and decisions by policymakers. The first section will provide a literature review and an overview of the methodology employed. Section two, 'The Historical Perspective," defines the philosophical differences between the founding of Canada and of America. This background places the election of 1891 as the centerpiece event that repeats itself for the next one hundred years. Section three, "With Change Comes the Status Quo" illustrates through examples how issues raised in the 1891 election resurface in Canada/U.S. relations through to the twenty-first century, while section four, "Reflections for the Twenty-First Century," identify situations that mirror historical attitudes of 1891, this time with a focus on the future. The conclusion presents identifies issues that require attention by policymakers. The conclusion identifies issues that require attention from policymakers.

Literature Review

The study of Canadian bias toward the U.S. is a complicated subject with many historically-focused and current sources that present discussions on thematic areas such as economics, political science, and related policy implications between the two countries. Forty-six sources support the analysis in this research paper; each one assessed through the lenses of three questions: what does the literature say, not say, and why it is important. The sources reveal four themes related to Canadian attitudes toward the U.S.: the origin of the Canadian bias, the conflict between two visions for...

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