A man from the Canadian consulate called the other day, trying to drum up interest in his country. Did I know that 50 percent of the crude oil that comes into Illinois originates in the sands of Alberta, and it's going up to 70 percent? Did I know that Canada's turning Prince Rupert, in northern British Columbia, into a major container port, adding a train a day between there and Chicago and tripling the amount of cargo handled by Canadian National's intermodal yard in Harvey? Did I know the 30 new locomotives required to make this happen will be built by a company in La Grange?
Of course I didn't--and James Lynch, the consulate's public affairs officer, sounded a little surprised that I was at all interested. But as someone who lived in Canada for several years as a boy I'm a sucker for lore about our irrelevant northern neighbor. Despite what Canadians think we all think, I don't consider Canada a part of the U.S. that technically isn't. For me, Canada is some sort of benign antimatter whose reason for being is to not be us. The existence of Canada is the gentlest reproach on earth.
Lynch knew I was fascinated by the Conrad Black trial and was testing my limits, which hugely exceed those of the American press as a whole. On April 3 the Toronto Star carried a dumbfounding story from its man in Washington. It began: "When the Washington Post closes its Toronto bureau this summer, it will mark the death of the American newspaper correspondent in Canada."
You read right: not a single American paper will staff Canada. On the bright side, the AP "maintains a full-time bureau." Covering a country 4,000 miles wide, I guess that bureau works the phones a lot.
The Star went on to say that the New York Times had shut down its Canadian bureau last summer, keeping pace with the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune (I thought synergy in the Tribune Company meant papers pooling their resources, not turning their backs in unison). The article talked about market forces and hard times, about a 10 percent drop in foreign bureaus maintained by American papers and a 30 percent drop in foreign correspondents since 2000. That might explain pulling out of Kenya. But Canada?
The Washington Post bureau in Toronto is a one-man operation, so the exodus won't exactly be an army in retreat. The Star listed some of the stories the Post's man, Doug Struck, had covered in recent months, such as "environmental initiatives in British Columbia [and] snow sculpting in Manitoba," not to mention the election in Quebec.
I know. A part of me wants to yawn too. Needless to say, the survival of Canada as a nation hinged on the election in Quebec, but as that's been the case for nearly 30 years, Americans can be forgiven if our attention wanders.
I wrote my sister in Vancouver for comment. She went up there and drank the Kool-Aid. "Interesting," she replied. "I didn't know the news agencies even had Canadian bureaus. From my observation, most Americans know next to nothing about Canada." She went on, "The reality is the U.S. is not very interested in anybody but themselves. If they were curious, the Canadian parliamentary system would be a fascinating alternative political machine. The Canadian health care system would be a perfect model to improve upon when the U.S. eventually develops their own. Canadian gun control would be an argument the NRA would be forced to combat or concede."
She was making an important point. Canada is enough like the U.S. that Americans can't afford to pay attention to it. If we saw things Canadians did better, we'd have no good excuse not to copy them. A day later Dixie wrote again to make another point. "Canada provides a much more nourishing society for the creation of individuals of talent, conviction, morality, and human weakness," she said, and named names: Stephen Lewis, Romeo Dallaire, and David Suzuki. "All of these men have failed at things, are manifestly human, but they still retain strong moral convictions, courage, an obsession for action, and serve as examples and occasional inspiration to the rest of Canada."
I had never heard of any of these men, which was exactly my sister's point. American reporters pay no attention to them. They're not world figures. Worse, they're not celebrities. But they're interesting, accomplished people. Suzuki's a widely respected environmentalist. Dallaire was the commander of the UN peacekeeping force on whom Nick Nolte's character in Hotel Rwanda was loosely based. Lewis was the UN's special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. "Perhaps because Canada is a much smaller country we have the opportunity to get to know our heroes," Dixie wrote. "But also, we don't make such impossible demands on them. And the country gains."
She forwarded an article from London's Sunday Telegraph that praised Canada as a nation that responds gallantly to every crisis and is thanked with "sublime indifference." Canadian participation in World War II, wrote the Telegraph's Kevin Myers, "was acknowledged in film only if it was necessary to give an American actor a part in a campaign in which the United States had clearly not participated" (which would have been every campaign before December 7, 1941, more than two years into the war).
"So who today in the United States knows about the stoic and selfless friendship its northern neighbor has given it in Afghanistan?" Myers went on. That's not quite fair. On April 8, a day or two after his piece ran, six Canadian soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb during an offensive against the Taliban, and their deaths reached the American public: "Canada suffers brunt," read the Tribune headline. That brought the Canadian death toll in Afghanistan to 51 soldiers including 5 bombed or strafed by U.S. warplanes in the sort of friendly-fire incidents that often make the papers.
I called Jim Lynch back at the consulate and he said, yes, it's true about the American press pulling out of Canada. When he said there are tax advantages to keeping reporters in the States, for some reason I flashed back on a family I once knew that took a Mexican vacation but stayed close enough to the border to spend every night in an American motel.
The press insult is something Lynch is clearly not eager to talk about--his job is to court coverage, not complain about it. The Wall Street Journal has assigned a writer to cover Canada full-time, and he's posted right here in the Chicago bureau. Lynch wanted me to know that.
And did I know that British Petroleum is spending $3 billion to expand and modernize its refinery in Whiting so it can handle all that crude oil from Alberta? That's three billion U.S. dollars, Lynch stressed. He wanted me to care.
For more, see Michael Miner's blog at chicagoreader.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Brian Gurbicza.