“Canada is essentially a stalker, stalking the United States, right?” ranted MSNBC host Tucker Carlson last December. “Canada has little pictures of us in its bedroom, right? Canada spends all of its time thinking about the United States, obsessing over the United States. It’s unrequited love between Canada and the United States. We, meanwhile, don’t even know Canada’s name. We pay no attention at all… Canada is a sweet country. It’s like your retarded cousin you see at Thanksgiving and sort of pat him on the head. You know, he’s nice, but you don’t take him seriously. That’s Canada.”
Right-winger Ann Coulter was more threatening in her description: “They better hope the United States doesn’t roll over one night and crush them. They are lucky we allow them to exist on the same continent.” Carlson and Coulter’s comments suggest that Americans may not be particularly interested in reading about Canada, but foreign correspondents argue otherwise.
The issue of gay marriage, for example, drew worldwide attention to Canada and had an impact on the U.S., says Clifford Krauss, Canadian bureau chief for The New York Times. The ruling on gay marriage is arguably the most historic thing that has happened since he’s been here. Still, Krauss recognizes an inferiority complex. “Maybe it takes a psychiatrist to understand why it is that Canadians frequently find what happens outside the country more important than what’s going on within,” he says. Perhaps Canada has a psychiatrist, in the form of foreign correspondents. For these correspondents, covering this country is one big therapy session, with our country lying submissively on the proverbial leather couch airing its sins while they nod empathetically and write the opposite down in their notebooks.
One myth Krauss is trying to debunk, despite Carlson and Coulter’s menacing comments, is that Americans have a negative attitude towards Canada. He argues that a lot of Americans think Canada is better than the U.S. with regards to its health care system and its environmental policy. Krauss was under this impression as well, until a trip to Vancouver made him promptly remove his rose-coloured glasses. He sat down with environmentalists and was shocked to learn that Canada is not the environmentally friendly country it claims to be. The activists informed Krauss that the province is run by the lumber industry and yet a lot of Canadians don’t seem to care. More shocking was the lack of regulations for the protection of endangered species. “You hear a lot about Canadian values,” he says. “What Canadian values are, I’m not quite sure but it’s always Canadian values, which is basically, we’re good. We’re good people, we care about the important things. But it’s a lot of rhetoric. You can sign Kyoto, but if you take a look at the policy and the record, it’s not very good.”
Even more shocking for Krauss was former prime minister Paul Martin – knee-deep in the Liberal Party’s sponsorship scandal – claiming that other countries would judge their record against Canada’s. Martin’s comment seemed laughable in light of the country’s deficient environmental policy and poor treatment of its native peoples. In May 2005, Krauss wrote a controversial article entitled “Was Canada Just Too Good to Be True?” He called the Liberal government’s virtue into question in light of the sponsorship scandal, its environmental policy and its treatment of Aboriginal Peoples. Many Canadian readers of the Timesapplauded Krauss for revealing that the nation’s cloak of virtue was as transparent as the emperor’s clothes. But Krauss received little feedback on this piece from Americans, perhaps indicating that America isn’t as fascinated with Canada as he would have us believe. “The feedback was all from Canadians and it was virtually one hundred per cent positive,” says Krauss. “I got phone calls, emails, and I was put on television several times.” Poking holes in Canada’s national myths is a theme of Krauss’s work and he admits it’s a lot easier to do as an outsider.
The lack of self-criticism is endemic here, according to Krauss. “That doesn’t seem to be part of the Canadian nature,” he says, “unless it’s criticizing the United States – then you see a more robust commentary.” There is a lot of criticism of individual politicians but that’s the easy angle. He likens covering politics to covering sports: neither requires much legwork. That isn’t to say they’re not useful to his readers – stories about hockey are in fact an important part of Canadian culture, he says. It’s a violent sport embraced by a country that is non-violent – or at least claims to be.
Correspondents see a different country, sometimes recognizing strengths and achievements that most Canadians miss. “Canadians are perhaps not as aware of the weight that they have in the global decision-making community,” says Gilbert Le Gras, Canadian economics correspondent for Reuters. “That’s too bad because there is some good work that Canada is doing that ordinary people aren’t reading about.” Le Gras points to the lack of coverage in Canadian newspapers of secretary general Donald Johnston’s replacement at the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Since Canada held this top job at the OECD for ten years, Johnston’s replacement was a big deal. “The story got published elsewhere,” Le Gras says, “but people weren’t paying attention here.” Like Krauss, he is amazed at how much Canada underestimates itself.
And there is sometimes suspicion about outsiders’ interest in Canada. When Beth Duff-Brown, Canadian bureau chief for the Associated Press, arrived at a Toronto health briefing about the mysterious illness killing elderly residents at a Scarborough retirement home in October 2005, she quickly became the subject of interest. The United Nations had just released statements regarding the possibility of an avian ‘flu (H5N1) pandemic. The climate at the briefing was replete with fear.
Duff-Brown began asking questions and when Canadian reporters learned that she was an American journalist from AP, they were convinced she was sent specifically to cover the illness. Duff- Brown, interviewed by Canadian news networks CTV and Global, was treated with suspicion and repeatedly asked why she was blowing the story out of proportion. “You’re always saying we don’t care about Canada,” she says, “why shouldn’t we be covering it?” The illness was later identified as legionnaires’ disease.
Canadians had good reason to be nervous. Two years earlier, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which also began in a Scarborough medical facility, created a sense of panic about travel to Canada and wreaked havoc on the country’s economy. The Canadian Tourism Commission equated the impact of SARS on the accommodation industry to that of 9/11, reporting up to $92.2 million in lost room revenue in April 2003, compared to earnings in the same month in 2002, $39 million of which was in the Greater Toronto Area. Duff-Brown dismisses the reporters’ caginess as hypocritical.
The way in which the country has been covered has evolved over the years. Typically, the Times used to award the post to someone near retirement, since Canada wasn’t seen as a demanding place. Andrew H. Malcolm, who was the Times‘s Toronto bureau chief from 1978 until 1982, changed the perception of the posting. He knew there was more to Canada than the boring government stories previous Ottawa correspondents had written. A day after his arrival in 1978, the Times went on strike. He spent the first ninety-three days reporting and ended up with a huge stockpile of stories on his desk. As soon as the strike was over, Malcolm began parcelling out his stories and something historic happened: Canada began appearing in virtually every section of the Times, from the Travel section to the Week in Review.
Malcolm made a real study of Canada, writing the 1985 book The Canadians, which he describes as a personal portrait of Canada and its relationship with the U.S. When Malcolm first approached Canadian publishers they said they weren’t interested in a book about Canada-that is, until a New York publisher gave its seal of approval. The Canadians spent half a year on the Maclean’s bestseller list. CTV bought the rights to the book and turned it into a mini-series. The Canadians remains in print in the U.S. and, two decades later, is still used in Canadian studies classes.
History can be learned, but geography presents a distinct challenge for correspondents. Jim Brooke, Canada correspondent for the Times from 1999 until 2001, described the difficulty of covering Canada as “the tyranny of distance.” However, he chose not to see it as a disadvantage, travelling to nine provinces – Brooke still hopes to visit P.E.I. – and three territories, a feat few Canadian journalists or citizens can match.
Every day, Krauss looks up at the map of Canada and asks himself, “Where am I going next?” It’s an attitude, he argues, not enough Canadian journalists have. “I write a lot of stories that aren’t done here,” he says. “I find some Canadian newspapers don’t travel the country.” Unlike Krauss, John Burns, former Canada correspondent for the Times from 1987 to 1988 and current Iraq bureau chief, takes the outsider view with a grain of salt. “Some stories,” he notes, “that probably sound so familiar to Canadian editors and don’t really excite them, very much do excite Americans,” who, he adds, are intrigued by the “romance” of Canadian history. As for Canadian journalists’ failure to travel the country, it might be a lack of time and money, rather than a genuine lack of interest. If you work for newspapers such as The Toronto Star or The Vancouver Sun, you’re more likely to be tied down by metropolitan events, unlike a Times correspondent who has the time and budget to roam.
Seeing the polar bears up north, for instance, is a rite of passage for foreign correspondents, much to the chagrin of their editors. AP’s previous Canada bureau chief was an outdoorsy type with a penchant for the North. Duff-Brown received a warning from her editors that AP wasn’t too interested in stories about “Eskimos and polar bears.” That didn’t stop her predecessor from proudly passing down his pair of knee-high, extreme-weather survival boots, which she hopes to put to use. While she understands her editors’ concern of typecasting Canada as a snow globe, she feels the North is an important part of the country that doesn’t receive enough coverage. “That’s a huge part of Canada’s heritage and, frankly, its economy,” she says. “If global warming continues at its pace, the Arctic is going to shift and that’s going to change geo politics as we know it.”
Politics presents another challenge and some correspondents admit they rely on CBC’s live political coverage. “I put a satellite on the roof of my house in Colorado and aimed it at Canada,” explains Jim Brooke, who immersed himself in CBC. Duff-Brown also watches a lot of CBC coverage when writing stories about Ottawa.
In over fifteen years with AP, Duff-Brown has acquired extensive experience covering politics. She’s worked in countries with oppressive governments such as the Ivory Coast, where she couldn’t talk to a politician without a gun being pointed at her head. She’s also worked in surprisingly open societies like India, where she could arrive unannounced at a politician’s house, knock on the door and be invited in for tea. Canada, she finds, has its share of bureaucratic hoops. Covering Canadian politics can be time-consuming, since there is a formal procedure journalists must follow simply to elicit a comment from a politician.
Krauss agrees that reporting on Ottawa is not easy. “Canada has that British tradition,” he says. “The bureaucracy holds its information very closely. Where you have the Parliament and the government in the hands of the same people, I think that tightens information.” As Washington correspondent, Krauss found it easier. Much of the conflict between the executive and legislative branches of the American government is fought out in the press, so there is more information available.
Being a foreign correspondent stationed in Canada is all about coaxing the reader in the home country to care about Canadian stories and issues. Krauss’s approach is to write stories that are recognizable to his American readers in order to close any perceived chasm between Canada and the U.S. He filed a story on peewee hockey, a subject to which his readers can relate. “I’d like to think that Americans would be more interested in reading about Canada when they get to know Canada a little better.” That’s essentially what foreign correspondents do: help their readers get to know Canada a little better, or at least the Canada they see in their short time here.