Returning to Canada after a six-year absence leads me to think about the reasons people come, and go, and even leave without crossing the border.
At the end of the year 2001, my wife and I packed up our belongings with the help of some very kind friends in Ann Arbor, and headed for home. We crossed the Detroit River on the Ambassador bridge, and on the other side Canadian immigration gave us stamped papers saying that on Christmas Eve we had entered Canada as returning citizens. The woman at the immigration desk remarked that a flood of returning Canadians had come through that day, all remarkably glad to come home.
Canadians travel abroad for many reasons, mostly good ones. We travel for education and experience; we move to take jobs in our fields, and to expand our businesses. Recently, some Canadian conservatives have begun to claim that our moving constitutes a vote against the ruling Liberal Party of Canada. Bright and ambitions young people supposedly move to the United States in droves, looking for opportunities Canada does not provide.
Based on my own experience, I suspect that wedding bells have as much to do with migration across the border as balance sheets or tax laws. I know as many people who have moved because they married across the border as people who have moved in search of opportunity. Add in people like myself, who work in another country because a spouse moved to study, and you will find that, as always, people migrate for personal reasons, which rarely fit into the neat categories beloved of political pitchmen.
I hope that most Canadians who move to the United States enrich American life. We certainly bring different perspectives and ideas with us. Returning Canadians certainly enrich Canada; we bring back experience, knowledge, and contacts. The prosperity of a free society, after all, depends on its freedoms, not least the freedom to come and go. Canadians who move permanently, shaking the dust from their feet as they cross the border and applying for American citizenship as soon as they can have made their choice; I wish them the best of luck in their new country.
That leaves the majority of Canadians, who recognise the value of Canada and choose to stay, the immigrants, who come (and sometimes move on), and the few Canadians who manage to leave the country, at least psychologically, without ever passing the borders.
Some Canadians look outside the country, mainly to the United States, in envy and discontent. Their alienation has caused problems, particularly in our political life. For almost a decade, the ruling Liberal party has governed without any serious opposition, and the lack of challenge has made it complacent, and unwilling to consider alternatives. Canadian conservatives remain in disarray, split between two political parties with little hope of getting elected. This disarray has many causes, but I believe they include the debilitating effect of having many Canadian conservatives who look outside the country for inspiration. Conservatives who detached themselves from Canada without leaving treat the United States as the "fatherland" for a "conservative international".
As George Orwell pointed out, many members of the left-wing English intelligentsia in the 1930s fell into a similar trap; they detached themselves from their own country, and attached themselves to Soviet Russia. Of course, if you want to admire a country outside your own, the United States, unlike the old Soviet Union, makes a pretty good object of admiration. And unlike the Soviets, most American conservatives do not seek to lead anything like a "conservative international"; they do not generally solicit the admiration or the co-operation of people outside their own country. But too many Canadian conservatives need no prompting to abandon the hard work of doing things a Canadian conservative movement should do, in order to gaze enviously across to the pastures south of the border.
By making this choice, many Canadian conservatives have sidelined themselves politically, as so many English left-wing intellectuals did sixty years before. For one thing, having one foot out of the country, relying on the thought that if the worst comes to the worst, they can always find a home in the United States, Canadian conservatives fail to concentrate their minds on making the changes they want to see in Canada. Right now, Canadian conservatives split their votes between two parties, neither of which has come close to winning an election in the past nine years. For the sake of democracy in this country, it would make sense for Canadians to demand the two conservative parties put their egos away, join together, and stop splitting the conservative vote. Why don't they? Different people have different reasons, but I can't shake the suspicion that Canadian conservatives would make more of an effort if they didn't think the possibility of emigrating to the United States gave them a way out.
Even if the habit some Canadian conservatives have developed of putting one foot across the border did not affect their interest in practical Canadian politics, their southward gaze would still handicap their political efforts. Canadians, like Americans, have tremendous tolerance for opposing political views, and even for citizens who wish to dismantle the country; we solve our national unity problems with referenda. But I don't believe most Canadians will extend this tolerance to the point of electing people who despise us. Who, after all, would put their fate in the hands of someone who thinks of their country, and their compatriots, as a second best-alternative? A citizen has the right to believe they can decamp to greener pastures elsewhere, but only a masochist would vote for that citizen as a political leader.
I admire the American belief that citizenship entails a degree of commitment. I think it would do the Canadian political spectrum a world of good if we made that point clearly to those of our would-be leading citizens who trumpet the "brain drain" as though Canadians should feel no obligation to our country.
Contents © John Spragge, 2002; Medicine Line graphic © John Spragge 2000.