Monday, February 15, 2010

They're Not Heavy

During Friday's Winter Olympic Opening Ceremony, we were reminded often that the host Canadians have a reputation for being friendly, polite, and mild-mannered. The pleasant disposition of its citizenry seems to carry over into the image that the country seeks to display on the world stage as well. Canada is the nice guy among the nations of the world. The one who'll always hold the door for you. The one you can always invite to your gatherings without fear that he'll say something to offend anyone. The one who encourages everyone else to get along and seeks to defuse tensions. The good friend.

One aspect of Canada's good guy role that's not appreciated enough is the circumstances that allow the country to play it. How did Canada end up being the nice guy? Was it the almost seamless blending of diverse cultures that was so exhaustively displayed during Friday's Opening Ceremonies? Is it just an attribute of the unique Canadian character that was forged by the challenges of forming a nation over the vast expanse of the rich, beautiful, yet formidable natural landscape? Or was it like real estate, all about location, location, and location?

It's not just a happy coincidence that the nation with a reputation for niceness is also the one that shares a border (its only one) with the United States. Being next to the US has allowed Canada to develop into the international nice guy without having to worry about concerns that the rest of the world has to face. It's hard to think of two countries in the world who have had a longer, more successful relationship in terms of security, trade, and shared interests than the US and Canada. And while the US has definitely realized much from this partnership, as the smaller (population wise) and weaker party it's been even more important to Canada. It's impossible to imagine Canada being what Canada is today without the United States.

Canada is like the little brother of the strongest and toughest kid on the block. No one is going to mess with him on the playground lest they incur the wrath of the older sibling. This provides a certain level of respect and stature that they didn't have to earn by their own actions. They don't have to be the tough guy, they can be the nice guy without fear of the bullies taking advantage of it.

The relationship with the US also opens up a whole world of opportunities to Canadians. Opportunities in business, entertainment and sports which would be difficult for them to create on their own. Again, this is a two-way street and benefits Americans as well, but given the relative imbalances in size and scale, the opportunities are far from equal.

This is not to say that being the little brother is a piece of cake. They have to put up with the big brother trying to tell them what to do, dealing with a big brother who always thinks he's right, and trying to keep the big brother away from their prized toys. But these problems are common to any sibling relationship and managing them is made easier by the fact that for of all his shortcomings, by and large the big brother happens to be a pretty good guy.

This isn't meant to knock Canada. I like Canada. I've traveled there many a time and can confirm that the Canadian reputation for being nice, easy-going, and funny is well-deserved (even among the constabulary). It's also impossible not like a country where beer and hockey are part and parcel of the culture.

Even more importantly--if I may return to the sibling metaphor for a moment--Canada understands what it means to be part of the family. In June 1944, in was British, US, and Canadian troops who began the liberation of Europe by landing in Normandy. Last week in Afghanistan, it was British, US, and Canadian troops along with Afghan government forces who launched Operation Mashtarak to retake Marjah from the Taliban. Although technically a NATO operation, it appears that other than contributions from Denmark and Estonia, it's once again the Brits, Yanks, and Canucks doing the heavy lifting (quite literally when it came to the Canadian role in the operation's air assault). Their numbers in Afghanistan may be small, but the Canadians haven't shied away from the fight. They may be the nice guys of the world, but they're not pushovers.

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