OPINION | Looking south, at a shuddering elephant

·7 min read

This column is an opinion from Calgary author Aritha van Herk.


In Canadian director Sandy Wilson's film My American Cousin, a B.C. girl bored with her "nothing ever happens" life invests in her visiting American cousin, Butch, all the excitement and adventure she yearns for.

A runaway car thief, he proves to be a rogue, but he represents all that is compelling for young, starry-eyed Sandy. Despite its period nostalgia, the film could be a lesson in Alberta's fascination with that hot-car, quick-fisted, smoky seducer from the south.

Albertans have always peered across the 49th parallel with a mixture of trepidation and envy.

Some Albertans identify with what's south of the border, the free-wheeling laissez faire of make-it-or-break-it, more than they do with what radiates from Ottawa or Toronto. Some have learned, at their peril, that an angry ambition can curdle business deals and handshake investments. Some are polite but wary.

Either pro or con, despite ourselves, we're a version of colony, figurative more than literal, true, but still entranced, tugging our forelocks to American aspiration, inventiveness, and even pushiness.

Given our history, the Albertan alignment with our neighbours should not be surprising.

An early attachment

Before the border was surveyed and the west colonized and settled, Indigenous peoples moved freely across and over the territory of the great plains.

When the nascent NWMP dragged themselves west, the same Mounties who were supposed to halt the whiskey trade detoured to its very headquarters, Fort Benton, to access supplies for their exhausted and demoralized men.

And the first sitting member of Parliament to represent the district of Alberta in Ottawa, in 1887, was an American, reformed whiskey trader D.W. Davis.

Over time, we have enjoyed altercations and suffered alliances. We've witnessed opinionated pundits and politicians who press for greater connection, if not the downright annexation of Alberta by the U.S.

The Wexit party might think they are advocating for independence, but they would ultimately bolt straight into the wide-flung arms of the U.S.A.

Still, we've tried to keep our distance, pretending to take a higher road, civil acquaintances rather than bosom friends.


The antics of the American voting process, described by Barton Gellman in The Atlantic as "The Election that could Break America," are, to say the least, unsettling. Rallies have erupted into extravagant jamborees rather than the serious subject of psephology, that branch of political science studying elections.

Exacerbated by COVID-19, systemic xenophobia and economic uncertainty, the situation to the south is certainly closer to trench warfare than a national vote, a thoughtful and dignified expression of citizenship.

Now, on the eve of the upcoming event, we watch more warily than ever, watch with an intensity and interest that combines anticipation with horror, nervousness with schadenfreude — delight in another's misfortune.

Like that proverbial train wreck, we can't look away, and if we comfort ourselves that "it won't affect us," we are truly delusional. It does, and it will.

Many and determined are the pointy-fingered tweets and posts that claim, "Them, not us," "We aren't like them," we're "civilized" (now there's a fraught word), we only take to the streets over maple syrup and hockey.

We think that the mantra, "We're Canadian, eh," will protect us.

Not true. We cannot afford that complacent sense of superiority.

Distrust and disinformation snowballs

Pent-up anxiety about COVID's changing rules and isolation, cases, and deaths grows. The sweep of distrust, disinformation, or "issues management messaging" snowballs. The churn in health care and education, the real struggles of job-loss and insecurity, contribute to this toxicity.

"I trust my gut, not the public health people" is the most terrifying sentence I've heard, when "we are all in this together" — or at least we're supposed to be.

COVID seems to have given us permission to express our own distrust of science and the "liberal elite," an excuse to retreat into a willfully blind individualism. Ideas have become less preambles than weapons, and their weaponizing is tied to suspicion.

We communicate only with those who share our views, in a bubble that has nothing to do with viral safety. We subscribe to a taste-driven world, and respect only monetary success.

The desire to replace best practices with a back-to-basics suspicion of change, a return to "common" values, and a denial of the advantages of diversity, all speak to some larger and more troubling trend, visceral and reactive.

At a time when we do need to work together, affective polarization is increasing incrementally, both in Canada and the States, although in New Zealand and Germany, for example, it is measurably decreasing.

This is not a direction we want to intensify.

Gabriel Brown/CBC
Gabriel Brown/CBC

Equally capable of divisiveness and stupidity, we are just as susceptible to disinformation as our American cousins. Trump is a symptom rather than an exception, and all the fake news, conspiracy theories, and credulousness drift across the border like phosgene.

If Alberta figures itself as ex-centric, reluctant to cooperate with other provinces and jurisdictions, where do we look for community?

The truculent partisanship playing out in politics today is sobering, and if we insist on grievance mongering instead of consultation, we abjure the greater good and mirror our neighbour's chaotic and headlong plunge.

Our worst Albertan trait is to align ourselves with outlier thinking rather than a far-sighted imagining of a future that will certainly be different from the past.

In that respect, we're nostalgic more than entrepreneurial, lamenting those heady boom days when we should be remembering the future, and how infinitely different it has to be. And how many opportunities it will offer too, if we only allow ourselves to evade the algorithm of yesteryear.

We're engaging now in more argument and dissension, regardless of the fallout, than a unified quest for solutions. Discord is everyone's second language, and we seem incapable of believing in the best before we jump to conclusions.

We target anxiety. We cannot seem to discern when we are being manipulated. We spend a lot of time squabbling about possessions: "mine," we scream, or "not fair."

Crippling partisanship

Partisanship is crippling leadership, a real peril when the best way forward is to unite in the face of a pandemic that needs to be quelled, an economy that needs a reset, and a nation that must come to terms with its hazards and history.

The constant expression of moral outrage begins to argue the validity of its presence.

QAnon, hate speech and viral conspiracy theories manifest themselves in perhaps quieter but definite aspects of our attention and commentary.

Make no mistake, when that elephant below us starts thrashing around, we feel the ground shuddering and those convulsions only too readily become ours. Imitation may be considered flattery, but it is neither imaginative nor intelligent.

And so, while I too will be watching the results of the American election with that irresistible fascination for a slow-motion train-crash, I will resist my joie maligne, delight in another's suffering. More than sympathy for the devil, my attention will be worry.

Believe me, I want to be wrong. I hope so. And polling suggests that a lot of Americans don't like what they're seeing either. Civil discourse could make a comeback.

On the other hand, perhaps I should spend the evening re-watching My American Cousin, enjoying the ironic conundrum of falling in love with the duck-tailed, tormented James Dean figure who shows up from across the border in a Cadillac convertible — before he leaves again.

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