The Great Divide
I've recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Quebec City, where I attempted to measure the effect of the recent Canadian elections on drinking habits in bars and bistros. While my data is still being analyzed (translation from French: my wife hasn't seen the credit card bills), I can already draw some preliminary conclusions, based on the large number of St.-Ambroise Oatmeal Stouts I consumed and the drunken conversations that ensued.
First, the defeat of the long-standing Liberal Party government by the Conservatives does not appear to have altered the boozing habits of the folks I encountered.Although, given my limited fluency in French ("Sacré bleu, une autre bière, s'il vous pla?t"), this could be entirely incorrect. The only reasonably coherent political discussion I had was with the owner of Pub Saint Alexandre (rue Saint-Jean in the old city — don't miss it), who lamented the complex provincial laws that made it easier for him to import beer from China than from Maine.
Second, I don't know a damn thing about Canadian politics.
Which is odd, because I only live forty miles from the border. But it's as if there's a magic barrier on the far side of Coburn Gore across which no meaningful information can flow.
What's the local government like in Lac-Mégantic, the first sizable municipality in La Belle Province? I don't have the faintest idea. But I know more than I want to about political machinations in Augusta, which is the same distance away in the other direction.
It's not just the local news that doesn't filter across the border. National stories don't travel south, either. During my visit, the English-language papers carried banner headlines about a proposal to significantly reduce the Canadian prime minister's powers. On the same day that story broke, the only dispatch from the Great White North that made it into the Portland Press Herald was a brief mention of a huge snowstorm hitting Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia. A couple of days later there was an Associated Press piece on the sports pages of Maine papers detailing not the intricate maneuvers of the ousted Liberals to regain power, but the possibility that Super Bowl tourists in Detroit would visit Windsor, Ontario to gamble, buy Cuban cigars, and smoke pot.
On any given day, the sports pages are the most likely spot to find Canadian news in local papers. Whatever powerful force filters out all stories about politics, business, and culture has no effect on reports of hockey games. We may not have learned about the scandals rocking the Société des alcools du Québec (English translation: government booze monopoly), the increased signs of aggressiveness and hyperactivity in kids in the province's universal day-care program, or a plan to lower the national sales tax but increase the provincial levy. But if the Boston Bruins, Portland Pirates, or Lewiston Maniacs venture anywhere north of the border, we'll have the details almost as quickly as if they were skating in the Garden, the Cumberland County Civic Center, or the Colisee.
Shane Hynes? Oui. Stephen Harper? Non.
Pierre Parenteau? Yep. Paul Martin? Nope.
That's not quite fair. On February 6, the Press Herald devoted a full three inches of column space to Harper being sworn in to replace Martin as Canada's prime minister. Which is about one-tenth the ink the paper splashes around covering Hynes, Parenteau, and their Pirate teammates after even the most routine game. Maine papers did run some stories leading up to the Canadian election, but not nearly as many as they printed on elections in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, or a variety of other exotic places where the popular vote is pretty much a joke.
Why should we care? After all, the primary purpose of Canada is to provide fodder for comedians. "Very little is known of the Canadian country," P.J. O'Rourke once wrote, "since it's rarely visited by anyone but the Queen and illiterate sports fishermen." Canada, according to Richard Brenner, is a country "so square that even the female impersonators are women." And John R. Colombo summed up our northern neighbors' drawbacks thusly: "Canada could have enjoyed: English government, French culture, and American know-how. Instead it ended up with: English know-how, French government, and American culture."
There's some truth in all those comments (although they overlook Quebec's good sense in embracing French cooking, while rejecting French beer in favor of English and Belgian varieties), but a long tradition of serving as the butt of jokes doesn't negate the fact that Canada is Maine's largest foreign-trading partner.
In 2004, the state sold more than $827 million in goods to Canadian customers and imported stuff worth more than twice that amount. Canada buys almost as much from Maine as the state's three biggest overseas customers (Malaysia, Brazil, and Singapore) combined. Many of those sales involve products from Maine's forests, but the United States is locked in a long-running trade dispute with Ottawa over subsidies to the lumber industry, the resolution of which could have a profound effect on almost
everybody who works in the woods. Meanwhile, officials in the Maritime provinces are threatening to use Canadian courts to prevent the construction of a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the Maine side of Passamaquoddy Bay.
Because this stuff has the hint of controversy and a direct impact on Maine, the state's press has occasionally devoted some space to it. The Bangor Daily News actually covers the LNG issue, but for most news outlets, the usual procedure is to run brief dispatches from the Associated Press, without bothering to assess the local implications. So ardent readers of the tiny stories that fill out columns have a chance to learn there's a problem with illegal Canadian lobsters being smuggled into the United States or that secret CIA flights routinely used Canadian airports. If, however, the story doesn't have some direct connection to the United States — a possible major restructuring of our closest ally's government apparently doesn't meet this standard — it gets the same treatment as soccer scores from Somalia.
By the way, this lack of interest in our national neighbor works both ways. Nearly every Canadian I talked to asked where I was from in the states. When I told them I lived in Maine, I got one of three replies:
"Oh," said an English speaker.
"Ah," said a French speaker.
"I think my grandparents went to Old Orchard Beach many years ago," said a bilingual acquaintance. "I've never been there, myself."
Then, they all changed the subject.