Happy 4th, neighbours

Despite our differences, Canada and the U.S. celebrate in much the same way

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The Gazette, Saturday, July 3, 2010

The overlapping national holidays of Canada and the United States are an occasion to consider both the differences and similarities of our two countries.

Americans wish each other a "Happy 4th," while Canadians are still trying to get their minds around "Happy Canada Day!" Not that anyone, in its previous incarnation, went around wishing one another "Happy Dominion Day!" In Montreal, we say "Happy Moving Day!" but that's another story.

The high point of each day is the concert and fireworks in front of Parliament Hill and the U.S. Capitol. When I was at our embassy in Washington in the early 1990s, our most sought-after invitation of the year was to the ambassador's July 4 barbecue on the rooftop of the chancery overlooking the Capitol and National Mall. One congressman from Ohio used to bring his entire family, provided we didn't give his name to the style section of the Washington Post, much less the Cleveland Plain-Dealer.

Why would Americans celebrate their national day at a foreign embassy? It was all about the first rule of real estate -location, location, location. Besides, they don't really think of us as foreigners, just as neighbours. And here's Ottawa's little secret -the most coveted invitation of the year is to the U.S. ambassador's annual 4th of July garden party, over the lawn of the American residence, an eagle's nest at the pinnacle of Rockcliffe, looking down on 24 Sussex.

One story in particular in the news cycle this past week, the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court, brought home both the similarities and differences of our two high courts. Each Supreme Court has nine members, and vacancies are filled by the prime minister and president, subject in the U.S. to approval by the Senate, which is the hard part.

Every confirmation hearing is a polarizing event, with the entire political class choosing sides, over issues such as abortion, gun control, and the division of powers between the federal government and the states. In Canada, the struggle is to prevent the Supremes from becoming a Charter Kool-Aid court, enamoured of equality rights to the detriment of the division of powers that was the fundamental bargain of Confederation.

In the U.S. nomination process, no rock in the nominee's past is considered too small to roll over -in Kagan's case, as a non-judge with no judicial footprint, her litmus test of intent became notes she wrote when she was clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall a quarter century ago. In Canada, appointments to the Supreme Court are the sole prerogative of the prime minister, though Stephen Harper invited the Commons justice committee to have a very cordial session with Marshall Rothstein in 2006.

If confirmed, and she is a lock, the former Harvard law dean and current U.S. solicitor general will be the third woman on the U.S. high court, a first. In Canada, four out of nine Supreme Court judges are women, including the chief justice, and no one even comments on it anymore.

But gender balance isn't the spin in the U.S. media, it's religious affiliation. When confirmed, Kagan will become the third Jewish member of the U.S. Supreme Court, to go along with six Catholics. That's correct, there will be no Protestants on the U.S. Supreme Court, and this in a country famously founded by WASPs.

In Canada, there are also three Jewish members of the Supreme Court - Rothstein, Morris Fish and Rosalie Abella, and only Abella mentions in her bio on the SCC's website that she is "the first Jewish woman" to sit on the Supreme Court. None of the other eight members even lists a religious denomination. The four francophones might well be Catholic, but who's asking? And this in a country whose constitutional foundation is the Quebec Act of 1774, vouchsafing the right of Catholics to practise their faith and, in effect, to speak French.

What we do count here is linguistic balance. With five English and four Frenchspeaking members, francophones are actually overrepresented.

The two courts, and the different preoccupations about them, really do say a lot about how we are different, as well as alike.

But then there are the words of John F. Kennedy, graven in stone on the new U.S. embassy in Ottawa. As he famously told Parliament in 1961: "Geography has made us neighbours. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies."

To our American friends, Happy 4th.

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