In her 1972 novel, Surfacing, Margaret Atwood imagines the US takeover of Canada. “The Yank pigs will send in the Marines” to secure our freshwater, having terminally polluted their own, one character predicts. The Canadian government would instantly capitulate to American demands, giving rise to an armed Canadian Nationalist Movement that would respond with riots and kidnappings. Thus begins the full-on invasion: “They’ll hit the big cities and knock out communications and take over, maybe shoot a few kids, and then the [Canadian Nationalist] Movement guerillas will go into the bush and start blowing up the water pipelines the Yanks will be building.” Atwood’s narrator doesn’t put much stock in this resistance force either. “The Americans wouldn’t even have to defoliate the trees,” she thinks. “The guerillas would die of starvation and exposure anyway.”
Thankfully, recent history has so far spared us from armed conflict with our southern neighbour. The half century since the publication of Surfacing has seen the bonds between Canada and the US grow stronger. On any given night, sports fans in arenas across the US stand and remove their hats for “O Canada.” Our two countries share the longest unmilitarized border in the world as well as one of the largest trade relationships ($718.4 billion in goods and services in 2019). Our national intelligence and law-enforcement agencies operate co-operatively, sharing priorities and information: when the RCMP has foiled terrorist plots in Canada, it is often thanks to a tip from the FBI. “Canadians and Americans have no better friends and partners than each other,” argues former US ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman in a recent essay, adding, “We are bonded through history, business, sport, family and long friendship.” Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has said there are two crucial files for any Canadian PM: national unity and Canada-US relations.
Yet, for all of its continued economic dominance, the US often appears on the brink of anarchy. The warning signs are everywhere. In June, a man named Nicholas John Roske was arrested near the home of US Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh, carrying bags that court documents say contained pepper spray, a tactical knife, burglary tools, and a Glock pistol: a dark omen for a nation where political polarization is already running at fever pitch, with most Americans in a January 2021 poll believing that other people in the country constituted the greatest threat to their way of life. Even as ancient prejudices of race and religion have become less palatable in public life, political tribalism has acquired a serrated edge. Fifty-five percent of Republicans say Democrats are “more immoral” than other Americans, according to a 2019 report from the Pew Research Center. More than two-thirds of Republican respondents in a University of Massachusetts Amherst poll disputed president Joe Biden’s win. Yet another Pew Research Center poll, this time from 2020, found that 71 percent of single Democrats wouldn’t date a Trump voter.
Sky-high polarization, distrust in government, urban chaos, calcified institutions—all of it suggests an America in decline. A 2021 report from the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance added the US to a list of “backsliding democracies,” claiming that Donald Trump’s attack on the 2020 election “undermined fundamental trust in the electoral process.” Politicians like Doug Mastriano—the far-right Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate and proponent of Trump’s big lie who has likened gun-control advocates to Adolf Hitler—are on the ascent, and a raft of recent state laws are making it both harder to vote and potentially more complicated to certify votes in future elections. Roe v. Wade has been struck down by a Supreme Court in which five of the nine members were appointed by presidents who lost the popular vote at least once. With Biden’s approval numbers flatlining, it seems likely that Trump could reclaim the White House in 2024, should he decide to run. Republican nonchalance toward the January 6 Capitol riot suggests a nightmarish new normal: a future in which the US is no longer able to hold peaceful elections or ensure a nonviolent transition of power.
Canadians often regard such developments with a mixture of condescension and schadenfreude, as though our own enlightened political decisions have insulated us from American carnage. We are living in a fool’s paradise. As the authors of the May 2022 report A National Security Strategy for the 2020s argue, a democratically weakened and more erratic United States poses a “potentially existential question for Canada”—a situation in which our closest friend and ally “could also become a source of threat and instability.” For too long, Canada has relied on the generosity of an American “umbrella” for our national security. Now we are discovering that our umbrella is also a lightning rod, and storm clouds are brewing.
The authors of A National Security Strategy for the 2020s are careful to avoid apocalyptic rhetoric when discussing the United States. After all, Canada faces a plethora of familiar national-security threats, from climate change to terrorism to cyberwarfare and aggression from a revanchist Russia and a China willing to engage in hostage diplomacy with Canadian citizens. Rarely do Canadians pause to consider our national security: it doesn’t rise to the level of debate in Canadian elections, and our national-security policy has not been updated since 2004.
Yet, as the report makes clear, our proximity and interconnectedness with the US—which pave the way for Canadian complacency on national security—are fast becoming sources of national insecurity. If COVID-19 demonstrated our vulnerability to supply chain havoc, protests at border crossings revealed how a relatively small number of non-state actors can inflict outsized economic harm. The report cites the “ties between far-right extremists in Canada and the United States,” noting the open support the convoy protests received from not only media, including Fox News, but also conservative politicians in the US. Such meddling “may not have represented foreign interference in the conventional sense,” the report states. “But it did represent, arguably, a greater threat to Canadian democracy than the actions of any state other than the United States.”
More worrying is the prospect of widespread political violence within the United States. Such a prospect may have been “fanciful only a few years ago,” according to the report, “but it is very real today.” In an interview, University of Ottawa political scientist Thomas Juneau, one of the report’s directors, was clear that all-out civil war in the United States remains unlikely. Yet Juneau can foresee circumstances in the US that should keep Canadian officials awake at night: “Imagine a scenario where you have a contested election and both sides ask Canada to recognize them because they want international recognition.” The smart short-term move for Canada would be to “shut up and hope for the best.” But “whether it’s the good guys or the bad guys who end up winning, we have a neighbour who is not only extremely vulnerable domestically but also annoyed at us. That’s a huge problem,” Juneau warns, “one that could easily reach the scale of an existential problem for us.”
American political violence may also involve complicated and unpredictable spillover events in Canada. Would a right-wing populist uprising in the US inspire copycat action in Canada? Would Canada accept political refugees from the United States? If so, how would we respond if a nascent authoritarian American regime demanded their extradition? What if Canadian citizens enlisted as combatants in an intra-American armed conflict—how would a volatile American government respond to perceived incidents of Canadian-sponsored terrorism?
Even in the absence of armed conflict, disinformation and US-based conspiracy theories already represent a serious threat to Canadian social cohesion. According to a June poll by Abacus Data, 37 percent of Canadians now believe “there is a group of people in this country who are trying to replace native born Canadians with immigrants who agree with their political views”—otherwise known as “great replacement theory.”
While the prospect of open conflict between Canada and the US remains remote, Timothy Sayle, director of the international-relations program at the University of Toronto, points out that “from the historian’s perspective, the possibility of Americans or the US posing a security threat to Canada is nothing new.” Some American leaders, including Thomas Jefferson—who believed that capturing Canada would be “a mere matter of marching”—have seen Canada as ripe for the taking. In his article “Canadian National Security in Historical Perspective,” Sayle points out that “Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state was sure the people of Canada ‘would have built “excellent states” that would surely be admitted to the union.’” In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt still held hope for the annexing of Canada. To this day, right-wing American politicians flirt with liberating Canada from what Trump called our “woke tyranny.” In February, Republican representative Lauren Boebert told Fox viewers that, while Ukraine was important, “we also have neighbours to the north who need freedom and need to be liberated.”
Given that the US is now our most loyal ally and security partner, Sayle’s first-year history students are often surprised to learn that Americans invaded Quebec during the Revolutionary War, that the British torched the White House in the War of 1812, and that Confederates used Canada as a base for covert operations during the US Civil War. The very creation of the Dominion of Canada was partly a response to expansionist tendencies in the US.
“We like to put all that in the history basket and assume it’s over,” Sayle told me. “So it seems like a surprise that the US could once again represent a national-security threat to Canada.” Of course, in each of these historical examples, Canadians could rely upon our great-power patron, the United Kingdom, for military support. In any comparable conflict between US and Canada today, we would be excruciatingly alone.
Canada’s intimate security partnership with the United States grew partly out of Cold War–era nuclear strategy: the Americans would need to send Russia-bound nukes through Canadian airspace and depended upon our shared Distant Early Warning line in the Arctic to detect Soviet bombers coming over the pole. American nuclear warheads were deployed or stored at Goose Bay, in Labrador, and elsewhere in Canada. As the US and Canadian economies and industrial capacities grew increasingly entwined, manufacturing centres here became likely targets of Soviet nuclear attack. For better or worse, our fate was tied to that of the Americans.
Yet a recently declassified, top-secret 1947 memorandum by Humphrey Hume Wrong, our then ambassador to the US, reveals that Canada entered its strategic relationship with the US with eyes wide open. While generally favourable toward the Marshall Plan for the economic recovery of Europe, Wrong’s memo still lamented “the unstable and irresponsible side of the United States.” In particular, Wrong noted “a complex of forces inside the United States which threaten to promote bluster.” He pointed to the “swaggering and vicious belligerence” that had been on display in a recent Washington Times Herald editorial, which read, in part: “If these insults about [American] ‘imperialism’ and the like go on and on, there can come a time when our mass feeling will be: ‘Okay; if they insist on calling us Hitlers, let’s do some Hitlering’—meaning, let’s go out and kick a few of these smear artists’ store teeth down their lying throats.”
Wrong’s memorandum went on to warn the Canadian government of America’s “inability to comprehend the state of the European mind,” American leadership’s “plain ignorance of some elementary historical facts,” and, above all, its “blinding hatred and fear of Communism,” which “results in distortions and exaggerations which increase the difficulty of achieving a negotiated settlement.” And yet, despite all of America’s liabilities and excesses, Wrong’s memorandum fatefully concludes that “we must bear with them, for without them the rest of the world would be worse off.”
Recent decades have provided Canadians with ample opportunity to question the wisdom of Wrong’s conclusion. Critics of American militarism could legitimately point out that a string of foreign-policy catastrophes, from Vietnam to Central America to the Middle East—perhaps especially the government and mainstream media’s perpetuation of the “weapons of mass destruction” myth as a pretext for the invasion of Iraq—undermined the legitimacy of American institutions and hastened the process of democratic decline in ways that now imperil our national security. Canada’s overall strategic calculus remains unchanged since Wrong’s 1947 memorandum. For better or worse, our leaders have continued to affirm that “we must bear with them.”
Do we have a choice? History has already provided one instance of Canada switching great-power patrons, when the collapse of the British Empire and the rise of the Soviet nuclear threat prompted our alignment with the US. I asked Juneau if, in light of the current US trajectory, we could engineer a similar feat once again. “I think we should invest much more to diversify our foreign relations, our defence relations, and our national-security relations,” he said. “We should do a lot more with democracies in Asia and Europe in particular. But I absolutely don’t think that in the short to mid term, or even in the long term, we are going to be able to switch great-power patrons.”
“Canada has always tried to make the Canadian world bigger than North America,” Sayle told me. “But that has been successful only to a point, due to the power and proximity of the US. If we are ever to find ourselves in a position where the US is not able or not willing to defend Canada—well, then we are in a very bad place. To get to that point would mean the collapse of American power or such instability in the US government that we would have much more immediate problems.”
If there is little Canada can do to curtail the erosion of democracy in the US, experts agree that we have important work to do at home. A National Security Strategy for the 2020s urges greater institutional transparency to increase trust in government, strengthen societal resilience, and stem the tide of disinformation. Canada can also clarify its own place in the world. “We may be an extraordinarily small country in terms of quantifiable power, but that doesn’t mean we should sit by and watch the world fall apart around us,” Sayle says. “We need to decide what is important about Canada. What do we want to preserve? What do we stand for? It’s important to look elsewhere, but we must look inward as well.”
Fear mongering and catastrophizing will get us nowhere. We are still some distance from the Yanks sending in the Marines, and a Canadian nationalist guerrilla movement remains the stuff of our national literary imagination. In the short term, Juneau emphasizes, “our relationship with the US remains, by and large, beneficial. But we do need to think about the worst-case scenarios,” he warns. “They are not 0 percent probabilities anymore.”