'Up there,' and taken for granted

A CONFLUENCE of events has thrust Canada into the spotlight of media attention in the United States as have no other developments in recent memory.

The first of these was the result of a national referendum, which overwhelmingly rejected Canadian constitutional reforms designed to keep the nation united. The government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney may also be doubt.


Next, from the world of baseball, a two-run single in the top of the 11th inning by an aging Dave Winfield gave the Toronto Blue Jays a win over the Atlanta Braves and Canada its first World Series championship.

And earlier in the series, before a packed Atlanta stadium awaiting the start of game two, something unusual happened. No, it wasn't that a hapless U.S. Marine color guard failed to notice that the Canadian flag it was carrying was upside down. The curious thing was the response of Canadians to the mistake. So offended were our northern neighbors (en bloc, as they say in Quebec) that President Bush felt compelled to go on Canadian television to apologize.


Back in Toronto, sales of T-shirts tweaking the Marines ("The Few. The Proud. The Dyslexic.") were reported brisk.

All this American media attention demonstrates nicely how Canada normally figures in our national psyche. It is best expressed, I think, by the response of an American woman who, when asked about Canada, said: "You know, I don't believe I ever in my life even thought to think about Canada." Thus, though it is the United States' closest neighbor and largest trading partner, Canada and Canadians have grown accustomed to our benign neglect. To many of us, Canada just doesn't seem "foreign," especially when compared to some Third World hot spot or former Soviet republic. Canadians, we think, are just like us.

But they aren't, and the flag incident is one of those rare events that shows why. When our Marines carried the Maple Leaf onto the field in Atlanta, and into the homes of millions of Canadian viewers, they sullied what should have been a pristine moment for Canadians everywhere -- the World Series at last.

The insult was unintended, but the furor in Canada was real. For their part, the inverted Maple Leaf confirmed what many -- even most -- Canadians think about Americans: We are so self-obsessed that we scarcely admit that there is anything noteworthy north of the border. And when we do, we either patronize Canadians by not seeing their differences or dwell on the 30 percent of the populace who speak French. (They, clearly, are different from us.) The rest of the time, Canada is just the great white north, home to winter weather, moose, hockey and Mounties.

Some realities if one is Canadian: The United States is Canada's only neighbor. With 10 times Canada's population, the U.S. regularly, albeit inadvertently, engulfs the smaller country by way of its media, political power and enormous economic might. The usual metaphor is to liken Canada to a mouse sleeping beside an elephant. My favorite image is one offered by the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood, who sees the Canada-U.S. border as "a one-way mirror -- we can see you, you can't see us."

For one delirious moment in Atlanta (which, by the way, beat Toronto out of the 1996 summer Olympics), Canada and Canadians climbed through that one-way mirror and stood on the American media stage. The Blue Jays, "Canada's team" despite the total absence of Canadian players -- won the series and took the trophy to the great white north.

Yet my guess is that the inverted Maple Leaf is what many Canadians will remember about this fall. They've grown used to such negligence, but being used to it doesn't make them less angry.

Robert Thacker is director of the Canadian Studies Program at St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y.