Quick test: Who is the current prime minister of Canada? How does that country's population compare to that of the US? And who eats more doughnuts, Canadians or Americans? If you responded: Paul Edgar Philippe Martin, one tenth as big, and Canadians, respectively, then congratulations. You nailed it.
But most Americans probably wouldn't score as well. They typically know more about Britain and Europe than this neighbor to the north, America's biggest partner in trade, largest supplier of oil, and fiercest rival at the hockey rink.
Since the 1970s, there's been a thrust at some US colleges and universities to offer classes in "Canadian studies," enlightening students about Canada's government, history, economics, social attitudes, geography, and more. This has helped. But now there's a bit of a crisis looming: Many professors hired back then are retiring, and they aren't being replaced. Ignorance about this vast country that shares our border just might persist.
Two forward-thinking professors of Canadian studies are taking steps to keep their specialty from becoming extinct. "Project Connect," the brainchild of André Senecal, director of Canadian Studies at the University of Vermont (UVM) and Christopher Kirkey, director of the New York Center for the Study of Canada at Plattsburgh State University, is all about keeping Canadian studies alive at institutions of higher learning. It's the name for their efforts to recruit talented young scholars who will not only help put Canada on the map but also foster a deeper understanding of that vast country.
In an ideal world, they say, Canadian studies programs would be as strong at all American colleges as they are at places like UVM, Plattsburgh, Bridgewater (Mass.) State College, and the University of Maine, Orono. But considering that, according to Mr. Kirkey, only 55 schools currently offer classes in Canadian studies and only about 10 of those offer it as a major or minor (others offer it as an interdisciplinary class), this is indeed a long shot.
"Area studies have become more popular since 9/11, but still, Canadian studies is not glamorous like Russian or Chinese," says Mr. Senecal. "Americans are also brought up with the idea that Canada is up there, but we don't have to think about it - and we certainly don't need to study it."
Students who do sign up for classes on Canada are sometimes surprised by what they learn. For starters, many must begin by grasping that Canada is not "simply an extension of America but rather a foreign country with different cultural beliefs from ours," says Raymond Pelletier, associate director of the Canadian-American Center at the University of Maine.
Julianne McGuire, a freshman at Bridgewater State University, was struck by differences she discovered in Canadian Studies 101. "I had no idea their government is so different from ours," she says, "and that Quebec is trying to separate from the rest of the country. I can't imagine that happening in the US.
"Canadians are actually a little afraid of becoming too much like Americans," she adds. "They want their own identity."
Linda Newman, also a student at Bridgewater State University, was led by her curiosity to take classes on Canada. She grew up near Woonsocket, R.I., an area heavily populated by French Canadians, and she wanted to learn more about these people and their homeland.
She gained the most insight during a trip to Quebec City. "I was surprised by how strongly influenced they are by French culture," she says. "At the same time," she adds, "this province has so much in common with us, especially New England with its similar coastline, vibrant cities ... there are just as many similarities as differences."
Ms. McGuire and Ms. Newman give credit to their teachers for Bridgewater's Canadian studies classes ranking among the best in the US. "Many of them are Canadian," says Newman, "so their passion for wanting to share their knowledge makes classes interesting."
Anthony Cicerone, director of the Canadian Studies department at Bridgewater State, says the relationship between Canada and the US is at an important juncture now. "We have good relations, but they will definitely improve under the new prime minister," he says. The former prime minister, Jean Chrétien, irritated the Bush administration when he opposed the Iraq war. But this disagreement, says Dr. Cicerone, carries with it some important lessons for his students. "They need to see that other countries can differ with us, and that it's their right to do this."
Some say the current political climate makes learning about Canada today especially critical. "It's important now because of the isolation that America is going toward," says Dr. Pelletier. "Rather than going along with this, I congratulate my students for reaching toward another culture, and for their openness to multiculturalism. It's important to go out and try to understand where others are coming from."