Suddenly, America has a brash neighbor up north

Moves toward decriminalizing marijuana and allowing gay marriage contrast with US ethos.

Canada has long been the United States' virtually invisible neighbor to the north.

But suddenly it is coming out of its shell - and sharpening an identity that increasingly looks like a slice of Europe on America's back porch.

It's moving to become the third nation on the planet to legalize gay marriage. It's primed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. And it vocally opposed the US war on Iraq.

These moves reflect a growing cultural assertiveness - especially on the importance of tolerance and multiculturalism, which are enshrined in Canada's version of the Bill of Rights. The shift is increasingly putting the US and Canada - the world's biggest trading partners - on a cultural collision course.

"We look at you Americans and see the [National Rifle Association], rigged elections, Christian fundamentalists, and pre-emptive wars," says Michael Adams, author of the best-selling "Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values." By contrast, Canada is a place that prizes "peace, order, and good government." It's "a social welfare state where we raise taxes to pay for transit, housing, and more," he says.

Canada's newfound assertiveness stems, in part, from a growing confidence in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, adopted in 1982. It's akin to the US Bill of Rights. But it guarantees, for instance, equality for women, aboriginal groups, and minority-language groups.

It's led to Canada even having a cabinet position for multiculturalism.

And it's one reason for Canada's wide-open immigration policy. Fully 18 percent of Canadians are foreign born, compared with about 10 percent of Americans. In Toronto, 40 percent of residents are foreign born.

Recently Canadian courts have also interpreted the charter to guarantee rights for gays, including the right to marry.

All in all, "It's not just that Canadians are comfortable with diversity," it's something they are increasingly proud of, says Andrew Parkin, codirector of the Center for Research and Information on Canada in Ottawa. "They're now saying this is what makes them proud to be Canadian."

While the two nations also have their commonalities, Canadians often have defined themselves as "not American." Now more and more they're stressing their unique societal openness along with other intrinsic values. The United Nations, for instance, has frequently declared Canada home of the best quality of life in the world.

This comes at a time when many parts of the US have retained - or even expanded - a conservative tilt, as embodied in the administration of President Bush. That only adds to Canadians' determination to be different from the US - and increasingly to make the difference known. "There's always been some satisfaction in tweaking the eagle's beak," says David Biette, director of the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

The difference now is that Americans may be paying a bit more attention. A Canadian court last week ruled that gay marriage should be legal. And the government is expected to confirm the policy in coming months. The moves have already sparked praise from liberals and scorn from conservatives in the US. Some American gay couples are already trekking across the border to get married. Some even figure the Canadian side of Niagara Falls may get a boost as a honeymoon hot spot for gays.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien's administration introduced legislation to decriminalize penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana - making it akin to getting a traffic ticket. The bill would increase penalties for growing and trafficking large quantities of pot.

US officials have reacted with grave concern to the plan, saying more US-bound trucks would have to be searched for drugs. This would potentially slow the $1 billion daily US-Canada trade.

American officials have also taken note of Canada's stance on the Iraq war. It was hardly as outspoken as France or Germany. But it was highly critical.

Canada, which provides free health care to all citizens, has also become a central topic in US debates over prescription-drug prices. In all, for America's social liberals, Canada is becoming a kind of Nirvana Up North. It's home to tough gun-control laws (every gun in the country must be registered), no federal restrictions on abortion, no death penalty, and strict campaign-spending laws.

Among US conservatives, Canada is increasingly seen as a European-like society that's promoting moral relativism - and creating pressure for the US to follow suit. "The case will be made by the homosexual lobby that we should do it, too," says Ken Connor, president of the conservative Family Research Council in Washington, referring to Canada's move on gay marriage.

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