Watching state-run television here, you might get the feeling that Canadians seriously loath their big southern neighbor. At least, that's the impression that some US diplomats got.
Sitcoms and dramas aired by the taxpayer-financed Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) show “insidious negative popular stereotyping” and “anti-American melodrama,” the US embassy in Ottawa warned in a 2008 diplomatic cable published in December by WikiLeaks. Washington should boost its public diplomacy programs in Canada “at all levels and in all parts of the country … to make it more difficult for Canadians to fall into the trap of seeing all US policies as the result of nefarious faceless US bureaucrats anxious to squeeze their northern neighbor.”
Is the Canadian government indeed seeking to brainwash citizens by broadcasting anti-American attitudes on state-funded television?
Not quite, say television producers and Canadian and US officials, who agree that the diplomatic cable – which received considerable attention here – wrongly assessed both the television programs at issue and the state of Canadian popular attitudes toward their southern neighbor. Washington, they say, has little to fear from either.
The episode suggests that while Canadian opinion toward the US may have turned cloudy in recent years, the underlying climate remains stable when examined more closely. A frenzy of media reports and punditry speculating about a bilateral breakdown was overblown and overlooked a simple explanation: television does not a foreign policy make.
“These shows don’t suggest a sudden upsurge in aggression or skepticism towards the United States,” says John Doyle, television critic for the Toronto Globe and Mail. “They’re simply a natural emanation of the Canadian psyche, and would have existed in shows that were made and aired in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s."
“Any day of the week on American television there are probably a dozen hours of something showing American government agencies in a poor light,” says Chris Haddock, creator of “Intelligence,” a CBC crime drama that the leaked cable took to task for its “stinging” portrayal of US-Canadian law enforcement collaboration. “Canadian citizens and American citizens have never looked at each other with any sort of animosity. It’s a tempest in a teapot, really.”
CBC programs 'twist events'
Foreign relations experts on both sides of the border have for years been scrutinizing evidence for a downturn in the Canadian public’s attitude toward the US since the two countries parted ways over the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Tightened border security and travel document requirements have reduced cross-border travel, while a March 7 poll suggested Canadians have a more favorable opinion of Australia, Great Britain, and Germany than they do of the US.
US diplomats have obviously taken the situation seriously, going so far as to monitor Canadian television for signs of a shift in the national mood. According to the 2008 cable, CBC programs served to “twist current events to feed long-standing negative images of the US" and “the Canadian public seems willing to indulge in the feast."
Newspaper headlines leaped to the leaked cable. "US warned of 'insidious' stereotypes on Canadian TV," exclaimed the Toronto Globe and Mail. "CBC stereotypes a drag on Canada-US ties," read the Toronto Star.
The cable highlighted three CBC shows as demonstrative of an upsurge in anti-American sentiment in the Canadian zeitgeist. Together they were said to “offer Canadian viewers their fill of nefarious American officials carrying out equally nefarious deeds in Canada while Canadian officials either oppose them or fall trying.”
The charge came as a complete surprise to the executive producer of one of the programs, “Little Mosque on the Prairie,” an internationally acclaimed sitcom about a group of Muslims trying to live in harmony with the residents of a rural town in Saskatchewan.
“It’s a show that’s been credited with addressing hatred with comedy and building bridges between communities, so I thought, oh, man, how ironic to be called out for this one episode that happened to have a border issue in it,” says Mary Darling, the American-born CEO of Westwind Pictures, which made the series.
Embassy officials told Washington an episode of the show “portrayed a Muslim economics professor trying to remove his name from the no-fly list at a US consulate” where he encounters “a rude and eccentric US consular officer” who worked hard to “avoid being helpful.”
The cable didn’t mention that the curmudgeonly professor had actually lied to his family about being on the no-fly list in order to hide the fact he was afraid of flying. The consular official – played by the always-eccentric David Foley of “Kids in the Hall” fame – first gives them a hard time for showing up without an appointment, but then helps them out when the professor politely says “thank you.”
“At the end of the day the US official is the only sane person in the group,” says Ms. Darling.
The US cable also highlighted an episode of “The Border,” a drama about Canadian immigration officials’ efforts to secure their country’s frontier, in which a Syria-bound US rendition aircraft carrying Guantanamo detainees crashes in rural Quebec. Canadian officials chase down escapees and clash with a Homeland Security official over sovereignty issues, including a proposed American F-15 strike on the detainees.
Executive Producer Peter Raymont says his series’ 2008 season did depict US security officials darkly, but it didn’t have an ax to grind. He notes that the 2009 season introduced a sympathetic Homeland Security character who worked closely and productively with her Canadian counterparts.
“We weren’t doing negative popular stereotyping, we were just reflecting accurately what happening during the Bush administration,” Mr. Raymont says. “There were CIA rendition flights from Guantanamo – that was a fact.”
While US-Canada relations were cooler than usual at the end of the Bush administration, when the cables were written, polling data have shown no cause for concern, says pollster Frank Graves of EKOS Research Associates. “There aren’t two countries in the world that have more similar value systems than Canada and the US, and if you look at the trajectory over time, the gap is shrinking, not growing,” he says. “If we ask Canadians which country is your best friend, they will always answer ‘the United States.’ ”
Obama's election improved perceptions
“Bush became almost anathema to many Canadians, to almost a cartoonish level,” Mr. Graves adds. “But the outlook was improving in 2008, and then when Obama came in – Canadians love Obama! His approval ratings remain in nosebleed territory.”
“There’s greater optimism about the United States since Obama was elected,” agrees Mr. Doyle of the Toronto Globe and Mail. “The kinds of trends, hints, or clues that the diplomats were looking for when they studied Canadian television, that’s since kept moving ever closer towards integration with American popular culture” as HBO and other US channels have become available in the Canadian market.
The current US ambassador to Canada, David Jacobson, agrees. “My view is that relations between the US and Canada have never been better,” he says. “Whether it's leaders of popular culture or political figures or business leaders, there’s an exceptional attachment that Canadians have with Americans that’s like nothing I have seen elsewhere in the world.”
Ambassador Jacobson says the State Department has a standing policy not to comment on the leaked cables, but adds: “I would hate to have policy toward America determined based on ‘Dancing With The Stars’ or ‘Jersey Shore.’ ”