BSI - Business Strategies International


Sleeping With The Elephant

By David James

The greatest offense one can commit in communicating with a Canadian is to confuse him or her with an American. Canadians do actually like Americans, but they dislike the incessant, pervasive influences that emanate from their neighbor to the south. Former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said, "Living next to the United States is like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered the beast, one is affected by every twitch and grunt." American culture and events fill their airwaves; "acid rain" from American industrial centers pollute their forests; American products dominate their shelf space.

André Gide, the French novelist, once observed that Canadians like Americans but not the United States, whereas they like England but not the English.  The issue here is one of Canadian “integrity,” as Canadians like to put it.  Canadians feel somewhat threatened by the proximity to the United States; indeed, 90 percent of Canada’s population lives within 100 miles of the United States border.  On the other hand, Canadian attitudes toward others, such as the British, can be more objective.  As Canada is a member of the British Commonwealth, there are many historical and ancestral ties with Britain; nonetheless, Canadians still judge British people on their own merits, and normally find themselves more in tune with Americans.

Perhaps Canadians’ concern for their “integrity” has as much to do with the diversity of their background as it does with anything else  — diversity which often undermines their sense of national identity.  Like Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, the vast majority of Canada’s population settled there in the last two centuries, pushing aside various native groups that occupied the country. Settlers of various ethnic origins from England and across Europe established areas that maintain a distinct identity to this day, such as the Scots in Nova Scotia and the French in Québec.  In recent decades, immigrants have come from other British Commonwealth nations including India and countries in Africa.  Large numbers came recently from Hong Kong and Vietnam, many settling in British Columbia, where the population in Vancouver is now about 38 percent Asian.

However, unlike Australia, New Zealand, and the United States, Canada nurtures its diversity as much as its shared interests.  Regional and ethnic differences are not only recognized but encouraged.  From the 1950’s, Canada’s French-speaking eastern province of Québec, with about twenty-three percent of Canada’s population, has sought various forms of recognition and independence from the larger nation, the most apparent being the federal legal requirement that public signs and notices be written in both French and English.  Separatists in Québec continue to work for complete withdrawal from Canada; meanwhile, the Western Canadian provinces, complaining that the taxes they pay support the more populous eastern provinces, often speak of independence for themselves.

[Tip  —  National and Regional Identity:  In communicating with Canadians, be especially sensitive to their national and regional identities.  Above all, avoid comparisons to the United States.  Also, where you can, recognize the unique characteristics of their respective provinces, such as the maritime and forest products industries of British Columbia, the beauty of Alberta’s Banff National Park, and the French cuisine and culture of Québec.  To many Canadians, their regional identity is often more important than their national identity.]

Another aspect of national “integrity,” especially in the western provinces of Canada, is a concern over foreign exploitation of Canada’s resources.  For this reason, many Canadians object to the export of unfinished products from its forests and mines, and to foreign ownership of their industries.  Back in the 1970’s, there was a strong “Buy Back Canada” movement, during which government corporations were formed to acquire American-owned industries, and laws were enacted to review and control new foreign investment.

[Tip  —  National Interest:  Non-Canadian business people who are involved in investing in Canada or exporting unfinished products from Canada should emphasize, if they can, the long term benefits of their transactions and the non-intrusive aspects of their activities and projects.]

Despite this strong desire for self-protection, Canada is very much a member of the international community.  Its diplomatic relations are superb around the globe, and Canadians often enjoy international positions of trust and influence.  In business and government circles alike, Canada is viewed as a country without an ideological ax to grind.  Despite early European connections, Canada is now fully oriented to the Asia-Pacific region, which borders its western shores.  Interestingly, Canadians are especially liked in China, where Canadian doctor Norman Bethune is remembered for his sacrifices in the Chinese Revolution during and following World War II.  He attached himself to the ill-equipped, rag-tag forces of Mao Tse-dong’s Eighth Route Army and worked tirelessly, trekking long distances through the mountains, treating the wounded, and training doctors.  An ardent communist, he chose to participate in history rather than observe it from afar.

Notwithstanding Canada’s dual recognition of English and French, English remains the accepted international business language throughout the country, even in Québec.  Canadians’ accents in speaking English are not especially strong unless English is their second language, and only a few English words are distinctively Canadian in accent, such as words with the syllable “out” as in “about,” which is often pronounced “aboot.”  Slang expressions, other than American ones, are not as prevalent as in many other English-speaking countries.  Here are a few that an international business person might encounter:

Word or Phrase Meaning
Don't you agree? (As in "It's good, eh?") Or an interlocution added for emphasis. (As in "He's ready to sign the contract, eh, and a telephone call comes in from the home office, eh, and suddenly the deal is off.")
Gearing ratio
Ratio between equity and debt (financial term)
Riding (n.)
Political constituency
Shout (n.)
Call (as in "Give me a shout on the telephone.")