Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 47: Canada: Our Oldest Good Neighbor (1946)

Do you remember how the various parts of the British Empire were always shown in red in your school geographies? Do you remember that by far the largest splotch of red on the map of the world lay just to the north of the United States?

Or were you more impressed by the way the Dominion of Canada showed up on the map of the United States—as a blank white space from the Great Lakes and the 49th parallel up to the top of the map?

Many Americans, unfortunately, have been nearly as void of knowledge about Canada as that blank white space on the map. As a nation we have been astonishingly ignorant of the country in which we have the largest stake, the country that lies closest to us, and the country whose people are most nearly related to us.


How great is our stake in Canada?

It may surprise you to know how big our economic interest in Canada is. The latest prewar figures show that our trade with Canada, import as well as export, was much greater than our trade with any other country in the world. It was greater than our trade with all the republics of South America put together.

The latest prewar figures also show that several times more American capital was invested in Canada than in any other foreign country. It was more than in the whole of South America. The depression proved our investments in Canada to be the soundest of all our foreign investments. Perhaps if they had not been so sound, if we had lost more in Canada, we might have been less indifferent to that country and less inclined to take it for granted.

Canada is also important to us for reasons of security—as the United States is to Canada. That was why, in August 1938, President Roosevelt told a cheering audience in Kingston, Ontario, that the people of the United States would “not stand idly by if the domination of Canadian soil is threatened” by an aggressor. That was why, two years later at Ogdensburg, he and Prime Minister Mackenzie King agreed to form the Permanent Joint Defense Board for the common defense of the northern half of this continent—in other words, our first permanent defensive alliance. That was why we built the Alaska Highway, cooperated with the Canadians in enlarging their Northwest Staging Route for air transport to Alaska, and established air patrols over the region of Hudson Bay.

For the right to have military installations in the Dominion during the war, we promised to turn them over to the Canadian government afterward. But these, with the exception of the highway, were not to be free gifts to our neighbor. Canada has already purchased all the permanent air facilities, and the other American installations are to be sold after a joint appraisal by the two governments.

The corning of air power has given Canada a most strategic position. Through Canada pass the shortest flying routes from our country to Europe and Asia, the two continents that contain most of the world’s population, wealth, and power.

How close are we to Canada?

Canada is by far the closest of all our neighbors. Our Mexican boundary is less than half the length of our Canadian boundary. Not counting Alaska, the United States touches Canada along an unbroken line of 3,987 miles.

Most of the Mexican people live far from our border, whereas most Canadians dwell right beside it. The large majority of the Canadian population is concentrated along the southern edge of the Dominion—within a hundred miles of our country.

In still other ways the Canadians are closer to us than are any other people in the world. No other people are so like us in character. The Anglo-Canadians speak the same language—even the same slang. Canadian English is American English, not English English. The people of Canada are descended from much the same stock—half from the British Isles and half from continental Europe. Canadians and Americans have grown up together in the same environment. Either side along the boundary, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the pattern of daily life is much the same.

Not only are the Canadians more like us, but they also like us more than do any other people. The reason is that they understand us much better. On the whole, they know us as we have not begun to know them, and they are inclined to resent our indifference.

They also criticize us quite freely, and often very justly. But this is the natural reaction of a small nation living under the shadow of a big one. It is also the kind of criticism one member of a family levels against another—whom he would leap to defend if he heard an outsider say the same thing. Most Canadians instinctively do that when they have visitors from the outside world, even from England, who cast reflections on the United States and things American.

To and fro across the border

Until the 1930’s when immigration was slowed by the depression, an almost continuous movement to and fro across the border wove the two peoples together.

This intermingling of population between Canada and the United States has been much greater and has been going on much longer than most of us realize. It began even before the American Revolution. By that time so many New Englanders had migrated to Nova Scotia, which was then their frontier, that it was practically a subcolony of New England. Immediately after the Revolution many more New Englanders—called Tories by us and Loyalists by Canadians—settled in what are now the Maritime Provinces of the Dominion. These Americans really made that part of the country.

At the same time, farther west, a stream of American pioneers began to pour into what are now Ontario and Quebec. The first of them were Tories or Loyalists from the interior of the old colonies, principally New York. But those who followed in increasing numbers down to the War of 1812 were simple land-seekers. They were the original settlers of the “Eastern Townships”—that part of Quebec just across the line from New Hampshire and Vermont. They were also the founders of Ontario, then called “Upper Canada.” Even after the War of 1812 Americans kept on moving over into Upper Canada.

By the middle of the century, the tide had turned the other way. Canadians were pouring into Michigan. At one time they made up 25 percent of its population. In the latter half of the century the exodus from Canada to the United States was much greater. By 1890 it was so great that the population of Canada had almost stopped growing.

Before the close of the century, however, the tide again turned in Canada’s favor. What happened was that the human stream filling our West was dammed up when the last good free homestead land was taken, and then it spilled over into the Canadian prairie. It continued to spill until the outbreak of World War I. During the 1920’s the balance of migration once more swung from Canada to America.

As a result of this ebb and flow, about 1.5 of the 11.5 million people living in Canada are of United States origin and there are about 5 million Americans of Canadian origin.

In addition to this more or less permanent exchange of population, there has been a constant coming and going for business and pleasure. In the typical year of 1931–32, Canadian crossings into the United States numbered about 10.5 million and American crossings into Canada about 20 million. Many of these crossings are made by people who live near the border and cross it daily commuting to work on the other side.

Thus for generation after generation, from Atlantic to Pacific, people have moved freely across the Canadian American border. There has been nothing like it anywhere else in the world, and it has produced an international intimacy—there is no other way to describe it—that is quite unique. To this we will return after we have had a closer look at Canada.

Next section: Is Canada Disunited by Its Geography?