Combating Myths about Canada using expatriate Canadians

WASHINGTON (CP) - Oh sure, you hear about how everyone plays hockey in Canada, gets to the rink by dogsled and then goes home to an igloo.

But many myths about Canadians that circulate in the United States aren't nearly so silly or harmless.

Perceptions that Canada is soft on immigration, routinely harbours terrorists and supplies most of the U.S. with marijuana are potentially a lot more unsettling to cross-border ties.

That's one reason why the Canadian Embassy in Washington is assembling an army of expats as it battles the errors spouted by American television pundits and repeated at dinner parties.

Since last July, more than 25,000 people have signed up with Connect2Canada, an Internet site primarily devoted to bringing Canadians together south of the border.

The site provides weekly news highlights from home, Canadian positions on top issues, statistics and what U.S. journalists are saying about Canada.

Beyond encouraging more local expat groups to spring up across the country, embassy officials are hoping those who log on can use the information they provide to spread the word on some common misconceptions.

While some U.S. academics who specialize in Canadian issues say they're concerned the project could veer off into inappropriate lobbying efforts on tricky topics like softwood lumber, embassy spokesman Bernard Etzinger said that's not the purpose.

"What we've established is a pretty useful source of information for Canadians to pass on to whomever," he said, "their co-workers, their clients, their families.

"We do know that they do take action themselves and, on various issues, they want to be active. They're all very proud of Canada. This is supply and demand."

Former Canadian diplomat Paul Frazer calls it "very much a worthy effort."

"Americans are really far more open to knowledge and facts than people give them credit for. I hope more and more Americans will use it once they know it's there."

Charles White, a U.S. professor who's been teaching Canadian history at Portland State University in Oregon for 20 years, is already connected.

"Most Americans start at zero about Canada and that's why Connect2Canada was required. It gives the background to articles. It's a very good source. The kids read it and then Google to find out more."

The website was a pet public relations project for Frank McKenna, who ended his one-year stint last week as Canada's ambassador to the United States.

McKenna spent a lot of his time debunking myths, once eliciting an apology from high-profile conservative Newt Gingrich for saying terrrorists involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks entered the U.S. from Canada.

He got the idea for the website after appearing on a call-in show on C-SPAN, an American political cable channel where one caller from Arkansas recited a litany of complaints about Canada, including its refusal to participate in the Iraq war and the U.S. missile defence plan.

"It was almost like she was reading from a list," said Etzinger, and the experience prompted them to consider how to provide a variety of news and views from Canada.

Some have used website blurbs on Canada's contributions after hurricane Katrina last year to educate their American neighbours. Others tout Canada's efforts in Afghanistan.

And, according to the website, there are a lot of myths that still need busting. Among them:

-That 90 per cent of Canadian marijuana is smuggled into the United States. It was actually about two per cent in 2003.

-That Canada has a lot of illegal immigrants. Actual estimates range from 60,000 to 200,000 compared with 12 million in the U.S.

-Canada caused the electricity blackout of Aug. 14, 2003. It began in Ohio.

-Homicide rates are as high in Canada as in the U.S. They are three times lower.

"Everytime you meet anybody who doesn't have a regular tie to Canada, it's a real education process," said Steve Fraser, an entertainment lawyer who divides his time betweeen Toronto and Los Angeles, as well as other parts of both countries.

"Somebody with less patience would find it annoying," said Fraser, who grew up in Grand Falls, N.B., and routinely plugs into the website. "I just think this was a great idea. I like it quite a bit."

Marc Patenaude, a graduate student in Louisiana, said he relies on it to keep up with news from the north and explain Canada's take on any number of issues.

"Canada is the 51st state around here," said Patenaude, who hopes to form a local expat group in Baton Rouge.

"Americans seem to see things in purely black and white terms. To use a quote from the president, 'You're either with us or against us.' I use it to show some of the shades of grey."

In Cambria, Calif., Bob Mitton said he's "read every word" since he found out about the website.

"I have a circle of friends who often talk to me about Canada," said Mitton, a former deputy minister in Ontario.

"It's made for some great dinner conversation."

Some analysts are more wary about a project that is scheduled to continue under the new ambassador, Michael Wilson, who starts next week.

Chris Sands, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the program "seems like an exercise in preaching to the choir."

"I've always been curious about whether it's targetted correctly. Who do they really want to reach?"

The embassy should do more to cultivate the policy experts who influence decision-making on Capitol Hill, he said, and it's tough to offer this kind of service without crossing a line.

Charles Doran, who teaches Canadian studies at John Hopkins University, agreed.

"Whatever the purpose is, that should be made clear. Canada is in an extremely privileged position in terms of American opinion. I would lament any action that would threaten or undermine that." (external - login to view)
Interesting. I've definitely done my share of myth debunking since moving here

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