On Canada Day: Words and Numbers

I’m an American fan of Canada. Not for its generous social welfare programs, although those are nice. Nor do I claim any particular expertise on Canadian politics or history (although I am interested.) I am first, grateful to have such a fantastic neighbor. The Canadian-American border is a marvel, the longest peaceful border in the world and in human history. It is a model for the world. But I am also interested in Canadian culture and – dare I say – it’s soul (here’s a look at Canada’s capital Ottawa as a reflection of the nation). I write quite a bit about my favorite author, Canadian novelist Robertson Davies. A Jungian, he has observed that the U.S. is the world’s most extroverted nation while Canada is deeply introverted. On the surface, Canadians (Anglophones at least) seem very similar to Americans. But, Davies writes, if you spend time with Canadians the differences become evident.

For an American, studying Canada is worthy in its own right, but also a way to learn about ourselves. I’ve written a bit about Canada in both contexts.

One thing that struck me on my visit to Ottawa was the Canadian national motto: A Mari usque ad Mare.

It translates as from Sea to Sea.

The U.S. motto is e pluribus unum, which means “out of many, one.”

Arms of Canada

What struck me is that you could reverse the national mottos and they would still be appropriate. The United States stretches from sea to shining sea, while Canada is a confederation of disparate provinces. And yet… the mottos fit where they. Leaving aside the historic anachronism (when the U.S. was founded the nation barely stretched to the Mississippi and extending to the Pacific was a vague dream), e pluribus unum suits the United States. The colonies were established by explicitly independent people, many of whom for religious and other reasons did not fit back in England. At the core of the American Creed is individual liberty – the right to live according to one’s own conscience – and a concomitant fear of power that can threaten this liberty. The motto of the United States reflects people coming together voluntarily to establish a government.

Davies observes that the United States was “born of revolution, and our roots are deep in a dogged loyalty… The stories of our earliest settlers were sad ones… There is an element of loss and betrayal in our history which even yet tends to make us an introverted people, with the particular kind of inner strength introversion implies.”

So no e pluribus unum for Canada, it was not founded from some great political purpose. But why then A Mari usque ad Mare?

Davies speaking on Canadian literature in New York states:

Geography is a great creator and conditioner of literature, and if there is one thing we Canadians have in undiminishing abundance, it is geography…. With the land goes the climate, and ours is a climate that makes men watchful, reserved, and somewhat disposed toward melancholy. We have the chilly distinction of possessing the coldest national capital in the world, compared with which Moscow seems positively Californian.

To put some numbers on this, the population density of Canada is 3 people per square mile, that of the United States is 84 people per square mile and large parts of the United States are known for their vast open spaces. Wyoming, the state with the second lowest population density (after Alaska of course) is twice as densely populated as Canada. The most densely populated Canadian province (which is also the smallest) is Prince Edward Island, with a 65 people per square mile – roughly equivalent to Vermont, a primarily rural state, with few urban centers. Ontario, which has the largest population of any Canadian province has a population density of 38 people per square mile, comparable to the wide open spaces of Kansas and the midwest. My home state of Maryland has a population density of 625 people per square mile, a order of magnitude denser than Prince Edward Island. Yet much of Maryland is the rural Eastern Shore, dotted with small towns and a few modest cities. Even in my more densely populated suburb, farms and mountains are only a short drive away. But compared to Canada our nation is jam-packed, sprawling the space between the oceans.

The U.S. motto reflects its world changing origin story. Canada’s motto reflects humility in the face of vast geography, a recognition that circumstances have brought them to this place stretching from sea to sea and that they will make a life there.

It is a good life and this denizen of your neighbor to the south salutes you: Happy Canada Day.

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