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  • Reopening the Myth of the North American City Debate:On Comparing Canadian and American Cities1
  • Kristin R. Good (bio)

In 1986 economist Michael A. Goldberg and geographer John Mercer published The Myth of the North American City: Continentalism Challenged, a work that continues to be the most comprehensive comparison of Canadian and American cities. In this seminal work, Goldberg and Mercer put forward a cultural explanation for empirical differences between cities in the two countries linking them to differences in national values and attitudes. Their book was influential not only in their own disciplines but more broadly among urban scholars. Since they engage with central ideas in the political science literature on political culture and political institutions, this work garnered the attention of the small group of Canadian political scientists who study cities as well as the even smaller group of American political science scholars interested in Canadian cities.

Although they acknowledge its limitations, Goldberg and Mercer draw on the “national character” literature and empirical work that speaks to its themes to identify broad differences in attitudes and values among Canadians and Americans.2 They argue that these differences can be linked to divergences in urban development and local political institutions, including varying density levels, levels of fragmentation of local government systems, intergovernmental relations, forms of metropolitan government, and urban finance.3 Most broadly, they argue that Canadian and American cities fall into two national groups, having more in common with cities in their own country than with cities in the other country (147).

Although their empirical contribution was substantial, their more fundamental intellectual goal was to challenge urban scholarship that, in their words, “blindly lumps Canada and the United States into the same analytical laundry basket without proper appreciation of the diversity of the wardrobe to be laundered” (Goldberg and Mercer xv). They were particularly concerned with the cost of transferring theoretical and policy ideas from the United States to Canadian scholarship and, more generally, to the understanding of Canadian cities (Goldberg and Mercer xvi, xvii).

Even though Goldberg and Mercer are self-described “outsiders” (having moved to Canada from New York and Glasgow respectively) (xvi), their concern about continentalism and national distinctiveness in urban policy and scholarship was a reflection of the dominant national preoccupation of the time. The 1960s saw the appearance of modern Canadian nationalism(s), the deepening of regional cleavages, and the emergence of a highly “competitive [End Page 7] federalism” (Simeon and Robinson). National unity appeared threatened simultaneously by seemingly paradoxical forces of internal heterogeneity and external continental homogenization. In 1960 Quebec experienced its Quiet Revolution, which ushered in a new type of assertive nationalism in the province and a debate about its place in (or potentially out of) the Canadian federation. In the 1970s Alberta’s decision to limit the flow of oil to the rest of the country in protest of the federal government’s National Energy Program is emblematic of the regional conflict that characterized the era of competitive federalism. In part in reaction to these developments but also as an assertion of independence from Britain, Canadian nationalism was also on the rise, with a decidedly strong current of anti-Americanism. It was in 1965 that noted philosopher George Grant famously “lamented” the death of Canada as a distinct nation in relation to the United States, arguing that a common liberal individualism had taken hold of both countries’ political elites and mass publics. Rather than take this as the final word, many Canadian nationalists viewed Grant’s lament as a call to action.

Canada had just entered the “constitutional era” of the federation’s development (Simeon and Robinson) when The Myth was published. In 1982, four years before the book’s publication, the Constitution Act, 1982 patriated the Canadian Constitution and added, among other provisions, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Debates would rage about whether entrenching rights represented the Americanization of Canada’s political institutions. Regardless, since Quebec did not consent to these constitutional changes, patriation, rather than closing the debate on national constitutional reform, ushered in a decade of renewed national efforts to bring Quebec back into the constitutional fold. These concerns dominated national politics and Canadian political...


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