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Canada Firsts: Ralph Nader's Salute to Canada and Canadian Achievement.

As Canadians, we're used to being told that we have this huge inferiority complex, particularly when it comes to the United States. Personally, I haven't felt that way since I forked over $150 (U.S.) cash in the emergency room of Paducah Baptist Hospital in Paducah, Kentucky, after the doctor had a peek at my little boy's chronically infected ears and announced that he had an ear infection. Perhaps it was at that moment that whatever it is inside my heart that is Canadian began to beat a little prouder. Not even the cheaper American beer or gasoline could stem my renewed nationalism.

For Canadians who do need an ego boost or are concerned about the sacrifices Canada is making in the interests of global competition, Ralph Nader, Nadia Milleron, and Canadian Duff Conacher have produced Canada Firsts, which salutes "first and foremost conceive in Canada or by a Canadian." It would be well for Americans to know about it too. The book is divided into chapters on "Historical Achievements," "Communication," "Medicine," "Education and Social Welfare," and so on. Nader et al. wrote Canada Firsts out of concern that growing economic globalization threatens to "reduce the justice standards of the leading nations toward the lowest common country denominators."

"Taken too far," Nader writes in his introduction, "this international dependence and interdependency can undermine seriously healthy national characteristics of self-reliance, diversity, and governments which are closer and more accountable to the people. In the United States, we call the latter home rule."

Some Canadians will be cheesed at the presumption of an American validating our worth. Others will be cheesed that a book published in Canada uses U.S. spellings. Still others will be cheesed that it costs $14.99 in Canada (plus tax, of course) and $12 in the United States. Axgrinding aside, Nader and his co-authors have largely avoided the urge to gush about the wonders of Canada or patronize Canadians. Further, unlike the histories I read in school, Canada Firsts endeavors to record the contributions of the "first peoples," women, and other "minorities."

Unsettling, however, is the book's roller-coaster ride from the trivial to the profound. On the trivial side, Canadians and Canada can take credit for the McIntosh apple, ginger ale, the robotic Canadarm on space shuttles (let's face it, only Canadians know or care about this thing), the invention of the telephone, green ink, the paint roller, half of Superman, the zipper, and, well, the game of Trivial Pursuit.

Then there's the light bulb: Did you know that Henry Woodward, a Canadian, patented the first incandescent lamp with a light bulb in 1874 and then sold a share of the patent to Thomas Edison in 1875?

Enough said.

As for the serious, Canada Firsts heaps praise on us for giving citizens free postage to Members of Parliament while in session (though Lord knows we pay for it the rest of the time), and for our election financing and voter registration ("in thirty-four federal elections, the turnout was less than 70 per cent only five times"). Kudos also for our health-care system and concern over acid rain, for Greenpeace and for the first ombudsman in North America.

But the specter of colonization at the hands of multinationals, spurred on by the North American Free Trade Agreement, is present throughout Canada Firsts. Nader describes the history of drug-patent laws in Canada in which former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney capitulated to multinational drug companies and the Reagan Administration and turned the clocks back on affordable, generic medication. Indeed, as Canadians would later learn, and as Nader reminds us, the legislation was tucked somewhere within the pages of the 1989 Free Trade Agreement. During a visit to Canada, Nader admonished us that this was not an isolated attack on our health-care system.

This is the point at which careful reading is required. It's easy to look at this book and revert to the old we're-years-away-from-anything-as-bad-as-the-States routine. I've also heard this described as "living the great Canadian lie," the belief that we're better than our neighbors.

Another view, advanced by journalist Linda McQuaig in a series of articles last year for The Toronto Star, poses an ethical dilemma: "Two roads stretch in front of us, leading in very different directions. One road leads to a U.S.-style model of minimal social welfare; the other leads to the more advanced social-welfare models of Western Europe." From the perspective of a U.S. liberal, Canada is bound to look like a model of humanity.

Nader wanted to write a book that showed the benefits of Canada's social, cultural, and economic individuality and independence. He has, for the most part, succeeded. Beneath the crazy quilt of Canadian accomplishments, a pattern emerges of a country with many unique identities and some serious choices to make.

Nader reports that he sent a copy to Mulroney. I hope he read it, and I hope he left it on his desk for his successor, Kim Campbell.
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Author:Nore, Gordon W.E.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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