Kith and tell on the Atlantic

Kith and Kin
April 17, 1998

Kin" are blood relations, whereas "kith" are merely friends. According to the imperial metaphor that prevailed until a generation ago, the Canadians were kin who had remained within the British empire, while the Americans who had broken away had lost their birthright, and had just recently become friends again. After all, had not the Americans initially threatened to annex Canada, later grown to be Britain's main trade rivals, and later still taken rather too long to enter both world wars? Only the cold war put the American link in the three-way friendship beyond doubt.

This accessible and lively collection of essays by leading British and Canadian scholars charts the evolution of Canada's complex and changing relationship with both Britain and the United States - of what the Canadians like to call the "North Atlantic triangle". It asks to what extent kith and kin mattered.

Many 19th-century Canadians defined themselves against the Americans by means of an excessive Britishness. The first statue of Nelson was erected by public subscription in Montreal in 1809, 30 years before the one in Trafalgar Square; the first Victoria Cross was won by a man from Toronto; and Empire Day was invented by a Canadian schoolmaster in 1899. Yet the most popular song on Empire Day was "The Maple Leaf Forever".

It seems, as with all imperial identities, the Canadian was partially schizophrenic, defining itself as American against the British and as British against the American, though the mixture was distinctively Canadian.

Most important, Canada was bound to both nations in more material ways, as increasingly they were to each other. Demographically, 18th-century Canada was overwhelmingly French, but by 1850 migration from Britain had reduced the French proportion to a quarter and it continued to fall. Somewhat paradoxically, however, British migration, trade and investment had a larger stake in the US and, as that country grew in importance - its population surpassed Britain's in the 1840s and its economy did so in the 1870s - so Britain paid more attention to the US. So, perforce, did Canada.

Consequently, by the 1920s Canada's main trade and investment partner was the US, not Britain. These alterations in the sinews of power realigned the North Atlantic triangle in the United States's favour.

Canada may have entered both world wars when Britain did, but Canada's motives had more to do with protecting the open economy and democratic politics of the liberal world order on which Canada depended than with the European balance of power. The US did so for the same reasons, but its sheer size meant that it could afford a few more years in which to make up its mind. By the 1940s the slide from Pax Britannica to Pax Americana made good business sense on both sides of the Atlantic.

It would be a mistake to think that in all this Britain was sidelined. Britain and the US still remain each other's most significant single trade and investment partners, and their links with Canada still come high on both counts. The triangular relationship has proven good value for all concerned and there is much life in it yet.

Carl Bridge is professor of Australian studies, University of London.

Kith and Kin: Britain and the United States from the Revolution to the Cold War

Editor - C. C. Eldridge
ISBN - 0 7083 1360 4
Publisher - University of Wales Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 232

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