Commentary: The greatest country on Earth?

©Tribune News Service

At the recent Republican National Convention, President Donald Trump declared what most Americans grow up hearing: “America is the greatest and most exceptional nation in the history of the world.”

My wife and I heard these words while living in a distant land, where people see things differently.

We’ve come to Canada.

OK, Canada is not distant geographically; it’s next door. But Canadians’ worldviews are light years away. Their assessment of America is decidedly downbeat.

“America seems to be crumbling,” Jennie Orton, a technical writer with Canada’s construction industry, told me.

“America’s a dying empire,” said Mark Jan Vrem, an American who moved to Canada in the 1970s and became a TV executive and Canadian citizen. He shrugged good-naturedly. “Empires die. It happens to all of them.”

I spoke with these and other Canadians in July and August, in phone calls and socially distanced Vancouver coffee shops. They said they don’t dislike America, far from it.

“America was the most powerful nation on Earth,” said Richard Cavell, a professor of media studies at the University of British Columbia. “You had Moby Dick. You had Walt Whitman and Walt Disney. Who did we Canadians have?”

“We learned more about American history and society than we learned about Canada,” said Joe Gaudet, a software designer from Calgary. “I can still sing ‘I’m a bill on Capitol Hill,’” from “Schoolhouse Rock!,” the American children’s TV series that young Canadians had to watch about the States.

Every Canadian I’ve talked to is appalled by the U.S. health care system. Patricia Gruben, a filmmaker who grew up in Texas, married a Canadian and became a Canadian citizen in 2006, says her brother in the United States died last year. His daughters were left with $90,000 in medical bills even though he had insurance.

‘Under our government health care system,” she said, “we don’t pay.”

Canada is not a utopia. There is growing homelessness and a wrenching history of genocide and discrimination against their Indigenous populations. But people in the United States may want to look past their American exceptionalism at what Canada has accomplished:

Canada’s homicide rate is roughly one-third that of the U.S.

Canadians are healthier than Americans. The average U.S. life expectancy is around 79 years old, versus almost 83 years here.

Education? A California resident pays more than $13,000 per year in tuition to go to UCLA, which ranks No. 17 in an international analysis of the best colleges. Canadians can go to an equally great school for half that price at the University of Toronto, which is ranked No. 18.

Canada has more women in key government positions than all but five other nations; the U.S. ranks eighth from the bottom. And there’s far less income inequality in Canada than across the border.

Oh, did I forget to mention the pandemic? As of this writing, Canada’s accumulated coronavirus infection rate is less than 20% of America’s. A recent study at the University of Toronto and McGill University found widespread consensus among Canadian politicians, left and right, about the threat and how to fight it.

Canadians tell me they watch with stunned fascination as President Trump undermines key institutions, including the justice system, news media and federal government, while nobody seems capable of stopping him.

But “Trump didn’t cause your problems,” Orton said. “He’s the result of what’s been happening in the U.S. for many, many years.”

My wife and I are living in Canada on borrowed time. We have tourist visas. After six months, we’ll have to leave. We know we’ll feel torn. We love America. But Canadians have helped us see that, by many measures, it’s not the greatest country on Earth.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Daniel Zwerdling, an independent journalist, was formerly senior investigative reporter for National Public Radio. He’s won the Peabody, duPont, Polk, Edward R. Murrow and most other major journalism awards.

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