Thank God – I am not an American

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Over the past 25 years, I’ve known hundreds of high tech Canadian engineers who took up lucrative job offers in the United States. None gave as a reason for their move that the U.S. would be a better country in which to raise their children. Invariably, the rationale was that an American career promised “better opportunities.”

I totally agree, if by “opportunity” they really meant the lure of more money. For many highly trained and accomplished professionals, the chances of acquiring and keeping significant material wealth in the U.S. are statistically greater than in Canada.

As we were finishing our university educations in Egypt during the 1960s, my siblings and I were eager to do post-graduate studies abroad. With two of my brothers, I ended up in Canada, while a sister opted for the U.S. On numerous occasions since then — and as recently as last week — we have hotly debated the wisdom of her choice versus ours.

Each and every time, I passionately argue that material wealth aside, our quality of life in Canada is far better for the human spirit than that south of the border. After having lived and worked in the U.S. at various times, I can defend my argument with many examples drawn from personal experience.

But statistics, driven by social, economic, and political trends, seem always to speak louder than the heart. Take, for example, the fact that in 2001, 11.7% of Americans lived under the poverty line, as compared to 11.3 % in 2000. The figure for 2002 is expected to have risen to 12.5%.

This means that more than 33 million Americans – almost equal to the population of Canada – live on a daily income of only $18.14 for a family of four, or $9.39 for a single person. This is not the kind of society in which my family and I want to live, regardless of its “better opportunities” for a fortunate few.

In his recent book, Fire and Ice (which merits a speedy paperback edition), Canadian sociologist Michael Adams confirmed my gut feeling that, somehow, our values in Canada are more humane than those of our American neighbours. This is a point on which I find it hard to be humble in the typical Canadian way.

Adams summarizes the results of years of research undertaken, in his words, “to find out why an initially ‘conservative’ society like Canada has ended up producing an autonomous, inner-directed, flexible, tolerant, social liberal, and spiritually eclectic people, while an initially ‘liberal’ society like the United States has ended up producing a people who are, relatively speaking, materialist, outer-directed, intolerant, socially conservative, and deferential to traditional institutional authority.”

But my main reason for being thankful I’m a Canadian stems from the quality of leaders elected to head our respective countries. In 2000, Americans outdid themselves by electing George W. Bush as their president — despite warnings by people such as Molly Ivins, in her excellent book “Shrub, The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush.”

Looking at George W.’s CV makes one wonder what kind of people, or rather political system, could ever elect this man. Before entering political life, for example, he bought an oil company that soon went bankrupt because it couldn’t find any oil in, of all places, Texas. Then, with his father’s help and name, he was elected Governor of Texas. But his accomplishments in this post were equally dubious qualifications to lead the world’s only superpower.

While in office, Bush gutted pollution laws to favour power and oil companies, leaving Texas the most polluted state in the union. He also cut taxes, bankrupting his government to the tune of billions in borrowed money, and set a macabre record for the allowing the most executions by any state governor in American history.

And then he finally became President again heavily indebted to his father’s influence in the Supreme Court.

During his first term as president, George W. managed to attack and occupy two countries, while the U.S. carried its biggest annual deficit in history. He also cut unemployment benefits for more out-of-work Americans than any president before him, and dissolved more international treaties than any of his precursors in the White House.

And this pathetic comedy of errors is fated to continue if he is re-elected in 2004, which is all too likely.

Perhaps by then my sister might finally be convinced to move to Canada and forget the “better opportunity” that lures so many southward. The price of that opportunity is becoming far too high.

Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress.

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