CANADIAN SOCIAL STUDIES
VOLUME 39 NUMBER 2, WINTER 2005
www.quasar.ualberta.ca/css
Special Issue: New Approaches to Teaching History

Michael Adams. 2003.

Fire and Ice: The United States, Canada and the Myth of Converging Values.

Toronto: Penguin Press. Pp. 224, $35.00, cloth.
ISBN 0-14-301422-6
website: www.penguin.com

W.S. Neidhardt

Northview Heights S.S.
History Department (retired)
Toronto, Ontario



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For many years now Canadians - at least those who are interested in their country's history - have been exposed to countless books and articles about the Canadian-American relationship. Most of the authors inevitably concluded that Canada was slowly but surely drifting into a closer relationship with the United States. In fact, some writers even predicted that Canada's ultimate destiny was nothing less than complete absorption into the American republic. In Fire and Ice, Michael Adams challenges what he calls the existing "myth of inevitability" and advances "the rarely heard, and even more rarely substantiated, thesis that Canadians and Americans are actually becoming increasingly different from one another" (p. 4).

Adams is quite aware that most Canadians may not, at first, believe him. He readily admits "that Canada is increasingly dependent on the U.S. economy and that Canadians consume increasing amounts of American popular culture, products, services and imagination" (p. 140). He also points out that in a recent public opinion poll - taken in 2002 - 58% of Canadians thought that "Canada had been becoming more or less similar to the United States during the preceding ten years" (p. 3). He also fully acknowledges that the two North American nations do have, indeed, much in common, including such things as common founding principles and similar political institutions.

However, Adams also wants his readers to know that there are, in fact, some very fundamental differences that have developed between the two countries over the years. For example, he refers to the 'revolutionary tradition' in the U.S.A as opposed to the 'counter-revolutionary tradition' in Canada, the contrasting attitudes Americans and Canadians have towards the roles of government, and the quite different beliefs they have about the role of religion in their daily lives. As one reads each chapter in Fire and Ice, one begins to believe that Adams is onto something and that his thesis is not a mere flight of academic fancy but rather a thoroughly researched and carefully constructed argument.

The book is filled with a vast array of statistics that he and his colleagues at Environics compiled while conducting over 14000 individual interviews and numerous focus groups and surveys. Based on these findings, Adams argues that "fundamental values, motivations, and mindsets were changing" (p. 7) in recent years in both Canada and the United States and that these changes in peoples' social values have, in fact, created two distinct societies in North America. The author, who is more a social scientist than a historian (Seymour Lipset seems to be his much admired role model) believes that much of what people say when they are asked specific questions during public opinion polls tends to reveal only how they feel about specific issues. Furthermore, he argues that these polls generally do not involve the social value assessment criteria that are required in order to elicit peoples' more fundamental beliefs and values.

Adams makes skilfull use of the social scientist's repertoire as he examines a variety of areas of social change that have taken place in Canada and the United States including religion, multiculturalism, immigration, the status of women, patriarchal authority, consumerism, social welfare, gun-control and many others. In the final analysis, Adams concludes that his research data clearly establishes that Canadians and Americans "embrace a different hierarchy of values" (p. 147) and that the two nations "are socio-culturally distinct and will remain so for many years to come - perhaps indefinitely" (p. 76).

Some of Adams' conclusions may well be seen as quite provocative and will probably not endear him to some readers - especially those who espouse the neo-conservative vision for the Canada of the future - when he suggests that the United States is becoming a country "where we find values of nihilism, aggression, fear of the other, and consumptive one-upmanship" (p. 72). While he supports the commonly held view that the United States is "a more competitive society than Canada" and that Americans are "more innovative", he also describes America as being "more violent and more racist" (p. 115). He suggests that "Americans worship money and success more than Canadians do" but he also admits they are "more willing to take risks in the hope that they might win than to ensure against disaster in fear that they might lose" (p. 115). Meanwhile, Canada, according to Adams, is showing "increasing flexibility, openness, autonomy and fulfillment" (p. 74) and is perhaps "becoming the home of a unique postmodern, postmaterial multiculturalism, generating hardy strains of new hybrids that will enrich this country and many others in the world" (p. 143).

Fire and Ice is a clearly written and carefully researched book. In his introduction the author spells out what he wants to say and in the subsequent six short chapters he does what he said he would do. For the amateur social scientists in us he has included seven appendices (60 pages in length) which provide ample information about the social values methodology that was used to collect and interpret the vast amount of data. In addition, the book has a useful Trend Glossary, a carefully prepared index, several humorous but thought-provoking cartoons from the New Yorker, numerous graphs, and a short bibliography. As far as usability in the classroom is concerned, Fire and Ice is a "must read" for teachers and students who study the Canadian-American relationship because it provides a compellingly different view from the traditional interpretation as to where Canadian and American societies are heading.

In my opinion, Fire and Ice richly deserves to be the winner of the Donner Prize as the best book on Canadian public policy in 2003/04. Perhaps this paragraph - found at the end of chapter four of the book will best sum up Michael Adams' message: "In my nightmares, I may see the American fire melting the Canadian ice and then dream of the waters created by the melting ice drowning the fire, but this will not happen - at least not in our lifetimes. The two cultures will continue side by side, converging their economies, technologies, and now their security and defence policies, but they will continue to diverge in the ways that most people in each country, I believe, will continue to celebrate" (p. 126).

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