Canada: A Refuge & Shining City on a Hill for American Losers

During the lead up to the presidential election in November 2004, some of my Democratic peers in Anchorage claimed that they would emigrate to Canada if George W. Bush won re-election. Of course, since we were only high school students at the time, none of them made good on these musings after Bush did indeed win a second. In November 2004, CBC News corroborated the idle talk that I heard and distinctly recall from that era and reported that the Government of Canada’s immigration website received its most dense traffic up to that point, with most of the hits coming from the United States.[1] Democrats similarly began rumbling about emigrating to Canada in 2016 after Donald J. Trump became the Republican nominee, and the threats reached a fever pitch after his unexpected victory in November 2016.

There seems to be something quintessentially American about this motif. I cannot recall a single instance over the last fourteen years, when I returned to Canada from my five-year stint in the United States, where I’ve heard a Canadian threaten to move to another country because the Conservatives formed government in 2006, or because the Conservatives won a parliamentary majority in 2011, or because the Liberals then went on to win a majority in 2015, and so on. Never have I heard a Canadian utter such preening, self-defeating, narcissistic rubbish. Of course, many Canadians are often disappointed with the results of an election, but we would also usually respond simply by casting a ballot or campaigning harder for our preferred party – something which emigration, by definition, would deprive one of the opportunity to do. For instance, if an American emigrated and severed his connection with the United States in 2004 or early 2005 because George Bush won a second term, then he would not have been able to participate in the civic life of his republic and work to elect Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination and, eventually, the presidency, in 2007-2008.

Even some Americans have noticed this pattern. Daniel Lametti for Slate asked, “Do Canadians Ever Threaten to Move to the U.S.?” He concludes, “Not really. They just move here.”[2] Americans also bandy about this sentiment with such casual abandon that American journalists joke about it. As if threatening to abandon your entire live, livelihood, family, community, and roots were an entirely normal and proportional response to losing an election, Matt Loffman of PBS wrote: “You’ve probably heard one of your friends say it. ‘If so-and-so wins the presidential election, I’m moving to Canada.’ Well, your friend is not alone.”[3] Last July, I become embroiled in such a conversation on social media with some American acquaintances, the very types who would have blithely mused in 2004 about emigrating because of Bush’s re-election, who said that they ought to move to Canada because they dislike Trump. I pointed out that they do not possess an automatic right of abode in Canada and cannot simply drive up the border in a moving truck and demand entry. They would have to follow a stringent process in a country that generally takes its immigration policy and border controls seriously, perhaps more seriously than does the United States. They didn’t understand. The absurdity of that exchange also struck me vicariously like what I had witnessed and heard in 2004 struck me directly.

But I think that I’ve now figured it out and now share my findings. At first glance, these left-wing aspiring American exiles demonstrate a profoundly self-centered and presumptuous arrogance in believing that they somehow possess unfettered and automatic right of abode in Canada, when in fact most Americans and Canadians, with the exception of some indigenous peoples, lost a right of abode and travel and work between the two countries because the War of 1812 effectively abrogated the Jay Treaty of 1794.[4] But I had taken everything too literally in response to something fundamentally abstract on their part. These Americans are not thinking in some practical terms at all. They don’t think of Canada as a physical place per se (though they must know that it is); instead, they think of Canada as an idea. When Democrats nursing bitter electoral defeat threaten to “move to Canada” because they do not like the results of a presidential election – and it’s only ever presidential elections which prompt this response, never congressional elections – they’re acting more like refugees or exiles than emigrants. Since the 1780s, Americans who have lost political battles have treated Canada as something akin to the Shining City on a Hill in an alternate universe – a refugee for political exiles and a beacon of freedom and opportunity to the American loser.

Ironically, these left-wing types who idealize Canada share this general obtuse mindset of seeing real, physical places as abstract entities with pre-Trump Reaganite and Bushite Republicans who gorged themselves on a high-fat diet of American exceptionalism; members of this latter group also often say, apparently in all seriousness, “America is an idea, not a place” – even though the United States of America is, in fact, a place and occupies physical space.[5] They believe that only by taking civic nationalism to its most obtuse extreme can they combat a pernicious ethnic nationalism. They thus turn an admirable goal into something laughable. As historian Hereward Senior explained, this belief stems from a revolutionary ideology which conflates the founding of the United States as a polity under the United States Constitution of 1787 (or, retroactively to 1776) with the founding of the society of British America in the 1610s:

The Americans themselves have always confused the origin of their society within the origin of the republic. American history did not begin in 1776, and Washington is the father of the United States government rather than the father of his country. […] Before the revolution, there was a more inclusive American society which extended to Nova Scotia and Quebec. The revolution divided American society into two political systems and, evolution toward democracy, which was well underway before the revolution, continued on both sides of the frontier.[6]

Both American winners and American losers think in these stark ideological terms. These Democrats, consumed by and obsessed with politics, who seek a self-imposed exile in Canada, believe that their republic in the United States cannot accommodate their contrary political views, or that they cannot live and function freely within it when they disagree with any given president. They see a temporary setback as a permanent defeat. Even when I first encountered this attitude at age 16 in Alaska, I found it overwhelmingly bizarre, but, in a way, these Democratic exiles are merely following on in a tradition which began in the 1780s where losing political factions within the United States have to leave the country rather than risk disrupting the ideological homogeneity of Americanism as a revolutionary ideology. They see Canada as a refuge for American losers because, Canada truly is, in some respects, a land of and for losers. Senior writes: “Together the French-Canadians and the United Empire Loyalists – the losing peoples of the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution, respectively – founded Canada.”[7] Some 80,000 Loyalists, so-called because they remained loyal to George III and representative government within the British Empire during the 1770s and 1780s, fled the Thirteen Colonies and emigrated to what are now Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.[8] This initial exodus from the Thirteen Colonies established a pattern whereby political rifts and divisions in the United States become self-reinforcing through a process of self-selection: dissenters simply emigrate and thereby bring the republic closer to homogeneity by leaving it.

For some Americans, British North America served as a far more literal and visceral beacon of freedom. At the urging of Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe, a committed abolitionist, the Province of Upper Canada passed the Act Against Slavery in 1793 (the 2nd session of its 1st parliament); while it did not abolish slavery outright, it banned the slave trade and ensured that slavery died out in what is now Ontario by the War of 1812. The Imperial Parliament finally fulfilled William Wilberforce’s vision and banned slavery outright throughout the British Empire in 1833. From the 1830s to the 1860s especially, thousands of enslaved black Americans escaped along the Underground Railroad into Canada. This migration ramped up especially after the US Congress enacted the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 and denied the Northern free states the right to let such laws go unenforced and to allow former slaves who escaped bondage in the South to live freely in the North.[9] (Incidentally, this statute law punches another hole in the Lost Causers’ mythology about the Civil War as stemming from “states’ rights”, given that the South freely trampled upon the rights of Northern states to grant amnesty to and free fugitive slaves). The triviality and low stakes of the complaints of affluent Democrats whose preferred candidate lost a presidential election in 2004 and 2016 becomes so obvious and so obviously petty by comparison.

Canadians often move to the United States for economic reasons – but they do so quietly and without fanfare.[10] They don’t make spectacles of themselves within Canada before emigrating; they simply leave and move to the United States in order to make more money. Indeed, boasting about such intentions would invite ridicule and accusations of betrayal for contributing to the “Brain Drain,” an issue all the vogue in the 1990s. In contrast, the Americans tend to flee to Canada for political reasons.

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[1] CBC News, “Disenchanted Americans Flood Immigration Website,” 4 November 2004.

[2] Daniel Lametti, “Do Canadians Ever Threaten to Move to the U.S.” Slate, 28 June 2012.

[3] Matt Loffman, “You Want to Move to Canada, Eh?” PBS: Washington Week, 2 March 2016.

[4] Department of State, U.S. Embassy and Consulates in Canada, “Entering the U.S.: First Nations and Native Americans,” accessed 26 June 2020.

[5] J.P. Zmirak, “America the Abstraction,” The American Conservative, 13 January 2003.

[6] Hereward Senior, “The Loyalist Fact,” in In Defence of Monarchy: Articles, Columns and Reviews for Monarchy Canada, 1975-2002, edited by Arthur Bousfield, 3-8 (Toronto: Fealty Enterprises, 2009), 4. Hereward Senior himself followed this pattern; born and raised in Brooklyn, he enlisted in the Canadian Army after D-Day and settled in Montreal after the Second World War.

[7] Hereward Senior, “The Partnership That Created Canada: The Place of the Loyalists and French-Canadians in North American History,” in In Defence of Monarchy: Articles, Columns and Reviews for Monarchy Canada, 1975-2002, edited by Arthur Bousfield, 93-101 (Toronto: Fealty Enterprises, 2009), 93.

[8] Hereward Senior, “The Partnership That Created Canada: The Place of the Loyalists and French-Canadians in North American History,” in In Defence of Monarchy: Articles, Columns and Reviews for Monarchy Canada, 1975-2002, edited by Arthur Bousfield, 93-101 (Toronto: Fealty Enterprises, 2009), 98.

[9] Natasha L. Henry, “The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 10 February 2015.

[10] Statistics Canada, “Emigration from Canada to the United States from 2000 to 2006,” 23 April 2016.


About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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2 Responses to Canada: A Refuge & Shining City on a Hill for American Losers

  1. Vicken says:

    Should be “in the same way…”


  2. Vicken says:

    Any indication whether Republicans mused in the same when their person lost ?


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