A NATION UNDERESTIMATED © David Watts 01/05/2010

From Cartier’s first description of “the land God gave to Cain,” Canada has been underestimated by outsiders—and often to our advantage.

The land itself was dismissed by Voltaire as “a few acres of snow” and by Palliser who found the lower prairies “desert and uninhabitable.” The resources beneath the surface were overlooked.

Its people have variously been described as polite, apologetic and dull. There used to be some truth here—until the appearance of a series of beer commercials built around the phrase I AM..

Canadians generally allow others to discover them. They are not as assertive, as “in your face” as our southern neighbours whose go-get-her brashness continues to fascinate our British cousins.

This trait can also be seen in four of our prime ministers. Sir John A Macdonald was considered a spent force after the Pacific Scandal. He returned from electoral defeat to serve four more terms and see completion of the National Dream: the railway that had cost him power in 1873.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was also written off when he lost power after one term. He came back in 1926, and again in 1935 after five years out, to become our longest serving Prime Minister and guide us through the Second World War without opening the deep wounds of the First.

Even the charismatic Pierre Trudeau was written off twice: when he lost a majority in 1972, and after he lost power to the Conservatives in ’79. He came back both times with majorities: in 1974 and in 1980 to his most fruitful term where he patriated the Constitution with a Charter of Rights.

Our Underdog Extraordinaire was Jean Chrétien. He served in Trudeau’s shadow, then lost a race for the leadership race to the golden haired John Turner, was written off as “yesterday’s man.”

When he finally came to power, he nearly lost Québec in a referendum. But he came through to secure passage of the Clarity Act, keep Canada out of Iraq, and win over a French President who had formerly supported Québec sovereignty to make him a champion of Canadian unity.

Canada’s trade and resources have also been underestimated by those who depend on them most. Americans consistently think of Japan as their major trading partner and Saudi Arabia as their largest oil supplier. Canada is both.

Finding ourselves down-rated has brought unexpected benefits. Being dismissed as dull has spared us from gatecrashers and hangers-on who are even more boring!

Having our land and climate discounted has spared us from a plague of real estate speculation.

Having our trading status and oil production ignored means we’ve been below the radar of foreign politicians who might otherwise try to take us over.

Having our best leaders written off prematurely means they can regroup and heal for another day when they can offer their gifts to a more grateful public.

Yes, being underestimated is an advantage to Canadians. It enables us to shine in the firmament as the gift We Are.