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Why Canada isn’t American: “how disease can alter history”

November 22nd, 2004 · 2 Comments

Saturday morning, while researching the Spanish smallpox vaccination program after our trip to the Seattle Art Museum exhibit, I found an educational site (from a distance learning program in Medical Laboratory Technology) that described how the disease changed national boundaries( bold emphasis mine).

Evidently smallpox again was used as a biowarfare weapon in 1775-76. The Continental Army had taken Montreal and was about to conquer Quebec City when the British fort commander reportedly had people variolated and sent them to mingle with the Continental troops. In two weeks a smallpox epidemic spread through the troops and their numbers were so reduced they were unable to take Quebec from the English, leading Thomas Jefferson to lament that were it not for the epidemic Canada might be part of the U.S. General Washington, who had survived smallpox when he was 19, said smallpox was his “most dangerous enemy.” He learned his lesson from the Quebec defeat and had his Revolutionary War soldiers variolated.

Reading through a variety of sites found via search engine, I discovered that it is a matter of debate whether or not the smallpox epidemic in Quebec was intentionally started by the British among American troops. It has been alleged that smallpox was also used as a weapon.

But the end result is not a debate. Canada is not American.

In the fall of 2000, The McGill News published an essay written by Dr. A. Mark Clarfield, staff-physician at a McGill-affiliated hospital, titled Defeated by Disease: Why Canada isn’t American.

What I hadn’t realized, at least until I came across a fascinating article published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, was that if it hadn’t been for smallpox, we would most likely today be in the midst of a presidential election, enjoying a strong dollar and living with the National Rifle Association.

Clarfield’s version of the story had the American troops infecting themselves and the city with smallpox. He explained that British and Canadian soliders had higher natural immunity and the British Army also inoculated its recruits while the American militia, at that time, did not.

It seems clear that smallpox (and in particular the difference in the British and American armies’ views on vaccination) in the end decided Canada’s fate. Without the outbreak of this particular epidemic and its totally enfeebling effect on the colonial army at exactly the right time and right place, the greater part of Canada — if not all of it — might well now be in American hands.

The story is one more example of how disease can — and sometimes does — alter history. wrote Clarfield.

To think that if the American troops had not succumbed to smallpox in 1776, Canada might be American. This thought seems particularly poignant given other thoughts (and maps) I have seen posted since November 2.

Then I read Dave Winer’s blog, where he reported on his trip to Vancouver Friday night, hanging out across the border with fellow bloggers and Jay McCarthy fans. In light of what I had just learned about history, Dave’s tutoring in the language and currency of Canada seemed a result of strange fate. If not for smallpox in 1775, perhaps we would share the same language and currency as our northern neighbors.

Ah, but if Canada had become American, then the Jay McCarthy fan club would not be international…:-)


picture by Michaela

Bonus: speaking of diseases…get close and cuddle Giant Microbes (via jozjozjoz) including ebola and streptococcus but no smallpox one….

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2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 joann // Nov 22, 2004 at 8:29 pm

    How can I resist this post and not comment? 😀

    Actually, in my younger days, there was talk of just the Province of BC, perhaps Alberta, too, ditching the rest of Canada and joining USA. We’d figure it’ll save the often long wait at the border and would be quicker to get to Bellis Fair Mall. AND there’d be no Custom Duty to pay on the way back. LOL

    Good post Julie. History always has alot to say, all the “if only” or “what if”…

  • 2 Shawn Smith // Nov 22, 2004 at 10:29 pm

    Nice post, I didn’t even know this about my own countries history. Don’t listen to that “other” canadian who is posting comments. Canadians don’t want to be American, everyone knows that 🙂

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