…The nature of violence and people’s attitudes about it differ dramatically in our northern neighbor. Canadians kill 1.6 out of every 100,000 people in a year. Americans nearly triple that rate, killing 4.7 out of every 100,000 people in a year. And while Canadians long ago agreed to restrict gun ownership, Americans are far from reaching a similar consensus.
Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, hypothesized that the differences are deeply rooted in culture and history. In the 19th century, he wrote, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police – the Mounties – got to the Canadian Western frontier “before the settlers and spared them from having to cultivate a violent code of honor.”
During the settlement of the American “Wild West,” in contrast, there was no centralized authority. Plunder and feuding were the rule, and settlers often resorted to violence to protect their lives and property. Violent codes of honor, revenge and self-justice were second nature for early settlers and were transmitted from parents and society to children.
Before the settlement of the Canadian West, which I date from 1896 to 1921, the Mounties established a series of forts. That’s where they exercised authority, enforced contracts and protected the property of settlers. Where Mounties were present, self-justice was rare. Canadians on the whole developed a less violent culture.
In recent research, I tested Mr. Pinker’s explanation by focusing on the settlement of the Canadian frontier – modern-day Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Because it is Canada, I also looked at recent N.H.L. players from those areas to see if they carried a cultural baggage of violence to the rink.
To demonstrate the role of the Mounties, I compared settlements that in the late 1890s were near Mountie forts with those that were not. There are no homicide statistics for that period, but the 1911 census reveals male mortality patterns. Settlements far from the Mounties’ reach had more widows than widowers, suggesting unusually high adult male death rates. In fact, remote Canadian settlements during this period looked a lot like those of the Wild West. We do not know for certain why male death rates in these communities were high, but homicide is the prime suspect. After all, men kill other men more often than they kill women.
Even a century later, the violence in these areas continues. In 2014, communities at least 62 miles from former Mountie forts during their settlement had 45 percent more homicides and 55 percent more violent crimes per capita than communities closer to former forts. The distinction holds even when we take into account differences in population size and the level of urbanization. Given that the authority represented by the Mounties long ago expanded into every corner of the Canadian prairies, the persistence of this difference is surprising. Apparently in some remote and lawless areas, the Mounties arrived too late to prevent the development of a culture of violence.
In addition, those who live in areas that historically lay outside the reach of the Mounties are most likely to vote for members of the Conservative Party – the only party in Canada that opposes restricted gun ownership.
So, do present-day Canadians born in these communities inherit a violent code of honor that drives their behavior? Surprisingly, the N.H.L. provides an ideal laboratory in which to examine this question.
Every season, hundreds of Canadians from the prairies play in the league. Hockey is a fast, full-contact sport in which physical violence – boarding, blocking, charging, spearing, crosschecking and sometimes dropping gloves and fighting – is tolerated, if not encouraged. When they break the sport’s rules, players receive penalties, which provide an objective measure of how violently they behave.
I analyzed N.H.L. data from 1980 to 2007 for 737 professional players born in the Canadian prairies. The players share a common environment in the ice rink, but those who were born in areas historically outside the reach of the Mounties were penalized more often – an average of about 1.4 minutes per game – than those who were not – an average of about 1 minute per game. That 0.4 minute difference actually amounts to about 100 additional penalty minutes over a player’s career.
The difference holds when we compare players who skate on the same team and play in the same position, and when we account for differences in experience, age, weight and height. This aggressive impulse probably reflects an internally held violent code of behavior that causes players to instinctively retaliate, act on their impulses and defend their honor.
History shapes the cultural baggage we inherit, and Canadian hockey players carry theirs to the ice rink. They are not alone. A growing body of evidence points to the persistent role of history in shaping culture and contemporary behavior. In Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism thrived in localities that 600 years earlier had suffered pogroms during the Black Death. Africans whose ancestors were raided during the slave trade today often show less trust toward strangers. In the United States, the herders who settled the lawless areas of the West developed a code of honor that persists and helps explain present-day violence.
But we are not doomed to repeat our history. Often, when players gain experience in the league, they respond less to the rules of behavior inherited from their cultural background. As is true of society as a whole, violence is declining in professional hockey, as violent codes of honor give way to empathy and reason.