The Agony of Being Canadian

It’s Not Easy Being Misunderstood By You Americans Down South

My hometown of Vancouver is just 25 miles from the Peace Arch, the crisp white monument on the border that marks the strength and endurance of Canadian-American relations. One of its inscriptions reads, “Children of a common mother.” It’s a poetic way of describing the juvenile sibling rivalry that, as a Canadian expat who also happens to be an American citizen, I have witnessed most of my life, with amusement or (on bad days) exasperation.

When I first moved to the United States, I didn’t expect to stay for as long as I did (a common refrain, I know). I had traveled throughout the U.S. extensively and had come to love the country’s diverse geography as well as the frankness and openness of its people well before moving to Washington from Vancouver in 2006 for a stint as an unpaid journalism intern.

The recession foreclosed the possibility of an office job for a time, but I stuck around D.C. regardless, waiting tables as I weathered the storm, because it was refreshing to live in the vortex of national politics and current affairs—even if the politics weren’t my own. And, being from Canada is a bonus in the United States because most people automatically assume you are nice, honest, and polite, and treat you accordingly. The 2011 Vancouver riots after the Canucks’ loss in the Stanley Cup Finals did only minor and temporary damage to that reputation.

Of course some mocking goes with the territory when people assume you are an unassuming Canadian. There’s the supposedly funny lilt in my accent and the bizarre accusations about our army: They think we either don’t have one or that we’re protected by an “army of beavers.” (The latter is clever because many people don’t know that the beaver is in fact our national animal.) Very often people start to bellow “O Canada!” but stop there because those are the only words they know. Also, I hear lots of mentions of maple syrup, which is like liquid gold to Canucks. I suppose it’s similar to bringing up actual gold to a Tea Partier who doesn’t believe in a national currency.

That said, I know I’m simply one of many Canadians who have resettled in the States. Canadians living south of the border are very good at playing the “Who’s the Canadian?” game. This mainly entails proudly yelling, “He/She is Canadian!” when one of our own is assumed to be American, with the exception of Justin Bieber, whom no one wants to claim. But that Ryan Gosling, he’s ours.

I recently eavesdropped on the D.C. Metro as a fellow Canadian complained to her friends about being robbed of her national identity. At a house party, the 20-something said she had been stuck in a conversation with a guy who kept insisting that Canada was just like America, claiming that the countries celebrate the same national holidays. In a way we do celebrate together, but for different reasons. In May, for example, American Memorial Day loosely coincides with Victoria Day in Canada, a holiday to honor Queen Victoria, who is considered the “Mother of the Confederation.” But, in my experience, both usually also coincide with camping and drinking beer.

As children of a common mother, our two nations’ cultures are indeed very similar, especially when compared with the rest of the hemisphere, but there are differences that take some adjusting to for expats. For example, it took me a little while to learn the socially conventional response to the question, “How ya doin’?” In Canada, it would be “I am fine, thanks. How are you?” But if you try that in Washington, the other person is already down the block and can’t hear you anyway.

But other than minor differences in social conventions, Canadians in America blend in like camouflaged moose hunters in a boreal forest. So much so that we often feel pressed to prove a national identity. This is unfair but understandable given that Canadians don’t share Americans’ compulsion to turn patriotism into a shouting match, and to believe that no other country can fly its flag quite as high. It also doesn’t help that Canadians share the same area code system, field teams in the same baseball and hockey leagues, and tend to settle near the 49th parallel, making it seem like we are slowly inching toward pledging our allegiance to the Stars and Stripes. Some estimates claim that 90 percent of Canada’s population lives within 100 miles of the border.

As Canadian comedian Mike Myers (yes, Austin Powers is Canadian!) put it: “Canada is the essence of not being. Not English, not American, it is the mathematic of not being.” (Myers based his Saturday Night Live street-hockey-playing, mullet-haired character “Wayne” on people he knew growing up in Canada, so there’s something for us to honor and celebrate.)

While I was studying in the United States, my professor of Chinese history once said, “There is no George Washington in China.” That really struck with me, epitomizing how when we are not fearing the other, we tend to look for the familiar in the unfamiliar. As North Americans, we have a shared history, but there remains a divide in historical milestones and attachments that sometimes is neglected.

While American schoolchildren were learning about the Civil War, Canadians were learning about the trial of Louis Riel, a Métis Canadian who rebelled against the Canadian government to secure the rights of aboriginal Canadians in the 1800s. To Americans, celebrating World War II means V-Day and the liberation, but Canadians also honor lesser-known victories such as the Battle of Vimy Ridge. When the United States marched troops into Vietnam, fabled Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau politely said thank you, but we’ll pass on that one. Meanwhile, he had a small revolution to deal with on his own soil, the “Quiet Revolution,” during which Québécois separatists kidnapped and assassinated a provincial minister.

Don’t get me wrong: Canadians have knowledge gaps of their own. I once tried explaining the U.S. Civil War to a Canadian visitor. The ongoing reenactments of Confederate soldiers’ battles were particularly confounding. “Aren’t they embarrassed?” she asked. “I mean, they lost.”

Our history and our national heroes feed our own brand of patriotism. The Americans I’ve met know about “The Great One,” Canada’s Wayne Gretzky. But very few Americans have heard of amateur athlete Terry Fox, who is remembered in statues and monuments across Canada. Fox attempted a cross-country run to raise money for cancer, running the equivalent of 26 miles a day on one leg for over 100 consecutive days before losing his battle with bone cancer at age 22. Probably fewer still have heard of revered environmental advocate David Suzuki, who has hosted a show on the CBC called The Nature of Things since 1979. He is sort of like Canada’s version of Al Gore, but without the PowerPoint. And just a handful have heard of Dr. Peter Jepson-Young, a medical doctor who contracted HIV/AIDS and bravely chronicled the disease’s effects for a very personal documentary series broadcast nationally in the early 1990s.

It would be refreshing to talk about one of these Canadian stories instead of rehashing the usual clichéd reactions to my slightly foreign origins. We are such good neighbors—or, as another Peace Arch inscription reads, “Brethren dwelling together in unity”—but we could do better to understand each other. Personally, as a dual citizen and torn patriot of two countries, the most significant inscription on the arch is “May these gates never close.”

In the meantime, if you’re tempted to call Canada “America’s Hat,” just remember that we think of you as “Canada’s Shorts.”


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