Oh, Canada: Myths and Facts about our Northern Neighbors
By Katharine Dunn, Dean's Editorial Fellow
The 21st winter Olympics started February 12 in and around Vancouver, British Columbia, a stunning Canadian city surrounded by water and mountains. The Olympics, as always, promise come-from-behind wins, spectacular triumphs and heartbreaks, and broken records. But what else can the world’s best athletes and their fans expect from their fortnight in Canada? You may know Canadians as purveyors of sardonic, satirical humor; hockey legends; Celine Dion; universal gay marriage; high taxes; cheap higher education (thank you, high taxes); and peace. But who are Canadians, really? In this issue, we delve into Canadian identity through the eyes of a couple of Canadians in GSLIS, and on page 3 we explore some of the differences between libraries and librarians in the two countries.
On my wall hangs a framed cartoon from the New Yorker in which a man and woman sit across from each other in a bar, with cocktails on a small table between them. The man rests one hand on his companion’s, points to her with the other, and says, “You seem familiar yet somehow strange — are you by any chance Canadian?” The cartoon, which ran in the magazine early in the last decade, made me laugh out loud when I first read it. As a native Nova Scotian living in Boston, I was gleeful to see my countrymen singled out by my favorite publication. But the reason I clipped it and placed it in a matted frame was that the cartoon, so deceptively simple, illustrates larger
truths about us Canadians.
On the one hand, we seem familiar to Americans because we are in many ways indistinguishable. We look like them; we dress like them, often in American brands; and we (English Canadians) talk much like them. How I’ve longed for a plummy accent like that of our British brethren across the pond! Then we in Canada might be seen as exotic, übercharming, or enviable. As it is, we sometimes say “out” like “oat” and punctuate statements (not just questions) with “eh.” For this we are laughed and poked at (by the TV show “South Park,” among others), as a teenager and his friends might do to a skinny, younger sibling. That we could be mistaken for Americans may explain why many of us resort to calling out the Canadians we see on television and in movies. I am a well known perpetrator of this. When a Canadian actor, no matter the size of his role, appears on screen in an American production, I feel pride combined with a nervous hope that he will hold his own with the Yankees around him. In a stage whisper I will say, “That’s Callum Rennie. He’s Canadian, you know.” It is annoying, but I just can’t help myself.
On the other hand, as the cartoon points out, we Canadians are strange, and we are different. Many of us, particularly those on leave from Canada, feel proud and protective of our differences even if Americans and others can’t see them — perhaps especially because they can’t see them. But what are those differences? The cartoon implies they aren’t really worth exploring. (The man says “strange,” after all, not “intriguing.”) And really, why should Americans care? If I may grossly generalize for a moment: Americans’ Americanness — their love of “freedom,” their success in so many fields, their confidence bordering on arrogance, their steely view that they live in the best country in the world, as though it’s a competition — means they sometimes wear blinders when it comes to other countries. From a Canadian perspective, when Americans peer across our shared border they see either versions of themselves or jokes to be made.
Like all countries, Canada is far from uniform. Its size alone precludes this. Canada is the second-largest country in the world in terms of land mass, with a population one-tenth that of the United States. This leaves a lot of room per capita to fill with mythologizing about each other, for better or worse. So in lovely Vancouver you might, as I have, meet people who believe the inhabitants of small-but-cosmopolitan Halifax, Nova Scotia, dwell in cramped fishing shacks along the harbor. (We do not.) When west coasters speak of life “back east,” they mean Ontario (in the middle) and are quite happy to pretend that Quebec and the four less-wealthy Atlantic provinces don’t exist. In Nova Scotia, you’ll find moderate to heavy disdain for the nation’s consumerist capital, Toronto, whose residents, the myth goes, think they’re the center of more than just the country. (Since actually spending time in Toronto, I’ve been pleasantly surprised to discover that the city is more progressive and diverse than almost anywhere else I’ve been.) Alberta is known as the Texas of Canada, filled with cowboys, oilmen, and right-wingers. And Quebec — well, Quebec’s story is all too real. The province has tried twice in my lifetime to break up with us and become its own sovereign nation.
Canada is simply too big for most of us to know it well from sea to sea. I recently asked GSLIS professor Candy Schwartz, a Canadian from Montreal, whether she sought out library faculty jobs in Halifax, two provinces over, the year she applied to Simmons. “Halifax was the Maritimes,” she said. “I’d never been there.”
Lest you think we are a nation of curmudgeons, let me share some of the Canadian traits, true and exaggerated, that we feel proud of. Though most of us live in cities, Canadians have deep and emotional ties to the country’s vast, open space: its mountains, plains, lakes, and trees. We tend to treat our surroundings well; Halifax, for example, has had curbside compost pickup for more than a decade. We prefer keeping peace to waging war, and we love to tout the fact that there is no right to bear arms on Canadian soil. Canada officially values diversity. In 1988, our parliament passed the world’s first multiculturalism law that protects and promotes different ethnicities, religions, and languages. At the same time, Canada continually fights to keep from sinking beneath America’s hegemony. One way the government does this is by requiring radio and television broadcasters to air a minimum amount of “Cancon,” or Canadian content programming, an act I applaud but one that showcases our insecurity. As the government agency responsible for broadcasting has written, “We need to remind ourselves that we are a unique people and a unique country.”
Schwartz, who has lived in Boston since 1980, cites Canadians’ core belief in sharing the wealth as a major difference between the United States and Canada and one of the reasons she plans to retire up north. “I don’t like to bite the hand that feeds me, but it’s very important to maintain my Canadian citizenship,” she says, in part because of Canada’s social welfare system. Though not without its problems, it puts such things as healthcare and education under government care rather than subject to market whims. This means Canadians get year-long maternity leaves, basic healthcare coverage no matter their employment status, and subsidized university education that costs students about 20 percent the tuition rates of private U.S. colleges like Simmons.
But the Canadian government is far from perfect: Our prime minister recently shut down parliament for the second time in a year; in January, about 27,000 people turned out in cities across the country to protest the government’s “abuse of power” with signs that read things like “democracy is dead.”
Still, Canada has a lot going for it. So why leave? In Schwartz’s case, it was relatively straightforward: She wanted a job on the east coast within close range of Montreal, and she liked that Boston is a walkable city with reliable public transportation. (She doesn’t drive.) In moving south, Schwartz has found a lot of friends, comparatively cheap clothes and flights to Europe, and more opportunities for innovation. She is happy here. But she is Canadian, and her national pride comes out in small but important-to-her ways. She has stitched a maple leaf to her backpack (something every good Canadian does). And in 30 years of living in the States, she has refused to relinquish Canadian spelling like “colour,” and “centre.” “That’s one thing I can do that retains my Canadianness,” she says.
As for me, the reasons I moved here are perhaps more complicated, which is to say that I haven’t quite figured them out. It has something to do with suffocating in my (small-but-cosmopolitan) hometown, and with wanting to see first-hand inside the country whose culture and politics infiltrated the first two decades of my life in Nova Scotia. In 2007, after nearly 10 years in the United States, I became a citizen. I miss Canada, but I (probably) plan on staying here. Besides, mythologizing my home and native land is more fun when I’m not living in it.
Links Mentioned in this article:
multiculturalism law: http://www.parl.gc.ca/information/library/PRBpubs/936-e.htm
Canadian content: http://www.crtc.gc.ca/eng/cancon.htm