Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity. (Marshall McLuhan)
Tomorrow Canada will be 150.
And the smarmy clichés about our “inclusivity” and our “kindness” and our “helpfulness” and our social conscience and our diminutive military and our former ‘state’ religions and our vast expanse and our riverveins-and-arteries that flow through that huge land mass to three oceans… will all be on display.
There will be singers and dancers, flags and stories, facebooks and twittersfull of stories about what it means to “me” to be a Canadian. We will celebrate those recent arrivals from places of danger and desperate depravity. We will demonstrate that we are NOT the United States, although for many people around the world, there are only marginal differences between our nation and our southern neighbour.
Yet for Canadians the “what we are not” is as important as the “who we are”. It was Irving Layton who remarked that because we lie between the cold Arctic and the monster America, we overflow with poetry, as a deep and heart-felt expression of profound emotion and creativity. Writers by the score have poured their thoughts and feelings about the country, without ever really “nailing it”…and that is one of the most important things about Canada for me.
It is in the mystery and in the ambiguity, it is in the tensions and the divisions, the differences and the normalizing of “all of that” that somehow we keep on keeping on. We are in the “middle” of the developed nations of the world, and so cannot afford or tolerate national news casts that keep their focus exclusively on our national navel. We simply have no choice but to look around the world, for stories with which to compare and to evaluate and to emulate and to discard our national options. We are almost never “first” with cutting edge social policy, nor are we at the back of the line in implementing change. Yet we do it in a uniquely Canadian way..
In fact, it can be argued that it is our “way” of doing things that best captures whatever it is that might approximate our identity. While the media likes to break their coverage into “files” of policy, events, personalities, or even “debates” (and for their purposes perhaps that approach bespeaks a deep vein of formal training and practice in disciplined journalism. However, it is the manner in which they pursue and present those stories that helps us discern a mystical manner…..not so much in the “content” of those stories. The content is about the usual “man bites dog” inversion of the expected. However, it is the civility, respect and decorum for both the sources and the subjects of the story, even if the story has repulsive aspects, that Canadians have come to expect. And we rarely have the kind of high-school vulgarity, immaturity or ad hominum attacks that have become the norm in Washington.
More about how we see ourselves: through our marching band of comedians who take every opportunity to poke fun, to ridicule and to enlighten, without spilling the blood of their targets. Ron James, Red Green, Rick Mercer, Mark Critch, Cathy Jones, Shaun Majumber, Susan Kent…and before them the cast of Air Farce. We can and do laugh at ourselves, our political leaders and our deeply embedded inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and every instance of our “overblown” sense of importance.
Here is a random pot-pourrio of quotes about the country:
Margaret Atwood: If the national mental illness of the United States is megalomania, that of Canada is paranoid schizophrenia.
Mordechai Richler: Coming from Canada, being a writer and Jewish as well, I have impeccable paranoia credentials.
Northrop Frye: Americans like to make money; Canadians like to audit it. I know no country where accountants have a higher social and moral status.
Dave Broadfoot: Canada is a collection of provinces with strong governments loosely connected by fear.
Leonard Cohen: I want history to jump on Canada’s spine with sharp skates.
Margaret Mead: Britons put up with, Americans fix, Canadians cope.
John Ralston Saul: Canada is either an idea or it does not exist. It is either an intellectual undertaking or it is little more than a resource-rich vacuum lying in the buffer zone just north of a great empire.
Edgar Friedenberg: Canadians are more polite when they are being rude than Americans are when they are being friendly.
Jack Granetstein: Canadians were the first anti-Americans, and the best. Canadian anti-Americanism, just as the country’s French-English duality, has for two centuries been the central buttress of our national identity.
Polite, self-effacing, easily snowed, civil, born of British and French parents, yet indigenous peoples were here first (we are finally belatedly coming to recognize and acknowledge)….yet somehow, we seem to “muddle through” (Arthur Lower, Canadian historian)
It is impossible not to notice the forest of Canadian flags that have sprouted on homes, office buildings, ferries, stores, main streets and everywhere you look. And this flurry of red maple leaves is a stark contrast with the national birthdays of our past, when English Canada barely mentioned a national birthday. (Quebec, on the other hand, has celebrated St. Jean Baptiste Day, as a celebration of the French language and culture that underpins the province’s culture.)
The country has also spawned an army of writers, poets, playwrights, movie directors, producer and writers, and still struggles with whether or not to continue to fund the national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Having worked in the United States, and having returned, I have been deemed “too eastern (read New England preppy) on the western side of the Continental Divide in the U.S. and in Canada, I have been classed as too American. Married to a native American who has taken out Canadian citizenship, I am now mistaken for an American while she is presumed to be a native Canadian. People will always and everywhere project their best and worst pictures onto us, depending on how we “strike” their memory and perception bank.
Introducing my wife to her newly-adopted homeland has been one of the more challenging and exciting adventures of my life, because she has taken to Canada like a tadpole to the spring lake waters. It is the blue lakes, rivers, and oceans that literally cover the map of Canada, when they are right in front of you, that offer a glimpse of our affinity to this age-old life-source, and the eagerness of Canadians to build our towns, cities and homes as near to water as we can afford.
Having survived two referenda over whether Quebec would leave the federation, and watched the federal government defer to the provincial premiers and their governments, we have left a considerable vacuum in our national capital, Ottawa, and grown very independent provincial daughters/sisters or foster children. We celebrate our history, our hockey prowess, our talent for documentary film-making, and our bickering over the federal government’s spending too much money on purchases from foreign lands, to support the birthday celebrations.
We also hold the Prime Minister accountable for having spent his winter vacation at the Caribbean home of the Aga Khan, as a possible conflict of interest. And we cover our newspapers and television newscasts with stories about whether Senators living in Ottawa while claiming living expenses on homes in distant provinces are abusing the national purse.
Petty, fastidious, book-keeping, anal and self-sabotaging..we are a country that a former Defence Minister trashed for “very poor management skills” and his insight is no more on display than in the convoluted, complex and confounded process(es) that are deployed in the purchase of military ships, planes and materiel. It almost seems as if our convoluted double or triple layers of oversight preclude actually getting the purchase completed. Alternatively, we buy mothballed submarines from Great Britain, and then have to spend a ‘mint’ to retrofit them into semi-sea-readiness.
Sometimes, we are, in a word, hopeless…and yet we continue to muddle through.
And I am proud to be a native Canadian!