Sunday, 9 November 2008

A few acres of home

It's an age old topic on this blog: What does it mean to be a Canadian? I've been over it many times before - in a nostalgic list of things I like to do in Toronto, in a short story about taking the bus from Kingston to Ottawa, even in a list of "Shameful Canadians" - the very few Canadians whose nationality I hesitate to bring up in conversation, rather than feel compelled to mention as quickly as possible. But I gained a new kind of perspective on it today by listening to, strangely enough, an episode of the radio show This American Life called "Who's Canadian?"

Now I'm confident that anyone with an interest in the Canadian National Identity (and let's be honest, that could only, at max, be about 32 million of you, which by internet standards is comparatively low) should make the effort to listen to this episode. It traces the Canadian question from the perspective of Americans - who do really see Canadianess as a sort of quirky blandness, exotic in how incredibly unexotic it really is. For example, there is a lengthy debate in the program between Ian Brown, former host of the CBC radio program "Sunday Morning" and Sarah Vowell, (who Janet recently wrote a hilarious blog posting about) where Sarah seems to argue that what Ian sees as major differences between Canadians and Americans are negligible. It was amazing. I could hear Ian becoming defensive at the exact moments that I myself felt defensive. Although he's an incredibly smooth and confident speaker, I could hear the nervousness - that maybe, through sheer Americaness, Vowell might take our shreds of what it means to be Canadian away from us.

For example - when asked what he perceived as a "soundbite" for Canada, he said, "The true North strong and Free" which she laughed at, thinking he was joking, and then he quoted Voltaire's description of Canada, "a few acres of snow." I was incredibly touched by this description, but Sarah Vowell found it a really uninspiring national maxium. "A few acres of snow? That doesn't really make you want to get up and change the world?" She said. But of course I was thinking, well, we're Canadians. We don't change the world. We're defined by the fact that where Americans railed to change it, we sort of waited for them to get on with it and then fell in line. I mean, we didn't have the same problems America had. We didn't have slavery. And every problem we did have - women needing the right to vote, etc, the Americans and the British did us the favour of kind of sorting out for us. Am I saying this is a good thing? No. But maybe it adds to a kind of calmness - a lack of manic (both good and bad) behaviour, and a more subtle, evolutionary way in the Canadian national identity that (even if it's not necessarily positive) is a major difference between the two countries.
But this isn't something I'm necessarily proud of. I don't know. I feel the way you'd expect a Canadian to feel about it. Calm. Accepting. It was amazing to me to hear Sarah Vowell scoff at "A few acres of snow" when I'd been so touched by it - is it the zenlike quality of snow? Just that image of absolute stillness, of expanse, the deprecation in it as well, that just makes me all nostalgic and Canadian feeling?

And then I started thinking about what I do consider Canadian. The things I've written about on this blog as Canadian... and I started to wonder if these things might not be particular to Canada, but particular to me. In America, in England, in France, in Ireland, surely there are vegetarians, there are Indie bands, there are recycling kids wearing used clothes riding around on bicycles, maybe I just hung out with them more in Canada. Maybe I just feel more comfortable with them there, because in Canada I'm on my home turf.

I feel like I'm getting at the truth here and also veering further from it. Okay - this is what I mean to say - what I think of as "Canada" is not, I'll wager, what Stephen Harper, Alanis Morisette, Neil Young, or any number of other Canadians think of Canada. It is not a quintessential Canadianness. What I think of as Canada is linked with what is familiar to me, what I grew up with, it's as individual as I am, it's mine, I own my Canada. I mean, I can. All us Canadians can. It's such a non-descript country, we can all individually define "Canada" and "Canadian" however we want. And yet my own definition feels so inherent, so much a part of me, that it seems an inelluctable truth. Any national identity is like this I guess, but Canada, by the very virtue of being so pliable, so unfixed, is more so. Canada is a make-your-own-national-identity national identity - Which, my gosh, to me seems to be the most inspiring national identity of all. For all of the American talk of Freedom and Justice for All (Great Soundbites, to be sure) what can be more free, more just, more infinitely exciting than to come from a nation where you, you as an individual decide what that means. I don't think I'd exchange it for all the conflicting soundbites in the world.

1 comment:

Daniel said...


Loved your thoughts on beings Canadian. Here's my two pennies.

I think that there are two perspectives on being Canadian, the macro and the micro. People always dwell on the macro, and it's not going to get us anywhere, because America is our neighbor. From that perspective, we are essentially a toned down America. People don't like to admit it much, but we're as American as you get in this world without being American. As you well know I wish we were more American. I think pride and competition get you places, and being unobtrusive and humble leave you a quaint fifth business.

So, on to the micro. What distinguishes us from other peoples? What is singularly ours? I was flying back from London about to land in Toronto after having been away for over three months and what I was struck by were the snow covered fields beneath me. I could palpably experience what it would be like to be walking across one of those fields. To stop and feel the quiet aural texture of snow melting into itself, and to feel your own breath as it rises past your face from the chin you've jammed into your collar. I think everywhere people are inextricably linked with their landscape, but most peoples don't spend as much time in theirs as we do. Almost all of us have a cottage or go to someone else's at least a few times a year. Canadians spend their vacations in their own country. We know our landscape, and a magnificent landscape it is. I think our understanding and collective experience of pine trees and lakes, mountains and oceans, fields and fences, are what it is to be Canadian. That and our ever rewarding relationship with the regal beaver.