Wednesday, July 01, 2009

O, Canada: A Collection of Hymns by Ex-Pats

I appreciate that the New York Times was even cognizant of Canada Day. In fact, their little collection of testimonies from Canadian emigrants reads like a hymnal that proves absence makes the heart grow fonder. I suppose this is the experience of most emigrants, particularly Canadians, for whom "Canada" doesn't really appear as a definable entity until one has left. But with distance and the cultural contrast, aspects of Canadian culture come into focus. I suppose only a fish out of water begins to reflect on the nature of water.

In response to the query, "What do you miss about Canada?," an array of authors, actors, and comedians weigh in. Sean Cullen's pining is succinct: "Back home, hockey highlights lead off SportsCenter. That is the height of civilization."

Malcolm Gladwell doesn't miss taking a shot at his host country (a favorite pastime for Canadian ex-pats):
In history class, in seventh grade (or as we like to say in Canada, grade seven) we learned the story of the American Revolution — from the British perspective. Turns out you were all a bunch of ungrateful tax cheats. And you weren’t very nice to the Loyalists. What I miss most about Canada is getting the truth about the United States.
Sarah McNally laments the disappearance of a distinctly Canadian literature while Bruce McCall pens an encomium to Coffee Crisp candy bars (sorry, "chocolate bars" in Canadian-ese). But it is perhaps Rick Moranis, of Second City and "Strange Brew" fame, who most lyrically captures some of my own memories (minus the prairie wind):
I remember singing “God Save the Queen” every morning in school. “Long live our noble Queen!” we belted, thousands of us tubby little obedient Canadians. I guess it worked. She’s still alive. Now they sing “O Canada” in schools and at most sporting events; usually in French and English. Around the time we were changing anthems, dumping ensigns and renaming holidays, the official use of both languages became mandatory, except in Quebec where the required use of English is a bit fuzzy.

Canada Day comes and goes modestly every year. Sure, there are retail sales promotions and a long weekend. But there isn’t bluster or commodity in Canadian celebration. Canada isn’t big on bunting. Or jet flyovers, fireworks, marching bands or military pomp.

Canadians defer. We save our loonies and don’t jaywalk. It’s illegal, eh. We stand on guard at red lights, even when there is no traffic. We wait for clear, green governing lights to signal our turn and lead us on. Then we tuck our heads down, under wooly toques and worn-out scarves, one eye barely open, squinting headlong into the harsh prairie wind, cautiously, quietly, demurely Canadian.
I was in Canada last weekend and was struck by how much it had become foreign to me--enough that I could see it as "other." The accents and lilts of Canadian diction are so noticeable now, and it seems to me that there is a Canadian "look" that is discernable. My kids can pick Canadians out of a crowd. Of course "Canada" shouldn't be confused with or reduced to the rural, small-town sectors that we inhabit when we return to Ontario. And while there is much to praise in its best moments--a charming humility ["Sorry"]; Alice Munro; socialized medicine (despite the horror stories Americans want to hear, universal healthcare is still a good thing--just ask the rest of the civilized world)--Canada has its dirty little secrets, too: its submerged racism that can perversely pride itself on never having had slavery as an institution; its bland cultural offerings which have always seemed parasitic on other national cultures; its ressentiment vis-a-vis the States, all the while eagerly assimilating and appropriating the trinkets of American 'culture;' the vengefulness bred into young men by hockey; the disempowerment of the delapidated First Nations territories that dot the land; the militarism of both our anthem and our history; Kim Cattral. I could go on.

It's an easy sport for Canadian ex-pats to idolize their homeland--and demonize their host country. I'm not about to quit either, but I've got just enough distance to see what I'm doing--and to recognize it as quintessentially Canadian.