(Note: this one kind of rambles, sorry).
I’ve been trying for an hour to come up with something to commemorate Canada Day and talk about where Canadians fit in the world. I can’t seem to do it.
Not because we don’t belong, or I’m too polite to talk about how this is the best country in the world, or anything of the sort. No, it’s because the idea of what it means to be Canadian is…well, it’s ambiguous.
If you pop on the TV you’ll see that “being Canadian” is to love hockey and TSN (even I’ll miss Jay and Dan, and I don’t give a toss about sports). It means that we’re polite travellers with magic passports (well, yeah), and that we all live in one of three places (mountains, praries, or somewhere near water). But that’s the produced idea of Canada, designed to sell us beer, more beer, and vations to British Columbia or Newfoundland.
What are we, really? I wish I knew. Being out in the world it’s almost like we’re expected to act and speak a certain way.
We’re supposed to be polite, and we are, I think. Our habit of saying “sorry” is confusing and often funny to people outside of Canada. One Australian I travelled started to get pretty fed up with my saying “sorry” every time I bumped into someone at the pub, on the street, or even, once, to a lamppost. To be fair, I should have known it was there.
But therein lies another question? What the hell are we so sorry for? I call it the Inherent Canadian Guilt. I haven’t figured out what we’re meant to be guilty of, but it must be bad to have 34 million people trying to atone for it.
On the other hand – and more likely the case – “sorry” is probably along the lines of “eh?” in that it’s an acknowledgment of something having happened. What I mean by that is…hmm, okay. You’ve got two people walking down the street towards each other. One bumps into the other and they both say “sorry.” It’s a mutual acknowledgment that there was a transgression (by the bumper), and that it’s not a problem (the bumpee). If the bumpee replies with nothing, then the bumper may think he’s done more harm, the bumpee is mute, or the bumpee is simply a dick. I still say the greatest slight you could cause to a Canadian is to either not hold a door, or not thank one for holding a door. Few things make me personally angrier than holding a door and having the other party simply sail on through. I hold much power in that door, and it could easily swing shut (though we’d never do that, we’d tihnk about it. And it’d ruin our day.)
I remember I was in Buffalo for whatever reason (fun fact: there is no good reason to ever be in Buffalo). I held the door for this lady and she just stared at me, like I was a potential criminal. She kept eye contact all the way through, as though I’d set a trap inside the vestibule. Americans, man.
Oh, right, “eh.” “Sorry” and “eh?” are alike in that “eh?” is a request of confirmation.
“Pretty warm out, eh?” says one Canadian.
“Oh, for sure.” says the other.
In those two lines you can read a lot. “Pretty warm” could mean over 30 celsius, but we tend to understate things a bit. The “eh?” is there to tell the second guy that the point was made, and “do you agree?”
It can also act as a sort of “I get it, please continue your story,” thing.
“Heard The Hip’s playing out in Kingston this summer!”
Here it’s acting as a “tell me more, as it is relevant to my interests.”
This is very general, and not all of us say it. But it’s funny how travel tends to amplify our Canadianness. Or rather, exposure to other cultures makes you hear your own speaking voice more clearly.
There’s one girl I met, from Ohio. We got along pretty well so she showed me around Dublin and hung out. Chatted about life, the universe, and everything. It was all well and grand. And then I said “about.”
“ABOOT!” she cried.
I insisted I don’t say “aboot.” If anything, it’s more like “aboat.” But like a sniper, she picked off every long vowel I said.
“What about you, though?” I asked. She claimed that she spoke just fine, thank-you-very-much.
“No, no. You say about weird.” It’s like “aBOWt,” wherein “bow” rhymes with cow, but with a bit more of an “A” stuck in there. I’m not a linguist by any stretch of the imagination and I can’t tell you what at diphthong is or does, but I know she’s saying it weird.
I could go on about the arguments we had over pronunciation and spelling (“colour” vs “color,” “centre” vs “center,” etc.) but that’s a dead horse well-beaten.
My point is travel made me hear my voice and I love that our accent(s) are so nuanced. Even town to town here in southern Ontario you can tell differences, minor though they may be.
I think a huge difference with Canadians is that we’re not preoccupied with occupations. Sure, jobs are important, but they don’t tend to dictate who we are. We are not our job, or, we don’t tend to be, anyhow.
One thing I discovered is that if you meet another Canadian you get three questions: “Where’re you from?” “where’ve you been?” “Where’re you going?” (sometimes “where’s a good pub around here?”). Americans ask (typically) “where’re you from?” “What do you do for a living?” and then something else. That’s the American Dream at work, I think – and it doesn’t make them bad! I know I’m generalizing here (clearly), but there’s the emphasis on the job. I know I’m no shining example of the Career Man, but I’m honestly glad I don’t have to introduce myself and state immediately that I’m something that ends with “-er.”
I guess “writer” ends in “-er.” Damn it all to hell.
I don’t have many gripes with my country. Our government system is a bit ineffective (though having more than two parties is a huge thing). But really, since I got to be voting age, nothing has really changed. We’ve seen Parliament change hands a few times and on the ground very little is different.
Our infrastructure is a fiasco. I was able to get through thirteen countries without needing a ride from anyone last year. Here, a car is pretty well mandatory. When I lived with my parents I literally could not leave the town under my own power. It would take me longer to get to the next city over (via wonky transit) than it would for me to cross Ireland from east to west. This is not even mentioning the state of our roads (hello, Gardiner Expressway). But I do understand the Catch-22 here. We haven’t got the population to justify expanded transit across long distances. No population equals no tax income, so I’m pretty well boned if I wanted to live in a small town in this country. Which, fair enough, I guess.
On the other hand, I owe the fact that I can even write this to Canada. When I lost the vision I went to a public hospital, was admitted, seen to, and had surgery. This is how it should be. No mention of “hospital bills” or anything, just care for a human being. I can’t wrap my head around a society who is so self-absorbed that they wouldn’t want to pay a bit more income tax to provide this kind of service. The arrogance involved in sustaining a private heath care system is staggering. The fact of the matter is, if I had the same problem in the States I would be blind right now. I could not have afforded the surgery, nor would I have put my family through the financial burden. I can’t imagine the idea of paying for my vision, because it means that there’s someone who essentially decides whether or not I can have it. That’s, pardon my language, pretty fucked up.
One of my best friends taught English in South Korea for a while. When he returned he told me something that kind of sticks with me, especially whenever I get all moany about wanting to travel again.
“I’ll probably never leave the GTA (Greater Toronto Area) again, permanently,” he said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Think about it. We’re in a country with a reasonably decent economy. We are geographically safe. We’re physically able to withstand a yearly temperatiure swing of about 60 degrees. We have local food, water, and resources. Want Korean food? Go get some Korean food. Want Ethiopian? It’s there. Want Peruvian? It’s probably around. Want to go camping? Drive an hour in any direction. Want a beach? Same thing. We don’t get earthquakes, tsunamis, landslides, wildfires. We’re not a warzone, and unless someone tells the US we have oil, we won’t be. It’s the perfect place, man.”
While this certainly doesn’t apply to the country as a whole, most of it fits across the board. And he’s right, it really is the best.
No matter where I go, what I do, where I live, I will always be Canadian first. I hold a French passport but that doesn’t mean I identify as French. I’m proud to be from this country, part of the Commonweath, proud to have a flag poorly sewn onto my backpack. I’m proud to be a bundle of stereotypes and funny accents and being apologetic. Why the hell would I want to be anything else?