July 1st is Canada Day, and tomorrow my homeland will celebrate its 144th birthday. There’s a huge party going on at City Hall, a 10-minute walk away, but I won’t be going — introvert that I am, I can’t stand crowds. We’ll celebrate quietly at home, with a barbecue for our extended families and a red-and-white cake to finish off the feast. When it gets dark we’ll enjoy the fireworks (and feed the mosquitoes) from our back yard.
I’ve been Canadian for most of my life, but like many of my compatriots, I haven’t always been able to articulate exactly what that means. One of the best (and briefest) explorations of Canadian culture I’ve seen in recent years came from a most unlikely source: a television commercial for Molson Canadian beer that aired in 2000. Titled The Rant, it struck a chord with Canadians because it addressed a number of popular misconceptions and stereotypes about Canada and its citizens. Plus, it made us laugh.
One of the criticisms of the ad was its tendency to define “Canadian” as “not American.” It’s true that Canadians seem to suffer from a collective identity crisis; our proximity to the United States, the close trade partnership between the two countries, and the fact that we’re inundated with American media products make Canadians somewhat defensive about our need to differentiate ourselves from our neighbours to the south.
A closer look at the text of The Rant unearths a few more clues about what it means to be Canadian:
Hey, I’m not a lumberjack or a fur trader. I don’t live in an igloo or eat blubber or own a dogsled. And I don’t know Jimmy, Sally or Suzy from Canada, although I’m certain they’re really, really nice.
Abroad, Canada is often stereotyped as a vast, frozen wasteland, populated by “Eskimos” and lumberjacks. Historically, the Inuit, First Nations, and Métis — as well as the French and English settlers — each played a significant role in molding Canadian cultural values and national identity.
The comment about not knowing Jimmy, Sally or Suzy is classic, sure to prompt a knowing smile from expat Canucks. Foreigners generally have a difficult time grasping the enormity of the country, which spans 5,000 km (3,000 miles) from Atlantic to Pacific and encompasses 6 time zones. We’re always being asked if we know so-and-so, as though all 34.5 million of us routinely swap recipes and go bowling together. (On discovering my nationality, a complete stranger once asked me if I knew his cousin in Vancouver. When I gently explained that the distance between Vancouver and Toronto is well over 3,000 km, he stared at me slack-jawed. I would have to fly five hours to visit his cousin — it only takes me an hour and a half to reach my brother in Minnesota.)
Nice is an adjective often used to describe Canadians. It can be interpreted in a variety of ways, from bland (particularly in comparison to our more flamboyant American neighbours), to polite. This national quality of politeness was even a factor in The Rant itself, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation:
After shouting out the final words of the speech — “My name is Joe, and I am Canadian!” — [the actor] says a polite “thank you.”… At least one high-powered executive thought it was a wimpy cop-out. Others, however, maintained that it was a very Canadian ending to the commercial, and they decided to keep it in.
It’s not just our history that helps define us; our geography also plays a part. The Rant notes that Canada is “the second-largest landmass,” and a sparsely populated one at that. These factors contribute to the regionality of the Canadian experience. In many ways, Vancouverites are as different from Newfoundlanders as Mexicans are from Spaniards – they may speak the same language, but their vocabularies, histories, and worldviews can be drastically different.
Another geographical aspect worth noting is our extreme weather. Long, cold winters perhaps contribute to the slight reserve that coexists with our niceness.
I have a Prime Minister, not a President. I speak English and French, not American. And I pronounce it “about,” not “aboot.” I can proudly sew my country’s flag on my backpack. I believe in peacekeeping, not policing; diversity, not assimilation; and that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal. A tuque is a hat, a chesterfield is a couch, and it is pronounced “zed,” not “zee.” “ZED!”
Canada has been an officially bilingual country since 1969. Canadian French differs from that spoken in France primarily because of its distinctive accent and vocabulary. Canadian English is a mixture of standard British and American English, with a bit of French and a sprinkling of First Nations and Inuit words thrown in for good measure.
Americans often claim Canadians pronounce about like aboot, but it’s not quite so. For this illusion we can blame the phenomenon of Canadian Raising, which involves diphthongs and voiceless obstruents and other linguistic terms I know nothing about. I can tell you, however, that Canadians really do say eh a lot.
Although the reference to the beaver may have been tongue-in-cheek, it’s worth noting that it’s an important symbol of Canada. It recalls our past as a fur-trading outpost, but it also embodies the Canadian value of industriousness. We’re a task-oriented people with a strong work ethic. We also have an official policy of multiculturalism and an historic role in UN peacekeeping missions.
Canada is the second largest landmass, the first nation of hockey, and the best part of North America. My name is Joe, and I am Canadian!
My name is Maria, and so am I. Happy Canada Day to my fellow Canucks, at home and around the world!