David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Pardon me (this is my Canadian side talking) if I make a big fuss (that’s my American side) about this being a big week. But we’re in that odd annual period between Canada Day and U.S. Independence Day, and I’m in the mood to sing a love song.
As a journalist of four decades’ standing, I know the faults of both countries: The uninsured on one side of the 49th parallel, the frustrations about health access on the other. The heartless efficiency of one of the countries, the maddening bureaucracy of the other. The cultural imperialism of one, the sense of global inferiority of the other. The Chicago Cubs of one country, the Toronto Maple Leafs of the other. And that’s without even mentioning the Duck Dynasty and Celine Dion.
But all that’s for another week. This week let’s croon about W.O. Mitchell and Willa Cather, Tom Thomson and Georgia O’Keeffe, Louis Riel and Crazy Horse, and let’s linger, too, on the remarkable people we share: John Kenneth Galbraith, Carol Shields, and, in my hometown of Pittsburgh, Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby. Dare I mention the name Michael Ignatieff? And can’t both countries claim, by virtue of her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the great Shania Twain, forever and for always?
I’m the son of a Montreal mother and a Massachusetts father, and I’ve been to all 50 states and every province save Saskatchewan. I’ve had lobster in a church basement in Prince Edward Island and in a waterside shack in New Hampshire – and fish and chips on both Saltspring Island and Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve browsed in remarkable bookstores in Manitoba and in Mississippi. I sent one daughter to summer camp in Algonquin Park in Ontario, the other to camp in lake-district Maine. I spent one unforgettable night in Dartmouth, N.S., and four life-altering years at Dartmouth College. I’ve seen Niagara Falls from both sides of the raging river, and as a carnivore of long standing can personally attest to the wisdom of Sitting Bull’s maxim that the meat of the buffalo tastes the same (very good, especially with lettuce and tomato on a grilled bun) on both sides of the border.
As someone who lives in Pennsylvania but who had a honeymoon in Alberta and marked his 60th birthday in Quebec – my daughters are fourth-generation female skiers at Hill 69 in St-Sauveur-des-Monts – I may wear two hats. But one of them is a tuque. Mine’s red and white, and it has a Maple Leaf design.
Of course, I know there is an enormous difference between these two lands – as dissimilar as Dunkin’ and Tim Hortons, as unalike as Kmart and Canadian Tire, as different as Kentucky Fried and Swiss Chalet. (I prefer the latter, and not only because of the secret dipping sauce. St-Hubert is acceptable in a pinch, or in Quebec.) But there are similarities, too. For example, we both claimed the 1900s as our own, with Henry Luce proclaiming it the American Century and Wilfrid Laurier declaring that Canada “shall fill the 20th century.” They were both right, and wrong.
To be sure, there are some American institutions I admire that Canada lacks (the abundance of small liberal arts colleges, from Bates in Maine to Whittier in California) and some Canadian cultural totems that the United States lacks (the sticky tradition of the cabane à sucre). The United States has Mount Rushmore, Canada has Mounties. The United States has had the presidency of Gerald Ford, Canada has had the mayoralty of Rob Ford. Maybe now is the time to stop this particular riff.
American poet Stephen Vincent Benét wrote in 1927 that he had “fallen in love with American names/The sharp names that never get fat.” But read carefully into his famous verse, in another era memorized by every American schoolchild, and you will see, right there in the third stanza, the name “Lundy’s Lane,” which, unless I read the history of the War of 1812 incorrectly, is not an American name. No matter. To compensate, I have also fallen in love with Canadian names: Manicouagan, Flin Flon, Moose Jaw, Whitehorse, Athabasca.
So what’s my point – or, if we are talking Hudson’s Bay blankets here, what are my points?
That even though these are the countries of Two Solitudes (Canadian author Hugh MacLennan) and Two Americas (American politicians Mario Cuomo and John Edwards), they still are two beautiful, bountiful countries, big enough for Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo-Jump and Glacier National Park; open enough for Leonard Cohen of Montreal and the Coen brothers of Minnesota; resilient enough to recover from the tension between an obdurate older man (John Diefenbaker) and a brash young man (John F. Kennedy).
So this year, in an homage to my Canadian family and heritage, I applied for dual citizenship and thus now can channel Ms. Twain (born in Windsor, Ont.). I’m especially drawn to her 1998 plaint about a hard day at work. On either side of the border, I can sing the song Shania and I now share: Honey, I’m Home.