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‘I think Canadians would be happier if they were Americans,” my friend mused. It was a warm summer night in 2002; I had just moved from the U.S. to Vancouver for graduate school, and a friend from Virginia was visiting. “We could just extend Alaska to the east – make it one ginormous state.”
The revised U.S. map brought a smile to my face and I added: “It’s like Canadians have little brother syndrome. Their big brother is a star athlete, and they’re sullen and resentful.”
I had visited Canada several times previously but even after moving to British Columbia in my 20s, I was surprised by a distinct lack of flannel shirts and log cabins. My dominant perception of Canadian life was still indelibly shaped by line drawings on the side of maple syrup jugs.
Fast-forward nine years, and I’m holding up my right hand in a Scarborough courtroom, vigorously reciting an oath about “faithfulness” and “service” to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. What happened? How was I Canadianized? When did I become adept at pouring milk from a floppy plastic bag?
There were various pivotal moments, but the most significant ones occurred through the people I met. Ironically, those who first introduced me to the wonder of Canada weren’t natives but other immigrants. Soon after I arrived, a couple from South Africa befriended me. A Japanese author became a mentor in my studies. This wasn’t new: I had met immigrants before, but on Canadian soil, the beauty of their background had more permission to shine. The difference was subtle but real. My world expanded rapidly.
Native-born Canadians also had a role to play. One relationship outshone the others: the woman who later became my wife. She was staunchly patriotic, which at first I found endearing. Later it became a problem.
I recall a massive fight during our engagement. We were on a road trip and I took the opportunity to pontificate about how Canada needed a “global brand” – let’s say a line of rugged, winter-ready trucks – to establish itself on the world stage. Maple syrup just wasn’t cutting it.
My fiancée hotly contested this point, and for the first time I realized how rugged and winter-ready Canadian identity really was. “Canada doesn’t need a brand! Who we are matters more than any product!” By the end of the conversation, my view of Canada started to recalibrate. In time, I realized that Canada is forever aware of “the other.” As a country with two official languages, there’s always a second opinion, a perennial need to co-operate across cultural lines to move forward. Until that moment, I didn’t grasp that humility, empathy and co-operation are the virtues that actually matter on the world stage.
Canadian theologian Victor Shepherd says that the depth of our relationships is measured by the degree to which they change us. If we have been married to someone for 35 years but remain unchanged, we actually don’t know our spouse at all.
Some resist being changed. I knew an American woman in Vancouver who religiously ripped the French side of packaging labels off her groceries so she would feel “more at home.” She moved back within a couple years.
I decided to stay. My fiancée and I married and settled in Toronto. In a year or two, I started thinking in kilometres and found driving times easier to calculate. Last year, I became fluent in centigrade. On a deeper level, my international friendships sparked an interest in global events, and I started working for a microfinance charity.
As time went on, the reflective ethos I detected in Canada also left a mark. The best way I can describe this is by contrasting it with a particular aspect of my growing-up years: high-school pep rallies. They’re rare in Canada, but a staple of American life. Class would be cancelled for the afternoon. The entire school would gather in the gym, filling the bleachers. The general manager of the football team would take the mic and in slow cadence discuss the school, its legacy, its teachers, its students, and gathering momentum, the unparalleled excellence of the football team. Cheerleaders were unleashed, crisscrossing the glossy floor, fanning the flames. The speech now at its zenith, the music blared and football players strode out in uniform. Hysteria ensued. We’d chant the name of the school over and over and over, stomping feet on the wood-slatted bleachers.
Americans tend to wear their emotions on their sleeves. I still find this a virtue, but no longer an unqualified one. In truth, my high-school football team set records for consecutive losses; something more than “pep” was needed to turn it around.
By comparison, I’ve found Canada’s capacity for honest observation a helpful corrective. After a dozen years north of the border, I’m listening more and speaking less. I’m more aware of “the other.” I’m speechless with gratitude that my two-year-old daughter had access to free eye surgeries that saved her vision. I’m moved by the generosity Canadians express in the face of global catastrophes. I’m grateful for Canada’s savvy bankers who kept us from sub-prime follies. I love that Canadian restaurants put homemade doughnuts on dessert specials. I can feel my feet beginning to pound the bleachers.
I think Americans would be happier if they were Canadians.
Jacob Buurma lives in Victoria.