A love letter to Canada
Everyone tells me how lucky I am to live in New York, but I feel both lucky and lost, Diana Heney writes
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The sole qualification for writing a love letter is that you feel the love and want to express it. That's the beauty of it. But it would be trite and probably false to say that as an expat, I can love Canada more truly (observe: Gord Downie). I think it interesting, however, that my love for Canada has grown up – become richer, more intentional and more constant – since I left.
I moved with my family from Toronto to New York in 2014 to take a job teaching philosophy – a fantasy job, a world-class city.
The months before leaving were a time of pre-emptive nostalgia, but I thought the pain I was feeling – and its peculiar sweetness – were for the rites of passage ahead. Leaving the city where my children were born. Leaving my friends as they were leaving me, all leaves on the wind of the horrid academic job market. Leaving my student days behind.
All that was real.
I was raised, as is any self-respecting Northwestern Ontarian, to hate Toronto. But, I loved Toronto passionately, completely. My husband, from Montreal and similarly brought up, was equally smitten. Of course, it was hard to leave. Of course, it would be sad. We went back for my convocation at the University of Toronto a few months after moving to New York and it was wrenching – the geographical version of seeing your gorgeous ex too soon after the breakup.
But two things happened that made me realize the bittersweet quality of our departing days wasn't just about Toronto, or the life we had built there.
First, my job became permanent. What started as a postdoctoral arrangement miraculously evolved into a job that I could have, if I don't flunk tenure, for the rest of my career – possibly, for the rest of my natural life.
Second, the all-encompassing storm of the presidential election came to dominate thought and conversation in every nook and cranny of American life.
The newfound job security forced me to confront my escapist mindset. I can no longer say, "I'm living in New York." I live in New York. I have been told a great many times how lucky I am. Sure. But one can be both lucky and lost – and I see with greater clarity now how much of my identity is tangled up with the TransCanada Highway.
I love Calgary's Bow River. I spent three years in the foothills of the Rockies, reading books and selling running shoes. I ran hundreds of kilometres on the pathways that trace the river's shape and got married next to it one August afternoon. My husband lost his wedding ring exactly one year later swimming in Lake Ontario on our first anniversary, but the vows exchanged on the bank of the Bow have endured.
I love winter in Saskatoon, where I studied for my Masters degree. One night on the way to the pub during a blizzard, I and everyone else in our little gang stopped on the University Heights bridge to feel the force of the storm – my introduction to the quality of Prairie defiance, which I greatly respect.
I love my broken French. It improved dramatically during four years in Ottawa, where I also cast my first vote (for the NDP's Ed Broadbent – no regrets).
Coming of age in Canada's capital was standing witness to Pierre Trudeau's funeral procession, a thousand photos taken for tourists, a hundred thousand tulips every spring, sunrises on the Ottawa river and having guns trained on me as I ran past the American Embassy the morning after 9/11 on the way to rowing practice.
I love the Northern Lights in Thunder Bay, where I was born on Remembrance Day with snow already thick on the ground. When it's -60 C, the cold clarity of the night sky makes it seem as if heaven is directly on top of you. My mouth knows the shape of ancient words – I know that the Kaministiqua River has three mouths and why Nanna Bijou lay down in the bay. Native art and legends were part of my childhood. As a teenager, I had a different fantasy job – teaching small children to canoe in Chippewa Park (dip, dip, and swing). The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been a splinter in my soul.
I have come to feel that my own work toward reconciliation includes engaging seriously with my American friends about our twinned, imperfect histories.
I don't want to work the splinter out; I want to remember. As the world watches in horror while the United States ushers a man who utters xenophobic racist remarks into its most powerful office, I remember that I attended a high school with an abysmal graduation rate for Ojibway students, in a country where the ranks of the incarcerated and the missing are disproportionately filled by Canada's indigenous people.
It is not enough to stand in the wash of the Northern Lights and wish for heaven. There is work to be done – work is a form love takes.
As for the American election – well, I am disenfranchised. I cannot vote in the United States. And unless the change wrought to the electoral rights of expatriate citizens is reversed, I will likely never vote in another Canadian election. But I will work for what I love in the ways that I can.
Je t'aime, Canada.
Diana Heney lives in New York.