Alexi Zentner’s latest novel is Copperhead.
I’ve lived in the United States since I started university, but when I talk to friends from home or go back to Canada for a visit, there’s always a certain kind of smirk that comes with the inevitable question about how it is to live in the U.S. now that Donald Trump is President. It’s a question that includes the silent statement, “Thank God we aren’t America,” that has been the subtext in almost every conversation about Canada’s southern neighbour my entire life.
As a kid, having American parents was like a secret shame I had to try to keep hidden. Maybe it’s different for kids like me now, but coming of age in the 1980s, it felt like an embarrassment. Even though I was born and raised in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., even though I was as Canadian as any of my peers, I didn’t want anybody to know. I understand the incredible privilege I have of being a citizen of both Canada and the United States, but there was a certain stain that accompanied being an American in Canada.
My parents, who were originally from Philadelphia, moved to Waterloo for my dad to take a professorship at Wilfrid Laurier University. By dint of birth and my parents’ heritage, I had both Canadian and American citizenship, but throughout my childhood, I always thought of myself as purely Canadian. My parents might have celebrated the Fourth of July, but Canada Day was my holiday. Aside from second and third grade, I spent my entire childhood in Canada, and I was always defensive about having dual citizenship. As a teenager, it felt like the easiest way to define what it meant to be Canadian was to point out what Canadians were not: We weren’t Americans.
And yet, because of my parents’ influence, I ended up going to university south of the border. When I graduated, I moved from Iowa to Chicago, since I got a job offer in the northern suburbs and that was where my brother was living. I thought it was a temporary thing. I’d always assumed that I’d come home to Canada, but while living in Chicago, I met my wife. She’s a school psychologist, and her certification didn’t seem like it would transfer easily. And then, life chugged along. One of our kids was born in Chicago, the other in St. Louis, Mo., and then I went to graduate school in upstate New York and got a job as a professor of creative writing at Binghamton University. Somewhere along the way, I realized that when I cross the border into Canada for a visit, it’s just a visit.
I’m 45 now, and I’ve spent more than half my life living in the United States. Even though I now celebrate the Fourth of July, I carry my Canadianness with pride: I root for the Raptors and the Blue Jays and the Leafs and was hoping to see Christine Sinclair break Abby Wambach’s all-time scoring record in this year’s World Cup. I’ve made sure my kids have their citizenship squared away, and I still say I’m “home” when I talk about K-W. My proudest professional accomplishments as a novelist are the Canadian literary awards that I’ve been nominated for. It would never occur to me to try to hide my Canadian identity in the way that I felt pressed to hide my American citizenship as a kid.
But in the past few years, since Donald Trump has upended the politics of the United States, the question I get more and more is if I’m planning to move back to Canada. I’ve gotten this both from friends and family in Canada and from friends and family in the U.S. The implication, of course, is that what is happening now in the United States – the political dog whistle of white supremacy turning into an outright shout – could never happen in Canada, that Canada is somehow above all of this.
It’s not true.
I’m not saying this in some neat academic sense. I don’t need to look in the history books to find examples of racism and anti-Semitism in Canada’s past, nor do I need to look for the easy-to-find examples of discrimination in Canada today. I don’t need to look at the recent poll that showed a majority of Canadians favour limiting immigration. I don’t need to hear that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer defended a known supporter of anti-immigrant groups who heckled the Prime Minister during a speech last year, or that Ontario Premier Doug Ford took three days to denounce hate speech after appearing in a photo with a white nationalist.
I don’t need any of those examples because I have my own. In the early 1990s, the owner of a downtown Kitchener business, who had already turned his shop into a de facto hangout for neo-Nazis, brought in prominent Holocaust denier and Hitler apologist David Irving. My mother was a noted local activist against anti-Semitism and racism, and we’d already endured years of threats of violence. The day Mr. Irving was in Kitchener, my mother was one of a group of nearly 100 protesters outside the store. Members of the neo-Nazi group the Heritage Front were later accused of firebombing my parents’ office that night, which was right next door to our home. My parents rebuilt, and less than a year later the office was firebombed again, and it burned to the ground. Nobody was ever arrested despite a former member of the Heritage Front testifying that members of the group had committed the arson.
What scares me about that incident is not that it happened or that this kind of hatred might happen again, but rather that Canadians think of it as something unusual, as something that doesn’t really happen in Canada like it does in other countries. We think of virulent hatred as a thing that comes from the history books. And yet, the history books are coming to life again.
One of the things I love about Canada is that it has always felt like we are striving to be better; better as a country and better as individuals. No country is perfect, but for all of our flaws, I’ve always believed Canada to be a place where we feel tall because we try to raise everybody up, not because we push others down. All of the wonderful things about Canada make it easy to look south with a certain smugness. That terrifies me, however, because I worry that Canadians don’t understand that when we look toward the southern border, we are staring at a fun-house mirror.
The circus atmosphere of Mr. Trump’s fascist-styled rallies, his declarations that seem lifted from Germany in the mid-1930s, the concentration camps he’s filling with Central and South American immigrants, the demagoguery, are all hard to imagine in Canada, but they shouldn’t be. We think these are things that can’t happen instead of being honest about our history of already allowing them to happen.
I believe the vast majority of Canadians are good and kind, that we deserve the reputation of goofy politeness and thoughtfulness that gets made fun of in movies and television shows. But I also believe that this politeness sometimes allows the exact kind of hatred fomented by Mr. Trump to fester underneath the surface. Because we believe that it can’t happen here, we are too hesitant to talk about the way in which some people – and politicians – are already admiring the reflection they see when they look south.
I’m at a point in my life where I don’t know which country I belong to. I am American and I am Canadian, but when I read about children locked in cages, when I see video of Mr. Trump’s rallies that could be lifted from the Third Reich, it makes me long for a time when the easiest way to define what it meant to be Canadian was to point at the United States and say, “not that.”
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