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Our national image? Forget peacekeeping, Mounties and manners. Now it's all about the seal meat

A few years after apartheid ended, I was walking with an Afrikaans woman, an old university friend of my parents, in the Kirstenbosch gardens in Cape Town. We were talking about the recent changes in South Africa and she said, "For the first time in my life, I really want to travel outside my country. I don't mind when people ask me where I'm from."

Later in the afternoon, although the sun was still shining, it began to rain and she looked at me shyly and said, "Afrikaners would say this is a fox's wedding day."

I recognized that in hesitantly telling me this, she was testing the idea that certain things within her culture might now begin to be separated from the brutality of South Africa's racist history.

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I felt extremely and blessedly Canadian at that moment. I felt privileged to have always been able to blurt out where I'm from and to have unselfconsciously shared my country's idiosyncrasies with outsiders.

I'd never say that I'm proud to be a Canadian. That'd be presumptuous. After all, I've never made much of a contribution - run for public office, served in the military, helped to decide our laws or taught in one of our schools.

I'd more accurately say I'm lucky to be Canadian. Possibly because my parents came here just before I was born, I've mostly experienced my nationality as fortunate chance.

Because they were essentially visitors, my parents drove us energetically back and forth across Canada, a bit like explorers. They took us to Quebec for a year before driving us back to British Columbia for a summer and then to Nova Scotia.

Sometimes they'd make us get out of the car and stand in Regina or somewhere, to make sure we knew we'd been there.

These moments were noted, inwardly, as part of my luck.

Later, when I lived in England, in South Africa, where my mother had been raised, or, much later, in New York and L.A., that feeling of being lucky to be Canadian was amplified, because I recognized my country to be not only large but also accommodating and reasonably decent - and mostly viewed that way by the rest of the world.

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This is far less true now.

Abroad, increasingly, Canada's image is seal meat, asbestos and the oil sands. We're not getting much torture buzz yet, but I imagine it's coming soon. As a result of this, something we shouldn't take for granted is being threatened - the thing my parents' friend in the Kirstenbosch gardens was just beginning to enjoy.

It's not a trivial thing to lose, and we're losing it now - in aid of an indefensible stand on asbestos, an unsustainable position on the oil sands and a rather pointless, almost adolescent stand on the commercial seal hunt.

The subject of seal meat came up as I was meeting a friend at the airport this week. He told me he had been in the Arctic to witness Operation Nanook in August and was irritated, the day after the big Welcome to Iqaluit dinner, when word kept coming down to the people co-ordinating the event that the government wanted them to find more seal meat.

"That was the thing they seemed most focused on," he said. "Seal meat."

The top tier of guests had been served seal meat, the rest other meats. The local people had put their best foot forward, as one does for company. There seemed to him to be something crude and ungracious in their demand for more seal meat.

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"It's not takeout Thai food," my friend said. "You can't, in those circumstances, just order more of it."

The most charitable interpretation of this is that the greedy request was intended to flatter the local residents. (God, I hate tourists.) But more likely it was another way for them to thumb their noses at Europe, establish some superficial northern cred and remind us that they fought that battle and won it.

It's now their battle template. Anyone who questioned the value of our heavily subsidized commercial seal hunt was accused of wanting to starve our native people, just as those questioning the treatment of Canadian detainees in Afghanistan are against our troops.

Thus, seal meat (while hardly an earner) is what they'll go to the wire for. It's becoming our new national identity, iconic the way the Mounties once were - only less meaningful. It's our image, the new "sorry." And I'm sorry about that.

tsouthey@globeandmail.com

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