While I was in rural Alberta this summer, I asked a teenager I met what he thought of America.
“America’s noisy and crazy,” he answered. “If you get an American mad, he’ll go get his gun, whereas Canadians just write a lot of letters.”
Other Canadians were shocked to meet an American who was interested in other cultures. They kept offering me Coca-Cola and asking me how all our militias were doing.
I was interested in other cultures — “Canadian culture” in particular — previously, the phrase had sounded like a contradiction in terms. This is not to say I didn’t realize that Canada is more than the vast, snowy, vulnerable underbelly of Minnesota. I knew it’s actually a real foreign country, at least in terms of my Nations of the World color-coded plastic place mat.
There is a general bafflement in the States when it comes to Canada. We figure they want to be Americans, but they’re just too polite to pull it off. How can you be so congenial and non-aggressive for so long? It’s not healthy. It leads to evils like nationalized grain industries and Celine Dion.
This must be what happens when you don’t have a revolution or a civil war. You get soft. Your policemen start riding around on ponies instead of beating up minorities.
Canada is a post-modern state. She transcends the fray. She seems to have skipped the entire 19th century — while America is stuck there, building our empire, launching our new wave of McDonald’s-led colonization.
If Canadians ever want to become modern, they need a war. Perhaps we can taunt them a bit to speed things along. I’d suggest some plan involving Pauly Shore in a giant slingshot aimed northward.
But it may not be that simple; the cultural rifts here are acute. For instance, Edmonton traffic signals don’t have a soothing buzzing noise to tell blind people to cross the street, as in the States. Instead, “walk” signs make a bird chirping sound.
Their subway is unnervingly friendly, too. You’d think Canadians couldn’t possibly do anything “feel-good” with sunless tunnels of perverts, graffiti and concrete. Not so — Albertans are so trusting, their subway fare works on the honor system.
Edmonton city highways twist around trees and natural land formations, instead of plowing efficiently through the geography, American-style. I paid for gas with currency adorned by loons and nature scenes instead of highly decorated commanders in chief. Canada is “The Big Friendly Country.”
America, on the other hand, is fundamentally aggressive. Our standard of economic success is based on consuming resources the fastest, infiltrating foreign societies most efficiently and assimilating them all into ideal markets for Big Macs. We are not interested in preserving; we are interested in absorbing.
And because of this, we have a unified national identity. We can listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son” and know what it is to be American.
Canadians resent the crushing U.S. personality. The Edmonton Journal constantly runs articles with headlines like, “7 out of 10 Albertans surveyed, if given the chance to move to California, would actually stay here!” (“Take that, you imperialist hogs with your world domination and watery beer!” reads the subtext). And I’ve never heard so much bitter discussion of the War of 1812 in my life.
Canadians know that all most Americans see when they gaze north is a chilly rural suburb of Seattle with more than its fair share of the world’s fresh water supply and no national character. They know we’re too busy eating Twinkies and obsessing about our nymphomaniac politicians to realize that Canadian culture functions differently from our own.
The fact is that “Canadian Post-Modernism” does not make for a cohesive national identity. Canadians are too respectful of differences to be nationalistic. Canada Day, Canada’s patriotic holiday, is no barbeque-blazing, Roman Candle-exploding hurrah of July 4th independence.
To celebrate, I went to a local combination fish fry/cultural show. Cree dancers wore red-sequined sashes over deerskin wraps and yelped around onstage while masses of lip-smacking people in Canada Molson Beer T-shirts held paper plates and marauded around bins of batik change purses made by Lebanese Canadians and nesting dolls painted by Russian Canadians.
I left with a Ukrainian wood carving key chain and the sense that these people consider themselves European or Native Indian well before any feeling of “Canadianness.” When they celebrate Canada, their festivities center on the way so many autonomous cultures live happily together.
I don’t know what their problem is. Maybe it’s Quebec. Maybe it’s the fact they don’t have enough Starbucks and Wal-Marts.
Canada is not just a colder version of America with moose and too many French people. Canadians have an alarmingly reasonable understanding of how a nation should run its society and derive its heritage. Living there feels different: calmer, more rational.
But I don’t think Canadians will ever learn. We could try my plan for provoking them into war, but I worry they’ll just scoop up Pauly, start “respecting his culture” and giving him federal money to film Biodome III.
Molly Worthen is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.