I have a weaker sense of national identity than most, and my friends know I’m not embarrassed to admit it. Ironically, that might even identify me as distinctly Canadian. I have a twisted admiration for those Americans who fly the Star-Spangled Banner outside their homes, drive Ford pickups and drink exclusively domestic. In Canada, those kinds of patriots are few and far between.
This year will be my fifth living in the United States, and my second as an American citizen. I was born to a Canadian father and an American mother, and lived the first 14 years of my life in Montreal. In many ways my upbringing was different from those of my Canadian friends. Though I sang “O Canada” every week at school assembly and had fresh maple syrup on my breakfast table, I was raised to believe that the United States was inherently “better” than Canada: freer, more innovative, more efficient. With two parents educated at U.S. law schools, I was constantly lectured on the ingenious nuance of the U.S. Constitution and the complexity of the system of government as opposed to Canada’s parliamentary democracy.
So although I still think of myself as a Canadian first and foremost, I lack many of the properties of a “true” Canadian — I openly criticize our healthcare system, don’t watch hockey until the playoffs and do not speak with any distinct accent. I consider myself realistic when discussing my country’s strengths and weaknesses, and refuse to buy into extreme nationalism.
In spite of these attitudes, I joined many of my 35 million compatriots last Wednesday afternoon glued to the TV screen, watching tragedy unfold in Ottawa, our capital. On Oct. 22, a man armed with a Winchester rifle drove an unlicensed vehicle to Canada’s Parliament Hill and opened fire at the National War Memorial, killing Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at his post guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. The gunman then drove to the Centre Block parliament building, which contains the House of Commons and Senate chambers, and sprinted inside.
After exchanging gunfire with security personnel, the shooter made his way into the Hall of Honour, past rooms where Prime Minister Stephen Harper was meeting with other members of Parliament. He fired rounds into the doors before being shot and killed by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers. In what was reported as a scene straight out of an action movie, the 58-year-old Vickers saw the man hiding behind a pillar and took him out, diving to the ground while firing three rounds from his pistol.
This week, Canadians at home and abroad have been mourning the loss of Cirillo, as well as celebrating the heroism of Vickers, whose actions alone saved our entire nation from further tragedy. For me, the event struck a more personal chord than I could have expected. That afternoon, I watched again and again the same video of security personnel running down the Hall of Honour, through which I had once traipsed with a pack of fellow sixth graders touring Parliament Hill.
I listened that day as talking heads likened the event to a sort of “Canadian 9/11.” I found the comparison to be quite off and vaguely disrespectful, but could at least see where it was coming from. In the same way that those attacks were really attacks on American values, so too was last week’s shooting an attack on Canada’s way of life. One terrorist was enough to shake the foundations of the Canadian government. I found myself deeply offended by last week’s attempt to terrorize the country that I have held close to my heart for my entire life, even if I now spell “honor” without a “u.”
It may sound odd, but seeing all our soldiers on TV in their absurd uniforms and witnessing American news networks butcher the name of our national police force time after time (it’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police, not Mountain Police), I felt pangs of nostalgia and longing for the country I left five years ago.
I’ve also been touched by the sympathy that Americans have had for their northern neighbors in times of tragedy. The night of the shootings, 20,000 people at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh sang “O Canada” before an NHL game between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, two American teams. This seemed to be a show of love and solidarity between two countries that are both dear to me. As President John F. Kennedy so beautifully put it in an address to the Canadian Parliament in 1961, “Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners, and necessity has made us allies. Those whom God has so joined together, let no man put asunder.”
Since all this happened I have found myself prouder than ever before to call myself Canadian. We will not allow our country or ourselves to be altered by last week’s events; rather, we will continue to be the hockey-playing, sorry-saying nation that we have always been.