Monday, October 9 is not a particularly exciting day for most of the Yale population. Yet for a small, but fun-loving subset, October 9 is a day of great merriment, a day to reflect upon “the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed.” There are no pilgrims, there is no Macy’s Day Parade, but Canadians across the nation still eat turkey and give thanks. Why we have a national holiday that seems to copy the American holiday but with no origin, I could not tell you. But, ripped-off turkey is still turkey, so I can’t complain. 

That night, we stream into the Pierson Fellows’ Lounge to begin our feast: Lays Ketchup Chips and Coffee Crisps. If you have not been acquainted with such delicacies, that is probably because you are an American and therefore not as cool. Yes, I am aware that the vastness of the American junk food empire means that there are many more things that Americans can eat that Canadians cannot, but please, let us have this. 

As I reach into the bowl of Ketchup chips — which are as disgusting as they sound — a small smile spreads across my face. As the radioactive red powder from the ketchup chips smudges a printed-out copy of  “O Canada,” my small smile becomes a very big one.

At the head of the table sits a man in a bright red sweater. He wears aviator-framed glasses and a toothy grin that grows impossibly larger as he surveys the room. For a few minutes, he makes sparkling conversation with his fellow Yale-Canada compatriots, and soon we are all drawn into his discussion. 

 “The connections you make at Yale are great,” he tells us, “but the Canadian connections at Yale, oh boy!”

I turn to the one Canadian student here that I know, and we smile. Our network is huge. 

We tune back into red-sweater-man’s speech and he mentions the “Toronto Canadian Club.” Not T’ronnno, but Toronto. With a hard T. I gasp. 

The student next to me squeezes my arm. No citizen of the true north strong and free would dare to pronounce the second “T” in Toronto. He might as well have said that Canadian Thanksgiving is for giving thanks and not for crossing the border to begin holiday shopping. That’s blasphemy. The jig was up.

And yet, never in my life have I witnessed someone with such obvious Canadian sensibilities. He’s sunny and gregarious. With everyone. And for Pete’s sake, he supports the Montreal Bagel.

As I attempt to divine some explanation for his support of the round weird bread in question, he hands out copies of the Yale Journal of Canadian Studies. I let out an audible giggle. He is so outwardly Canadian; he just doesn’t speak like one.

“I’ve kind of been in charge of Canadian studies for a few years now, and I’ve been wanting to build it up. We’ve reached a point that I’ve been trying to get to.”

A couple weeks go by, and I am now speaking to red-sweater-man on the phone. He has clarified a few things for me. His name is Dr. Jay Gitlin, he is not Canadian, but rather one of the leading experts on French North America.

“That explains the Montreal Bagels,” I exclaim.

He laughs. “I know, it’s blasphemy!” 

Gitlin explains that he first came across Canada during his time as an undergraduate at Yale, where he met French North American students and learned about New England’s French communities. Gitlin’s senior essay in history was about the “Forgotten Frontier”: French communities in New Orleans, St. Louis and Detroit. As a scholar, his mission is to call French North America to people’s attention. On campus, he explains, he is especially devoted to the Canadian cause.

Yale has a storied relationship with Canada, Gitlin tells me. When he was a graduate student here, he worked with Robin Winks, a leading scholar in U.S.-Canada relations and African Canadian History. In the 1970s, Winks convinced Canada to give a gift to Yale as a bicentennial present. However, the Canadian government did not let their generosity go without strings: Yale is now obligated to “maintain a Canadian presence in the curriculum.”

“So Robin looked at me and said Jay, tag, you’re it.”

Today, Gitlin is the chairman of the Committee on Canadian Studies and he teaches “Québec and Canada from 1791 to the Present.” Most recently, he founded the Yale Journal of Canadian Studies

“Isn’t that wacky?” Gitlin remarks. This is not the only wacky story Gitlin has in his wacky story arsenal. He tells me about William Smith, who, “… dig this, was the first chief Justice of Canada! A Yale guy, class of 1745. Don’t ya love it!” 

I also hear about John Reed Kilpatrick, Class of 1911 and owner of the New York Rangers. Not Canadian himself, he was responsible for bringing on Yale hockey coach Murray Murdoch who is, you guessed it, Canadian. 

“Ever heard of SSS?”

Ah yes, Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall, yet another Yale monument meant to preserve the glory of its donors only to be reduced to an acronym.

Strathcona, Gitlin explains, is in reference to Donald Smith, 1st Baron Strathcona and Mount Royal (I call him Don for short). Before his time as the third S of SSS, Don was the owner of the Hudson’s Bay Company and President of the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The Canadians are everywhere.

I consider mentioning to Gitlin that the wacky story model is one of the primary paradigms of the Canadian educational system. Per my elementary school training, I can now pass on the knowledge that WonderBra, instant mashed potatoes and the arm on the International Space Station (the Canadarm, if you will) were all Canadian inventions. And I will have you know the lightbulb was a Canadian creation stolen by one Thomas Edison.  

I hold my tongue. 

 “In other words, it’s like wow. Who knew! I didn’t know about this!” Gitlin’s excitement is pure. It’s simultaneously serious and giddy. His knowledge is thorough but veiled in a guileless enthusiasm. 

On a mission to bring Canada’s greatness out of hiding and onto campus, Gitlin is attempting to raise more money for Canadian Studies. One source of revenue, he hopes, will be the journal, which is already “being distributed in academic circles.” Gitlin also wants to endow the journal, as well as a position in teaching, to ensure that both will continue on indefinitely. “I want to bring Yale closer to Canada, and Canada closer to Yale,” he declares.  

Canadian history seems to fascinate Gitlin. Why he finds Canada itself appealing is harder to pin down. “It’s sort of a cliché that Canadians are polite, but they are polite! It’s a very civil place. And I think that’s true. I think they’re polite and civil, but not boring. I think Canadians are fun-loving.”

I take the compliment. And Gitlin is right. There is a simplicity to the Canadian interaction: it’s genial. It’s enjoyable. You seldom experience the post-conversation hangover that characterizes a sizable number of my American interactions.

But that intensity has its perks. Sure, Canadians are amiably low affect, but so are its cities. They are orderly. They are not stuffed precariously with too many people and places, they are not dizzying. Perhaps this sounds positive in theory, but, in reality, it’s kind of eerie. The romance of the hustle and bustle is missing. The emptiness is palpable.

Gitlin does not share in my uneasiness. “To me, Ottawa is what Washington, DC wishes it could be. Some people think Ottawa is boring, but I think it’s fun!” He enjoys watching the changing of the guard on Parliament Hill and going to the open-air market.

I mention that I like skating on the Rideau Canal.

“You’ve got a canal, you’ve got a river, you can take boat rides. Come on!”

If Canada had a wingman, it would be Gitlin.  

After our call, I sit in silence for a moment. I don’t have any revelatory epiphanies about my split Canadian and American allegiances, but I do acknowledge that much of the world that I am used to — the order, the civility, a customary kindness — is absent here.

Because Canada feels so similar to the United States, both its history and its cultural proclivities remain largely out of sight. Even I gloss over these things. Gitlin’s work in illuminating Yale’s relationship with Canada is not only interesting, it’s necessary. And perhaps I do miss Ottawa a little. 

On my desk sits a copy of the Yale Journal of Canadian Studies. As I leaf through it, I find Gitlin’s remarks:. He outlines the Yale-Canada history, thanks Robin Winks, and leaves us with these parting words:

What is the difference between a Canadian and an American?

A Canadian knows the difference. 

Vive la différence!”