What is a Canadian, anyway?

I was listening to a short documentary about a young Canadian woman who travels to Egypt to rediscover her roots. Nadia Awad is her name and she works for a newspaper while living there. Nadia remarks how her new Egyptian boss constantly goads her about her Canadian identity, or lack of it. He tells her that it’s inevitable she will discard her palid Canadian distinctiveness for her true Egyptian one. He asks her “what is a Canadian, anyway?”

In the documentary, she gives the regular bit about multiculturalism and pluralism, but even that, before the enormous history of a country like Egypt, seems insubstantial. As a Canadian, I too have been caught in the headlights of such a question. After describing at great length some of the French cuisine, a young Parisian couple once asked me: “so what is Canadian food?” The question was innocent enough, but so difficult and painful to answer that for a moment I believed they, like Nadia’s boss, were goading me. After a few minutes of oowing and awing, I took the lame multicultural approach and answered that in Canada we get to eat the cuisine from whatever country the cook happens to be from. I could see by the looks of the faces of this French couple that my answer wasn’t satisfactory. And why should it be? What country these days doesn’t have Chinese or Mexican restaurants?

The best way to identify a true Canadian, aside from the large Canadian flag sewn into his/her backpack, is their inability to answer relatively easy questions about the food and culture of their country. What is traditional Canadian food? Traditional Canadian music? What are some classic Canadian books? Keep in mind, what I am looking for here is the equivalent to Poe or Whitman. And finally, what does it mean to be Canadian? For these you might be able to give me answers originating from Quebec but not without having to think about it for a while.

Why do we have problems answering questions to which people from other countries could spend hours replying?

Online answers to this Canadian affliction vary from site to site. In his article entitled “The Great Canadian Identity Crisis”, Scot Carpenter of the Liberty Free Press posits:

We are a nation of contradictions floating helplessly in a sea of confusion with no framework for living, with no proper definition of justice and without a single philosophical clue as to how a nation of civilized men interacts and sustains itself…. In the U.S., a man owns his life. The direct corollary of this right is the right to use and dispose of one’s private property, the right to arms, the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of association, the right to due process and so on. If being American means that the rights of the individual are unassailable by government or any other entity then what does it mean to be Canadian if we are “ not American” in the philosophical sense? It means that individuals have NO rights in the eyes of their government or, for that matter, in the eyes of the majority of the Canadian population.

Firstly, I don’t believe Canadians are going through any crisis on this matter. The word “crisis” denotes an emergency or boiling point. A problem that has lasted thirty years or more can hardly be called a crisis. What we are going through is something more along the lines of an irritating, lingering cold.

Secondly, as you read the article, it becomes steadily apparent that Scot’s “crisis” is the fact that the majority of Canadians have yet to embrace American ideology to the extent that he has.

Although I disagree with Scot’s disgruntled, Reaganesque, down-with-big-government, it’s-time-to-take-a-stand position, his ocean analogy caught my attention, not because I agree with it, but because this idea is used by another online columnist who sees our lack of a singular, solid identity as something good.

What Scot describes as contradictions in a “sea of confusion”, blogger Areanna portrays as “fluidity” in her article “I am Canadian, What am I”.

When we say our identity is forged in negation, difference, and perhaps even the quest for identity, then we have what many others do not. Fluidity. We have seen what comes from old rules and old ways. Lots of conflict. Just as an identity can forge bonds it can also be the very source of heated internal conflict. Canada, on the other hand, can change its identity as the times change. Our differences are our strength.

This is a much more positive analogy, and can explain why it is so hard for ourselves and others to define us.

A perfect example of this is when I was travelling through Greece with Canadian-born Greek friend Ari. His train tickets had been stolen and he had to go to a local police station to make a report. Thinking that it would only take a few minutes, I decided to wait in the car with his relatives, with whom we were staying. After about twenty minutes however, he hadn’t come out. I went into the station to find that he and some of the police officers yelling at each other in Greek. After much hubbub, we finally left the station with the report. “All I wanted was a police report,” he said, “but all these guys kept on asking me is why I don’t come over and fight for Greece.”

The dismissive attitude towards my friend’s Canadian passport is similar to the diminutive attitude of Nadia Awad’s boss. They can’t see us. We have no shape that they are able, or willing, to recognize. In light of this, the questions of my French travel companions regarding Canadian cuisine weren’t meant to goad me, but to help them draw a better picture of Canada using traditional identifiers, in other words, by asking age-old questions. As Canadians we have neither the identifiers nor the answers they need.

We are, as blogger Areanna describes, fluid.

Does this mean we don’t have an identity? Of course not, Virginia Wolfe once observed that that the women of her time could be given identity only through negation. (What is female? Not male.) Does this mean that up until that point the female gender had no identity? Note to men: think very carefully before you answer this. Today we definitely know what is female. But whether we lay claim to any solid Canadianisms and establish a traditional identity is up for grabs. Some feel that it is not only irrelevant for us to do so, but it is better for us that we don’t.

Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, in his June 10, 1997, Globe and Mail article, “Our lack of national identity is our strength”, claims just that. “A lack of a traditional national identity will prove to be our strength in this century as the world moves toward a “humanity-wide consciousness.” By having “no history of cultural or political hegemony – almost no history at all to hinder us – we are welcomed over all other nations. We are more open to, curious about, and perceptive of other cultures.” Erickson believes that in the future, “world economic issues rather than national interest will undermine the old paradigms.”

If we are to take Erickson’s stance, national identity, in the traditional sense, will eventually become a thing of the past. Without knowing it, Canadians might have taken the first step toward a global identity.

This curiosity and perceptiveness that Erickson mentions is taken one step further by Susan Delacourt. In her July 4th, 1998 Globe and Mail article, “Oh, say, can you see a Canadian identity?” describes Canadians as:

The world’s reigning experts at imagining how other people think and feel, even about us. We can put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes at the drop of a maple leaf…. Bilingualism, multiculturalism, and religious and political pluralism are all part of the complicated mix that we call Canadian society. They function with tolerance, but they flourish on empathy. People talk about Canada being an act of will. It may be more correct to say it’s an act of willingness. To be Canadian means to be willing to shrug off your own identity so you can imagine what it’s like to be someone else.

This willingness, Delacourt posits belongs to an attribute, which I mentioned earlier: “Sorry boys,” she states, “but Canada’s personality is showing characteristics that are typically associated with womanhood.”

Delacourt’s and Erickson’s ideas resonate even more in today’s post 9/11 world, where the need for tolerance, empathy, cooperation and fresh global perspectives is felt more than ever.

So, what is a Canadian?

The question I want to answer is: What is being a Canadian?

Being a Canadian is something new, a burgeoning art form where the aesthetic criteria to judge it has yet to emerge. This is especially true for young immigrants and people born here. It’s that aching need for new questions. It is, as Susan Delacourt quotes: an act of will; a new world perspective taking its first few steps, ever-so conscious of what it is doing and who is watching. Finally, being Canadian is to represent one bright possible future.

I Am Just Not a People Person.

I can still remember the days when I had a social life. Getting home, the message indicator on my telephone would be blinking, chalk full of excited and expecting voices. I’d always have somewhere to go and people to visit in those days. There would be the rendezvous points: Yonge and Dundas in TO, Robson and Howe in Vancouver, or Hung Dae station in Seoul. And there’d be the old haunts: The Cambie, Hodge-Podge, The Green Room . Gatherings like this would take up a healthy part of my weekly calendar, and I couldn’t imagine staying in on a Thursday, Friday and Saturday night and miss a chance to mingle with people and friends. It wasn’t just the mingling; it was that devil-may-care, go-where-the-night-takes-you experience that I loved. I remember one night, on magic mushrooms, where some friends and I crashed a CD release party at the Hilton. I ended up in the lounge area of a penthouse suite, listening to a professional musician playing jazz on a grand piano. Or one night in Seoul where a friend and I found ourselves in the kitchen of a barbeque chicken boutique serving chunks of meat to a Saudi Arabian in a gold Armani suit, bragging about all the people he’d killed.

For the longest time, I couldn’t imagine doing anything different, but my body had other plans. As I aged, my hangovers not only got worse, they began to last longer. No longer could I get in at 4:00 AM and be up and ready a couple of hours later. Note to everyone: If you have the choice of teaching a roomful of hyperactive kids for eight hours with an hangover or having an anesthetic-free root canal, choose the latter.

Where the body goes, common sense is sure to follow, and my nights on the town dwindled slowly but steadily from three nights a week right down to once a month, if that. Funny thing is, though I might reminisce about those times, I’m glad I’m done with them. Back then I could justify partying and socializing, saying it was a matter of blowing off steam after a hard day’s work or that it was my chance to meet new people, learn new things and live a little. But looking back on my life, of all the conversions and discussions that have provided me with insight or knowledge I could apply to my day to day experience, none of them originated from those nights on the town. In fact, I can hardly remember any of those conversions. The activity of spending a night with a group of people was incredibly fun, liberating and often exhilarating, but for the most part it was simply an empty diversion, a television show that I would repeat over and over. I recollect such nights as I do my favourite episodes of Seinfield, in glimpses and catch phrases.

That impression remains with me today when I happen to attend large social events. I might just be in cynical mood of late, but recently I’ve found that in a room filled with the chatter of people, there is probably about one true conversation going on, the rest is just posturing and , as I mentioned before, catch phrases. Everyone who speaks acts as though the whole room is listening. That’s why my preferred way of socializing today is more or less a one-on-one affair. I’ll meet someone for coffee or lunch and devote my attention only to them, or do my best to. It may seem poultry in comparison to what I was used to, but I’ve come to realize that I’m just not a people person.

In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been one. First, I have a strong aversion to the traditional arenas of socializing. I’ve never liked loud bars or night clubs, with their manufactured line-ups and music that ruins any chance of having a conversation without screaming. In fact, most bars today blare their music. What’s the point of having eardrum-shattering volume levels in a place where there no dance floor? And I’ve always hated concerts. I’ve never seen the point of sharing my enjoyment of music with fifty thousand other sweating screaming people. And though I do love music, let’s face it, it’s just another diversion, and there is not one musician or band worth waiting in line to urinate into plastic tub for. Would Bjork or the Boss pee into a jug for you? Think about it.

Secondly, I’ve learned that in large social gatherings, everything that is self-centred in a person really reveals itself. I’ve already mentioned the word posturing before, because that is what’s happening that these events, people struggling to project an images of themselves they desperately want the others to see. At its best, it’s a verbal talent show. At its worse it’s the floor of the New York Stock exchange where every shouts for their cultural reference to be heard first. I know this because I’ve been caught up in it myself. I can’t count the times that voice in my head goes off, saying “why are you telling them this? This is not really funny at all!”

This frenetic occurrence flows nicely into the last reason of my recent hermitage. At these events, every one becomes so pre-occupied with getting out their perspectives and their opinions (all of which are meant to support the self-image they are trying to project) that no one asks each other real, earnest questions. Quandaries serve usually as an opportunity for someone to add a new member to their audience. How do know the people here? Really? Well let me spend a few minutes telling you about who I know. Such has been my experience, and over time I’ve offered less and less to these conversations, to the point now where now I only listen. As merely a spectator, I must appear a little dull, but if you are not interested enough to return the favour of a question, I’m not going to pointlessly contribute. Last year, I visited a old friend in palliative care. When he spoke of settling his estate with his brother, I said “hey, I didn’t know you had a brother”, to which he responded, “that’s because you never asked”.

Perhaps this is what a night on the town is, when it is stripped of the glitter of drugs and alcohol. And perhaps this recent attitude of mine is the reason why lately, my answering machine sits in lonely silence. Besides my wife, I have less than a handful of people I speak to on a regular basis. You’d think that I’d be lonely as hell, pining for companionship, and if there’s any fault in what I’ve just expressed, I should be. But with my books, my writing, my teaching, and tenants, I’ve never been so content. Simon and Garfunkel were only half-right. As long as you’re part of an archipelago, there’s nothing wrong with being an island.

Global Warming Reaches Fever Pitch

By comparison, getting people to believe the dangers of leaded gasoline, ozone depletion and second-hand smoke must have been a walk in the park compared to global warming. This seems odd because all three of these blights were just as abstract as the present one. You couldn’t really see or touch them, and their consequences were not immediate. With the exception of second-hand smoke – which ended up being a long, protracted legal battle – the steps taken to remedy these problems were made systematically and with an almost global effort. There was none of the strife we are witnessing today, between believers and non-believers, on television and newspapers. A photo on the front page of today’s Globe and Mail shows a large group of environmentalists at the UN talks in Bali, holding flags from various countries. Also in the same photo are members of a smaller group, each holding letter in the word PLEASE.

Why such a tumultuous dispute over something that we’ve known about for decades? In my Grade 8 class, roughly about 20 years ago, we were made to watch a video on the topic of the “greenhouse effect”, as it was called back then. I remember the rather ominous words of a scientist in the video as he remarked how as a scientist, the future of the planet would be very interesting for him, but as a human being, he wasn’t looking forward to it. As doom-and-gloom goes, this was a perfect example what the today’s contrarians use to take the wind out of the effort to fight global warming, but it also shows that no one can say that this is a new science. Was there even any doubt that the black stuff coming out of our exhaust pipes was bad for us and the environment?

And now what was an ignorable collection of scientists making their case to class of 14-year-olds has become an international movement, the summits of which presidents, prime ministers, dignitaries and renowned experts make an appearance. The movement has a tremendous worldwide following, is backed by thousands of today’s top scientists, and even now a winner of the Nobel Prize. But still, even with more than half the world enthusiastically behind it and the changes that would ensue, the remaining half can only look on with a mixture of cynicism, disbelief and lethargy.

Internet forums are full of such people, post links to sites reporting a decrease in the Earth’s temperature or evidence showing that the ice-caps are in fact growing, not shrinking (which would beg the question of why our own government is taking initiatives to secure Canada’s sovereignty over the ever-widening waterways of the far north). Often the comments evoke a general feeling of “who cares?”, a sentiment that former Saturday Night Live personality Dennis Miller expressed when he remarked that a 2-degree change in temperature is something he’d barely notice in his own living room. Such a change in the temperature of his own body, I believe, is something that wouldn’t escape his attention.

Opposition to the fight against global warming originates from many factors, the most obvious of which are the industries that make their money from the production of oil and other fuels. Their sponsorship of “non-biased” studies into global warming and its affects are a matter of public knowledge. But the results of such studies are picked up and used by those who are already cynical. I believe there are two more fundamental factors are at play.

Firstly, this crisis has been around for decades, and scientists who would normally be commended on their astuteness have been cast in the light of Chicken Littles. The consequences of this crisis have been slow in coming, especially to those of us in developed countries. As for what is happening in the developing world, I can posit that a good number of us have already been over-saturated by the likes of Sally Struthers and her pleas for more money. Turning the channel or putting down the newspaper, it comes down to a matter of out of sight, out of mind. And this apathy easily turns to disbelief.

The second factor is the consequences of global warming. Second-hand smoke causes cancer. Ozone depletion causes cancer. Lead poisoning results in a whole host of nasty symptoms including memory loss and tooth decay. As for the consequences of global warming, they are vast and world-altering, but they have so far escaped the notice of the average citizen of New York, London and Tokyo. As for the consequences that people are aware about: hotter summers and rising water levels, though significant they affect us indirectly. They are not personal. Our basement might get flooded, but we’re not going to get cancer or dementia. Our bodies will remain unscathed. At least that’s what we think. So those that even might believe in global warming grow disinterested in the whole matter. For them, this crisis isn’t worth the sacrifices needed to solve it.

These factors are what global interests are using to thwart the fight against global warming. Keep it impersonal and beyond the horizon. As Norm, the character on the television Cheers, once asked when a problem was brought to him from outside the bar: “How does this affect me?” But the warning bells are ringing. If this crisis is purely imaginary or hardly worth worrying about, why then is our very own Prime Minister following this series of conferences around the world, albeit attempting to undermine its objectives? Why bother?

What we will get from these first talks is a compromise. Countries willing to fight global warning won’t be entirely happy about it, but at least it will be something to get the big polluters on board. In the end, what we’ll be left with is the hope that those of us who are willing will bring an end to this crisis, and those who aren’t will learn to see past their own backyards.










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