Tag Archives: Canada

It’s called a tuque, not a beanie!

Happy Canada Day, to Canadians at home and abroad! (It will still be July 1st in Canada when I publish this.)

A few years ago there was a Canadian politician who was running to be the leader of his party.  One of the  arguments against him was that he had spent a considerable amount of time living and working outside of Canada.  I have never understood that argument because I have never believed that geography is what makes us Canadian.  In fact, I have never felt more Canadian than I do now, living on the other side of the world.

I spend a lot of my time these days with non-Canadians.  (Captain Obvious calling!) Of course, living in Japan means that I am surrounded by Japanese people, but even at events designed for and by the foreign community, I am often the only Canadian in the room.

The foreign community in Toyama is predominantly American, with a smattering of folks from other countries.  Generally, this is a non- issue. I hardly consider my nationality to be the most interesting part of my identity.  Still, being Canadian shapes who I am and how I am perceived.  On Friday I was at a party and when I was on my way out I asked the host “the train is at 9:45, I can make it to the station by then, eh?”  The entire room stopped its conversation and looked at me.  “YOU JUST SAID EH!”

And just like that, my cover as a generic North American was busted and I morphed into an igloo-dwelling, French-speaking, maple-eating lumberjack.

Great White North album cover with Bob (left) ...

Any excuse to reference Bob and Doug McKenzie, really.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The thing is, I am a stereotype. I speak both English and French; I love canoeing;  I’ve had several up-close and personal encounters with moose;  and, yes, I have been known to dress like a lumberjack.    So I have a lot of trouble explaining that while I fit a lot of Canadian stereotypes, it’s a very big country with a very diverse population.

Ugh… diverse population.  I hate myself for writing that cliché but I really don’t know how to avoid it when discussing Canada and being Canadian.  Unfortunately, the trouble with explaining cultural diversity is that it is complicated.  I am happy to talk about it in a conversation with co-workers or other people who really want to have a conversation, but so often that is not the case.  Most discussion of culture in my classroom is less of a conversation and more of a sound-bite.  It is tough to explain Canada  in one simple, ESL-friendly statement.

In the winter I represented Canada at an international fair in Toyama.  The Canadian embassy had sent an enormous box of promotional materials, filled with things like posters, stuffed animals, inukshuk carvings, and an Anne of Green Gables hat (complete with dangling red braids.) There were so many materials that not even half of them would fit on my table so I had to make some tough choices.  What would I choose to represent Canada?  A plush polar bear, canadian goose, or beaver? (The polar bear won because geese are jerks.  I lent the beaver to the Oregon booth.)

Living and working outside of Canada has made me think about being Canadian in a way that I never did before.   When I see textbooks  casually saying things like “with so much winter, it is not surprising that Canadians are good at winter sports,”  I want to point out that the weather in Victoria is generally a lot nicer than the weather in Hokkaido.  Or, when my American friends poke fun at my “Canadian kindness” I sometimes feel the need to kick a puppy*, just to prove them wrong.

At the same time, Canada is a big and tough country to understand.  If it weren’t for all those ridiculous stereotypes, the rest of the world really would think we were just America Jr.  I guess my question is this: Which stereotypes do we want to debunk, and which ones do we let slide in the name of national identity?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go drink some maple syrup.  Sorry.

*JUST KIDDING! I would never kick a puppy. I might say some mean things about its mother.

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This isn’t political; it’s personal.

When I was in seventh grade my teacher assigned us a project in which we had to write a business letter.  We had to mail the letter and include the company’s reply when we submitted the assignment.  Most students in my class wrote to Nike, trying score a new pair of runners or to Baskin Robbins to suggest new ice cream flavours. You know, normal stuff.

I chose to write to John Snobelen, then Ontario’s Minister of Education.  I was writing to protest a bill that I felt cut education spending and, in a nutshell, treated teachers like dirt. Snobelen’s office responded by sending me a form letter thanking me and telling me how much they valued their youth supporters. It was clear that they had not read my letter. I was shocked, but remained convinced that it must have just been some sort of mistake.  So I sent a second letter, outlining the situation, my views, and included a copy of the original letter. When the reply arrived I starred at the contents, dumfounded. Another form letter, yet again thanking me for my support.

It was then, at the age of thirteen, that I decided democracy was broken.

The next thirteen years saw me stumble, sometimes clumsily, in and out of agreement with my seventh-grade self.  I remained sceptical of mainstream politics and was often surprised when political players demonstrated any sign of integrity, or in some cases, basic human decency.

I was frustrated by the mentality that elections were about choosing the lesser of two horrors.  I was told that voting for certain candidates was akin to throwing away my ballot. I even missed an election because I got swept up in the thought that it didn’t matter.  (I’m not proud of this but I think it’s important to be honest about it.)

This spring’s election was a turning point for me.  The long-time MP for Kingston and the Islands, Peter Milliken, was retiring and for the first time my vote really did matter.  For the first time since I reached the age of majority, the outcome in Kingston was not a given. I knew that my voice mattered. I put a lot of thought into my decision and I was so wrapped up in the local candidates that I paid little attention to the national electoral events.

But  I looked up one day and saw the NDP gaining momentum in Quebec. The NDP? Seriously? The party that had less than 40 seats in the previous election? Any Canadian with any interest in current events knows the rest of the story. Jack Layton and the NDP won 103 seats, becoming the official Opposition.

Clearly there was more at play in the election than the party leaders, but there is no denying that Layton was a driving force behind the NDP’s success.

Regardless of  political leanings, May’s election results were refreshing.  Layton reminded Canadians that democracy is about choices. We don’t need to listen to pundits telling us we have only two choices.  (A Red door or a Blue door. WHAT?) Each vote does matter. We don’t have to put up with politicians who ignore our letters, nor do we have to settle for basic human decency as the bar for greatness in politics.

Layton, of course, put it best in his final letter to Canadians:

“Canada is a great country, one of the hopes of the world. We can be a better one – a country of greater equality, justice, and opportunity. We can build a prosperous economy and a society that shares its benefits more fairly. We can look after our seniors. We can offer better futures for our children. We can do our part to save the world’s environment. We can restore our good name in the world. We can do all of these things because we finally have a party system at the national level where there are real choices; where your vote matters; where working for change can actually bring about change. “

The news of Mr. Layton’s passing has saddened me more than I ever would have imagined. To be honest, my emotional response is probable in part due to culture shock. But it’s more than that. I am also deeply saddened by the loss of a leader who gave us something truly exciting in the political landscape, something worth paying attention to.

I’m assuming that people will start discussing Layton’s legacy soon, if they haven’t already.  I’m not a political expert and I didn’t agree with all of Jack Layton’s politics but his legacy in my mind is clear.  I, and my inner thirteen year old, will always be grateful to him for helping restore my faith in democracy.  Thank you, Mr. Layton.

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August 23, 2011 · 6:34 pm