A big part of being Canadian is trying to define what it means to be Canadian. If countries aged the way people do, Canada would still be in its mid-20s — an experimental stage, brimming with potential but lacking direction and dangerously self-conscious.
To try to fill this void, in the 1990s the Canadian government approved a series of “Heritage Minutes,” which played during primetime on national television networks. Each about a minute in length, they provide some insight into why Canadians are the way they are.
1. “No, It’s the Village, You Moron”
Our country’s name is literally a mistake. French explorer Cartier had just landed in what would become la Nouvelle France when some Indian chief was like, “Let’s go over to those houses and talk,” and the Priest thought the word for the village referred to the nation where they landed.
Canada basically has three founding cultures: English, French and Native — or another way to put it is that we are a “Metis” culture, in that how we interact is the direct result of how our parents and grandparents figured out how to deal with the fact that most of them didn’t understand everyone around them.
2. “It’ll Never Fly, Joe”
Success for Canadian artists usually means making in the States, which means that half the time, really successful Canadians basically become Americans. That means that Canadian art often gets viewed by definition as second rate, and it feeds into this whole vicious cycle of insecurity and protectionism.
Canadian writers have to deal with a near monopoly on the publishing industry by the Canadian Council for the Arts — not a publisher in itself, but the distributor of substantial government funding made in the name of sustaining Canadian art. It’s a sweet gig, if you can get it. If you can’t find an “in” though, you’re basically fucked.
3. “We Have to Keep Our Irish Names!”
The Irish flooded into Canada at the same time as in the United States, except here some learned to speak French. I used to teach English in Quebec City, and this chick I worked with told me about how her students used say they were “cent pour cent Québecois O’Neil” without a hint of irony.
It’s easy to define Canada in terms of a French-English, but that really doesn’t tell the whole story. The reason the Irish could assimilate so well with the French-Canadians in Quebec is because they were both Catholics. That worked until the 1960s, when most people in Quebec stopped going to church; in the resulting identity crisis, Quebec held two independence referendums.
4. “One Dead Chinese Man for Every Mile”
Some people now think that multiculturalism was a fable cooked up by former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, and as a cultural narrative, it is. But as a practical reality, it’s not, whether in prewar rural Northwestern Alberta, 1950s Montreal or current downtown Toronto. This also explains why there is a Chinese restaurant in every single small town in Western Canada.
5. “How We See Americans”
Yeah, we do see you guys as pussys who would lose a war if it came down to hand-to-hand combat.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are perhaps Canada’s best-known international symbol, a paramilitary police organization that does everything from collecting domestic intelligence to patrolling the streets in a few major cities and pretty much anywhere up north where they can’t scrape together a municipal police force. Lately, their reputation has taken a couple of big hits, including allegations of rampant sexual harassment and that time when a drunk Polish guy who had been stuck in Vancouver’s airport for like three days started waving around a stapler and a bunch of officers tasered him to death, then fudged reports about the incident and got away with it.
6. “Winnie the Pooh”
And that’s the story of why anyone would name a main character in a story Winnie the fucking Pooh.
Winnipeg is often used as a butt for jokes by Americans, being depicted as the destination of last resort for anyone in their right mind. To add insult to injury, The Weakerthans came out with a song where the chorus goes “I Hate Winnipeg,” which got kind of big.
You really have to be from the city to know what this is all about. I grew up on Gateway Road, just across the tracks from the city’s infamous North End. What you have to realize is that we’re just messing with all of you. Yes, the temperature is -30 for weeks at a time, we’re a seven-hour drive from fucking Minneapolis, and you spend the summers fist-fighting mosquitoes or the perennial overflowing of the Red River’s banks. But there’s a great arts scene, plenty of ethnic diversity (some of the largest Filipino, Eritrean and Icelandic communities in the world outside of their home countries) and, for my money, the best place in the world for an afternoon drunk: a hotel bar a few blocks north of Portage and Main. So when we say we “hate” Winnipeg, what we mean is that we secretly love it.
7. “That Ship’s Gonna Blow!”
Halifax is basically Canada’s Boston, for better and for worse. That means plenty of hipsters, great live music and lots of colonial-era war relics. The difference is that whereas Boston was where the Revolutionaries kicked off the whole “Get Rid of the British” thing, in Halifax they built a huge fort to defend the harbour in case some of those Yankee ne’er-do-wells ventured north to spill some of that “Freedom and Liberty” vitriol.
8. “Is This Normal?”
During undergrad, I used to catch the bus in front of the Women’s Penitentiary, and Kingston Pen was a few blocks down, on the shore of Lake Ontario. Still not sure who decided to build a university residence literally across the street from some of Canada’s worst criminals.
Canada has a spotty record when it comes to human rights. Women in Quebec didn’t get the right to vote until 1944, and Natives had to wait until 1960. In fact, our version of the U.S. Bill of Rights, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, didn’t become part of the Constitution until 1982 — and even then, it barely passed due to squabbling between provincial governments.
Still, in my opinion, Canada’s finished product is superior to its American counterpart. Having freedoms guaranteed only as far as can be “reasonably justified” means that Westboro Baptist Church-type Freedom of Speech foolishness probably wouldn’t fly up here.
9. “Both of Ye Know I Cannah Read a Woruhd”
I really wish this wasn’t so funny but it is. “Aaaahh Misturh Clarence …” followed by furling eyebrows.
I spent a summer working on a farm and teaching English to Mexican migrant workers as part of a program with Frontier College, a non-profit devoted to eliminating illiteracy. Unlike in the States, migrant farm labour here is legal and taxed; like in the States, a lot of the time the workers still end up getting screwed.
10. “First Goalie to Put on a Mask”
When you watch this one, you realize how stupid people were 50 years ago — actually, you know what? I call bullshit on this one. I bet he was probably like, “Hey coach, I’m gonna put on a mask now because I’m tired of getting hit in the fucking face,” and his coach was like, “Okay.”
Hockey in Canada is religion. This means you don’t have to watch every Saturday, but you do have to show up on the important days (instead of Christmas and Easter, that means May and June when the playoffs start). This is why it’s a shame and an abomination that a Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since … was it the Canadiens in ‘94? Are we seriously going on 20 years? If you’re Canadian you know the sinking feeling we get watching a gap-toothed kid from Sault Ste. Marie hoist Lord Stanley’s grail while wearing a jersey from some god awful place like Anaheim or Tampa Bay. Do they even know what “icing the puck” means?
So there you have it: A few clichés and a few quirks, but very much still a work in progress. We’re still figuring out how to define ourselves in a way that is more substantial than pointing out where we differ from Americans, but that is something that is actually getting easier. If Canada is in its mid-20s, these days the U.S. seems more like the college quarterback who blew his knee out when he went pro and now is getting way too into painkillers.
At the closing of the 1900s, our Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier declared that the 20th century would belong to Canada. Although this was heartily scoffed at in the decades that followed, he may have just been ahead of his time. With vast expanses of land opening up due to global warming, some of the world’s largest oil and fresh water reserves, and an educated, culturally rich population, Canada may just be on the cusp of greatness. But we’re not about to go and make a big deal out of it. After all, that wouldn’t be very Canadian.
Nelson Peters is a writer from Winnipeg, Manitoba. He has self-published two books: The Great Canadian Novel by Nelson J. Peters and Mistakes, a collection of nonfiction and short stories. He is a graduate of the faculties of law at Université de Moncton and Université Laval and Queen’s University, Canada.
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