Thursday, May 31, 2007

On Canadian Identity

So it's senior week, which means that the usual suspects are too drunk to cause any trouble (campus liberals proved they could go without food for ten days, but jello shots are a different matter altogether...), and I have no rants or new material of any kind. A dip into the archives it is, then. This is an essay I wrote a long time ago, in eighth or ninth grade I think. I publish it unchanged, so my apologies for the out-of-date references. The writing itself isn't great, but hey, I was fourteen, sorry! Still, I think it's pretty good, and I still agree with it (or is it a bad sign that my thoughts haven't evolved over a decade?), so I hope you enjoy it!

Do You Want Fries With That ?

Yes, I admit it. I deliberately skipped school. I left early on the Thursday afternoon a few years ago, conveniently right before French class, and walked to a friend’s house. Once there, I plopped down in front of the television and proceeded to watch the Thanksgiving Day NFL double header. Late in the evening, after the last quarterback got sacked, the last coach got soaked, and the last belt got loosened, I slowly rolled myself off the couch and waddled towards the door, remembering to wish my friend and his parents a happy Thanksgiving. My polite offering met with shocked silence, with only the sound of John Madden’s voice resonating throughout the house. Yet his brilliant post-game analysis soon gave way to a tirade by my friend’s father. We are living in Canada, he informed me, and Canadians do not celebrate American Thanksgiving. Ours was last Monday, or maybe Sunday, he wasn’t sure. Here he paused for a moment to put down his Coke before continuing his poetic lament. I had become a pawn of American culture, he said, and had lost my Canadian identity. He was ashamed of me. I trudged home that night thoroughly humiliated and full of remorse for the tragic betrayal of my country.

We pride ourselves in being Canadian. Who needs McDonalds when Canada has Tim Horton’s? Who needs the NFL when Canada has the CFL? Why read Time when Canada has Maclean’s? We’d take Pamela over Laetitia any day. Not to mention Celine over Britney. Truth be told, what Canadian culture exists is nothing but a regurgitation of the American one. The Tim Horton’s/Robin’s Donuts rivalry shadows the McDonalds/Burger King one. The CFL advertises its unique Canadian game. I suppose that one down really makes a radical difference. Our celebrities, musicians, artists, and writers all say that they strive for the true Canadian identity when their real goal is making it big in the States. An integral part of Canadian culture would appear to be the simultaneous denigration and emulation of Americans.

As my friends often say, one cannot forget the beer. A recent ad campaign for Molson attempted to destroy the ridiculous myth that all Canadians live in igloos in favor of the ridiculous myth that all Canadians are drunks. In fact, beer appears to constitute the one domain in which we Canadians distinguish ourselves from American culture. Let’s get real. We have a serious problem when we take patriotic pride in our alcohol production. The pathetic nature of such a situation compares only with our staunch desire to keep Canadian spelling, which favors “favour.” Our national identity consists of a six-pack and a vowel.

The paradox of Canadian identity lies in its reliance on the United States. Almost all Canadians share the conviction that we differ from Americans. Our patriotism manifests itself negatively, for it does not celebrate what makes Canada great; rather, it brags about what makes Canada better than the States. We must stop intoxicating ourselves with delusions of grandeur and accept our dependency on the United States (we must not feel ashamed – they outnumber us ten to one). Canada must appreciate and even embrace the American culture that pervades our society, realizing that being Canadian goes past pop culture, that downing a Bud Light does not constitute treason. We must stop lying to the pollsters about watching Canadian content on television and unabashedly admit that, yes, we do watch NBC. Doing so, we will be able to forge a new Canadian identity, one of honesty, truth, and realism.

A huge gap exists between what Canada should do and what Canada will do. Canadians will continue to insult the greatest nation in the world behind its back. Canadians will continue to take pride in our elongated end zones. Canadians will still speak out against the American influence even if McDonalds feeds them, General Motors employs them, The Sopranos entertains them, and Julia Roberts titillates them. The only comfort we have in this expression of ingratitude comes in knowing that most Americans couldn’t care less what Canadians do or say, so they won’t get insulted.

Our hypocrisy extends beyond that. On one hand, Canadians fume when the Americans stereotype us, whether as lumberjacks or hockey players. We mock their ignorance, their inability to look past the surface and see the many other aspects of Canadian society. On the other hand, we just as quickly label them. We refuse to look past the greasy curtain of McDonalds fries to see the true greatness of American culture. This refusal must exist, however, if we intend to keep on deluding ourselves with ideas of Canadian superiority. For if we look past Jerry Springer to the books of Ernest Hemingway, the plays of Tennessee Williams, the short stories of John Cheever, the poems of T.S. Eliot and countless other works of pure genius in innumerable fields, we would begin to plant the seeds of doubt. So we close our eyes, for we wish to remain in our country of illusion, scoffing at the supermarket books of John Grisham and contently perusing the latest from Margaret Atwood.

Which brings me to the question: how come Canadians only display emulatory expertise when it comes to American pop culture and not in truly important domains? How can we so easily swallow up McDonalds franchises but not produce a Metropolitan Opera? How come so many Canadians can imitate Britney Spears while not a single one comes close to Arthur Miller? Why did Madison Avenue commercialism catch on and not Broadway artistry as well? It would appear that not all of American culture has overwhelmed Canadian society, only the superficial aspects of it. Many Canadians rush to blame the U.S. for those shallow imports, but isn’t it our own fault for somehow never letting the meaningful ones through customs? That selective assimilation reflects more poorly on Canada than it does on the United States.

Indeed, as one who frequently visits the United States, I know for certain that Canada only sees a diminutive part of American culture. Yes, New York City’s landscape seems littered with McDonalds and Pizza Huts, but it also has The Lincoln Center. Perhaps when Canadians drop their superiority complex and accept their American ties, a little class will cross the border along with the deep-dish pizzas.

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