On Being Canadian. And Nice.


Just like you never notice your own accent until you travel somewhere else, sometimes you don’t acknowledge your cultural identity until you’re far away from it. Last week, I went to a conference outside of Canada, and did several very Canadian things that led to me being almost blinded by my own Canadian-ness.

1. I spelled out loud with the letter Z. That’s zed, not zee. And then I apologized.

2. I had no idea what the temperature was in Fahrenheit. And then I apologized for that too.

3. When people commented on how nice, and polite, and considerate Canadians are, I got all awkward and humble and denied it. And yes, I apologized for us not being as nice as people think we are.

The first two are all in a days work when visiting our southern neighbours. I can’t help it if our alphabet is a little different, and our units of measurement vary. No biggie. The third one, in hindsight, really bugged me.

You see, I didn’t just do the “aw shucks” maneuver and thank them for their kind words. I kind of launched into a series of mini-lectures on all the ways in which we aren’t always nice. I’m not just talking about our prowess in hockey fights, or our tendency to passive aggressively poke fun at other people behind their backs, either. I got into our own recent increase in populism. I spoke of our history of oppression of indigenous people and minorities, and how current efforts to make reparations might not be doing the trick. I had intended to be cute and clever, but I think I came off as a little bitter. I made one American stare at me blankly and say “Well, you’ve burst that bubble.”

The strangest thing is, I love being Canadian. Even with our extreme weather and funny accents, I’d still rather live here than anywhere else I’ve ever been. Canadian modesty keeps me from shouting it from rooftops, but we’re really quite awesome here in the Great White North.

Maybe it was my Canadian modesty that made me tell the truth about us, instead of just smiling shyly and saying thank you. I’d like to think that part of my identity as a Canadian involves admiring our way of life without idolizing it. My love for my home country, for my fellow hosers, and love for what we’ve built together don’t stop me from keeping a critical eye open.

Maybe what others see as humility is just our Canadian sensibility that we’re not done yet. Humans have been stomping around our rugged landscapes for tens of thousands of years, and yet, we’re still figuring out how to get along with one another, how to love the land, and how to express ourselves on foreign shores. Part of being Canadian may just be the recognition that we’re not finished, not settled, still seeking. Our village (look up the origins of the name “Canada”) was built on a tacit agreement that we would forever be rebuilding and repairing it.

We are a nation of upgrades waiting to happen, a living laundry list of bug fixes and new versions waiting to be released. I may have seemed a bit of a downer when I was chatting with my new American friends, but in reality, they just happened to catch this Canadian mid-hiccup. A year before, or a year into the future, I might have had a very different list of changes to report. Make no mistake, though, there is still awesomeness to be found in the process of working on ourselves, of constantly being in the midst of a tune-up. I don’t feel like less of a Canadian for asking “What can we do better?”

So, here we are sitting on another birthday as a country (heck, even this holiday itself could use a little re-evaluation). Please join me in raising a beer, or a double-double, or a butter tart to this 9.985 square kilometer work-in-progress, and to the 37 million toque-wearing, notoriously sarcastic, Kraft Dinner-loving, overly-apologetic souls who aren’t afraid to constantly pose and re-pose the question “What is Canada, eh?”

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