Debbie Goddard fired a shot across Canada’s bow, viciously savaging us during her talk at Skepticon where she related her deconversion. She said — I am horrified to even have to type this; someone fetch my couch! — that we’re “not really foreign.”
More specifically, she related her experience visiting Oslo, where she was in “for the first time in a really foreign country, not like Canada”.
The GALL. The unmitigated NERVE!!! What a HORRIBLE thing to say to a Canadian! I cannot stand for this. No Canadian could. Now, on behalf of all of Canada, I am forced to apologize!
Wait, no, not apologize. Explain. Prepare yourselves, I’m about to Cansplain all over this.
She and I went back and forth in emails about this — when I tweeted my mock horror, she took the objection very seriously, even despite the fact that I was teasing, and I tried to make it clear that I understood what she was saying and understand well enough the phenomenon wherein Canadians can “pass” as Americans. To her great credit, Debbie thought deeper about the phenomenon and found it to be problematic enough to ask me my thoughts on the matter. In doing so, she laid out a few of her thoughts about American hegemony and erasure, about whether we viewed it as punching up vs punching down (which is a whole other post, honestly), much of which I agreed with and I’ll give you the synopsis as preamble.
See, America has this cultural tendency — bear with me on this one, I know it’s going to be shocking to you — to thinking its culture is the best and pretty much only culture. Foreignness is fetishized, something to be viewed at a distance, maybe through glass at a zoo. So since Canada’s so physically close that we cross-pollinate media-wise, and since we share a language with no more difference in inflection or patois between your average Canadian and your average American than, say, your average Georgian and your average New Yorker, we just aren’t foreign enough. Oh, sure, we’re foreign enough for your average American to see your average Canadian and throw a few “Canadian jokes” at them (trust me, I get it all), but given about five minutes, we’ve heard every single trope. That particular river runs very shallow. Observe: “eh”, apologizing, poutine, Terence and Phillip, maple syrup, moose, and those three things in my blog banner that I suck at. There, I’ve saved you the time. So there’s this phenomenon where we’re different, but close enough to pass.
Only these things that are jokes are known because they’re actually part of Canadian culture — at least to some extent (Matt and Trey’s offering notwithstanding). So I wrote a very long email back to Debbie talking about the cultural differences I saw, and I figure most of it could be repurposed for this blog. The cure for erasure is talking about the culture, after all.
While cultural blending happens more easily along the borders than elsewhere, there’s always a significant amount of bleed-through thanks to media — not only do many big-name talents move south to work Hollywood, but we get almost all the TV and movies northward. It’s tempered, though, by Canadian television, much of which doesn’t bleed south as much — or, rather, people in America care less about Canadian TV than vice-versa.
That’s not to say there aren’t Americans with whom I can bond over Kids In The Hall, or who know who The Tragically Hip or Amanda Marshall are. It’s just more rare than that a Canadian knows about The Rolling Stones (post-pub edit: whom I’m told are actually Brits, heh) or Kanye West, or who watches American Idol or Saturday Night Live.
I think that might contribute to the not-foreign aura we give off. Because we’re steeped in the same media, with slight alterations insofar as there’s a Canadian regulation requiring some percentage of Canadian content minimum on Canadian-owned broadcast stations, we come out shaped by society in many of the same ways. (The SCTV “Great White North” sketches make fun of these rules, by Bob and Doug McKenzie certifying them to contain 100% Canadian content.) And even in school, every one of our textbooks except perhaps the Canadian History ones seemed to have been published in the States.
And the diversity and easy blending of cultures seems to happen more readily with a shared language. Quebecois culture is very unique in Canada, and bleed-through even into New Brunswick is limited, despite it being officially bilingual (the only such province — well, I’m informed Manitoba is too, but NB is actually fairly evenly split population-wise whereas Manitoba is decidedly not). Canada is officially bilingual, but pockets of French happen more often than uniform bilinguality. I imagine the dynamic between English and Spanish is similar in the States. When I moved to Nova Scotia, it was very difficult to keep up on my French, and I’ve grown rusty at it from lack of use. I can impress with a well-practiced stock phrase or two, and carry out a conversation with some difficulty, but I still understand it significantly better than I can speak it.
The political climate is very significantly different in Canada, too. Most Canadians eye your political system with distrust and no small measure of disdain, as we see your Democrats as your centrist party and your Republicans as your crazy-far-right party. With only two parties, there’s no real balance, and we see your political atmosphere as something approaching bipolar — where on the one hand you have people trying to do right by everyone (but failing to have the teeth to do it), and on the other you have people trying to do right by only themselves (while having the willingness to forego even the facts to achieve such). There’s been a shift in that climate in Canada in recent years though, and I fear it trends toward polarization. Once upon a time, we had several “big” parties:
- The Reform Party — equivalent to your Tea Party, though significantly less openly religious (you can’t get elected in Canada by professing your love of Jesus — you’ll actually hurt your chances!)
- Progressive Conservatives — the semi-reasonable right-wing
- Liberals — the centrist party, slightly leftist (yes, yes, I know)
- NDP — the New Democratic Party, the left-wing progressive party
- Greens — the actual environmental party, and yes, they get seats now and again, making them politically viable
- Bloc Quebecois — a party almost entirely devoted to helping Quebec secede, so fairly “nationalistic” (prior even to there being a nation for them!), though they are, politically, slightly more left than Liberals.
So at one point, Stephen Harper negotiated a coalition party between the Reforms and the PC. Now we have the Conservative Party of Canada, and it’s unfortunately giving a lot of legitimacy to the furthest right elements that were once in the Reform Party. It’s something like how Tea Partiers couldn’t take over if they were a whole different party from the Republicans, and yet here they are.
In answer to this, in the last election, the NDP — who until now had not been very politically viable — made huge electoral gains, becoming for the first time the loyal opposition to the Conservatives, where most of the time the Liberals had that distinction when they weren’t themselves in power. So the Conservatives are still the majority, with (from memory) ~36% of the vote in this last election, but the NDP has something like 28% and Liberals 22%. I probably have these numbers wrong, but they feel about right without looking them up. The Bloc has all but disappeared – Quebec turned almost entirely NDP, and the Greens made huge inroads and has a Member of Parliament for the first time in fact. They and the remainder of the other unmentioned parties (e.g. the Alberta Wild Rose party, which is basically Christian dominionism!), split the vote.
And the attack ads now, under Harper, are entirely unlike anything I’ve ever seen in Canada, and they’re largely unprecedented in a country that has always prided itself on its political rationality and civility. And the attempts at building a cable station called Sun, essentially a Fox News equivalent, and the further attempt to gut the media laws that disallow lying on a “news” program, are evidence that Harper’s trying to build a similar propaganda machine to what you have here. It’s more than slightly scary that the “bad guys” are willing to lie, cheat and steal to gain power, and the “good guys” can’t bring themselves to respond in kind (by which I don’t mean use dirty tactics themselves, but rather vociferously expose these dirty tactics and decry them).
So yeah. Politics gives Canada much of its flavour.
So does quasi-British spelling! Flavour!
There’s also a lot of vastly different cultural norms with respect to food. The laws for what can go into your foods different (so you’ll get less high-fructose corn syrup in most things — Coke was for a very long time sugar-based, like in Mexico, for instance, though that’s weakened under Harper so it’s “corn syrup” or “corn sugar” there now — same product, different names). And you have regional foods that everyone seems to know down here as uniquely Canadian.
And some you don’t! Garlic fingers are a thing I miss here — essentially, take a pizza dough, slather it in garlic butter, grate mozza over top of it, crumble bacon or sprinkle with parsley, and cook. Good garlic fingers are comfort food to me, but they were even entirely unheard of in Toronto when I lived there for a year, which was weird to me. Garlic fingers are to be served with donair sauce, which is a reduction of sugar, evaporated milk, garlic and vinegar.
Donair sauce is originally a thing made for donairs, which is a Maritimes-unique doner kebab (originating in Turkey) minus the kebab. To make donair, you take a pita bread, cover with spiced meat loaf on one of those big spits that you shave with a knife to get the long strips of meat you want (I think it’s mostly meat, parmesan, bread crumbs and some spice combination I couldn’t begin to define without looking it up). Then you top with diced tomatoes and (often raw) diced onion, slather with donair sauce, and *maybe* add mozza cheese, bacon and/or green onions if you’re getting a “loaded” one. It’s something I still crave, and I haven’t found anything that’s quite like it here, not even doner kebabs.
And of course, we have poutine, and Kraft Dinner. Something about Kraft Macaroni and Cheese here doesn’t quite do the original product justice — the name is culturally identifiable as Canadian, even though it’s basically the same thing. Even the ads in Canada for it are ridiculously proud of the “KD” brand.
And let’s not forget “Canadian bacon”. Most of what you call that here is basically just smoked back ham, and thus unrecognizable to a Canadian who encounters it. There’s a bit of cultural appropriation going on there. The real “Canadian bacon” is called back bacon or peameal bacon, and it’s mostly a Toronto thing. It’s smoked back bacon prepared super-lean and rolled in peameal or yellow corn meal for preservation purposes. I think the smoking process is different, too, since what you get there is more bacon-like whereas the stuff here is more ham-like. It’s hard to define qualitatively, but if you’re in Toronto, it’s worth hunting down a back bacon sandwich vendor. So when people ask me about Canadian bacon, I usually joke that Canadians call that “ham”. The counter is “what do you call bacon then?” more often than I care to say, to which I have to answer, “um, bacon.”
The overall stereotype of Canadians being apologetic and selfless is totally true. I don’t know why, but I think it has a lot to do with the political factors I’ve mentioned above. But that apologetic nature erodes significantly in the Prairie provinces — Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba (aka “Alsama”). Very religious (as evidenced by the existence of Wild Rose Party), very spoiled and self-entitled. Part of that is, the Alberta tar sands mean the province enjoys a huge tax break because it’s making so much money. And by huge, I mean they don’t pay any provincial taxes whatsoever, and I believe they have a steeply discounted goods and services tax.
I haven’t even touched on gun culture, or the strangeness that is your Iced / Sweet Tea which varies by region, or your units of measurement being lifted wholesale from British Imperial units, whereas every other country in the world (and your own government and scientists, even!) has moved on to the more sane Metric, our health care system (which some of your politicians are more than happy to disparage without knowing any of the facts on the ground), or Canadian icons being completely unknown in America where American icons are completely known in Canada. Maybe I’ll talk about all those in a future post. I’m sure there’s a hell of a lot more, but I think this is long enough to show you that there’s a very vastly different culture in Canada than in America.
You’re essentially our slightly-older sibling — slightly-richer, slightly more entitled, and slightly more prone to getting into drunken bar-fights and doing everything you can to pass off the cost and the repercussions of such. We’re normally the ones to come in and apologize on your behalf, help you clean up some of the mess, and quietly try to make peace with all parties behind your back. Though, with our conservative government, we’re souring on that role, and are more likely to feel lately that we are owed something too.