Like a lot of terrible cultural trends, I think this one began in the late ‘90s. It was the Smash Mouth era, the Puff Daddy era. Everything was determined to be the worst possible version of itself, and Canada was no exception. It was a poisonous time.
Enter, then, onto that defaced public stage a strange, defensive little advertisement for that beer that your loser uncle drinks. I remember it clearly, because it gave me that familiar feeling: “please don’t let anyone from any other country in the whole entire world be watching this channel right now.”
The ad featured an aggrieved, nervous man reciting a list of minor linguistic and governmental distinctions between Canada and the United States (we say “zed!”), and attempting to correct various misconceptions of the “skis on the roof in July” type. He grew more animated as he worked his way through the litany, but he never really lost the nervousness. It ended with a declaration: “I AM CANADIAN!” I put my palms over my eyes and stared into them for thirteen minutes.
Is this who we are? Because people liked this ad! People wore T-shirts with parts of the script written on them! “I have a Prime Minister – not a President!” “I don’t live in an igloo!” These are apparently things that we need to announce in sartorial form, to scream at people before even meeting them. These are our tepid little war-cries. And it has only gotten worse from there.
I moved from Montreal to Pristina, Kosovo, last year, and I exist in a weird little bubble of international people who are isolated by their lack of Albanian language skills and double-headed eagle belt buckles. There are some Americans, Dutch, Italians, Koreans, Chinese, Australians – the world, really. And then there are some Canadians.
You almost feel bad. The need is so palpable. “We’re so nice!” “We’re a little more sophisticated” “As soon as they found out I was Canadian, everything got a lot less Midnight Express!” You don’t know where to look, but it just keeps coming. “I think it’s because we’re just that little bit more socially-conscious, is all it is.”
We say these things aloud, at parties, and in groups of people from everywhere. You see guys from Amsterdam kind of eyeing the exits, girls from Tokyo wondering when the conversation is going to get fun again, couples from New York awaiting the inevitable polite exception: “well, New York isn’t really America…” You see girls who had joined the group to escape poorly-crafted Albanian come-ons (“Is for now… not for marry…”) filter back to their would-be suitors. Everything kind of dies.
And when the lights go on, and they’re handing out coats, there’s still some guy from Calgary talking about how we’re the third-largest supplier of potassium in the world.
SIDE NOTE: I once witnessed a guy from Brampton, Ontario, in a New York City hotel bar, actually go and get his laptop from the room in order to show a bunch of dudes from Texas that not only do we have Taco Bell in Canada, but that we actually have a shitload of them. You know, using Google Maps. So there.
I guess it comes from the fact that, as worldly as we perceive ourselves to be (and tell uncomprehending Bulgarian girls that we are), we tend to use the United States as our measure for everything. Never mind that it is a country ten times our size, and with a dramatically different history. We’re always better at guns than America, better at hospitals than America, better at potassium (or whatever) than America. We never boast about being better at any of these social metrics than, say, Denmark. Or the Netherlands. Because usually we’re not.
Turning our back on America.
It’s this same reliance on the American model that causes our patriotism to fail so embarrassingly. American patriotism, annoying as it can be, is usually based on a cocksure and unquestioning confidence in the country’s overall number one-ness. Which might be irritating given certain conspicuous failures, but they’ve got the numbers. Largest economy, largest military, most influential cultural exports. It gives them a sense of centrality; makes them feel like they matter. And you can’t pull off that sort of blasé nationalism when your particular foam hand reads “number eleven.” Even if you’re really, really nice. Even if you (sort of) speak French.
I don’t understand why we can’t just let ourselves be what we are: a weird little country with issues. Like Belgium or Switzerland or something. That’s a great thing to be! It makes people curious. It would fit us so much better. Just a funny, comfortable nation that happens to have national debates about things like cereal box fonts. Why do we need to be the sort of place whose flag is featured on beer shirts? Which, in turn, are featured on belligerent, red-faced party-ruiners? We wear it so poorly. It’s not us. I feel like we’re lying to ourselves.
I don’t know if the world really loves Canadians. I’m not about to get wasted and tell it that. But we haven’t pissed it off that much – not yet. We’re kind of under the radar, you know, arguing about street signs and putting gravy on things.
Cold. Comedically-inclined. North America’s ever-so-slightly raised eyebrow.
It could be worse.
I mean, we’re not America. But that’s not as great a thing as a lot of us like to pretend it is. We didn’t invent jazz, blues or the skyscraper. We didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll. Tailfins, flappers, Kool Herc, the Chrysler Building – not us.
So, yeah, we didn’t invade Iraq and we didn’t nuke Japan and we didn’t put missile bases in like a hundred countries even when they asked us not to. But – and I am totally quoting the Tragically Hip here, because I’m still from you-know-where – “no one’s interested in something you didn’t do.”
Further contemplations on Canadianism: