How we see ourselves

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

There’s nothing like living abroad to give a Canadian a new perspective on the country. Here, three Maclean’s correspondents describe how Canada looks from afar

January 3 1994
How we see ourselves

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

There’s nothing like living abroad to give a Canadian a new perspective on the country. Here, three Maclean’s correspondents describe how Canada looks from afar

January 3 1994

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

There’s nothing like living abroad to give a Canadian a new perspective on the country. Here, three Maclean’s correspondents describe how Canada looks from afar

Get a grip, Canada! You are not the hapless collection of wanna-be Americans that some would have you believe. Viewed from the distance of the east Texas prairie, where they grow real Americans, Canada shines out as a paragon of civility and common sense. Despite what many people think, Canada

works better than most countries: its people have achieved twothirds, at least, of their constitutional aspirations of “peace, order and good government.” So why such insecurity? All Canada really needs is a little more of what America has in spades: hustle, chutzpah, moxie, self-promotion—in a word, showmanship.

There is a notion, most popular in Quebec but routinely advanced in every other province as well, that Canada is nothing more than a string of disconnected regions with few if any common interests. That dog, as they say in Texas, just don’t hunt. The people of Quebec’s sparsely populated Gaspé Peninsula, forced to make a living off shrinking forests and depleted fish stocks, have far more in common with the inhabitants of Vancouver Island than they do with the jittery residents of southern California or Florida. Toronto, struggling to absorb a wave of new immigrants as it adjusts to global competitive pressures, shares more with Vancouver and Montreal than it does with Dallas or Chicago. And if it is true that there is no such thing as a distinctive Canadian culture, how does one explain the popularity, even in Lotusland, of dyed-in-the-wool Maritimer Rita MacNeil?

What is evident to a Canadian living abroad is that other countries have at least as many—and often more—shortcomings. Germany is still recovering from wounds it brought upon itself five decades ago. Japan’s juggernaut economy has been brought up short by endemic coziness among its politicians, banks and industrial bosses. As for the United States, the vaunted freedom it offers its citizens to win or lose on their own merits (and the whim of the marketplace) has produced teeming millions of resentful losers. Too many of them are dangerously convinced of another all-American value: the right to settle grievances by force of arms.

What Canada fails abysmally at is selling, whether the commodity is widgets or national pride. Such great product. Such lousy market-

ing. It costs us dearly, especially when we do what Texans call “bidness” with America. In the land of T. Boone Pickens, we are too often Bob Cratchits—too meek, too mild and maybe even too nice. Indeed, our diffidence is a global handicap: wallflowers do not prosper in Hong Kong or Singapore, either.

We surely can do better: a nation capable of producing a Michael J. Fox or a Céline Dion must know something about showmanship. The rest of us should be taking notes.

The sky is blue and the grass is green, most people smile, few smoke and a visitor can wear a new pair of cream-colored trousers for three weeks—and not pick up a single speck of dust.

Recognize the place? In this winter of discontent and regional discord, many Canadians would not. But such impressions are commonplace among Russian tourists who have visited the northern half of North America this past year. To Russians and other former Soviet citizens, Canada remains a beacon of hope—a country that, in spite of its problems, has managed to get things more or less right.

Hearing praise of that sort can be an unsettling experience for expatriate Canadians. Many of us are more accustomed to Old World digs to the effect that Canada is but a dull suburb of the United States.

But mild anti-Americanism is commonplace in Moscow, and Russians are quick to discern differences between the two countries on either side of the 49th parallel. Unlike Americans, they say,

Canadians do not portray themselves as emissaries from a more advanced land, bringing hi-tech solu tions to a backward society. And they generally re gard Canadians as more flexible than Americansready and willing to adapt their skills to local conditions. As one Moscow-based Canadian diplo mat put it, "Americans are always using the old I-.~ ii-~-J-. .~ .~..

cliché about how it is better to teach a man how to use a fishing rod rather than give him a fish. That’s patronizing. Russians already know how to do things. We want to show them how they can do them better.”

On the other hand, Eastern Europeans who are familiar with current events in Canada are often fascinated by Quebec separatism and the threat to Canadian federalism. From Armenia to Vladivostok, wherever nationalism, tribalism or regionalism has emerged across the old Soviet empire, former Soviets confront visiting Canadians with that issue, much like poker players tossing down a challenging ace. Some go on to cite the velvet divorce that dissolved Czechoslovakia or—a grislier example—the bloodletting in former Yugoslavia. Those developments are proof, they say, that the times do not favor federations. Is Canada, they ask, also sliding towards breakup?

There are, to be sure, considerable differences between Canada’s

loose federation and the old centralized unions of Eastern Europe, countries that were bound together by the iron grip of totalitarianism. But even some of the most ardent nationalists within the old Soviet empire advance the hope that future generations will not remember Canada as simply a failed experiment in muliticulturalism. Anyway, they add, whatever happened to that other much-hailed Canadian characteristic—a willingness to compromise?

A sad-eyed east German engineer by the name of Gunter Eckstein might have put it best. In the summer of 1990, Eckstein had what may have been one of the worst jobs in

the world—environmental director in the most polluted town in Europe, a filthy hole called Bitterfeld where the sun struggled with only modest success to break through the coal-dark haze of a July afternoon. After a depressing morning showing a visitor around chemical dumps and stinking ponds, Eckstein suddenly turned and blurted out with unexpected passion: “Kanada ist mein träumland”—Canada is my dreamland.

Dreams—of clean water, fresh air, open spaces and decent lives. For many Europeans, especially those in the more rickety and crueller parts of the continent, Canada is not so much a real place as a canvas upon which to project their fantasies, and a momentary mental refuge from their nightmares. It is easy, therefore, for a Canadian seeking a quick boost to the sagging national ego to come away feeling pretty darn good. What are our problems compared with the ancient feuds and bloody rivalries that plague so many less-fortunate parts of the world?

It does no harm for Canadians to take satisfaction from those reflections, and if it makes us think better of ourselves in the bleak midwinter then it may even do some modest good. But it misses perhaps the most important point: that the true measure of a people is not the tribulations forced on them by history, but the quality of their responses. And by that standard, a Canadian roaming around the back rooms of sour old Europe can just as easily come away feeling humbled.

Humbled by such people as a Czech priest named Vaclav Maly, stripped of the right to preach by a stupid and oppressive regime, but never bitter and never vengeful when he and his friends joyously won their fight for freedom. Or by Gunter Eckstein in Bitterfeld, calmly vowing against all odds to turn his poisoned home into something clean and decent— “like those pictures of Alberta I used to look at.” Humbled, certainly, by any number of nurses, doctors and ordinary folk in the epicentre of contempo-

rary horror, Sarajevo, toiling to save not only the lives of their neighbors, but the very soul of their people.

Beside such people, the plaints of a Torontonian bemoaning the fact that his house is no longer soaring in value, or that he must pay GST on the price of a haircut, or that his politicians travel for free on the few remaining railways, do not seem quite so significant. So by all means feel good about the country—but keep in mind that even the most benighted nation has something to teach us, too.