A funny thing happened on my last day at work in America.
Peter Jennings, whom you know, gave me an American flag as a going-away gift in front of staff at World News Tonight in New York City. One Canadian giving another the Red, White and Blue of a place I had called home for seven years, and he for considerably longer. This wasn’t just any flag—it had flown atop the Capitol Dome in Washington. Peter knew something in giving me that flag that I didn’t until that moment: that America had found a place in my heart. I choked up. The perfect marine-folded triangle with the Stars and Stripes sat in my hands, and I felt proud.
Go figure. A guy who clung to his “Canadian-ness” like a shield, confident he could learn from Americans without becoming one. Someone who revelled in discussing parts of Canadian society so obviously superior to Americas that friends’ eyes would glaze at one more mention of Canada’s guncontrol laws, socialized medicine or campaign financing. Somehow, “they’d” got to me.
But how? By getting to know them.
Canadians lament how little Americans know about Canada: the urban j myth of ski racks in Toronto in July has been told many times, yet who has seen it? The truth is few Americans feel a need to know about anym where else, including the state next to y their own, so we’re in good company.
It’s also true that we don’t know as much about them as we think. Our view of America is largely the one it exports to the world through television—filled with violence, sad, attentionstarved people on Jerry Springer and the shallow pursuits of the rich and beautiful.
The America I came to know had all of that, but not as much as television would have you believe. There is another, more open and generous America—different from us in often admirable ways. Consider three of them.
According to a 1999 Gallup poll, 56 per cent of American adults volunteer some time every year, compared with the 32 per cent of Canadians Statistics Canada found in 1997. With individuals less willing to turn to governments for social support, Americans step up to the plate more often themselves. My son, in order to graduate from Grade 8 in New Jersey, was required to perform eight hours of community service. My younger daughter helped a friend make soup and hot chocolate for the poor.
Another point. According to a Macleans poll conducted more than a year ago, 42 per cent of Americans attend religious services weekly, while fewer than 22 per cent of Canadians do. That’s a huge difference. Some might argue the strong puritan streak in American politics is one result of that (which helps explain broad support for capital punishment, the pro-life movement and the influence of the religious right). But regular religious attendance also exposes children to discussions of morality, selflessness and discipline. It may not make them behave better, but it gets them thinking.
Finally, there is something noble about the common thread through most of Americas history. While most great nations have fought over territory, religion or money, America has fought over ideas: no taxation without representation, all men are created equal or, if you’re from the South, all states are created that way, too. It’s a cruel, racist ■./Oí .*>■ and, at times, isolationist history—but
also one of ideals. America’s war heroes are almost always portrayed as reluctant ones, motivated more by the cause than by personal glory. America is, compared with previous empires in history, relatively benevolent. Canada exists because of it: if they wanted what we have, they could take it.
Those are some reasons why I find myself less likely now to engage in the ageold Canadian practice of expressing my own pride in country by dumping on theirs. I know Molson’s “Joe Canada” sparked a surge of nationalist pride, but when a friend e-mailed me the ad last summer, I felt certain it was clever parody. I mean, do we really believe “the beaver is a noble creature”?
I have spent the past seven weeks travelling across Canada. It’s a way of reconnecting, and a useful way for a journalist to measure how a place has changed. It has, in ways we should take pride in. We are bolder, more competitive and less angry than when I left in 1994. There have been explosions of creativity in the arts, high tech and print journalism. The battered Canadian dollar has meant we travelled the country more, came to know each other better, and maybe even shared more affection. If all the red Maple Leafs on Canadian heads, shirts and flagpoles are any indication, we may even have become a nation of flagwavers. When I left, that was still considered kind of goofy.
It took living with Americans for my own sense of being Canadian to mature. Perspective is often enhanced with distance, but you don’t have to leave to get it. Simply look around this Canada Day and judge the country for what it is. And ignore the impulse to look south for inspiration.
Allan Fotheringham is on vacation. Kevin Newman is anchor and executive editor fy Global National with Kevin Newman, which will begin airing on Global Television on Sept. 4.
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