The Back Page

SOUTHERN (DIS)COMFORT

On the eve of a U.S. stint, our Ottawa editor reflects on life there—and here

JOHN GEDDES August 26 2002
The Back Page

SOUTHERN (DIS)COMFORT

On the eve of a U.S. stint, our Ottawa editor reflects on life there—and here

JOHN GEDDES August 26 2002

SOUTHERN (DIS)COMFORT

On the eve of a U.S. stint, our Ottawa editor reflects on life there—and here

The Back Page

JOHN GEDDES

AFTER LIVING my entire life in Canada, I’m off for a nine-month stint in the United States. I’d like to boast that I head south unburdened by any nasty antiAmerican sentiments—but videotape evidence might surface to prove me a liar.

That tape, if it exists, is a panning shot of the stands on Sept. 8,1996 at Ottawa’s Corel Centre, during the United StatesRussia hockey World Cup semifinal. There I am, high in the cheap seats, cheering on the Russians like most of the crowd, and— I’m ashamed to confess—lustily joining in with the “traitor, traitor” chant whenever Brett Hull gets near the puck.

Why did I boo a terrific scorer who grew up in Canada and who is, besides, son of Canadian icon Bobby Hull? Because he laced up for the Yanks. Never mind that he joined the U.S. squad only after being passed over for Team Canada back in 1986. Excuses, excuses.

So I had an America-phobic episode, while Team USA beat the Russians 5-2 that night. What else is new? Americans are winners. That’s what makes going there so seductive, so logical—and so grave a transgression to a certain kind of Canadian. My kind, it seems. We’re hypersensitive to anything that looks like capitulation. This occasionally sets off obnoxious behaviour, such as the taunting of an example of brawn drain.

More often, our defensiveness manifests itself less aggressively: sometimes, it’s even disguised as friendliness. Take last fall’s “Canada Loves New York” weekend, which I attended. The plan was for thousands of Canadians to flood into Manhattan to show support post-Sept. 11. What I witnessed, though, was more like a “Canada Loves Canada for Loving New York” celebration. Canadians waved and wore the Maple Leaf, belted out 0 Canada—twice—and repeatedly congratulated each other for being there. What nice neighbours we are. They’re lucky to have us.

The gesture would have been more

touching if we had wrapped ourselves in the Stars and Stripes, and stuck to telling the Americans what great neighbours they are. Sadly, we didn’t. Even at Ground Zero—surely a place to accede to American patriotism—Canadian visitors seemed driven to assert their identity even as they paid their respects. Along with messages of condolence attached to security barriers were several Canadian flags. I watched a young woman take one out of her purse and drape it over her shoulders as she walked up to the pit. The gesture embarrassed me. Yet I know its source: our gut reaction to any evidence of American pride or prowess is to declare our difference.

These declarations aren’t necessarily more rational when stripped of flag-waving jingoism. Let’s say Canada strikes a stance at the UN that puts us at odds with the U.S. How much of the favourable domestic reaction is based on a grasp of foreign policy, and how much on glee at tweaking Washington? Consider a Canadian bookstore browser’s decision to pick up Clara Callan before The Cor-

rections. Is that because of an expectation that a prize-winning Canadian novel will be more satisfying than an equally acclaimed American book, or out of bias in favour of the homegrown?

Thoughtful Canadian nationalists will object at this point. Surely supporting Canadian literature and foreign policy shouldn’t be lumped in with irrational expressions of resentment toward the U.S.? Enlightened voices tell us that being pro-Canada must be distinguished from being anti-America. In Yankee Go Home?, his book on Canada’s U.S.-bashing heritage, historian Jack Granatstein declares that we’re “finally outgrowing our reflexive anti-Americanism.”

How civilized. How unlikely. A country isn’t about reasoned choices alone. For every intelligent argument about, say, government vs. private health insurance, there’s one of the three-down vs. fourdown football variety. And to those Canadians who prefer four downs, I say... traitor, traitor.

Staying Canadian is not entirely a matter of what really matters. Many national differences are trivial. They’re about songs, regional accents, the alcohol content of beer. We cherish them anyway. They sustain us in the long intervals between moments when we’re reminded of the deeper reasons nation states exist. Douglas Coupland’s new picture book Souvenir of Canada delights because it revels in the seemingly inconsequential images of national identity—like the profile of a beer bottle (stubby) or on a postage stamp (the Queen, also stubby). America’s products, slogans and entertainments are all around us. Coupland sees how that makes us cling all the more lovingly to our own pop ephemera.

Nobody can be thinking all the time. Our rejection of some aspects of the American Way gets tangled up with everyday reactions that aren’t always pretty. I’ll stifle those instincts, as best I can, while in the States. It shouldn’t be hard: most of the time, I like Americans and admire America. And if, when I return, that admiration has grown beyond acceptable Canadian limits, I know the home crowd will be quick to let me know about it. flfl

John Geddes will attend Harvard University on a Nieman Fellowship, jgeddes@macleans.ca