Although he realized the prime minister’s name was not Jean Poutine, Anthony DePalma freely confesses he didn’t know much more about Canada when The New York Times posted him to Toronto in 1996. It’s impressive, then, what a three-year stay, a willingness to crisscross half a continent and a reporter’s eye for the telling detail can do. DePalma certainly knows us now, from the Quebec Act of 1774 to the subtlest nuances of Canada’s endless selfabsorption. It’s knowledge he uses to good effect, along with his experiences in Mexico from 1993 to 1996 (he’s the first Times correspondent to report from both of America’s near neighbours) in Here:
A Biography of the New American Continent (HarperCollins, $39.50). An intricate account of converging economies and societies in the NAFTA era, Here also offers a bracing assessment of Canada. An admirable country, “respected around the world for its fairness and honesty,” DePalma notes, which “has turned self-flagellation into a national pastime.”
Just about the first thing the now-49year-old New Jersey native learned on arrival was the sacred nature of the border, an “invisible” line to Americans, but “part of
Linked to the U.S. by trade but set apart by history, Canada will survive NAFTA
Canada’s genetic makeup.” It’s the vantage point from which Canadians obsessively peer southwards, simultaneously resenting the influence and seeking the approval of the United States. (Canadian officials tell DePalma they are happiest when flying low on Washington’s radar screen, but he soon realizes their worries about being supplanted as America’s sweetheart by Mexico speak louder.) More intriguing for DePalma were the real differences between the “parallel universes” of Canada and the U.S.
Many of the distinctions he perceives are slight and rather comical. Driving down a busy expressway with David Cronenberg, DePalma watches in fascination as the film director veers wildly around other traffic while primly using his turn signals—“a typical Canadian contradiction.” But DePalma details more profound differences deeply rooted in North American history. “The willingness of Canadians to surrender a certain aspect of their liberties—and to bear the tax burden
required—in pursuit of a common good,” he told Macleans, “that’s the key.”
DePalma’s awareness of the power of history, both personal and national, is one of the grace notes of Here. If much of it reads like a modern version of Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1835 work, Democracy in America—
¡n well-disposed foreigner comes 1 to see what’s up—there is also I a touch of The Education of I Henry Adams (1907), the clas| sic autobiography by another American whose view of his native land was shaped by years abroad. DePalma knows his Italian grandfather, a pre-First World War emigrant, could as easily have opted for Montreal or Buenos Aires as Hoboken. Tens of millions of Canadians and Americans, inhabitants of countries formed more of shared values than shared blood, have that same accidental citizenship, but are now thoroughly steeped in their national cultures.
DePalma, in fact, is convinced his belief that Canada and Canadianism will endure is stronger than most Canadians’. “I met only a handful of Canadians I thought would have been willing to fight for their country,” reads the most provocative statement in Here. Asked about it in an interview, he exclaims: “I wondered when somebody would raise that! I’ve been prepared to put up the barricades and defend it, but nobody’s asked. I met so many people, especially in Toronto, ready to bolt south for jobs or education, all with a ‘good riddance’ attitude; so many piddling patriots who would wave the flag to feel superior to Americans but who didn’t seem to me to have true feelings for their own country.”
Like many Americans, DePalma thinks Canadians should just get on with it, and accept the fact, so obvious to foreigners, that we are a nation, a group of people who have done great things together in the past and could do so again, if we stop worrying ourselves to death. Now that Canada has bravely decided “to stop hiding behind its borders,” DePalma suggests, it may be the time for us to stake a permanent claim to our own piece of here.
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