COLD COMFORT: On Being Canadian

For many are cold, but few are frozen.

After you've lived in Europe for a while you begin to defend Americans. At this distance the border blurs. Canada is after all the Disunited State of America, a monitoring device in the American attic, a crew cut on the American fact. It is, you tell your friends in Europe, exactly like the United States only more beautiful, and more boring.

A quiz-show host reads the question, "What is the capital of Canada?" The contestant frowns studiously, considers, then brightens: "New York?" The host sighs with faux disappointment, then shouts "You're right!" Ecstatic cheers. The washer-dryer.

To go to Canada for most of the year is to enter a deep-freeze. Ottawa is the second-coldest capital in the world, after Ulaanbataar. Moscow is comparatively mild.

The great Canadian poem in English concerns an American who wills his friend to carry his corpse across arctic wastes until he can cremate it. For days the Canadian lives with the burden staring by his campfire, lying by him in the night, till he finds an ice-bound ship, sets it on fire and throws the body in. He is already mushing his huskies away when he stops to go back and peek. Close the door, says the dead man, you're letting the heat out.

Almost certainly one's ancestors were stronger people, but why did they stop there? Other Scots went south, but there was fever down there.

Nevertheless the Canadian Dream has palm trees in it. The pathetic name of the La Chine Rapids tells the story: China was surely just around the bend.

As a child I experienced Canada as a suburb of Buffalo. Sitting on the floor before the television watching Wild Bill Hickock I said, "Mom, why aren't we Americans?" She answered. I don't know what she said. The myth of an entire people on a mother's lips and I was too absorbed by CBS to hear.

"North American" is an essentially racist term devised by Canadians to reinclude themselves in the American fact. It doesn't mean Mexico. The recent trade agreement between the three countries has embarrassed that usage.

Embarrassment is the Canadian emotion. Canadians are embarrassed Americans, assuming such a thing to be possible. Ersatz Americans. They made a wrong move in history somewhere.

Canada is the great no to the American yes; a control experiment.
The first thing the American Revolutionary Army did was to secure the St. Lawrence, at which time they asked the French burghers of Quebec City and Montreal to join them. The burghers said no, after centuries of Parisian corruption they preferred the administration of the British. That was the beginning. The first no. Anyone who emigrates to Canada makes that choice.

Canadian politics does owe its socialist character to having been a creature of the British Civil Service and is, depending on how you look at it, either typically half-hearted or a consoling contrast to the floorless rapine of American laissez-faire.

Quebec is an orphan. It was cut off from France by the British blockade against Napoleon and thereafter ignored till De Gaul. It speaks the language in a medieval style and accent, somewhat as Middle English usages survive in the rural south, and is much mocked in France. When Quebec films show in Paris they are subtitled.

The French and the English have been throwing themselves at each other for a thousand years. In medieval England the official language--the language of government, of the royal court, of the judges--was French. Canada is the ice-sculpture monument to that grudge. The tradition that the Quebec French are from Normandy spices the irony.

The real reason Quebec won't speak English is not that it is an island in a sea of Anglo-Saxons but that France won't speak English, or any of the other languages that surround it. (Neither, and for the same reason, will the French in Geneva, or the Walloons in Belgium.) The eyes of most of a remarkable number of cultures in the world, even Paris's, are fixed on New York, but those of Quebec are firmly on Paris.

Is a country with an autumn leaf on its flag meant to have a future?

Three things hold Canada together: the cold, for misery loves company; hockey, the sport of the cold, the cold pretending to be happy; and a hatred for Toronto, which is universal in Canada except in the west island of Montreal, which plans to separate from Quebec and join Toronto.

If Canada breaks up it will become what it has never been before: interesting.

But your European friends will not accept that Canadians are just Americans with goose bumps and visible breath. They insist that we are different from Americans, more "European" as Europeans say, meaning more cultured. (In France of course they spit on everybody.)

And indeed, it is Canadians' conceit that they are a gentler breed of Americans. Strong, elegant, unhappy. Non-threatening and disappointed.

I should say that this is English Canadians' conceit. French Canadians, who approve wholeheartedly of Americans and their so successful revolution, embarrass (that word again) our sense of ourselves by calling us les anglais, the English (and less frequently, les tetes carrees, the square-heads, an epithet we reserve for Germans).

At a dinner party in New York a young woman said to me in a tone of disdainful sympathy, "So you're under the British," taking a stab as it were at what a Canadian might be.

"We don't think of ourselves as under the British," I said. "We think of ourselves as the British."

Why was that a remarkable thing to say? My parents wouldn't have had any trouble with it but I was astonished, even as came out of my mouth. But as she later confessed on the pillow it did give her the appropriate frisson.

It is of some comfort that French contempt for the English, which I guess is us, is relatively new. In the nineteenth century Queen Victoria's portrait was displayed prominently in French-Canadian parlours.

As a kid in Canada, when you sit in the classroom not listening to the teacher, you daydream at the icons on the wall--the evolution chart with its gradually taller straighter squarer-chinned chimps and the map of the world, the two diagrams of identity. The green U.S., big yellow Brazil, and the pink parts: Canada, Britain, India, Australia, huge portions of Africa and Latin America, daubs and splatters here and there in the oceans.

That must be why, although Canada is a tiny country with a population one and one half that of New York City, there seem to be as many Canadians living abroad as Americans. Canadian children grow up identifying with all that pink. They feel at home in the world. Proportionately speaking, twice as many Canadians as Americans own passports (twenty-one per cent to eleven.)

As no nation knows better than Mexico or Canada, a thirty-foot dirty mirror lines the U.S. border. The whole world looks in while Americans look out at their own image. Antiamericanism is largely an American export, but it has been well received. It is a profoundly-felt paradox that the flower of civilization should have bred so much vulgarity and overstatement. Even the desperation is getting noisy.

From the films, TV programmes and news reports that form such a large part of European life it is gathered that America is a country of hayseeds pointing guns at each other while the elite put in regular hours selling insurance, or whatever else it is that keeps them getting into and out of cars so often.

It is commonly said in Europe that Americans have casual manners and a stiff style, whereas Europeans have stiff manners and a casual style. A case in point is the English art of the snub, the very stuff and procedure of their manners. Opinions, preferences, politics, mating, greetings--all personal and corporate relations--are expressed as snubs. A right-thinking Englishman can get off several variously-directed snubs in a single grammatical unit. (But rarely with a glance. The French can give really withering glances but the English tend as it were to swallow theirs. The glance is a little too direct for English style, and other English wouldn't see it anyway. To express something pointedly with a glance is to identify yourself as unEnglish.)

The mutual but incompetent imitation of America and England has resulted in a rigid American class system replete with accents, mannerisms, schools and that sort of signal, while England hardly has one left. English class distinction has been almost completely internalized as the snub, though rags of ritual do remain at the upper levels. Princess Michael of Kent was recently sent some something-or-other she had praised at the house of an admirer and, being broke, would have liked to pawn it. Her husband made her give it back.

You can't sin in America. Puritanism--bless it, curse it--has led to the annulment of sin. Charles Manson tried heroically to sin and achieved only a kind of psychiatric sainthood. In Quebec, though, there are still things to confess.

But to be broke in America (and here Canadians feel a share in the American reality) is a state of sin, traceable perhaps to no specific act but a sure sign of God's--and society's--displeasure; possibly predestined.

The abolition of sin is the result of America's commitment to transforming the world, over and against the European (the Mediterranean, at least) commitment to living in it. An Italian sets up a well-regarded trattoria between two parked cars and the location is part of the charm. In America the presence of parked cars at an area of leisure is felt to be crass. I haven't figured out why.

In Europe racism is a more normal state of affairs, perhaps a convenient way of delineating the space between parked cars. National borders tend to be racial ones whereas in America, land of abstraction, of countries founded on principles, borders tend to be straight lines. When a European border isn't a racial one, there's trouble. We may note the intolerance of racism in Germany in recent years, but reunification immediately raised tense questions about national borders--and not just their own.

The Czechs and Slovaks blame German ambition for a separation they do not themselves seem to have wanted. Divide and conquer, is how some of them tell it. And the disintegration of the Balkans is often referred, here, to German meddling.

The Germans were never Romanized, goes the explanation. Britain and France had four hundred years of Roman civilization but the Caesars were content to keep the barbarians from crossing the Rhine and call the other side "Germany." That's why they're like that.

This is something that persists in Canada and is otherwise unknown north of the Rio Grande--the racial border between Ontario and Quebec, traced out by a river and stretching down Boulevard St-Laurent at mid-Montreal. French Canada spills over into New Brunswick and lives in pockets throughout the country but between Ontario and Quebec the old European line is drawn. The racial line.

In Europe this can be the source of some amusement. Both the English and the French for example, are inclined consciously to impersonate themselves. Their Englishness and their Frenchness respectively are their most precious and, to them at least, their most endearing qualities. In Europe and in Quebec I am routinely consigned to what is called "the Anglo-Saxon world" and its to us so transparent qualities. Certainly it's hard to reconcile the vastly different British and American characters in any consistent portrait of "the Anglo-Saxon." Here's how the tour guides of the Mediterranean basin classify us: Americans complain loudly and tip heavily; the British never complain and never tip; Canadians complain loudly and never tip. In the middle as usual.

Nevertheless your reporter, while organizing these thoughts, has caught himself reveling in his identity as an a-word and thus compounding his sin--generalizing not only national but racial characteristics. He's been gone too long.

(Do not be distressed by his use of the word "sin." In America a sin can be cured, not forgiven.)

But alas, the corollary of these breezy distinctions, both in Quebec and in Europe, is that you are continually tripping over the most casual anti-Semitism where you would so much rather not find it.

Since Hollywood Europe has been a cultural colony, and since the Marshall Plan it has been an economic one--an American museum, just as Canada is an American park--and there is a natural and healthy tendency in both places to rail at the government. Nowhere is this truer than in England. Almost the entire repertoire of British behavior implies a criticism of Americans, and this is largely a matter of resentment. London thinks about New York four or five times a day. New York thinks about London perhaps once a month.

Is that American provincialism, or simply what it's like to be on top? How do we define "provincial" anymore? The article on Paris in the Encyclopaedia Britannica used to begin, "provincial city"--the English getting at the French, of course, but it has to be admitted that Paris is no longer the hub. Rome is much as it was when Gibbon saw it, plus traffic jams. Athens is a five-million-people mountain village.
Where do we escape provincialism? Los Angeles is, as Harold Robbins said, a hick town. New York? Perhaps the violence is promising. When the British were acquiring their empire you couldn't walk the streets of London without being mugged.

But Americans don't feel in control--certainly not in cultural control. Their painting was invented only after the war, their writers appear to ride the crest of an economic hegemony and their filmmakers fidget like bumpkins before their counterparts in Geneva and Milan.

It may be that provincialism is an obsolete concept. There can be no provinces without an imperial city, and America refuses to assume the mantle of empire although even her loudest foreign critics yearn toward her. It was said in France during the 1930's that the average Frenchman longed to be ruled by a committee of Americans, and that hasn't changed. They can't wait for the implicit to become explicit.

It's unlikely to. Historically speaking, Americans cut themselves off from the outside for good reasons. What has grown there has needed protection.

But of course that's not why they did it. The basic and most poignant American ambition is to be alone. Which is not something you can expect others to understand; certainly not your neighbors.

The unspoken feeling there is that Shakespeare discovered America, that it is the real Prospero's island, the end of the middle ages, the birth of the modern self.

What Americans don't understand is that the reproaches of their critics are in the nature of a family quarrel. Many Europeans and an increasing number of Asians and Africans have, like most Canadians, family in the States. The epitome of that attitude is the constant attempt of the British to assure themselves of what they call "the special relationship."

Americans don't want to know. The Anglo-Saxon horror of the family has developed there to the point that a significant number of citizens do not have families. This is routinely decried as a decadence but whether it is or not, it's how things are.

Isolation is a way of life for Americans. They are practical people and know that's the only way things get done. America is not so much a country as a world, like India.

Which is the problem the rest of us have with it. Americans want their lives and successes, their joys and regrets in terms of that world, according to that world. They forget that life is a camp and treat it as a closed system. There are no closed systems.


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