Cold Comfort: Notes on Canada

“For many are cold, but few are frozen.”—Matthew 22:46
Canadian pretending to like the cold.

Canada is the center of the world.  You didn’t know that?  Oh, yeah.

See, your trouble (as always, I address the mirror) is you’ve got Mercator’s projection in your mind—which tells you nothing about the way things really are:
It was invented in 1569 for sailors, who couldn’t conveniently fit a globe—the very idea of a globe was new then—into the situation room.  And despite the fact that it’s so distortive it’s the icon of news programs, weather reports, travel agencies, Google Maps—it’s our image of the world.

But no.  To see the shape of things you have to look at them with the North Pole in the middle:

See what I mean?  Canada is between China, Japan, Russia, the United States and Europe.  China is not “across the Pacific”; it’s just along the coast.

Unless you look at the world from the top, you can’t see how our Siberian ancestors found Sweden as convenient to raid into as India
(see My Racial Profile); how Baffin is as short a Viking row-your-boat  from Greenland, which is still Danish, as Greenland is from Iceland; how the Saint Lawrence River swallowed the French into the lake-and-river system that Canada is, and drew those white-water guys through the strait of (give it the French pronunciation) Detroit, all the way to the Rockies where they shot the rapids down to the coast—so many places en route are still called Portage, where you have to carry the canoe—and also down the Mississippi past (French, please) Saint-Louis and Baton Rouge to La Nouvelle-Orléans; how the Titanic could go down off Newfoundland.  North America shows its Canadian face to Europe.  Sail around it and you make land in Brazil.

A Greek friend of mine who was shooting a film in Alaska was surprised by all the Orthodox churches there; it’s still got the Russian flavor.  Nabokov’s Ada (see Vladimir Nabokov and Twelve-Year-Old Girls) gives us a world in which western Canada is Russian, and eastern Canada French—things that could easily have happened—which  would have made the 49th parallel a, what, interesting border.

During the Cold War people with the Mercator icon in their heads imagined there would be a trans-Atlantic exchange of missiles.  Nonsense.  We knew the Bear was coming over the top and it would happen in our sky; and the DEW Line—the Distant Early Warning radar system—is still there, waiting.

The Mongols arrived in Canada first.  They like to come down from their mountains and conquer the world once in a while.  Their cousins took over China, and then India, where they were known as Moguls, so we weren’t too far off calling them Indians.  They pushed down through the Americas, founded this civilization and that, penetrated the Amazon jungle—wow!—and went all the way to land’s end, a people in love with the horizon.

Like the Vikings they’d go anywhere
And they managed to survive with dignity in this deep-freeze.  Ottawa is the second-coldest capital in the world, after Ulaanbaatar.  Moscow is relatively mild.
Canadian with a deeper sense of reality.

A Toronto friend once dismissed my exotic residence as “in the Mediterranean glare.”  “How,” I said, for I was not to be deglamourized, “does ‘the Mediterranean glare’ differ from the Toronto glare?  Is not glare a matter of latitude?  Toronto is slightly south of Florence, which puts the French Riviera well north of us.”

But she had a point.  Why is it so God-damned cold there?  I have friends who went unprepared on a fall day that was turning into winter—this was in downtown Montreal—and they feared death while waiting for a taxi.  Cold, baby!  It’s cold.

Almost certainly one's ancestors were stronger people, but why did they stop there?  Other Scots went south, of course, but there was fever in those places, and the cold tends to mitigate that.

And we’re not macho about it.  Those of us with the bread have hot tubs to slip into when we get home from the ice and snow.  Upscale apartment buildings have them on the top floor by the pool.  Nobody goes into the pool.  We all sit there in our Felliniesque basin, heedless of exposure to viruses, warming ourselves together and otherwise respectful of the social norms.  You can meet some good-looking women that way.

The great Canadian poem in English is “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” in which a Tennesseean prospector in the Yukon just can’t get warm, and indeed freezes to death, but not before he makes his partner promise to cremate him.  The Canadian is stuck with the corpse—where do you burn it in the snow?—and for days and nights eats with it staring at him, sleeps with it staring at him, 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, at which Sam, sitting up in the flames, utters the great Canadian line: Close the door, you're letting the heat out.

In French the great Canadian poem is the splendidly solipsistic Mon Pays, which most of us know as a song: «Mon pays ce n'est pas un pays, c'est l'hiver.»  My country is not a country, it’s winter; My road is not a road, it’s the snow.  (That’s what they play whenever they cut to Quebec.)  Gilles Vigneault.  He nailed it.

A legendary bank robbery in Montreal (the world capital of daring bank robberies) happened when the snowmobile was first invented.  The culprits zoomed into town on Ski-Doos, cleaned out a savings-and-loan and shot off over the horizon while the cops were still digging out their cruisers.

 “I don't even know what street Canada is on.”—Al Capone

Up north the Mounties don’t like snowmobiles; they prefer dog sleds.  When you get stranded out there, you can’t eat a snowmobile.

Robert Service, the “Sam McGee” poet, told a story about a man who had been trapped that way, and was found with his partner's half-eaten corpse and put on trial for cannibalism.  But “I didn’t eat him,” he said.  “I fed him to the dogs.  Then I ate the dogs.”

(None of these remarks apply to Vancouver.  When it snows an inch in Vancouver they abandon their cars in the streets.)

On the other hand the summers are sultry, especially in the eastern half.  I remember one July when Margaret Thatcher got off a plane wearing a fur coat.  We love that.

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

And yes, most Americans think of Canada as a monitoring device in their attic, a crew cut on their reality, an American park, just as Europe is an American museum.  Canadians, they feel, are ersatz Americans, with goose bumps and visible breath. 
A thirty-foot dirty mirror surrounds the USA—Americans look out at their own image while the whole world looks in.  Like everyone else, but at closer range, we suffer their disdain for people who are not American, one might almost say un-American.  What could we be thinking of?  (In France of course they spit on everybody.  See The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France.)  Ask an American where Calgary is, he thinks it’s where Christ was crucified.
The Calvary Stampede!

"Oh, we don't think of ourselves as under the British," I told her. "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 mouththough as she later confessed on the pillow, it did give her the appropriate frisson.

 “Canada is the linchpin of the English-speaking world.”—Winston Churchill

The first thing the American Revolutionary Army did was to secure the Saint Lawrence and ask the French burghers of Quebec City and Montreal to join them.  But no, after centuries of Parisian corruption they preferred administration from London.  Then the Loyalists and their slaves left the thirteen new states for the Maritime provinces and Ontario—et voilà!
Quebec is an orphan.  It was cut off from France by the British blockade against Napoleon, thereafter lost touch until De Gaul, and speaks the language in a medieval style and accent, somewhat as Middle English usages survive in the rural south.  Quebec films (the best art in Canada) screen in Paris with subtitles.

Three things hold the country together: the cold, for misery loves company; hockey, the sport of the cold, the cold pretending to have fun; and a hatred for Toronto, which is universal in Canada except in the west island of Montreal (did you know Montreal was an island?), which plans to separate from Quebec and join Toronto.

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 (see Post-“Planet of the Apes” Thoughts on Darwin) and Mercator’s map of the world, the two diagrams of identity.  The green U.S., big yellow Brazil, and the pink parts: Canada, Britain, India, Australia, pieces of Africa and Latin America, daubs and splatters here and there in the oceans.
That must be why, though Canada is a tiny country, with a population one and a half that of New York City—California is bigger—there seem to be as many Canadians living abroad as Americans.  We grow up identifying with all that pink, and feel at home in the world.  Proportionately speaking, twice as many Canadians as Americans own passports.

We would not make a good fifty-first state.  Canadians don’t like to be too motivated, and that is un-American.  The country was set up by the British civil service, which is to say by the aristocracy; and in Quebec the feudal order survived until 1960, when Jean Lesage led what he called la Révolution tranquille, the quiet revolution.  On both sides there’s an old-world horror of the motivation, the positive thinking, the compulsive optimism, the praise-the-Lordism you get south of the border.

Then too, though the tone in English Canada is predominantly WASPy and work-ethic, we are numerically a Catholic country—the French, the Irish, the Italians (Toronto is the largest Italian city in the world outside of Italy), the Ukrainians, the Highland Scots: Nova Scotia is known in the Church as “the holy land.”  We often have French leaders, and are shaped by them.  “Stay out of the bedroom,” Trudeau told his law-makers; in the States the law is all over the bedroom.

But most important, we have what is north of the Rio Grande otherwise unknown in America, a racial border between Ontario and Quebec, traced out by a river and stretching down Boulevard Saint-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—not at all appropriate for a land of abstract principles like “America.”

There is no question of assimilating French Canada into the usual model of a country.  The meal is too big, too French, too full of onion soup and Breton crêpes and Normandy pastries.  Too many arrogant waiters are unimpressed by our French lessons.  No, we are the Disunited State of America, and have the British indolence about such arrangements. 

Of course there are faults, I’m not saying there aren’t faults—the cold (did I mention that?), the Presbyterian sermons that pass for poetry there; and don’t try to actually do something, it’s considered obscene.  The acme of cultural achievement is scoring from the blue line.

Growing up in Toronto 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 a people on a mother's lips and I was too absorbed by CBS to hear.


  1. Thanks for the great read. I was unaware on how Canadians saw each other until I recently saw "Good Neighbors" ( 2010 Canadian flick worthy of watching. It reminded me of one of the great things Canada has going for it: government support of the arts and specifically flimmaking.

    1. Thank you, Dale. I'll check that movie out.

    2. Don't know why I'm always getting your name wrong, Dave.

    3. Aloha Dave Copeland!

      I totally agree with you about Canadian government and filmmakers. I'm so jealous.

      Your Friend and Hip Hapa,

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Merci Robert, j'ai bien aimé lire ton texte. Pour un anglo, je te trouve bien équilibré! ;-) Je vais le publié sur et si tu le veux bien. (and vive Google Translator!)

  4. Robert: Great piece, struck home. I live and write full-time in Southern California and am quite happy down here but every once in a while there's a little twinge... then I go to the beach or have a margarita and it goes away. I'm still very aware, though, of being a foreigner here in the U.S., even if most 'Murcans can no longer detect my "oots and aboots" and "agayns."

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Hah! Good to hear from you, Rob. Have one for me.

  6. Odd, I never thought of Canadians not liking to be motivated. We're maybe more laid back but I have often thought more industrious. But no, we would not make a good 51st state. Canadians definitely don't like being mistaken for Americans!

    1. It's a matter of degree, Shelley: compared to the British we're motivated.

  7. As a West Island Montrealer, let me assure you that the hatred of Toronto exists here too. The minority who aren't Habs fans tend to cheer for the Sens, but you're still risking grievous bodily harm by wearing a Leafs jersey.

    1. Alas, there's no relief from it outside the GTA.

  8. Robert, I'm a Scot living and writing in the U.S. When I came here in 1947, I not only had to explain where Scotland was geographically, but periodically was complimented on speaking English so well and dressing just like Americans. One young, otherwise bright, girl asked me what sort of houses did people in my country live in. (All this after half the American forces visited Edinburgh during WWII.) My happiest encounter was meeting an elderly Scots Highlander who had lived in Chicago for many years.
    "Eventually, you'll come to like this country," he told me, his accent as pure as the day he landed at Ellis Island. "Just one problem with it," he concluded, "too mony furriners!"
    I compare Americans' attitude towards Canada with the attitude of the English towards the Scots. Monty Python's Scots poet, for example, who strides through the heather, kilt swiping his ankles, reciting, "What's twenty quid to the Nurthern Bunk?"
    Before Python, stories abounded of English ignorance of Scotland. For example, the one about the English mother who advises her daughter, about to embark upon a visit to Edinburgh, not to take her gold watch with her--it's likely to get scratched on the heather.
    But let us pause and pray over the Tasmanians, who may have us all topped for ignorance towards their kind. I had to get in touch with a colleague who lives in Hobart, the capital of Tasmania. I'd lost her phone number, so called an AT&T long-distance operator for it. First, the operator asked me how to spell Tasmania. After a pause, she returned to ask just where it was. I said that while it was part of Australia, it was an island ... She returned with the phone number. Send those Tasmanian devils nipping at her heels. I guess we have to face up to the fact that we're not all Jock Tamson's Bairns.

  9. Correction; The Poet's qustion is directed at the "Midlund Bunk."

    1. Anne, that's a superb collection of anecdotes. You really get them off fast--I think it's called shooting from the hip. What are you writing now?