Reflections of a Canadian abroad as Canada turns 150

July 1, 2017

I never thought I would end up in rural Virginia, 40 miles outside Washington, DC. Never. I never thought I would live anywhere but Canada, or anywhere other than Nova Scotia, for that matter. But there was this girl, and for the past 25 years I’ve lived on the East Coast of the United States.

The old joke is that you can never get a Canadian to talk about Canada when he’s living in Canada, nor can you get him to shut up about it once he lives outside Canada. I think about Canada a lot more these days, living in the United States where Donald Trump is president, where there is no such thing as credible gun control, where conservative legislators use religion as a tool to undermine hard-won LGBTQ rights, where people actually say things like, “I’d rather have freedom and liberty than healthcare” (whatever the hell that means – I guess that means they want the freedom to die early).

Living in a country that is in many ways so similar to, and yet so different from Canada has helped me focus my thoughts more on what it means to be a Canadian. I am well aware that people lived in the land we now call Canada far earlier than 150 years ago, and there is more than a little justification for the idea that we stole that land from them. But I also know that 150 years ago a new political entity was formed, and while we cannot forget the sins of the past, we also can’t forget what it means to be a citizen of that 150-year-old nation.

In pondering that question, my thoughts continually return to an article written by Robertson Davies, the late, great Canadian author and playwright, for the 100th anniversary of the now-defunct Saturday Night magazine. Robertson – ever the Jungian – described Americans and Canadians in this way: Americans are extroverts, Canadians are introverts. Americans tend to act before they think, while Canadians tend to think before acting.  By and large I’d say Davies’ observations ring true.

The idea that we think before we act explains a great deal of the Canadian character to me. It’s why Canada is so often seen as a humane force for good in the world. Faced with the question of immigration, for instance, Canadians tend to think, ‘how can we help?’ As a whole (and yes I do realize there are exceptions – controversial Conservative politician Kellie Leitch proves the point) we Canadians weigh our actions before we make a decision. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Americans, it’s that they just do stuff before they think about what it means in the long run. Sometimes it works – sometimes it’s brilliant. Far too often, however, it’s a disaster not only for America, but for much of the rest of the world. (Think Iraq and Afghanistan – and that’s only recently.)

On the other hand,  Canadians do overthink. Our governments are famous for this, for taking so long to “think” about a problem that the eventual solution is often ridiculous and ineffectual.

Yet as frustrating is that can be, by and large we tend to be far more tilted to the good then to the bad.

Oh, I know there’s so much more to do. The historical treatment of First Nations people is so bad it really lacks an appropriate way to describe it. My African-Canadian friends would be the first to tell you that life is not all bouquets and roses. We must fix our messed-up electoral system.  And let’s not forget that it was a Canadian who opened fire on a mosque in Québec, something that has not happened in the United States to this point in time. (Every other damn place you can think of, yeah, for sure. Americans will slaughter each other in every conceivable manner and place you can think of.)

There are many things about Canada which I’m very proud: Canada has had gay marriage for more than a decade. Canada has gun control that, by and large, works pretty well. Canada has universal healthcare (and while it may have its problems, let me tell you, speaking from personal experience, it’s way better than what they have in the United States). The way the government selects justices for the Supreme Court. The current makeup of the federal cabinet, which also has its problems, but also sends a strong signal to the rest of the world (one that was recently cited by Pres. Macron in France when he created his 50% women, 50% men cabinet). Our stance on climate change. Canada went through a constitutional crisis that would’ve driven most countries apart. Instead we ultimately made use of that most Canadian trait, compromise, and most Québecois decided that instead of separating, hanging around in Canada was a pretty good idea after all.

These days I ‘wear’ being Canadian like a comfortable old sweatshirt and a pair of faded pair jeans. It just feels natural.  It is just the way I am. I am a Canadian.

Happy Birthday, Canada! Here’s to another 150.

Copyright Tom Regan 2017

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Tom Regan Tom Regan is a journalist in the Washington, D.C., area. He worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association in the U.S., he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92, and is a member of the advisory board of the Nieman Foundation for journalism at Harvard.

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