This country is many things to each of its citizens, so even though there are fewer Canadians than Californians, trying to answer the question ‘What is Canada’…well, I could write a million words and only get the ones on top.
I can tell you what Canada is to me. As I write this, my Canada is all around: a river rolls by behind me, with kilometer after kilometer of Crown land, unspoiled wilderness, on its other bank. A vast army of mosquitoes, blackflies, horseflies, deerflies and for all I know mooseflies and bearflies are out on dawn patrol, asserting this is our Canada, too. I can sense the Shield granite underfoot, some of the oldest rock on earth, grounding me. The air, puffing in off Georgian Bay, is pure and clear.
I’m at my dad’s, on the outskirts of a tiny village that’s three quarters of an hour by car from the nearest town of any size: by Canadian standards, this is not at all remote. We measure distance in time up here: four hours’ drive from my home to my father’s (less, we’ve determined, if my dear friend Nicole is the one piloting the car); twenty seven hours by bus won’t even take you out of this vast province of Ontario; eight hours in a plane won’t quite span the country east to west (and it’s a greater distance north to south…)
The southernmost sliver of the country is heavily urbanized and almost indistinguishable from the America it borders. But even there you can feel ‘the true North, strong and free’ pressing down on you. That weight has several subtle and not-so-subtle effects. It presses the country together: our vast geography and hostile climate defeat the hardiest individual efforts to tame it. Community is required. This is deeply engrained in the social fabric of this country and it’s why we by and large resist efforts at Americanization. It’s not out of hatred of America or Americans, even though there is, sadly, a pernicious strain of anti-Americanism that exists here. It’s that our mythologies are fundamentally different, oppositional or complementary, depending on your frame of mind.
Another thing the weight of northern expanse does is inflate the prices of almost everything. My best male friend lives in San Diego, is both an American and Canadian citizen, and we’ve talked at great length about the differences in culture and living conditions between the two countries. Contrary to popular American belief, Canadians do not pay a great deal more tax. Particularly in tax-heavy states like California, it’s practically a wash, Jason reports: some Canadians may even come out ahead, when health care expenses are factored in. However, irrespective of tax, the actual retail price of many items in Canada will cause the average American to blanch. I pay more than five times what Jason does for electricity and a similar amount more for media. In the first case this is due to well-intentioned but fundamentally flawed “greening” policies of my provincial government; in the second, it’s due to a lack of competition. There are only three major TV and Internet providers in Canada and as far as pricing is concerned there may as well be only one. Like most oligopolies, the Canadian communications cartel fixes its prices just below the point of armed revolt. (In Canada, that’s ludicrously high: collectively, bitching rivals hockey as our national pastime, but taking up arms is seen as gauche.)
It’s a cost, there’s no doubt about it: a cost that some would refuse to bear. But there are benefits to being Canadian. Quebec aside, we have no distinct Canadian culture. That’s mostly a good thing: our culture is all cultures, living in harmony and rubbing off on each other. The word ‘Canada’ means ‘village’, and that we are: a global village. We don’t all know each other, but there’s nothing stopping any of us from knowing each other, and that’s a blessing. We have so many here, you know: less than half of one percent of the world’s population lays claim to twenty percent of the world’s fresh water (with more lakes than the rest of the world combined. Vast oil wealth is admittedly, more curse than blessing as it’s being blindly plundered in the way of all vast wealth. Socially, we embody at least the first two traits of our national motto of ‘Peace, Order and Good Government’ (that third is possibly every bit as illusory as the happiness Americans are in pursuit of.) But again, you put a myriad of cultures together and let their energies mingle and feed off each other and you have a potent and powerful force for peace and prosperity.
Politically, we are not quite as polarized as the United States, although we are headed that way. I’ve made no secret of the fact I consider the current federal government to be traitorous, representing a perversion of what it means to be Canadian. It’s not so much the right wing agenda: my Canada has a left and a right, without which there could be no center. It’s the total disdain for opposing viewpoints that strikes me as patently unCanadian: this country was built on consensus and compromise and when you remove that, you weaken the glue that holds our society together…
But governments come and governments go, and whatever our Prime Minister might believe. a government is not its country and a country is not its government. Canada will endure.
In the past, I’ve identified as a proud Canadian. I can’t say that any more: pride is for personal achievements and paraphrasing the late George Carlin, I didn’t do anything to become Canadian…my parents had sex here, is all. However, I can and will say that I am a lucky Canadian, a profoundly grateful Canadian, a Canadian in love with Canada. For an idealist like myself there may be no better place on earth.
Happy 147th birthday, Canada. I love you.