The first 17 years of my life were spent looking at the world through the lens of a typical Canadian. It was the turbulent 1960′s and Vancouver was a vibrant young city on the shores of the Pacific Ocean; a magnet for first and second generation immigrants longing to escape the harsh cold winters of our prairies and eastern provinces. English with a decidedly European flavor was commonplace. Thick accents of Irish, Scottish, British, Dutch, German, Scandinavian, Italian and Czech flocked to the mouth of the Fraser River seeking work and raising young families.
We grew up listening to the same rock n roll as our American counterparts; the Beatles, the Doors, the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.
We also watched the same television shows;
Bonanza, Gilligan’s Island and I love Jeanie.
And the same news events splashed across the evening newspapers; the assassinations of Martin Luther King and JFK, Neil Armstrong landing on the moon and the race riots of the American south. We cheered many of the same iconic teams; the Green Bay Packers of Vince Lombardi and the New York Yankees of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford.
In the early 1970′s I couldn’t have known that an opportunity to attend college and play hockey in New England would translate into a lifetime living south of the 49th parallel. But it did. I can’t say if growing up minus social media in the 1960′s heightened my cultural awakening when I set foot in Hanover NH in the fall of 1973. Like most Canadians, I’d ventured across the border many times as an adolescent, usually accompanied by a team or sharing holiday time with my family. My initial impressions of the USA were that everything that mattered to a teenager seeemed bigger, brighter and slightly more glamorous. It’s impossible to recall most of those early impressions, but by the time I arrived in New Hampshire I already knew that while I couldn’t necessarily put it into words, I felt different.
There were the obvious differences that made me and my fellow Canadian’s stand out without knowing why. Words for instance like “toque” “chesterfield” and “pop” aroused an immediate stare followed by a conspicuous chuckle. A what?! I vaguely recall my freshman room mate asking me to say “about” each time we were introduced to someone new. The ribbing went both ways and despite being vastly outnumbered, the Canadian contingent on our hockey team returned the favor and then some when given the opportunity.
I recall being immediately struck by the overt patriotism of the Americans. But they were also openly critical, even hostile at times about their government. By the early 1970′s America was deeply mired in the throes of the Vietnam war and social upheaval was on the rise. Canadian’s it seemed, were those relatively unknown, peace loving snowbirds from the north. We were a curiousity of sorts for most of our classmates. While most everyone on campus was well versed in the history of the American Revolution and the American Civil War, few if any had a clue how Canadians came to be. In fact the same could probably likely be said of myself. If we Canadian’s sensed we were different, clearly we didn’t have the foggiest idea why.
It wasn’t until my final semester at Dartmouth College that I was gained some real insight into the history behind the feelings I was experiencing as a young Canadian living and studying south of the 49th parallel. It came from an unexpected source; an American diplomat and scholar by the name of John Sloan Dickey. A 1929 graduate of Dartmouth, John Sloan Dickey served as it’s 12th President from 1945 to 1970. He played a major role in US foreign affairs serving as special assistant to the US Secretary of State and then President Harry Truman. Following his retirement President Dickey continued his affiliation with the college teaching a class on Canadian – American relations. Intrigued, I enrolled.
So began a fascinating journey sparked by undergraduate experiences and the scholarly guidance of one inspiring and brilliant teacher. If you’ve read this far, you’re likely just as curious why those ‘Canadians’ you know, act the way they do? Or perhaps your simply puzzled why, given so much in common, Canada isn’t the largest and coldest 51st State?
It’s complex, of course. Then again, it’s remarkably straight forward when you turn over the histories of our respective (r)evolution and emergence from the shadows of the British colonial empire. If you will, grant me the latitude of certain generalities as recounting the detailed history of North America for the past two and a half centuries would necessitate something a bit more voluminous than a blog.
In the 18th century, while America was forging her identity essentially with “bombs bursting in air” Canada remained a society of loyalist colonials. The Declaration of Independence signified a new beginning for the 13 colonies stretching from Massachussets to Georgia, not the least of which was the birth of that veritable American motto: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
North of the 49th parallel however there emerged a far different creed: a generation of loyalists sought security, paternalism and a gradual pursuit of independence. If America symbolized a grass roots revolution then Canada by comparison could be best described as a top down evolution. The Loyalist passion for order and security from on high, superseded the considerable risks of a violent revolt.
Nowhere was this cultural divide more self evident than in the great Klondike Gold Rush of the late 1800′s. As prospectors steamed north out of cities across North America in search of their fortune in gold, it was clear from the very beginning that civil matters were to be handled much differently depending whether you sat on the Alaskan or the Yukon side of the border. The American tradition of taking the law into their own hands was already deeply ingrained and prospectors didn’t so much view themselves as law breakers, but as law makers. American’s did as they pleased; ‘until’ they needed laws. Born out of the New England experience of town hall meetings, laws sprouted from committee or an American affinity for on the spot democracy.
Across the border there existed no committee’s or vigilante enforcers of the law. This vast land was run by a small force of red coated government agents known as the “Mounties”. They would become a Canadian icon. To Canadians, “the pursuit of happiness” mattered little in the face of the pursuit of “peace and order.”
The myth of the American West is awash with Hollywood depictions of legendary characters, the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson and Wyatt Earp to name a select few. These were ordinary citizens one day and law men the next. Their authority was granted by the will of the people and naturally Hollywood made a fortune portraying them as all too willing to “shoot first and ask questions later.”
Juxtaposed along side the colorful American Cowboy, stood the faceless frontier protector across the border: the Canadian Mountie. Evoking images of spit polished boots, crisp long redcoats and pillbox hats, he represented authority north of the 49th parallel. The Mountie was part diplomat, part social worker and part soldier. When a Canadian novelist informed US President, Teddy Roosevelt, that in his life he’d never witnessed any man resist the authority of a Canadian Mountie, Roosevelt was incredulous. Trust in big government was already very much a Canadian attitude and the Mountie’s were perceived as “soldiers disguised as policemen.” Adding to Roosevelt’s disbelief, Mounties weren’t gunfighters; in fact firing your gun in the lore of the Mountie culture was permissible only as a desperate act of last resort. Firing your weapon symbolized a loss of control and under God and Heaven, Canadians were obsessed with order and civility.
One could argue that early Canadian history lacked the colorful passion displayed by our American neighbors. And you’d be right. No Boston Tea Parties, no Valley Forges and frankly no Little Bighorns dot our history books. While hardly saints, civil disobedience wasn’t the hallmark of our nation. Canadian literary critic Northrup Frye espoused that “historically a Canadian is an American who rejects the revolution”. A too simple characterization perhaps, but clearly the path leading to freedom on the North American continent was taking two very distinctly different forks in the same road.
Pierre Berton, an accomplished and famed Canadian storyteller and author of the 20th century recounts a tale involving an adventuresome American prospector and Judge Matthew Begbie, who invoked tough government to maintain order in the western province of British Columbia during the Fraser River and Caribou gold rushes.
According to Berton: Judge Begbie scolded the American scoundrel saying “we won’t put up with your bullying here” while levying the stiffest of fines: $100. “That’s allright” came the American’s jaunty reply, “I’ve got that right here in my pocket.” Eyeing him disdainfully, Begbie continued, ” And six months hard labor….have you got that in your pocket too?“
To be fair, the War of 1812 influenced Canadian thinking even if it was far from a conventional battle between two nations. Fought by a strange collection of southerners, Indian fighters and backwoodsmen on the American side and Loyalists and the British on the Canadian, it confirmed the less than favorable image already held by the majority of Canadian Loyalists of their southern neighbors: that of a ragged horde of brawlers and frontiersmen. Of course the American’s anticipated being welcomed with open arms as they liberated their northern brethren from reviled British oppression. What they failed to grasp was that wealth and power within Canada was controlled largely by Scottish Loyalists who disdained their southern neighbors as “uncouth, sharp tongued and undisciplined.” This miscalculation coupled with the Loyalist’s belief that resistance to the British Crown ( the legitimate government ) was morally wrong. Not to mention, this was a ‘cautious’ group, fearful that chaos and mob rule might rule the day. Out of this fear and contempt grew a contemptuous epithet in the Canadian lexicon: “Yankee”.
If Hollywood wanted to make a movie comparable the American “Wild Wild West” they’d have to hire a public relations agent to manipulate and somehow commercialize the Canadian version of “Civility and Order”. Doesn’t carry the same ring, does it?
Pioneers venturing forth to settle the Canadian West were drawn by bucolic images of ‘Ready Made Farms’ and imagery devoid of risk. South of the 49th parallel there was a different narrative replete with adventure and images of swashbuckling pioneers, feisty Indians and gun toting cowboys. While Americans no doubt nervously reveled in their Hollywood image, Canadians sought to fight growing American influence by painting a picture of crass vulgarity, thievery and showmanship.
A culture that shunned self promotion and brazen commercialism was born. And in large measure it grew manifestly in reaction to the overpowering American influence. While it’s been said, that Canadians may not have been sure who they are, they certainly knew who they were not.
As Pierre Berton noted in his many writings, public enterprise was indigenous to the Canadian form of democracy. Unlike the American culture of entrepreneurs and crafty business magnates that stunned the world during the course of the 20th century, Canada’s great businessmen were surprisingly politicians. The threat of being swallowed by their much bigger and more prosperous brother to the south spurred Canadians to promote economic and cultural sovereignty over profit. Put differently, national interest trumped that most sacred American virtue: the individual pursuit of happiness. The partnership between government and private enterprise in Canada has always been viewed as something that falls somewhere between ‘necessary’ and ‘good’. To the south, Americans championed their individual freedom and innate right to make a profit, in hopes of curbing government meddling. Loosely, Americans regarded their government cynically, more of a necessary evil, but an evil nonetheless.
It would be impossible to contrast the histories of our two nations without mentioning climate. Revolution versus evolution might aptly depict the different forks in the road to freedom, but clearly the Canadian road traversed a far ‘colder’ path than their American counterparts. It is virtually impossible to glance through Canadian history without staring at photos of fur clad pioneers in assorted winter dress. Canada has been and always will be a country of winter festivals, parkas and furs, toboggans and toques, curling and ice fishing…not to mention the national religion: hockey.
Climate likely played a role in our understated nature too. The thought of the “Shoot Out at the Moose Jaw Corral” on a snowy December afternoon with cowboys tossing off fur mittens and scrambling to unbutton enormous overcoats to secure frozen pistols, seems a bit of a stretch even for Hollywood. Canadians never seemed to embrace public displays of emotion from early on. The stark contrast of the Canadian ‘tip of the hat’ greeting versus the image of an American cowboys ‘slap on the back’ captures it succinctly.
Following World War II a European landlady might have revealed more than she knew when she observed:
“you can always tell a Canadian from an American because the American acts as if he is at home wherever he goes…the Canadian always acts as a guest.”
We’d be remiss if we didn’t examine a one of the classic ironies that exists between our two young nations. Given our histories it’s safe to conclude that north of the 49th parallel, Canadians have long held a fervent skepticism regarding the cult of personality and the individual. Institutional authority is venerated. However those in charge of carrying out that authority aren’t given scant notice. This is a remarkable contrast with our southern neighbors. American’s have forever been contemptuous and cynical of government authority. But in the most ironic of twists, they freely canonize the individual in charge with a definitive reverence.
A simple glance over our shoulders at American Presidents compared to their relatively speaking anonymous Canadian counterparts, (our Prime Ministers) makes the point definitively. Even the title of “President” versus the more tame sounding “Prime Minister” speaks volumes to the American love affair. American’s are enamored with the individual, the romantic notion of someone rising up from obscurity and achieving greatness. Canadians view themselves as part of a larger good and they seem quite content with the notion that taking oneself too seriously is a fate greater than death.
Growing up in a young and cautiously emerging country like Canada, I found myself rather uninterested in understanding why we act the way we do. It took a journey of 3,000 miles to very heart of the American revolution to lure me into this fascinating world of separate and distinct universes that Canadians and Americans occupy. For some 40 years I have continued reliving my experience through the ever changing eyes of ‘today’s’ generation of young Canadians.
Of course much has changed. Change of one form or another has most assuredly assumed it’s place as one of life’s indisputable givens…right beside death and taxes.
The age of information and cheap transportation has fostered more interaction between those living north and south of our shared border in a single year than one could have reasonably expected in a lifetime. Each fall when our newest crop of fresh faces arrives on campus to lace them up with our men’s and women’s hockey programs, I still see plenty of raised eyebrows and hear language that I’d almost forgotten. And for the most part, the resulting laughter is ever present as well.
Certainly I hardly imagine that our newest ‘Maple Leaf’s’ expect to see gun slinging cowboys or outlaws scurrying about the Durham campus. Just as surely, our newest American ‘revolutionaries’ aren’t envisioning joining up with mukluk bearing, fur clad igloo dwellers from the north.
It does cause me to wonder though what our revolutionary and evolutionary ancestors would think of their relative ‘offspring’ and the close bond that exists today. Yes cultural differences prevail, but they do so to a lesser degree with each passing generation. Though I must admit that the regular Can-Am contests that take place during the season to spice up practice, seem as hotly contested as ever.
Like the mercury plummeting every fall in the north and then spiking precipitously each spring in the south, we should expect to laugh and share our differences. Admittedly, I now realize that I am as much a part of one side as I am the other. I’m more than comfortable with that. I prize it.
I just never know who to root for every four years when the Olympics take center stage. I guess I’ll just have to accept that one way or the other, I can’t really lose.
So in the spirit of good natured Canadian humor I thought you might get a smile watching Tim Hicks celebrating Canada’s national beverage.