Friday, 26 October 2012

Canadian Peevish Streak Tarnishes National Image

I am Canadian. I’ll say that again, especially for the benefit of any other Canadians reading this. I am Canadian, and I live, most of the time, in Toronto. My partner is American. By a strange coincidence, my ex-partner also happens to be American; strange, because I met my former partner in England and my current one in Canada. But that’s what Americans do, isn’t it? They roam around the globe, being loud and rude and promoting their obnoxious American ways. At least that’s what a lot of my fellow Canadians think, and, oh, how tired I’ve grown of it. I’m tired of a defining part of the Canadian character being a reflexive hatred towards our only contiguous neighbour, and most particularly towards thinking, feeling individuals who leave that nation and, for varying reasons, find themselves in Canada.

Because that’s not the way we, Canadians, like to portray ourselves, is it? On the contrary, we are a nation that glories in our spectacular politeness. It’s a staple of almost every Canadian stand-up routine: some variation on the theme of a Canadian who is, literally or figuratively, steamrollered (frequently by a particularly large and aggressive American steamroller) and who reveals their Canadian-ness by apologizing to the offending driver as he or she flattens them. Ah, how we laugh! We are polite to a fault, so different from those arrogant loudmouths to the south and west (in the post-Palin era, let’s not forget Alaska).

The other day, and for the umpteenth time since I’ve been in a relationship with an American, my partner was gratuitously insulted by a Canadian. The exchange, as usual, went something like this:
“You’re not an American?!”
“Yes, didn’t you know?”
“No. Well, you’re one of the nice ones!” which, no matter how many times I’ve seen this wearying little scene replayed, has yet to have what is presumably the intended effect, to make this rare specimen, the “nice one”, feel in any way welcome.

There is an irony here; I am Canadian, but other people don’t realize it because I sound wrong. Born and educated in Britain, too old to absorb the characteristic diphthongs of southern Ontario by the time I arrived there, I still sound as if I’ve just stepped off the set of Downton Abbey (whether from above or below stairs, I’m not saying). My partner, on the other hand, who grew up in various states and has a hard-to-place American accent, passes easily for Canadian. Not that she’s trying; it’s merely and, since we live in Canada, not unreasonably, assumed; and, while ever it is, she is treated with the courtesy and respect for which we Canadians believe ourselves to be justly lauded. When she magically “becomes” American, two things happen that continue to astonish me. First, her discoverer is surprised; as if the prospect of ever bumping into, in Canada, one of roughly 300 million people who look and sound a lot like many Canadians, but come from the other side of the border, had never entered his or her head. Second, there is the almost invariable compulsion to insult my partner’s entire country while condescending to except the present company.

Let’s try the familiar dialogue again, but this time, for American, substitute Jew. Go ahead, put in Jew and say it out loud. Or imagine that the exchange takes place over the phone and the speakers haven’t seen each other; substitute black, or Asian, or person with [insert disability/red hair/big ears, or anything else the addressee had no hand in selecting]: “No, I didn’t know you were, but you’re one of the nice ones,” i.e., not like the rest of your lot whom, in my polite Canadian way, I have merrily slung into the basket marked contemptible. Polite? Funny? Or likely to cause justified offence?

I don’t know many Canadians who would use any of the substitutions I’ve suggested (I’ve met precisely two, who not only would, but did, express jaw-droppingly racist views in the course of ordinary conversation in the expectation that, being a white woman of European origin, I would share them). But I’ve met plenty, and I’m sure I’ll meet more, who automatically confront Americans in the manner I’ve described and yet, in the very act of doing so, still see themselves as bulwarks of Canadian good manners against a continuously encroaching tide of American boorishness.

So here’s a reminder, for Canadians and anyone else who missed the class in kindergarten:  whenever you disparage someone on the basis of something that they did not choose and cannot change, whether by allusion or directly, it’s rude and it’s hurtful. In the cases of the individual Americans I know and care about, they’re unlikely to tell you so (too polite?) but it hurts them, and me, and Canada’s reputation (don’t think so?--even those clueless Americans are beginning to catch on: It isn’t justified, no matter how far short you believe American foreign policy, American healthcare, business, gun laws or possibly Lady Gaga fall of their Canadian counterparts. It isn’t polite, and it isn’t Canadian. I am, and in as far as my national identity depends on being snide about my neighbours, I can only, politely, say I’m sorry.