“You’re a typical Canadian
You’re modesty itself.”
– John McLaughlan Gray and Eric Peterson, “Billy Bishop Goes to War”
Canada Day has me thinking about the national personality. Obviously, any time that you generalize about millions of people, you’re going to find exceptions, but I can think of several major traits that could be called typically Canadian.
First, as the holiday itself proves, Canadians are not openly nationalistic. As I went for my morning run today, what struck me was that, despite the best efforts of government officials, most of my fellow citizens celebrate the national holiday by enjoying the day off. You don’t catch many Canadians waving flags or setting off fireworks, even today. Nobody will ever say very much, but the majority of Canadians find such demonstrativeness faintly embarrassing, or maybe in poor taste. It’s not that Canadians lack nationalism so much as they prefer not to be gung-ho about it. Nor do most Canadians confuse an attachment to the culture with support for any government, which is why claims that opposing the use of Canadian troops in Afghanistan is being disloyal to Canada keep falling flat.
A second typical Canadian trait is politeness. Or, as an old joke puts it: How do you get twenty drunken Canadians out of your swimming pool? Answer: You say, “Please get out of the pool.” This politeness manifests itself in a widespread dislike for attack ads in politics, which are more apt to backfire on their sponsor than to successfully discredit anyone.
Our politeness also explains our alleged liberalism. Unfortunately, I don’t think that Canadians as a whole are strongly pro-choice on abortion or greatly favor same sex marriage, even though we have liberal policies on both. Rather, I suspect most Canadians think it rude to interfere in such intensely personal matters, and dislike the strident authoritarianism of those opposed to such issues. Our politeness also explains our greater tendency to unionism than the United States (Why should anyone interfere with someone looking out for their own interest?) and the official policy of multiculturalism (What someone does in their spare time is their concern).
However, this politeness isn’t all good. It also makes Canadians nearly impossible to rally on political issues, or to oppose those in authority without considerable provocation. An exception is environmentalism – again, not because Canadians are especially enlightened, I suspect, but because we see pollution as imposing on others.
Another thing about Canadians that often puzzles other nationalities is that we’re complainers. Not march-in-the-street, where’s-tonight’s-riot kind of complainers, but low-key grumblers. For some reason, a little out-of-the-mouth, I’m-so-hard-done-by grumbling is simply a normal part of functioning for most Canadians. The weather will do as a subject, if nothing else is available, but the general perversity of the universe or authority figures are even better.
There’s a joke that has been circulating at least since the Boer War, the first time that large groups of other nationals met any large groups of Canadians. Troops are passing a check point. As each company approached the sentry, they are challenged, give the password, and are allowed to proceed. Finally, another company is challenged. “Bloody typical of this army,” a voice calls out from the company. “And who the hell are you, anyway?”
“Pass, Canadians,” the sentry replies.
Apparently, not much has changed in the last century.
A final trait is that all Canadians are hyper-aware of the United States. Those on the right think that Canada would be a better place if it were more like the United States, even if that means adapting failed policies. Those on the left think the United States is taking over the country one piece at at a time and that we should be constantly vigilant against this conspiracy. But, no matter what their position on our southern neighbors, all Canadians have one. That’s inevitable, given that we speak the same language, do most of our trade with Americans, and share much of the same popular culture.
Hugh MacLennan, the novelist and journalist neatly summed up the Canadian relation to the United States a couple of generations ago. Canada, he wrote, is in the same relation to the United States as Scotland is to England: We’re a sparsely populated land to the north, we like to think of ourselves as morally superior to our neighbors, and we head south to become successful. And it’s true: We do like to think that the scandals and policy failures in the United States could never happen here, and almost no Canadian ever hits the big time without spending considerable time in the United States. In fact, a healthy sprinkling of supposed American stars are always Canadians — including Kiefer Sutherland, the grandson of Tommy Douglas, the father of socialized medicine who was recently voted the greatest Canadian ever.
These traits are not always admirable, even for Canadians. At times, I wonder if the country would be better off if we were all more openly nationalistic. At other times, my own politeness seems spinelessness, my complaining ungracious, and my belief in our moral superiority to the Americans unwarranted smugness. Moreover, our national traits are those of a small country, not a great one. But, for better or worse, they’re a part of me, if only a part that I sometimes want to react against.