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Constructed Canadians

I get a little exasperated sometimes with the customary avalanche of carefully-constructed Canadian Pride™ that gets unloaded upon this nation every July first. This year’s lead offering was a supposed “most Canadian music video ever” released by Commander Chris Hadfield, of International Space Station fame, and his lesser-loved brother David, who as far as I know, possesses no fame at all.

There are lot of cloying, irritating things about In Canada, as the Hadfields’ song authoritatively calls itself. Chris Hadfield, for starters. How about taking a powder, Commander? The man was in outer space for a few months — he didn’t discover a new planet. Yet it seems every week he still manages to claw himself back into the headlines to bask in yet another round of adulteration whipped up by a compliant press, who are now basically functioning as his full-time publicity agents. It’s probably only a matter of time before someone appoints him to the Senate. Possibly himself. A modest hero he’s decidedly not.

In any case, the Hadfields’ viral hit suffers from all the same deep-seeded structural flaws that invariably turn any attempt at summarizing the Canadian experience into an exercise in disingenuous cornballism.

The base problem is that any Canadian seeking to encapsulate our collective essence always starts from the questionable assumption that nothing that “defines” our nation is also allowed to be present in America. Canadians are taught that national identity is a zero-sum game; nationalistic quirks must be owned, never shared. So we’re never told that the Canadian experience includes eating hot dogs or watching football or shopping at Wal-Mart or other mainstream rhythms of Canadian life because those are things the dreaded Americans do too, and we’re trying to be distinct here. The fact that football and hot dogs and Wal-Mart are precisely the kinds of things that make us distinct in the eyes of 96% of the planet matters little — the implicit audience for any well-curated manifesto of Canadian pride is always Americans, who are assumed to be interested, or other Canadians, who are assumed to be insufficiently aware of their own uniqueness and thus in need of endless lecturing on the matter.

The end result is that Canadian attempts to generalize their un-American distinctness invariably fall into three tendentious trends of stale rhetoric, all of which are on ample display in the Hadfields’ video.

Inspiringly patriotic anecdotes must either be exceedingly pointless and superficial (Chris sings about how “we love Nanaimo bars” and hoard “Canadian Tire money in at least one kitchen drawer”), exceedingly parochial (perhaps in Ontario they “wear Sorels in winter, while plugging in the car” but that’s certainly not the case in comparatively mild Vancouver), or insufferably dishonest and braggy (anyone who claims “you don’t butt in in Canada” has clearly not boarded a bus in this country).

It is not obvious at all what makes eating certain foods or shopping at certain stores a more fundamental part of the “Canadian” experience than buying or eating things that originate in America (or some other foreign place). If we’re looking to define the Canadian essence by Canadian consumerism, surely the standard should be the consumption of products that are actually popular, in a day-to-day sense (Hamburgers! Spaghetti! Ice cream!), as opposed to ultra-particular novelties like Nanimo bars that we may come into contact with, what — once a year? Indeed, the reason we all have drawers of Canadian Tire Money is because none of us shop there often enough to use it.

Nor can it be taken for granted in a country as enormous as Canada that any quirk of geography or weather — no matter how postcard perfect it may look on YouTube — can be generalized into a familiar experience without alienating large chunks of our widely-dispersed population. Not all Canadians experience winter in the snowy fashion so common back east, and the rocky mountains are known only in theory to the plains people of the prairies. To assert otherwise is to establish a hierarchy of experiences, in which colorful activities only a small sliver of the population will ever get to enjoy, like “paddling your canoe,” are given precedence over Canadian activities that are actually ubiquitous and unifying. Say, jogging.

Then there’s the cloying righteousness that comes with positing universal, aspirational virtues like politeness and respect as something Canadians unquestionably are, rather than imperfectly strive to be. I would have thought the antics and ongoing popularity of Rob Ford would have put a bit of a damper on those living in arrogant denial of the existence of rude, mean-spirited Canadians, but I suppose the wonderful thing about vanity is that it’s rarely weakened by fact.

What actually makes Canada an admirable country is our constitutionally-protected values — democratic self-rule, individual liberty, minority rights — that have kept our people safe and free, and our collective commitment to those civic virtues — labor, business, family, education, community, faith — that have made us wealthy and happy. These principles are not eccentric or splashy, and Americans have them too. But in the grand global scheme of things they remain tremendously rare, and that’s probably the more useful standard.

What makes Canada interesting, likewise, is the fact that we’re a British-founded, primarily European-settled, mainly English-speaking country located on the fertile, empty continent of North America. This, again, is a status we share with the United States, but it’s still a status 96% of the planet can’t claim, and thus still forms the essence of “what it means to be Canadian” in the most honest sense. “Canadian culture,” in turn— in the unglamorous sense of how we live, eat, work, talk, love, worship, and play — is far more tied to our common history and heritage with America than our few trivial deviations from it.

To posit otherwise in the name of patriotism, to fetishize random consumer goods or uncommon outdoor adventures or non-existent personality traits into the core of the Canadian identity, is to create a national narrative in which insecurity, arrogance, and dishonesty are in ample abundance, but genuine pride for who we actually are — not so much.