Canadian Cultures

It interests and confounds me that most people in the United States seem to know little, and few seem to care, about the history, characteristics, or complexity of Canada. Several years ago, I accompanied a woman originally from Toronto to a dinner otherwise attended by US-born faculty. At some point during the evening, a rather gauche man across the table said to my Toronto-ite friend, “There isn’t really much difference between Canada and the US, is there?” As she hesitated, considering a diplomatic response, I offered “Sure there is. People in Canada don’t litter.” The generalization came from my childhood of frequently visiting and occasionally living with relatives in Ontario and Quebec. At a time when many people in the United States casually tossed wrappers, cans and bottles, cigarette butts, and other debris from car windows — and some regularly brought household and industrial waste to the nearest empty lot, field, gully, or gutter — Canada was largely free of haphazard human rubbish. My aphorism is somewhat less apt today; public education campaigns and fines have reduced US littering, while consumerism and weakened civility have increased it in Canada. It is still somewhat true, though, that, relative to US citizens and residents, “Canadians don’t litter.” There is much more than that, however, to what makes Canada unique, and immensely diverse.

For more than 10 years I have attempted to professionally study Canada and US-Canadian relations, and I have been trying for a lifetime to satisfy my personal curiosity about Canada’s places and people and what they can tell us about the United States.

I was fortunate to find an outlet for my interest in the Canada-US Fulbright Foundation, which is among the groups working to promote the generation and dissemination of knowledge about Canadian society and Canadian-US relations. During the 1995-1996 academic year, I had a Fulbright Fellowship hosted by the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto to look at communityand economic-development needs and approaches among Native Canadians (Aboriginal, First Nation and Inuit), as well as relations between Native and non-Native Canadian groups.

Native Canadian communities are a fascinating, if daunting, target of inquiry. About one out of every 30 Canadians is Native, and that is without counting the officially recognized Métis people of dual Native and European descent (usually, originally, male-linage French — though laws defining who is a Native and what constitutes a Métis are debated). The range of traditional Native languages and cultures is as broad or broader in Canada as it is in the US — which is to say, broad indeed. And Native Canadian communities stretch from the US border and even south of it, as with the St. Regis/Akwsasnee Reserve/Reservation that crosses the borders of Ontario, Quebec, and New York state. They extend to the Artic Circle, and from ocean islands to plains, to mountains, and to tundra. The urban Native population is also large in all major Canadian cities. Taken together, the breadth of Native cultures, languages, histories, climates, communities, and experiences challenges both comprehension and generalized conclusions.

Now add the multiple non-Native Canadian societies referenced previously, and the difficulties of getting a net around relations among Natives and non-Natives in Canada become clear. In one area of the ceiling of the Canadian Parliament building in Ottawa, the English, French, Iroquois, and Huron peoples are depicted, representing the four official founding groups of the nation. Though both are part of the same general cultural and language group, the Huron were the allies of the French, while the Iroquois were allied with the English (including pre-Revolutionary War Americans during the French and Indian Wars). In colonial Canada, as in colonial and post-colonial America, Native relations with non-Natives often followed a divide-and-conquer pattern; as there, here, as then, now. However, outside of the foundational provinces of Ontario and Quebec — and over time even within them — many other Native and non-Native groups became part of Canada by choice, force, diplomacy, duplicity, or some combination.

As for the population complexities on the non-Native side, large recent influxes of Asian (Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, and Malay) and Middle-Eastern immigrants often receive the most attention. But the flow from the British Isles and from France has remained relatively high through the decades; noticeable numbers of Chinese, Japanese, Indians, Russians, Scandinavians, and others arrived in the 1800s; many escaped slaves from the US south went to the North Star of Canada in the decades before and immediately after the US Civil War; sizable numbers of Polish came before and after World War II; groups of Italians entered in the 1950s and 1960s; hundreds of US draft resistors who could not get into Oxford or the Alabama National Guard moved to Canada in the 1960s and early 1970s; handfuls of Caribbean blacks had emigrated as early as the 1800s but, from the late 1960s on, their numbers increased substantially. Beginning with the 1970s, both the countries of origin of Canadian immigrants and their total numbers expanded greatly.

In early 2005, I visited a Hutterite community in Alberta that had been established in the early 1900s via way stations in Russia and the United States. The Hutterite have religious injunctions against many forms of interactions with outsiders, so while I visited the Hutterite, they did not necessarily visit with me. In 2004, I met an Afro-Canadian student whose family found succor in Canada in 1853 from slavery in the United States. In 1995, I chanced upon a Chinese family in Manitoba that traced its origins to a man who came to Canada in the 1880s to work on the railroad and and who later brought a bride over from China. Contravening their stories and the current official Canadian self-image of humanitarianism and multiculturalism, however, is a long history of legal and de facto bars to immigration by non-whites, Jews, and Central and Eastern Europeans. Even the Hutterites, their Mennonite cousins, and African Americans were barred from moving to Canada for large periods of Canadian history.

The one constant among all of these groups — with rare individual and community exceptions, such as the Hutterites — is that they are all welcoming and glad to find others interested in their who and why. Despite the infamous 1995 claim by the Quebec provincial premier, Jacques Parizeau, that the referendum on separation had failed because of the “Jews and minorities,” even the Francophones and Francophiles in Quebec are generally friendlier to the non- Québécois interloper than they once were. It should be noted that the provincial premier’s conclusion was at least partially correct even if ineptly expressed. For instance, about 98 percent of the Cree of Quebec voted against the separation of Quebec. Of course, that strong vote of “non” was a reaction to decades of exploitative policies and dismissive attitudes by the Bloc Québécois, the Parti Québécois, and the Quebec provincial government under political leaders of various stripes.

Native Canadian communities, which often have little materially along with little reason to trust outsiders, were especially welcoming to me. I am, of course, a rara avis, but Native Canadian communities share a common generous instinct. Bush and Northern Native communities are difficult to reach, and experiencing them requires a certain external locus of control. Many are both heartbreaking in their human ecologies and heartbreakingly beautiful in their natural ecologies. The majority of their people sustain themselves on a mixture of subsistence living, government socialism, transfers from urban relatives, and migratory jaunts to work in urban areas. Health, housing conditions, education, and socio-cultural networks have typically been blasted by combinations of federal and provincial ineptitude, federal and provincial manipulation, federal and provincial neglect, corporate and government resource depletion, environmental pollution, cultural and community dissolution, and weak local leadership. Yet a core of cultural strength — including language — remains, and it has been successfully capitalized on and unified with modern technologies and community building in some exemplary Native communities.

Canadian relations and reactions to the United States and its citizens are variable and often contradictory. The Anglo and Native histories of the two nations began in common during the colonial era but came into conflict during the period of the Revolutionary War and War of 1812. They remain a force for unity across a divide, or as Winston Churchill said, separated by a common language. Numbers of Americans joined the Canadian military between 1914 and 1917 and again between 1939 and 1941, when the British Empire was already a party to the World Wars and the United States was not yet in them. And hundreds of Canadians reciprocated by joining the US Army, Air Force, and Marines during the Vietnam War, after the Canadian government declined to have its military join that action. Canada has been home to many political and cultural refugees from the United States, and the United States has been home to many climate and economic refugees from Canada. The size disparity of the two nations’ populations and economies makes Canadians anxious that they might end up like the male black widow — eaten up by its larger partner.

Yet Canadians have exerted and continue to exert a disproportionate impact on US popular culture. Moreover, US dependence on key imports, such as oil and nurses, from Canada continues to grow. The difference between Canada’s socialized health care and the free-market system in the United States symbolizes broader social-value differences. But both health-care systems share in common spiraling costs and mounting public anxiety about their current, albeit different, faults and their future viability. Canadian people generally like and appreciate Americans. Yet, as I once encountered in a meeting where Canadian attendees displayed a map of North America — Canada was directly bordering Mexico — they sometimes wish that the United States would just go away.

All of the preceding is a long reflection of what I have learned and what I have experienced in studying Canada and its relationship to the United States. The nutshell is that it is a nation bound in a seemingly strong symbiosis by the CANADA from Page 18 seemingly weak glues of shared socialized systems, shared internecine conflicts, some shared comparative identity elements, and dried maple syrup. It is a big cold country with a warm heart — except when it is a hot small country with cold feet. Canada is multiple solitudes; Canadians live in a mutual approach-avoidance community with each other and have a sometimes-squabbling, sometimes sympathetic sibling bond with the United States. Canada as a country and as a concept is difficult to grasp even for someone like me who grew up in the overlapping shadows of the groups described here. Whatever else may be the case, though, wandering through the safe cities and the risky wilds and among the variegated peoples of Canada certainly provide many opportunities for stimulation and learning.


Observer Vol.19, No.2 February, 2006

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