It's the season of birthdays and, like most holidays — personal and collective — the anticipation of such events often fosters expectations so lofty the reality of the celebration has little chance to live up to its hype. Birthdays, of course, have to carry the added baggage of marking the passage of time, which is pretty much the point of birthdays. Call it the one-day-older-and-deeper-in-debt syndrome if you need to label it, but mostly it amounts to a gnawing discomfort at the passage of time and the shockingly bigger number you're celebrating this year than the one you celebrated last year, which has had a whole year to lose its shock value.
One hundred and forty-nine is a shockingly big number, assuming it's not the extent of your financial net worth. But as a birthday number, it's shockingly big. Smaller than 240 for sure, and way smaller than some of the old and ancient-world birthday celebrations that range up into the thousands. Nonetheless, Happy birthday, Canada; Happy birthday, USA. Many happy returns... or, at least in the case of the USA, happier than this year's, tinted as it is by the twin funks of even having to contemplate the words President Trump and the uneasy feeling the entire country is circling the bowl.
Canada Day, a suitably modest if terminally unimaginative moniker for our national Holiday of Self, won't be anything this year like it'll be next year, assuming the country can work up enough nationalism to give 'er for 150, a nice round number. But it looks a bit iffy for a sunny and warm Canada Day, a feat whose statistical probability generally hovers around the same range as a fair to middling professional baseball player's batting average. Alas, rain on the national holiday is not unusual.
Having arrived in Canada in January 1979, I struggled through my first Montreal winter. It included my first experience with multiple days of minus-40 degrees Celsius, followed by the slushfest of spring. Imagine my surprise when, on the first day the thermometer topped 20 C I was greeted with the totally unexpected sight of normally modest, staid Canadians peeling down to near nekkedness! I couldn't wait to see what they did to celebrated their national day of being.
I experienced several things that year I'd never imagined possible and learned a great deal about the spirit, grit and collective weirdness of the people who, even after conducting an investigation into my background, had welcomed me into their country. I watched grown men gather around a barbecue and diligently sear hamburgers and hot dogs to the point of immolation... notwithstanding a persistent drizzle of rain that threatened to douse their coals. I nearly froze to death — on the first day of July! I listened with rapt fascination to a group of intelligent people earnestly discuss what it means to be Canadian, without ever reaching a conclusion. I saw a woman eat a hamburger with a fork and knife. I exploded my first "safety" firework.
Almost 40 Canada Days later, things have changed. For starters, I'm now a Canadian, eh? I'm no longer an American, something for which I give thanks whenever I contemplate this year's presidential debacle. There is at least some probability of warmth and sunshine this year, something we were getting skeptical about during yet another Juneuary. And it's been years since I've seen a born and bred Canadian eat finger food with inappropriate utensils.
But some things never change and the essence of Canada Day still seems to be the search for the elusive je ne sais quoi which makes all true Canadians Canadian and not, for example, Tibetans. It's that special essence, that indispensable, elemental, bred-in-the-bone distinguishing feature mothers and fathers drill into the soft spots of their children's heads until it becomes as much a part of them as their DNA. Incapable of definition, it can be approximated thus: Canadians are not Americans! Hegel would be proud.
And how are we not American? Well, being Canadian, we're not prone to jump to conclusions when dithering will do, but here are at least some of the crucial elements.
At important moments of its evolution, war defined and gave focus to the USA. The American Revolution cast off forever the tyrannical shackles of the British Monarchy. The Civil War settled forever that most defining question plaguing Canadian life: Can Quebec secede from Confederation? Naturally, the Civil War settled that question in a strictly American context, the South standing in, all but linguistically, for Quebec.
Canada eschews war. Canada was negotiated in the smoky backrooms of genteel gentlemen's clubs. If America is defined by war, Canada is more accurately defined by board games like Risk, Diplomacy, and, most especially, Monopoly. Whereas America was formed at the point of a gun, Canada was formed with a nod and a wink and a sherry toast to the monarch of the empire formerly known as Great (sic) Britain.
America settled the West because settling the West was its Manifest Destiny. Think Moses. The teeming American masses yearned to breathe fresh air and discover the wonders of smoking meats over mesquite. Canada, on the other hand, settled the West because it was a sound business move. Think Conrad Black... before that felony thing. Canada's political managers sought to diversify the nascent country's portfolio and assure it would forever have hinterlands eastern politicians could ignore, piss off, pillage and from which would spring an inconsequential political party that would someday rise to power only to discover there was little it could do until it abandoned its principles in a deluded effort to convinced those easterners to award it a majority, at which point it made the country almost unrecognizable.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, while Canada adopted a modest, suitably Canadian low profile, America knew it was bound for glory. America strode into the future with a spring in its step and the certainty of missionaries bringing the word of God to the Godless. America set the bar, raised the standards and eventually had enough faith in its role as the Only Remaining Superpower that it was comfortable turning the office of President and the Executive branch of government over to a group of rabble that would make a Junta blush — that would be Bush the Second — and, quite possibly, hand the reins of power over to a madman with Bozo the Clown hair.
Canada was less certain of its future and, just to be safe, built all its major cities within 100 miles — converted in the late 20th century to approximately 160 kilometres — of the US-Canada border. After all, if we weren't so close to and so dependent on our good friends to the south, how could we be so certain of what we're not?
So Happy Canada Day, eh? Happy 4th of July. Canada and the U.S., like salt and pepper, er, vinegar.