Opinion » Maxed Out

It takes practice to be Canadian



According to the Canadian Guild of Pundits and Opinion Writers, I am contractually bound to include a certain number of New Year's resolutions in the new year's first published bit of fluff, that number corresponding to the total number of words available to me. THEREFORE, I resolve to completely ignore this rule. I don't make resolutions.

Having said that, I will strive — resolve being too ambitious — to be even more Canadian this year. For those of you who can't believe being more Canadian represents a challenge, I suggest you live in deep denial. Being Canadian is hard enough for born-and-bred Canadians. For reformed Americans, it's an uphill battle... in waist-deep snow.

One of the first, longest and hardest things I learned about being a Canadian was to stop being an American. I know that sounds simplistic — and heaven knows there are plenty of you who have accused me of being simplistic — but it's true.

Like Canadian singers or songwriters or comedians or actors who have had to move to the U.S. to discover how great they are, I had to move to Canada to discover what an American I was. When I lived in the U.S., it never dawned on me I was an American. This may sound foolish — and heaven knows there are plenty of you who have accused me of being foolish as well as simplistic — but in Canada, Canadians are acutely aware they are Canadian. That's evident in how hard they struggle, endlessly, to define exactly what that means and how they proudly display their Canadian-ness when they leave the country, albeit more as a shield of self-defense at the possibility of being mistaken for an American than a sword of emphatic pride, pride being a highly un-Canadian sin. Heck, there was even a beer commercial that drove the point home.

But the key in my Quest for Canadian-ness was to step out of my American environment, cross the border and become conscious of how different I was compared to those around me. It's hard to notice one mushroom in a mushroom patch, but hang it on a tree with some apples or Christmas ornaments and it stands out like a tortured metaphor in an otherwise struggling paragraph, if that doesn't seem too self-referential.

I stood out partly out of in-bred arrogance, the latter being the coin of the realm south of the border. But I also stood out because I was generally ignorant of Canadian ways. This was pointed out to me one snowy morning by a precocious 11-year-old waiting for a bus. In Montreal, where I lived, and Toronto, where I lived next, people line up for busses in neat lines, except they call them queues, ostensibly because they're Canadian and still have a picture of the British queen on their money. Americans call queues lines. There's no real difference except lines is an easier word to spell than queue, which looks nothing like it sounds and repeats identical letters for no good reason. Queuing up also sounds kind of kinky compared to lining up. Of course, that's an American attitude; Canadians just learn how to spell it and proudly queue up for just about everything. And queuing up can't possibly sound weird to people with towns named, for example, Chibougamau.

On the other hand, Americans hate to line up for anything other than Black Friday sales and I hate to line up for anything other than powder runs and even those, not very much. In my case, it stems from my aversion to military order and general antsiness. I prefer to pace, wander, shuffle and chat up people in queues, something else Canadians tend not to do unless they know the person to whom they speak and even then, generally use hushed tones as though they were discussing troop movements during times of war or their most recent outbreak of genital herpes.

It took the aforementioned precocious Canadian youth, dressed in the fine clothes of a Westmount private school, clothes more befitting someone firmly in middle-age since that's what Westmount private schools try to turn out, to set me straight. "You're supposed to line up," he said to me in a tone generally used when one addresses a servant or underling, something I could understand since he looked like he might enjoy the labours of servants and I looked a bit clownish in oversized running shoes, thick wool socks and a muffler long enough to cozy the necks of most of the people in the queue, all of whom were wearing sensible winter coats, it being both winter and snowing.

"I prefer to pace," I said politely.

"But you won't know when to get on the bus," he said, with what seemed like genuine concern.

"It's OK. I'll get on last," I said.

"But you're supposed to get on ahead of the people who got here after you," he said, emphatically.

Being a newly transplanted American, I was about to suggested he might need more bran in his diet. But, in what was possibly my first step to becoming Canadian, I actually tried to understand where he was coming from and stifled my natural, sarcastic self. I failed, but I tried. And really, what's more Canadian than trying?

Finally, I told him if he was really worried, I'd just get on ahead of him. His expression said that was a totally inappropriate compromise and I'd obviously failed to understand what he was trying to tell me. I got on the bus ahead of him, anyway.

One of the best things about living in Whistler is I don't often queue up for the bus. I live in Rainbow and for the most part, it's faster for me to walk home from the village — in ski boots — than it is to take the bus. And I have a car. Which means I don't have to queue for the bus but frequently have to wait in a line if I try to travel south of the village.

If I could bring myself to make a New Year's resolution, and I had any influence over the issue, I'd resolve to try to find ways to alleviate some of that congestion. While gridlock is very Canadian, it's more often found in large urban areas, not cute resort municipalities, which are generally thought of as places people go to escape urban woes like gridlock. As difficult as it might be, I'd certainly engage the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure and other provincial ministries to accomplish this. And I'd be looking more broadly at options other than suggesting to worker bees they drive less and queue up for the bus more.

But then, after all these years I'm still learning this Canadian thing.


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