For those of you who agree with me that Friday night’s Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies were quintessentially, perfectly Canadian, albeit through the soft-focus, affectionate lens of the ex-pat, you’ll probably also agree with me that despite feeling as familiar as a Coffee Crisp or a Canadian Heritage Minute, it represented an image of Canada that many of us struggled against for years in the face of our U.S. brethren cracking jokes about how we lived in igloos: No, really, we’re just like you. The Canadian’s we’d trumpet to our U.S. pals were the ones who’d made it over here: Michael J. Fox, Jim Carrey, Sarah McLachlan, Joni Mitchell, Celine Dion, Rachel MacAdams, Feist, William Shatner, Lorne Michaels, the hot football player from Glee. When Ann Murray got called out in “Blame Canada,” I was super proud that people in the U.S. had heard of her.
But at the same time, it was the “our own” stuff that made the crucial difference — and made me sort of a proselytizer. How could people not know about the Tragically Hip? Didn’t everyone make out in college to Blue Rodeo’s “Lost Together”? (If not, there’s still time!) I used to explain it by saying, “We watch your TV shows, go to your movies, read your books, listen to your music — we just have all that and our own, too.” That was usually before I would give someone a mixed CD filled with tracks from The Guess Who and the Hip and Great Big Sea and Sloan and Glass Tiger and Loverboy. Yes, Loverboy is ours.
The notion of Canadian “identity” was such a thing growing up, I remember. There was that classic analogy that the U.S. was a melting pot and we were a tossed salad (really. That is a seminal image from my youth). But there was also an obsession about it, about what it meant to be Canadian and who got to assert that, especially when Quebec would assert that really, really loudly. I can recall envying the U.S. its easy patriotism, how that really did seem to be what came first and foremost on this side of the border.
Of course, being on this side of the border gives me a perspective on Canada that I never would have had otherwise, and watching the Olympics on Friday night crystallized it all into an experience that was just so affectionate because it evoked so much from my childhood and growing up that I never knew I had taken for granted — stuff from field trips to the McMichael Gallery or the ROM or Black Creek Pioneer Village, and maybe stuff that I would roll my eyes out once I hit my tween years and felt the obligation to pretend to be cool. I painted my face ostentatiously with a goofy maple leaf for a Canada vs. Sweden hockey game when I lived in Stockholm, but I did so just goofily in Toronto at a 1995 rally in Nathan Phillips Square to support a united Canada on the eve of the Quebec Referendum (MY CANADA INCLUDES QUEBEC!). It didn’t occur to me that it was unique to have taken U.S. Federal Courts in law school, until I came to a New York law firm and found out that my colleagues had just taken a class called Federal Courts. In the same way, I never thought twice about my parents’ prime ministers. And when I moved to the U.S., the money looked weird in my wallet because it was all the same color (though I finally understood the term “greenbacks”).
It’s this twin sameness and otherness that is part of the Canadian identity, where we only become conscious of certain oddities when some American points it out. That resulted over the years in a little pushback (and a little U.S. bashing, which was vastly overshadowed by appreciation of the Big Stick to the south). But any doubts that Canadians had their own specific identity were put to rest by what has now become a Canadian classic — and, fittingly, it’s a beer commercial.
The Molson “I AM CANADIAN” beer commercial rocked the Canadian world, especially of my flannel-shirt-clad Muskoka-deck-chair Tragically-Hip-loving generation, and it burned up the Internet in what was, in truth, the first viral video that I can remember. I got pinged with email after email as I sat in my office in New York, the facade of a grown-up lawyer completely melting away in the total explosion of delight and giddy glee I was feeling. I was alone in that office, and on the other side of the border, but it could not have been a more Canadian moment. I know it was a commercial, meant to sell a cold one, but it was a commercial that found its way into the pantheon of classic Canadiana just as surely as Margaret Atwood or Robertson Davies or The Group of Seven or — yes — Rush.
What I find interesting about the Molson ad vs. the Olympics Opening Ceremonies, though, was the absence of any pushback or apology from the Opening Ceremonies. It was almost as though Canada not only finally stopped apologizing for the parts of it that were different from the States, but, finally, no longer cared.
Aw. My little country’s all grown up.
The original Molson “I AM CANAIAN” commercial below:
I’m not a lumberjack, or a fur trader
I don’t live in an igloo or eat blubber, or own a dogsled
And I don’t know Jimmy, Sally or Suzy from Canada,
Although I’m certain they’re really really nice.
I have a Prime Minister, not a President.
I speak English and French, not American.
And I pronounce it ‘about’, not ‘aboot’.
I can proudly sew my country’s flag on my backpack.
I believe in peace keeping, not policing,
Diversity, not assimilation,
And that the beaver is a truly proud and noble animal.
A toque is a hat, a chesterfield is a couch,
and it is pronounced ‘zed’ not ‘zee’, ‘zed’ !!!!
Canada is the second largest landmass!
The first nation of hockey!
And the best part of North America!
My name is Joe —
Photo of the Opening Ceremonies via TwitPic, taken by Cory Monteith — aka, the hot football player from Glee. Represent!
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