Downhill Headfirst

Twine purchased to suspend flag: check.  Maple-leaf garden spinners retrieved from basement: check.  Red shirts washed: check.  This household is ready to celebrate Canada Day (aka ‘Dominion Day’ for the more heritage-minded among us, the ‘July holiday’ for those with less historical interest).  This 144th anniversary is interesting in its own right, being the square of 12, a lovely number with a rich tapestry of associations:

  • the original tribes of Israel (one for each of Jacob’s sons, and who knew that before they looked it up?)
  • the inches in a foot (reference to archaic Canadian measurement system)
  • the eggs in a dozen (you’d think this would be archaic too, but it isn’t, I checked, so there)
  • the months in a year (in most calendars, at least: something to do with the moon’s cycles)
  • the signs in the zodiac (something about ecliptics – you can look it up if you want to, but I’m not going back into that jumble of physics and philosophy)
  • and the toes on feet (oh, no, that’s just our family)

But for our purposes today (well, my purposes really, but I have the keyboard), it’s a notable date because it’s just 6 years short of our much-anticipated sesquicentennial, a rather squishy sounding word for our upcoming 150th anniversary.  Why does this matter?  Well, if we want to be ready for our sesqui-anniversary, ready to celebrate being Canadian, we’d better start thinking now about what that means.  Because, sister, it sure ain’t clear.   

For as long as I’ve been aware of these matters, Canadians have been whinging about this.  Who are we?  What defines us as a people?  What do other people think of us?  Would we be anybody, without the Americans for contrast?  Molson Beer’s Joe, quintessential indignant Canadian tired of American ignorance of this great land, declaimed his inability to function as a lumberjack, his lack of a dogsled, and his correct pronunciation of Zed.  A cute advertisement, it likely sold almost as many t-shirts and posters as it did pints (reference to archaic… oh, never mind), but it betrayed both national insecurity and identity confusion in a “methinks the laddie doth protest too much” sort of way.

So what’s our problem?  Well, seen from a Canadian perspective, other nationalities have an identifiable, even if stereotypical, persona.  The French are known for a certain joie de vivre; Brits, a stiff upper lip.  Americans swagger, even when they don’t mean to; Japanese defer, even when they don’t mean it.  Italians?  Expressive.  Greeks?  Flamboyant.  Aussies?  Macho.  Spaniards? Mucho macho.  But Canadians?  What collective persona do we have?  Polite?  Dull?  Yikes.

Pierre Berton, quintessential chronicler of all things Canadian, saw us as a nation that adored father figures.  A nation that assigned all the Boy Scout virtues—incorruptible, adaptable, courageous, courteous, kind——to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police: soldiers disguised as policemen to win the West, according to Berton.  It sounds sort of conflicted.  Maybe that’s not too far off the mark.

Check out today’s Canada.  We hold a fuzzy ideal of peacekeeping, as well as the world record for longest confirmed kill by a combat sniper.  Our ‘sacred trust’ of publicly funded Medicare is managed with what must then be sacrilegious variability from province to province, even from year to year.  Free-trade initiatives persist alongside agricultural supply-side management boards.  Officially valuing diversity—as shown by our immigration statistics and commitment to multiculturalism (just ask Joe)—we still cannot hold civil public discussions about diverse views on touchy subjects (think abortion or capital punishment).  And in our de facto national sport’s pinnacle contest, the Stanley Cup Final, the Boston Bruins fielded more Canadians than did the nominally Canadian Vancouver Canucks.

Polite?  Well, maybe we are: What’s it to you?  But dull?  It sounds more like ‘unpredictable’ to me.

Just when we think we know ourselves, someone pulls a majority government out of a hat—or a marijuana joint-rolling tutorial, as the 84-year-old Pierre Berton did on CBC television, that other quintessential Canadian institution.  And just when the world thinks it knows Canadians, one of us jumps on a cafeteria tray and charges headfirst down an icy hill to Olympic glory.

What?  You think I’m kidding?  Never!

Context: In February 2006, Duff Gibson (no relation, honest) and Jeff Pain won gold and silver respectively in the men’s skeleton event, and another Canadian finished fourth.

Deep background: Medals that Canada’s Olympic Committee had predicted Canadians would win at the Winter Olympics: 25.  Week 1 medal count before the skeleton wins: 8.

And I quote: FromCam Cole’s 18 February 2006 column in the Ottawa Citizen:

Thank you, Duff Gibson.  Thank you, Jeff Pain.

On behalf of the Canadian Olympic Committee, which has its traditional State of the Nation, mid-Olympic Games media briefing scheduled for today, thank you for making the full-frontal crisis management strategy unnecessary.  Because no one goes downhill headfirst on a cafeteria tray better than Canadians.

We can say it now, proudly.  If you’ve got something really dangerous and not terribly smart planned for an Olympic sport, the sort of thing two guys out drinking heavily one night at the top of the bobsled run probably thought up, we’re in.  Not only in, but dominant.

Nor was this just a flash in the pan (reference to archaic method used in Pierre Berton’s Klondike to separate gold from streambed silt).  A Canadian woman had won a bronze medal in the skeleton the day before Gibson and Pain (odd, that name, don’t you think?).  And in 2010, a Canadian won gold in the men’s skeleton event again.  Not only in, but dominant. Yis b’y (approximate pronunciation of Canadian regional expression meaning “Damn straight”).

Peacekeeping.  Medicare.  Free trade.  Agricultural supply management.  The Charter of Rights and Freedoms.  Postcard-perfect scenery.  Snow.  Take away these and what would be left of this Canada we love?  Well, maybe a country full of people impossible to categorize, and, well, proud of it.  In a world where all sorts of outrageous actions are taken by all-too predictable people who take themselves all too seriously, maybe our penchant for the unexpected and our ability to laugh at ourselves are, well, things to be proud of.

From a cobbled-together base of three founding/warring peoples, we have so far weathered separatist efforts or sentiment from New Brunswick, Newfoundland, Quebec and Alberta.  Of course, the voting may not be closed yet.  Or ever.  But as you celebrate this 144th Canada Day and prepare for the coming squishy sesqui, raise a glass with me.  Sea to sea to sea, let us join in a toast to the quirky unpredictability behind our polite exterior, and to the endless possibilities it gives us: To us. Because no one goes downhill headfirst on a cafeteria tray better than Canadians. Damn straight.

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12 Comments

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12 Responses to Downhill Headfirst

  1. M. Gibson

    As a child I constantly had to defend myself against my cousins – all of them being Americans. With the confidence of youth they assumed that we were either just like them, or wanted to be. I was so frustrated because fond as I was of all of them, I KNEW that neither statement was correct but lacked the knowledge or ability to prove my stance! Where were you when I needed you? Great, and very funny article Isabel.

    • Isabel Gibson

      I love Americans, but I’m not one of them. I love the Brits and the Aussies (our next closest cousins, I guess), but I’m not one of them either. It must be that cafeteria tray training on the toboggan hill….

  2. Dave

    Canada to me is ethnic diversity. Living in Edmonton I see this every day. Edmonton public schools offer bilingual programs which combine English with many other languages. Examples include French, German, Ukrainian, Chinese (Mandarin), Arabic and Spanish. The public system also supports a variety of religion-based programs. This support of cultural diversity is something that differentiates us from the great melting pot to the South.

    • Isabel Gibson

      When I was in Guatemala studying Spanish, another student — an elementary school teacher from LA — told me flat out that bilingual programs ‘don’t work’. So there. Of course, if first-language instruction is being offered to kids who live in isolated and disadvantaged communities and ends up compromising their ability in English, that would be a different set of conditions, likely promoting isolation rather than the diversity. Here in the National Capital Region, of course, the emphasis on bilingual instruction is almost exclusively French.

  3. I. Kamal

    Great post Isabel!

    Being a hyphenated Canadian (Bangladeshi-Canadian or Canadian-Bangladeshi) it really resonates with me. I think the best thing about Canadian identity is the fact that it’s something different depending on who you ask. It is open to interpretation. I think that’s one of the things that make immigrants (like me) fall in love with this place and feel like it’s “ours” too so quickly!

    Happy Canada Day!

  4. Wade

    It’s all well and good, as long as they’re not mailing the fireworks for the Hill display on Friday. Well done Isabel.

  5. MC

    Love it;love it; love it: the article and the commentary. ‘To Canada: open to interpretation.’ Well said!
    There is more to say – it’s just not well formed in my head yet!

  6. Isabel, thanks for the thought provoking (and funny) post. I too have been thinking about the difference between Canadians and those other people south of the border and have decided that much of who we are comes from where we’ve been, historically. Economic and political conditions were such that the Americans felt they had to wrestle independence from the British in the War of Independence. Canadians were wise enough (and lucky enough) to achieve the same result 100 years later through negotiation of the BNA Act.

    Whether it’s the ability to engaged in cool headed negotiation or just having the brass to grab the cafeteria tray and head for the hill, Canadians are a wonderful people. I’m so glad I’m one of them. Happy belated Canada Day!

    • Isabel Gibson

      Yes – and somehow that cool-headed negotiating ability and that crazy down-the-hill impulse co-exist. It seems wrong, but there it is. Just as individual people are multi-dimensional bundles of contradictions, maybe cultures are too.