Secretly Canadian

Dr. Dionne Jackson, head of the Office for Diversity and Inclusion at Hendrix College, where I teach, asked me to give a lunchtime talk in their monthly series on identity. I chose to write about being a Canadian in the US. Here’s a slightly cleaned-up version. It’s stilted–half speech, half notes. I ad-libbed somewhat; I think it sounded better than it reads. But I offer it here in case anyone’s interested, along with my powerpoint slides.

I chose this title as a joke, because if you know anything about me you probably know that I’m Canadian. It’s not exactly something I hide. Many people at Hendrix have probably heard more than enough from me about Canadian awesomeness.

But I chose it for other reasons too.

One reason is the suggestion that someone—maybe some American— in their heart of hearts might wish to be Canadian. They are secretly Canadian. Of course, a Canadian would say that. Despite our irritating sense of superiority, Canadians have a total inferiority complex in regards to the US. All we want is to be acknowledged by you—and you don’t even know that we exist! (Except for weather—all those cold fronts coming down from Canada.)

Another reason is the suggestion that one could practice one’s Canadian-ness secretly. This is often the experience of Canadians abroad, especially in the US. We can pass, for the most part. Even though people make fun of me when I say “about.”

I like this idea of a kind of stealth existence. It feels subversive.

Yet it’s not enough to just hide out—at least not for me, and, I suspect, for many Canadians. Otherwise how can you can explain Canadians’ inescapable need to point out famous Canadians. (Seth Rogen… Canadian. Leonard Cohen… Canadian. Joni Mitchell… Canadian. Ellen Page… Canadian. Feist… Canadian.)

[Jews do this too BTW. So imagine how bad Canadian Jews are! (Drake!)]

Canadians even do this weird pointing-out-asking-for-affirmation thing when Americans aren’t listening. I remember when I was a kid every time the space shuttle was launched [explain space shuttle to students], the news back home would say, “The Space Shuttle Endeavour, with its Canadian-built Canadarm, launched from Cape Canaveral this morning…”

Today I’m going to say more about this paradoxical hiding in plain sight—this sense of being secretive, of being hidden, of being overlooked, all while simultaneously wanting to be acknowledged—and how it’s affected my own life.

Here for example is a well-known New Yorker cartoon from 2001:


The implication here is that the guy isn’t Canadian. He’s probably American. He is the dominant against which the other he is faced with seems different, though, reassuringly, not too different: familiar yet somehow strange. In this sense, Canadians are queer; Americans are straight.

Notice, though, that the guy seems only mildly, even politely interested. Maybe a little bemused. Nothing in his phrasing suggests that he is obsessed with the woman’s Canadian identity.

What about her? What’s she thinking? Who knows. But if she is anything like the Canadians I grew up with, during the 70s and 80s, then she cares a lot. Then (and still to some extent now) Canadians spent a lot of time thinking about their identity. What did it mean to be Canadian? On the radio, in the newspaper: you’d here this question all the time.

This was a time when the country was threatened by Quebec separatism. There was the very real possibility the country could break up, even no longer exist. My sense is that we are lot less anxious as a nation than we used to be, but it is striking to me that Americans never spend any time worrying about what it is to be American. They just know. Rich, free, morally good. (White Americans anyway.)

You have life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We have peace, order, and good government.

In 1972, the great Canadian radio host Peter Gzowski organized a little competition. He was thinking about the phrase “As American as apple pie” (my crack online research reveals the phrase was apparently already in use in 1860s but gained traction during and shortly after WWII – “as American as motherhood and apple pie—at some point motherhood dropped out).

Anyway, Gzowski wondered what the Canadian version would be. What is the quintessential Canadian simile? So he asked listeners to complete the phrase. As Canadian as…


What do you think the winning entry was?

[I canvassed the audience—various answers were mooted: “as poutine,” “as maple syrup,” “winter,” “hockey.”]

Nope, nope, nope. All plausible answers, but the actual answer is much stranger, much more delightful. The winner was: “As Canadian as possible under the circumstances


Heather Scott was a 17-year-old student at the time. I could not find a photo of her; the image is a reproduction of a painting by the great Quebecois artist Jean Paul Lemieux.

[I counted on laughter; fortunately, there was laughter.]

Why is this funny?

  • Modesty, almost hapless
  • Dayeinu, good enough
  • passive aggressive?

[These were my ideas. The audience had better ones: the suggestion that one might have to work (perhaps quite hard) to be Canadian; the sense that being Canadian in some full sense is impossible; the sense that circumstances might work against being Canadian.]

1972 happens to be the year I was born: I am as Canadian as possible under the circumstances.

This is the kind of avowal I can get behind. An ironic patriotism. The patriotism of peacekeeping.

When I was growing the US was always equated with brashness, vulgarity, and aggression.

(All Canadians are familiar with some marginal American town/city where the US TV channels came from: in my case, it was Spokane, WA and Coeur d’Alene, ID. I can still probably tell you the names of the used-car dealerships in both those places in the mid-80s. Always shouting—that was my sense of American TV as a kid. Why are they always shouting?)

I’m not sure Americans know how many parts of the world perceive their flag as a sign of aggression, even warmongering. That’s how it felt in my childhood, and it took me many years of living in the US to get over that feeling.

[Driving from Canada to Ithaca, NY for grad school—on a trip in summer to find an apartment—every little upstate NY town littered with flags. I was freaking out. Later learned it was Flag Day…]

When Canadians ask who they are, their first answer is always, Well we’re not American.

You are so much bigger than us, you set the terms of our own self-understanding.

I’m always reminded of the famous comparison offered by former PM Pierre Elliott Trudeau:


So snarky: that “beast”! He said this at the Washington Press Club!

In the metaphor, you are blissfully—though also apparently quite restlessly—asleep. Ignorant of us. But we are highly aware of you.

The Canadian mice are troubled by the elephant, but they also kind of love it.

For a certain generation of Canadians making it in the US was the ultimate goal. Again, I think that’s changing now. But I think it’s true for my generation. Or at least for me. When I applied for PhD programs in the late 1990s I really wanted to go to the US. I did not love the US. In fact, I kind of scorned it. But I felt that was where the best programs were. The best libraries. The most famous faculty. If I could make it there I could make it anywhere.

And I did come to the US. It was 20 years ago this year. August 20, 1999. I remember the date vividly because it is on all my immigration documents. I need to know it, not to celebrate anniversaries, but to keep the authorities happy.

And I got my education, and I met my amazing wife, and I got this job, and my wife and I had our daughter. I have wonderful American in-laws and they have taught me to love baseball. In seven more years, I’ll have lived as long in the US as in Canada.

It’s quite possible I’ll spend the rest of my life here.

But I’m still not a citizen, even though I’ve been eligible to become one for years.

Even with the election of Trump, when so many people in this country, immigrants and would-be immigrants especially, became more vulnerable, and as my wife and in-laws started pressing me more and more to get citizenship, I’ve kept dragging my heels. (I’ve been “getting to it” for almost a decade.)

(I recognize I am much safer than most immigrants: white male, Canadian, have Green Card, could stay on it forever, but…)

Friends sometimes ask me, more or less nicely: What’s my problem? Why haven’t you got citizenship yet? Don’t you want to vote?

The answer, I must confess, is that deep down I really don’t want to become American, even symbolically.

Every year my family spends part of the summer in Canada, and we always ask ourselves, Why don’t we live here?

I miss:

  • Sidewalks
  • Public transportation
  • Health care not tied to job
  • Politics not equal to sports—two party system turns everything into a horse race
  • Gun laws
  • Most of all, sense of public space/common good—that government can do things for you, not just ruin your life

Of course, there are wonderful things about the US:

  • Generosity
  • Can-do-spirit
  • Liberal arts colleges—America’s great gift to civilization

And terrible things about Canada:

  • Parochial
  • Chilly (I mean the people, not the weather: “old” WASP Canada)
  • Shameful destruction of indigenous communities
  • Passive aggressive
  • Smug

But my real stumbling block is internal. It has to do with me, with who I am.

As I was preparing for this talk, I realized I am governed by twin fears:

  • Fear of joining (have to take a side, stand out, which in my family = be a spectacle)
  • Fear of being lonely (not quite same as alone, but similar)

It’s almost physically painful for me to join in a group movement: I am fundamentally a-political. Partly because I am deeply introverted. And partly because I am scared of rejection. Having to ask for what I want is very hard for me. I’d rather people ask me to join than me having to ask them.

At the same time, I hate to be left out, I want to know the gossip, I have FOMO. Warhol anecdote: I don’t want to go to any parties; I just want to see what happens at all of them.

So in the end I think my situation—being a resident alien—is the response I’ve found to these competing imperatives. It suits me to be neither here nor there. Were I ever to move back home (and no one has ever shown signs of wanting to hire me…), I would probably quickly become frustrated. As it is, by being the Canadian in the US, I can assert my difference, but quietly. And I don’t have to take the risk of putting myself out there.

I ask myself: is this a critical position, a way to use the power of the minority position? Or is it paralysis, a kind of fence-sitting?

As I was writing this talk realized that maybe the reason I love Nella Larsen’s Passing so much is because that’s what my current situation allows me to do: to pass, to hide in plain sight, to be familiar yet strange.

And yet I am always avowing that hiding. Hiding itself is not enough for me. Of course, to be able to do so is a sign of privilege. Most of time passing happens, as it does in Larsen’s novel, for much more desperate motives.

And increasingly I think this privilege is something to give up. I love being betwixt and between. But I worry that maybe it is cowardly in some fashion.

What, I wonder, would it mean for me to be as American as possible under the circumstances?

14 thoughts on “Secretly Canadian

  1. “It suits me to be neither here nor there.” Ha, I don’t think there’s anything more Canadian than this.

    Being an anglophone Quebecer, I think, is like being Canadian in America, beset by someone else’s national identity (Quebecois de souche are wavering, uncertain, and striking out, just as being white, male, middle-aged, with a nice scorn for the benefits of a liberal education, is striking out in America), attached to your home, but never quite a part of it, diffident, even apologetic at times.

    Crossing the border into Ontario or any other part of NAmerica means that I can walk into a corner store and ask for gum in English and it isn’t a political act, but my strangeness and others’ strangeness to me sets in after the initial linguistic euphoria. Which is why I love Montreal: it’s neither here nor there, neither English nor French. I think it was Northrop Frye who said that we have more in common with Scandinavians than we do with Americans and that Canada’s strength is that we’re “no where”.

    • Thanks for this thoughtful comment, MB. You make a great point–plus you’ve taught me a new phrase. I know “pur laine,” but had to look “Quebecois de souche” up. (I gather they mean pretty much the same thing, though, right?)

      I remember Montreal in the 90s, when what came out of your mouth seemed so important and fraught. The whole atmosphere was tense. But in the last few years (on my admittedly brief trips) things seemed a bit easier. Does that accord with your sense of things?

      Being nowhere: exactly. After all, that’s the etymology of utopia, after all.

      • You’re welcome. They do mean the same thing, I think even Quebecois nationalists are avoiding the “pur laine” *shudder*. I hope they are.

        As for Montreal? Well, I think we’ve settled into a more apt definition of MacLennan’s “two solitudes”: Montreal and the “rest” of Quebec. With the PQ’s and Bloc’s demises, things are less tense, less fraught. I also think that the Quebecois population is aging and shrinking (this may bring some fraughtness, as it’s always the last gasp that’s nastiest). But the trend, with the CAQ election, is not a good one, not so much b/c of Quebecois nationalism (though Legault was minister of ed and health for a PQ government and a terrible one at that; he’s a separatist disguised as a “let-it-rester”, he’s busy with right-wing fish to fry), but b/c of a trend to the right and anti-immigrant actions. I’d say the rahrah “speak white” era is over, but the tensions simmer nonetheless. And poor Montreal: a shadow of its former glory. Have you seen Denis Arcand’s Le declin de ’empire americain and the films that follow? He’s got Quebec totally pegged (which is why Quebecois nationalists hate him).

      • The last gasp is always the nastiest: so true, and so apt re: the US today. Here’s hoping it’s not the last gasp for *all* of us…
        That makes a lot of sense re: Montreal/rest of Quebec. The city still seems incredible to me, but yeah it does seem to be falling apart. Arcand is great. I really like the one about the guy who is dying, do you know which one I mean?
        BTW are you familiar with the internet show Yidlife Crisis? Such a great Montreal show!

      • Here’s hoping!

        Montreal is like Leonard’s great line in “Suzanne”: “rags and feathers from Salvation Army counters … ” 😉

        Yes, I LOVE that one: it’s Les invasions barbares, filmed onsite at the Rosemont-Maisonneuve Hospital. That scene at the cottage where they’re recounting all they’s “ists” … “Remember when we were Marxists” and so on. Genius. But separatists HATE Arcand.

        I’ll look for that show!!!! I grew up on Park and St. Joseph, Mile End, Outremont, Richler-territory.

      • It’s mostly in Yiddish, but a Yiddish inflected with English and some Quebecois. Fantastic. And delicious Montreal foods are featured prominently.

  2. Love this Dorian! That “Canadian as…” adage is a classic. I love bringing it up. Who but a true Canadian (even an American born one like me) could proud of that?

  3. This is awesome. Somehow, I had never heard that Gzowski story, but it really is perfect. I also didn’t realize that about your citizenship, but totally understand where you are coming from (and it’s good to have you stay on the team, for a little longer at least.)

    In recent weeks, I’ve been thinking maybe a new perversely Canadian point of pride could be that we are a country where it is still possible to have a political scandal (because our capacity for moral outrage has not yet been completely exhausted?)

    Your comments about growing up with American TV stations totally resonated with me (although in my case it was Buffalo, NY and Erie, PA). Everything was bigger and louder (especially the news).

    And for the record, my Dean used the phrase “motherhood and apple pie” in a meeting yesterday, so that phrase is not completely dead (although he’s a historian so he might be expected to know these things).

    • I hope the Dean was using it ironically or historically!

      Isn’t the Gzowski story great? And I’m blown away that the woman who wrote that wonderful sentence was 17 at the time! I really miss Gzowski.

      Good point re: the scandal. I’m struck, from afar, that there seems to be a genuine dilemma. It’s unclear Trudeau broke any laws, but he sure seems to have been threatening. But the loss of those jobs would have been a tough pill to swallow. And yet the “too big to fail” narrative is so gross. What is your take on the situation?

      • Yes, it seems to fall in the category of bad but not criminal behaviour, and in that respect is such a Canadian scandal. If Trump had done what Trudeau is accused of, he would have just said “what I did isn’t illegal, besides I didn’t really do it and besides the other party has done much worse” and the media would have moved on to the next outrage within 24 hours. But mostly it seems like it was (and still is) about playing politics; would 9000 jobs really have been lost? Someone would have gotten those contracts if Lavalin didn’t, but it would certainly look bad on Trudeau for this to happen just before an election. And Trudeau’s behaviour seems to have been inappropriate, but I’m not so naive to think that politicians don’t try to do whatever they can to ensure favourable political outcomes on a regular basis. In the end, it confirms what Baudrillard said about Watergate; we need political scandals to maintain the illusion that politics as it is normally carried out is honest. But most of all, I’m pissed off with the Liberals because if the end result of all of this is Scheer becoming Prime Minister, then we’re all in trouble.

      • That’s a great point about the contracts. Yes, I worry about Scheer. He seems personable enough, but I suspect he is a lousy human being. And if Kenney wins in Alberta, that’s going to be a shit show.

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