XX: Oh, Canada

Tomorrow is Canada Day. On July 1st, 1867, the autonomous Dominion of Canada was officially recognized by Great Britain and established as a self-governing, independent nation. Among my friends, it is usually viewed as an excuse to get dressed up in red and white clothing, compete to see who can find the tackiest hats and sunglasses, and go to a park or someone’s yard to have a barbeque and indulge in some good ol’ fashioned day drinking. We don’t have moose or dogsled races, lumberjack contests or ice carving competitions. We don’t guzzle maple syrup, brawl at a hockey rink or vie to see how many Tim Hortons Timbits we can fit into our mouths at once. It’s too hot for igloos, no one tries to pin a tail on a beaver and we continue using “eh” only as needed (once every other sentence or so is usually sufficient).

Defining a Canadian is an incredibly tricky task. Being a global representative of the nation is even trickier.

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Dollar store souvenirs I bring with me when I travel to give as gifts to people I meet

When you travel – especially if you stay in hostels or couchsurf – you are constantly meeting people from other countries. Often long before you’ve exchanged names, you’ll know each other’s nationalities. A person is defined by his or her nation, and in turn helps to define that country internationally. Each backpacker becomes a sort of global ambassador, serving to reinforce or reverse the stereotypes others have of them from the media, history books or past life experiences. If you’re friendly and engaged, the people you meet will start to believe that everyone else from your country is too. If you’re rude or disinterested, the same generalizations will be made.

No pressure, guys.

Canadians are lucky. Most of our stereotypes are endearing rather than harmful. We are viewed as a generally friendly, peaceful people, open-minded, liberal, polite, accepting and welcoming. We are considered to be safer than our neighbours to the South as well as being more aware of global affairs (plus, it doesn’t hurt that we currently have a good-looking prime minister who has promised to legalize marijuana). I have met people whose eyes have glazed over when they’ve first heard my accent because they think I’m American, but who have instantly perked up when I tell them I’m from Canada. Most of them do not know the darker sides of Canada’s past. They have never read about residential schools, the ongoing problem of missing and murdered indigenous women, the tensions surrounding the First Nations people, referendums in Quebec, sweeping cuts to arts funding, pensions, education and mental health programs, other economic, security or environmental concerns, and the list goes on. Canada has problems like any other country, but for the most part we’ve managed to keep them quiet internationally, and our reputation both as a nation and as individuals has benefitted from it. Others are not so fortunate. I’ve heard people say how much they dislike obnoxious Americans or arrogant Parisians, wild Australians and macho Italians. The English are posh, the Irish are drunk, the Germans have no sense of humour, etc. etc. (For a playful take on some of these, check out the Atlas of Prejudice by Yanko Tsvetkov. Consider yourself trigger warned.) Usually these opinions are formed from a mixture of the media and select personal encounters. They colour the way backpackers interact with each other and serve to enforce national divisions that are often based on very little fact. Those who don’t fit the traditional mold are exceptions, and the stereotypical rule persists.

But what does it really mean to be Canadian? In all honesty, I can’t say. Canada is a vast nation, populated by an incredibly diverse collection of people from all over the world. Parts of the country are quite rural, others are major industrial centres, some are in dire economic straits, others are wildly successful. Although the two official languages are French and English, dozens more are spoken across the nation, and summertime in Toronto is usually jam-packed with festivals celebrating the cultural diversity of just that one city. We use kilometres and centigrade like Europe, but refer to our height and weight in feet and pounds. Shots are measured in ounces, bottles in litres, and don’t even get me started on our slang.

When I used to waitress, people would ask me about my background all the time. It wouldn’t satisfy them if I said I was Canadian, having been born in Canada, with parents who were also born there. For them, my identity was more defined by the countries my grandparents and great-grandparents immigrated from than by the one I had called home for my entire life. Canadian stereotypes are cute and all, but they do little to represent the people who actually live there.

Travel can help give you a clearer idea of the international landscape, but it can also make it dangerously easy to generalize it. I believe that there are good and bad people all over the world, and each nation has its own struggles. There are so many remarkable individuals out there, so many of whom are a credit to their countries and to our global society. I suppose the trick is not to let the few rotten eggs spoil the entire batch, and to continue to learn, grow and welcome each other, while celebrating rather than condemning our differences.

So, tomorrow I’ll be out there in my red and white for Canada Day, probably having a pint or two in the pub with my friends across the pond. Tomorrow I will be proud to be Canadian, even though we still have a long way to go. And the day after tomorrow I will continue to try to uphold the values I believe in, to be the type of person others would be happy to meet, and one who would make my country proud.

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