Monday, June 28, 2010

A man of this land

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
July/ August, 2010

My thanksgiving day comes on July 1, because I’m grateful to have been born in Canada.

Every Canada Day, tens of thousands flock to the Inner Harbour for a dawn to dusk celebration, culminating in a fireworks display inevitably described by the city as “Eh rated.” Several hundred don free red or white T-shirts to help create a living flag on the lawn of the Legislature.

Elsewhere, immigrants will dress in their finest for a formal swearing-in ceremony.

I’m not one for flag waving; I mistrust jingoism; I will never say, “My country, right or wrong,” or, “Love it or leave it.” But I’ll take a moment on the holiday to reflect on the people who have created this peaceable kingdom, a sustaining myth that manages to ignore our bloodlust appreciation for hockey, not to mention our military’s reputation for getting the job done.

A great thing about our grand Canadian experiment is that we are melding First Nations, two major founding peoples, and boatloads of immigrants from all parts of the globe. My own ancestors earlier came from England and Ireland, Scotland and Galicia, homelands reflected in the family names of Starkey and Hourihan, Hawthorn and Kozak.

I’m a man of this land, the product of a soldier father from Manitoba and a young mother from New Brunswick. My home addresses have ended with MB, AB, QC, ON and, for more than half my 50 years, BC.

We are building a nation in which inclusivity is a pillar and health care a right. Peaceful dissent is constitutionally guaranteed and, perhaps, should be regarded as an obligation. We try to work out our problems through dialogue. Slavery ended in our part of this continent without a civil war. Even our own independence came via words and evolution. Let our neighbours be constitutionally encouraged in “the pursuit of happiness.” In Canada, that’s a band name. We seek “peace, order and good government.” Oh well, two out of three ain’t bad.

Our unique genius has been a talent for compromise, a cliche to be sure, but Canada has much to share in that skill with the world. Not that our country does not face a slew of problems, from persistent poverty to domestic violence to the shame of the reserves and the slow pace of treaty negotiations. But we evolve. The land is no longer pillaged with such carefree abandon as it once was, because the citizenry said enough.

A new Canada has emerged from a liberal immigration policy initiated in Centennial Year, adding hues to the Canadian kaleidoscope, not to mention a Babel of languages. The red maple flag, deliberately chosen to be a distinctly Canadian standard, was adopted only in 1965. Those of us who were children then are part of a new Canadian nationalism, one that has a different history and narrative than that of our parents.

The street celebrations during the Olympics surprised many of us. We’re not accustomed to flag-waving demonstrations with spontaneous singing of the national anthem. I think for many, especially those whose parents or grandparents were immigrants to this land, the celebrations offered a chance to express pride in an identity not always easy to define.

Canadian nationalism is an inward expression. It is about how we feel about ourselves. It is, in many ways, an abstract construction: We are not them, or them, or them, and we’re no longer quite what we were when we left wherever to come here. We’re something else.

Here’s how others see us. A magazine once ran a contest to find a more boring headline than “Worthwhile Canadian Initiative.” Some get a kick out of playing “Canadian, or dead?,” in which a challenger has to decide whether a minor celebrity is cadaverous, or a Canuck (and thus so wooden and spiritless as to seem deceased). While Americans laugh at our earnest dullness (or is that dull earnestness?), we have quietly infiltrated Hollywood and the television newscasts with stealth Canadians. Someday, Alex Trebak will read a Jeopardy! clue that will be the signal for our takeover. They won’t know what hit ’em.

Mostly, though, we do not impose our Canadian nationalism on others. Whatever the outcome of our role in Afghanistan that poor country will not be an outpost of the Canadian empire. We will not annex the Sudetenland, or invade tiny Caribbean island nations that flirt with ideologies not to our liking. Though if the Turks and Caicos want to join Confederation, I’m all for it.

The “world needs more Canada” insists Chapter’s, the bookstore chain, and I tend to agree. When the European championship soccer tournament needed a song six years ago, they selected “Forca” by Nelly Furtado, the Victorian-born daughter of Portuguese parents from the Azores. Organizers of this summer’s World Cup of soccer chose as a theme song the catchy and inspiring “Wavin’ Flags” by K’naan, a Somali immigrant who grew up in Rexdale, Ont. Both were selected for their universal appeal. Because we have become a home for people from many nations, who mix it up here so that we’re one big fusion, we have come to be the go-to people when the world needs a global anthem.

My Canada Day weekend will not likely include fireworks, or a flag hoisting, though the imbibing of one of the beverages with which our land is associated is a distinct possibility. I’ll think about my ancestors who so fortuitously chose this land and offer a quiet thanks.

Earlier this year, I joined a baseball tour of Cuba organized by a Vancouver company. Our guide, Clem, a bilingual Cuban, had recently immigrated with his wife and young son to Canada. He retains a great passion for his homeland, whose cuisine, music and people garner his highest praise. (As, too, does the Caribbean climate.) An American on the tour told me Clem would always be Cuban and would never integrate.

Au contraire, I replied. We’re not a melting pot. Clem can be Clem. His arrival here makes Canada just a wee bit more Cuban.

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