The cultural particularities that many Canadians cherish are invisible abroad
During the 1980s the literary critic Edward Said organized occasional research seminars at Columbia University in New York. Unlike most such seminars, Said’s gatherings were not advertised: admission was by invitation, supplemented by word of mouth. One evening, when I was visiting New York, a friend offered to smuggle me into Said’s seminar. I was delighted to learn that the speaker that evening was the respected sociologist Michael Taussig.
Taussig, an Australian who has made his career in the United States, is a specialist on Colombia. Having studied in Bogotá, I was intrigued by Taussig’s reputation as a chronicler of Colombia’s endless cycle of violence; some of his academic articles, I later discovered, were as claustrophobic as terrifying short stories.
That night Taussig spoke not about Colombia, but about Australia. He assessed the extent to which Australians with non-British Isles surnames such as his had succeeded in entering the Australian elite. After the talk, a woman asked Taussig whether he thought that some of his general points about Australian culture might be applicable, also, to Canadian culture.
“The thing about Canada,” Taussig said, “is the way it doesn’t have a culture. It has no history or art or—”
Feeling compelled to intervene, I asked Taussig: “But when you say that Canada has no culture, aren’t you, as an immigrant to the United States, simply internalizing U.S. stereotypes about Canada rather than studying Canadian reality?”
Taussig shifted in his chair and did not reply. Irate New Yorkers turned belligerent gazes on the impertinent nobody who had asked the question. Edward Said, effortlessly in control in a navy blue suit, suggested that we all go downstairs for drinks.
“That’s the last time I invite you to anything,” my friend whispered.
It was not the last time I was to provoke discomfort by presuming the existence of Canadian culture. A few years ago I found myself at a High Table dinner at one of the colleges of Oxford University. At these medieval feasts, suited and gowned scholars proceed through multiple courses served in a succession of ancient rooms. That evening’s guest of honour was an American Ivy League historian famous for his eccentric approach to nineteenth-century Europe. At the candle-lit second stage of the dinner, I was seated next to the historian’s wife. An imposing woman, she spoke to me about university hiring policies in the United States. In the hope of making acceptable polite conversation, I began to explain how these policies worked in Canada.
My neighbour grew rigid. “I hate it,” she said, “when Canadians pretend to have some kind of difference! That’s what you get with multiculturalism. First the blacks and Hispanics think they have a different culture from other Americans, and now even Canadians are pretending they’re not American. It’s outrageous!”
The atmosphere not being conducive to spirited rebuttals, I turned to speak to the person on my left.
These two incidents have returned to my mind in recent months, when I have been living in England and travelling in Europe. A certain cheerleading Canadian journalism maintains that Canada’s culture is respected throughout the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. The cultural particularities that many Canadians cherish are invisible abroad. Our fiction is little known abroad and barely recognizable as Canadian. Our national debates about multiculturalism, bilingualism and coexisting with an omnipotent United States, which others might find illuminating, receive no international airing. In a Europe strongly opposed to the invasion of Iraq, Canada’s refusal to participate passed unnoticed: every British or European academic or graduate student I have spoken to in the last six months has assumed that Canadian troops were in Fallujah. During the same period, I have seen Canada mentioned only once in the British newspapers, when The Independent ran a brief article on the Supreme Court’s decision on gay marriage. The article stated that the Supreme Court was located in Canada’s capital, Toronto.
The activity for which Canadians are best known in Europe is bludgeoning baby harp seals. In Vienna I dodged an anti-sealing demonstration outside the Canadian embassy; in Lisbon intellectuals were writing letters to protest the seal hunt. In France and Germany, harp seals are so ubiquitous that you might think they, not the beaver, were our national symbol. The sealing debacle reinforces the European image of Canada as a frigid absence inhabited by a handful of fur-muffled figures wielding clubs. In much of Latin America, Canada’s invisibility is even greater than in the United States or Europe. The Spanish language makes Canada invisible by using the words Norte América to refer to the U.S.A. When Colombian or Argentine newscasters speak of “the North American capital, Washington,” it becomes a contradiction of fact to assert that another capital city, or a second nation, exists in North America. In 1995, when Canada seized Spanish cod trawlers, one Madrid newspaper explained to its readers that Canada was “this North American country that is not North America.”
But parochialism is an elite privilege. A friend from Alberta, having endured condescension in Oxford, encountered a warm reception in an economically depressed town in the north of England, where all the locals knew someone who had found a job in Canada. My experience has been similar. In Romania I heard admiring tales of prosperous cousins in Kitchener, Ontario; in an Arab restaurant in Paris, where every diner knew by heart which countries had invaded Iraq, Canadians were made very welcome; working people in Portugal explained to me in amazing detail Canada’s policies toward undocumented construction workers. The problem may be not that we are invisible, but that the people to whom we are visible are not the movers and shakers of their respective societies. However maddening we may find the myopia of international elites, we would be wrong to disdain this destiny. To be known and well regarded among frustrated people looking for somewhere better to live is a fate most countries would envy.