Last month we had a visit from Elizabeth Anderson, who hails from Minneapolis, Minnesota, where she is a graduate student at the state university. Her field of study is Canada, and she also writes about Canada for Utne Reader. We wanted immediately to know what there is about Canada that might constitute an object of study, and she said people always laugh at first when she tells them that. (We too were laughing.) And then she said: why is that, do you think? She had other hard questions for us, too.
“People laughed at me for two years,” she went on to say, “but now some of them are starting to think that I made a very smart move by distinguishing myself in this way from my colleagues. No one else, you see, knows anything about Canada, and Minnesota is a border state, after all. So I have become a sort of spokesperson for Canada amongst my colleagues, and no matter how inaccurate my knowledge of Canada might be, people ask me the questions now, and—well, I’m the local expert.
“When I knew that Canada would be my focus, I had to find some Canadians, so I went to see the Canadian consul in Minneapolis. He turned out to be an American doing cultural PR for Canada, but he was great: he was able to identify a few Canadians for me right away. For example, there was a Canadian over at Ogsberg College near the University. Right from the start Canadians proved to be really friendly, and quite willing to talk about it.
"My interest started with a friend in college who had lived most of his life in Canada, although he was born in Brazil. He was the first person to tell me anything about Canada, and then I have some relatives in Quebec through marriage. Three years ago I spent a summer at Laval in Quebec, in French immersion. That was my first chance to meet a lot of Canadians. Most of the time I’m starved for Canadians, of course. Where are they—where are they? I say to myself. But just recently an authentic Canadian joined the English department. Her name is Helen Hoy and I’ve sort of hooked up with her. I’m very glad she’s there.
“I tell people my research is on The Construction of Canadian National Cultural Identity. I love using the word construction in my titles, and I like colons too. I just wrote a paper on I Heard the Mermaids Singing and La Femme de l’hôtel called ‘Objectivizing Reality: Identity Construction.’ My big subject is the National Film Board, both as a national institution and as the site of different initiatives—the women’s studio, the French unit and the Challenge for Change program.
“The first time I came to Canada I was four years old at the Montreal Expo in ‘67. Since then I’ve been to Montreal a few times, Toronto once, and now Vancouver. That’s it, so far. The only Canadian accent I am aware of to date is the Peter Jennings accent on TV.
“I have no idea what Canadian identity means, of course, but I’m fascinated by the public debate here, which seems to be happening right out in the open. At first I didn’t know Canada was multicultural, but with all that immigration in the eighties—I’m very interested in how that works out. That’s what excites me about this place. There seems to be a more serious debate going on here.
“There’s a certain pair of shoes that I love wearing: Fluevogs. John Fluevog is a Canadian and I’m trying to get hold of him. He lives in Vancouver, you know. I love his shoes.
“There seems to be a pretty strong reaction here to the American cultural presence. I mean American pop culture, which to a certain extent back home is considered resistant to the mainstream. That doesn’t seem to be the case here, while anything British seems to be okay, its “high culture.” Do you know what I mean? Actually. I can’t believe how I defend America when I’m talking to Canadian nationalists.
“Another thing that’s hard for an American to understand is the connection to the royal family. I mean the Queen on your money and your stamps and stuff. Don’t you find that embarrassing? Do you actually pay her? Taxes or levies, things like that?
“And here’s another mystery for you. You see this Chiquita Banana sticker? Look closely and you’ll see it has a Canadian flag on it. Now I found this on a bunch of bananas in a Minneapolis market. I have no idea what it means. Has this got something to do with free trade? What do you think?
“I’m very interested in cultural exchange. One day I’d like to open up a cultural centre. I think what I’d like to be is a cultural attaché for Canada. That’s what I’d really like.”