Patriotism is a word that seems to be more ill-defined than defined of late. What is ostensibly a concept of some nobility is usually hurled in a threatening manner, to suggest that one is lacking in it if one does not support without reservation whatever controversial policy is being advanced by the government of the day – often the call to arms. The redoubtable Oscar Wilde called it the virtue of the vicious. I’ve always thought of patriotism as loving your country more than you love the dolts who are running it – a sentiment most pertinent when the party you support is out of power. Yet what does it mean to love a country? We can love a song, a great work of literature, a beautiful painting, our life partner, our children. What are we saying when we say we love our country? Since we’re going at this from the point of etymology, apparently, what is it that constitutes a country insomuch as something capable and worthy of being loved? Is it a mere delineation of territory, is it a system of self-governance, is it the character of the people who inhabit its boundaries and the society they have crafted for themselves? What is it I’m saying I love when I say I love my homeland of Canada?
As is true with almost any place on the planet, most of the stereotypes about Canadians aren’t true, as endearing as they may be or as useful to the creation of soundbites. And I’m not talking about the lazy “y’all live in igloos, don’t you?” redneck view of Soviet Canuckistan. Are we unfailingly polite? No more so than anywhere else I’ve chanced to visit, and I have in fact encountered some stunningly rude Canadians in my time, folks who’d just as soon deck you as look at you, and not apologize for it afterwards. Are we peacemakers, honest brokers to the world and friend to any and all to the point of effusiveness? Again, not really – Canadians fight just as hard in wartime as anyone else, and lately our record of living up to our international obligations has been sullied by ideological maneuvering. What about our pristine environment and our unflinching need to protect our natural resources? Hmm… have you chanced to look at the moonscape around northern Alberta recently? Or the rate at which we’re paving over our arable land to build strip malls, big box stores and cookie cutter suburban neighborhoods?
No, we’re not the hosers you think we are. In fact, we’re not entirely sure what we are. For a long time we’ve started our national identity conversation from the point of “not-Americans” and latched on to the quick and simple traits – hockey, Tim Hortons, bilingualism, universal health care – to try to distinguish ourselves on the world stage. Remember those “My name is Joe, and I am Canadian” commercials that were so popular back in the 90’s? While it was amusing to poke fun at the silly questions we’ve all coped with at one time or another while abroad (my personal favorite, my wife being asked about Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding plans while at Disney World three years ago, as if she and Kate were BFF’s), the ads still ended with the same laundry list of “Canadian” traits, packaged into five seconds for easy digestion. They made me restless. Surely being Canadian is much more than that. Does my not caring about hockey and preferring Starbucks mean I have to turn in my membership card?
I wanted to write something for Canada Day and I’ve been struggling with it, turning over the question of what it means to be Canadian in my mind all day. It occurred to me, in one of those lightning bolt moments, that I was missing the mark – because the answer lay within the question. Our current federal government has been earnest, if not obnoxious, about pushing symbols of national identity onto the populace – playing up the importance of hockey and Tim Hortons and the monarchy to “honest, average, hard-working Canadians,” positioning the idea of their party and their party alone as the arbiter of Canadianness. Encouragingly, the reaction to these moves, at least from what I’ve seen, has been one of collective indifference. Canadians refuse to be defined; not by their government, not by foreigners, not by anyone. We define ourselves. Because figuring out what it means to be Canadian is, in fact, what it means to be Canadian.
There is no “Canadian Dream,” at least not like its American alternative. Put rather basically (if not overly simplified), the American Dream is about financial success in the capitalist model: starting from nothing, working hard, becoming rich and famous. Does your average Canadian dream about being rich? Sure, a great many do, but the acquisition of massive wealth is not a universal motivator. What does a Canadian want? That is left up to each of us to decide for ourselves. I think about my list of Facebook friends, most of whom are people I went to high school with. From that level playing field they have each followed in some cases wildly divergent paths in life. Some run their own businesses. Some are devoted to charity causes. Some are academics, some are artists and musicians, some work in the trades. Some work for the government, or in health care. Some are attorneys, police officers, computer engineers, teachers, some are stay-at-home parents raising wonderful kids. Some love hockey and follow with religious devotion the trials and tribulations of the Leafs, the Canadiens, the Canucks, the Senators. Some could not care less. They are as diverse a group of people as any random focus group you could gather together, and I would defy anyone to say that a single one of them is any less Canadian than the others. They are the epitome of Canadianness, because each of them is discovering it on his or her own, without feeling any compulsion to conform to a standard. And there’s no group of folks I’d rather stand up and be counted with.
Canada is not without its challenges. We are 37 million people of probably just as many different cultural backgrounds clinging to the border we share with a sometimes very noisy neighbour, one whose influence permeates our daily life (and even our spelling, as my father-in-law would doubtlessly remind me). Often the folks on one side of the country are peeved at the folks on the other (and almost everyone is either peeved at or in love with Quebec at some point). The reason why this grand experiment continues to work, in my humble opinion, is that there is no single destination that can be pointed to as the ultimate objective. Each Canadian is free to follow his or her own path. The objective, as it were, is to discover who you are and make that your Canada. And that is an idea I can get behind and fall in love with. I love this country for allowing me to find myself within it.
Happy birthday, Canada. Bonne fete, Canada.