Oh, the shame. It’s one thing to get slammed for your personal failings. But by Gene Simmons?
Nonetheless my fellow Canadians, it happened. The former leader of Kiss—now a reality TV star on the A&E network—recently held forth on the topic of… us. “You Canadians have self-esteem issues,” Simmons announced to a Canadian Press reporter. You can recognize a Canadian in any movie theatre: the movie comes on and you hear ‘Hey, did you know they're Canadian?’ And it’s like, oh please! It’s so embarrassing. Canada must just be hiding its face. Buy some cool.”
Yes, the guy is obnoxious. But the most obnoxious part is, he’s so right. Whether it’s Mike Myers or the guy who invented the zipper or Shania Twain or, God help us, Howie Mandel, Canadians grasp at every thin straw of international accomplishment, waving it aloft like a captured battle flag.
Why do we do it? Why do we scramble for table scraps of glory? Are we really that insecure? Apparently.
And frankly, it’s understandable. We sit next door to an economic, military and cultural powerhouse that dominates the world. The world’s best-known Canadians will always be those who capture the magnification of American success. As the planet’s No. 1 economic and military superpower, Americans are understandably proud. Many Americans are raised with the inherent belief that the U.S. is the centre of the world, which makes it easy to grow up thinking that nowhere else really matters.
Any Canadian who grew up believing that Canada is the centre of the universe would have to be particularly dense. As a young country with a relatively small population, Canadians are forced to look outward and understand our place in the world. We’re simply not big enough to be arrogant. It’s like high school—the prom queen and the quarterback don’t have to try hard. The rest of us can’t afford to be quite so self-centred.
And yet, I live here, not there. And I don’t have to. When I made my grand entrance into the world, my family was temporarily based in Ohio. Dad happened to be studying at Oberlin College at the time, thus blessing me with a U.S. birth certificate and an easy path to American citizenship if I so desired. We were back in Canada before I was two, thus ensuring my pronunciation of “about” would remain a serious barrier to American acceptance. But when you consider the fact that I can’t skate—imagine growing up on the Prairies with such a burden—you would expect I’d have been tempted.
Then again, maybe you wouldn’t. Not if you’re Canadian, anyway. Because most of us rather like it here, and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. A winter vacation in the Bahamas? Absolutely. A shoe-buying spree in Italy? Fantastico. But most Canadians will tell you that Canada is the best place to live. More than 262,000 new immigrants in 2005 and countless others who applied for entry suggest that many people around the world agree.
The 2006 United Nations survey of the world’s most livable nations once again ranked Canada in the top six. (The top two were Norway and Iceland. Apparently, frozen gas lines and a lack of notable indigenous cuisine did not lose you any points.) Canadian newscasts trumpet such surveys with a hey-look-at-me enthusiasm that would make Gene Simmons cringe. But at least in such cases we are boasting about the right thing. Canadian identity should not rest on Avril Lavigne or famous comedians. The real Canadian accomplishment is Canada itself.
It would be rash to suggest Canada has it all. A visit to Rome or Paris or Tokyo can make even our largest cities seem a bit provincial. But we have other selling points. Our Canadian landscape, for example. It’s one of the things that makes this a great country. We get no credit for that, though—being pretty doesn’t make you talented, as Paris Hilton conclusively proves. While Canadian lakes, mountains and wilderness will draw plenty of tourists, something else about this country is deserving of genuine pride.
Canada has accomplished a feat that is sadly rare in this world. We have blended the peoples of the globe into a more or less harmonious whole. We’ve created a democratic society that balances a robust economy with an extensive social safety net and publicly funded healthcare. Not a bad century-and-a-half’s work.
There will always be political debate about the details of public spending and multicultural policy. And there will always be racism and discrimination lurking in society, despite our best efforts. But travel the world and it becomes very clear—Canada is a wonderful place to live.
There is a general civility to Canadian public life that characterizes our daily interactions, our public institutions and even our political campaigns. Perhaps it’s easier to be civil when the political stakes are not so high; perhaps we can afford to be civil with so much space and such a high standard of living.
Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing. At its best, life in Vancouver, BC feels like a glimpse of a workable future where different cultures persist, yet are comfortably enveloped in a greater national identity. Unfortunately, that’s the opposite of where matters appear to be headed in some parts of the world. All the more reason to celebrate and protect what we have.
When asked about their identity, Canadians will talk about moments of national pride, such as Vimy Ridge, the liberation of Holland in World War II, Tommy Douglas and Medicare, the Underground Railroad and Paul Henderson’s 1972 goal that beat the Russians. On a lighter note, they will list national enthusiasms such as hockey, curling, hockey, three-down football, hockey, British comedy, hockey and Tim Hortons, a coffee-and-doughnut chain named for a hockey player.
But most Canadians, I think, will describe our national character as just that—an agreeable character, a way of carrying one’s self, a deference that is polite but not servile, a sense of humour that is frequently aimed at our own reflection, a preference for common sense over extremism and an emphasis on community over individualism. We love this country, and we’re proud of what we’ve done with the place
Of course most Canadians will tell you that self-congratulation is cheesy and embarrassing. And speaking of cheesy, more from Gene Simmons on the topic of Canadian self-confidence: “Your air’s cleaner, your women are prettier… Get over it.”