Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Oh Canada: inventing a tradition for a polite and clean nation

I grew up in a country that regularly featured propaganda videos in movies and on television to teach me about my culture and heritage.  No, I wasn't behind the Iron Curtain or in a place run by a dictator: this took place in Canada on a regular basis.  Government-supported films were created (by the National Film Board) to offer insights into what made us Canadians.  Why was this necessary?  Because Anglo Canadian culture was not particularly well defined, from what I recall.  Sure, we all had to read Canadian literature in school, but I didn't find that Canada had the same kinds of nation-defining events as America (and we are constantly comparing ourselves to America, even when we don't admit it).  There was no real equivalent to American Thanksgiving, for instance, which is a holiday steeped with rituals, formal and informal.  Canada Day had fireworks, but nothing on par with the Fourth of July.  In fact, growing up I think that many of us had the idea that Canada didn't really amount to all that much, in the world, but we were clean and polite.

[I think that this has shifted drastically, but that may have to wait for another post]

This is not to say that all Canadians were walking around with a lack of identity.  Some groups had defined themselves very well.  Take, for instance, French Canada, which had a slew of folk songs, literature, plays, and even television.  In fact, my favorite Canadian television show when I was growing up came from Quebec.  It was called Lance et compte, and it was basically the Canadian response to Dallas, only with hockey.  Yes, it was a primetime soap opera based around the fictional Quebec Nationals team (thinly veiled for the Quebec Nordiques, they even shared a logo), and it was phenomenal.  I remember scenes like one of the Soviet players defecting via the Canadian embassy in Paris.  This was engaging stuff when you were a young Canadian:

I will post more later about French Canadian identity, which is a fascinating and complex topic.  Jewish Canadian identity was also relatively well-defined, and in fact substituted somewhat for Canadian identity as a whole, at least in the realm of high school literature that we had to read.  The only Canadian book that I remember reading in school was Mordecai Richler's The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1955), which I hated with the power of a thousand suns because I found the main character repugnant.  We were not given any context for his character and this may have been my first exposure to the concept of Jewishness as a potentially separate group within what we had been taught was a cohesive whole.  Perhaps more context would have improved my experience, but in the end, I gained little insight into what it was to be an Anglo Canadian, since Duddy was Jewish and in Montreal, which means he was subject to what is effectively an entirely different culture than my Anglo-Saxon Ontario upbringing.

(You might find it weird that we didn't read Margaret Atwood, who is possibly the most effective chronicler of Anglo Canadian life that I know, with Cat's Eye being her best work in this regard.  I do too.  Maybe she talked about sex or women or some other scary and uncomfortable subject, and therefore could not be included in the curriculum.  Why not Robertson Davies?  There were better options).

English Canada has a bad habit of stealing the culture of French Canada.  Today, you can find poutine hailed as a Canadian dish (French fries, gravy, and cheese curds, YUMMY YUM, even if it is a heart attack on a plate).  However, it's really from Quebec.  When I was growing up, you only found poutine in Quebec, never anywhere else.  To say that it represents Canada as a whole would be a little bit like if New Englanders suddenly appropriated barbeque as their own.  The South would, obviously, rise up, led by irate pit masters.  Canadians may be too polite to rise up, but certainly they take no issue with adopting French (or Canadian-Jewish) cultural icons as their own.  Even the folk songs that I remember from school were mostly from Quebec:

And one from Newfoundland:

I didn't feel any closer attachment to Newfoundland culture than I did to that of Quebec.  However, I do find it notable that I don't remember a single unique Ontario song from when I was growing up.

I should probably point out that I was part of a French immersion program, so I spent more time speaking and learning about French than many Canadian students.  However, I am fascinated with how much Quebec informs Canada's culture as a whole, and how strange the notion of an Anglo Canadian culture was.  This topic will be the subject of future 'Oh Canada' posts.

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