Real Talk

Canadian History, Only Interesting

So. Canada’s having a birthday. You may have heard. A big one, if you think Confederation is something to celebrate. I’m not going to get into that here. I think it’s possible to celebrate 150 years as a country while also acknowledging that we have a great deal of baggage that goes back much farther than 1867.

What bugs me about all the brouhaha is how relentless it’s been, since January 1 – and the tone of much of it. I take particular issue with the campaigns of two Canadian companies – companies I otherwise love. First, Chapters/Indigo, with its aggressive assertion that “The World Needs More Canada.” It was okay when Bono said it, I guess, because he represented the rest of the world. But for Canadians to take it and run with it, repeating it ad nauseam? Yeah. Nauseating. For Canada to tell the world that the world needs more of us is a kind of arrogance that doesn’t fit us very well.

The other brand is Roots, which has decided to spend this year celebrating Canada’s reputation (or self-image?) of being nice. I can think of a few populations who might have a thing or two to say about how nice we are. Also: we don’t own nice. Maybe (most) Canadians are nice. But we don’t and can’t own nice. In my experience, Americans are nice. New Zealanders are possibly the nicest. Except for those who aren’t. And the Americans who aren’t and the Canadians who aren’t. ALSO: as my besties will attest, I’ve long said that if the first word someone thinks of to describe me is ‘nice’, I have failed as a person. I’d say the same holds true for countries.

It all reminds me of a book I read a long time (15 years?!) ago – Why I Hate Canadians by Will Ferguson – and an essay/review I wrote about it for an undergrad creative writing class. It still feels relevant, all these years later – especially right now. Read on for a story about my own obnoxious Canadianism on a trip overseas, and why Canada needs to break up with the ‘Myth of Niceness’ once and for all.

“Are you Americans?”

I responded to the hostel owner as if I would prefer to be mistaken for a cannibalistic serial killer. “God, no.”

The moment I blurted this, I realized from their reactions that Mike and Phil, the men I’d met shortly before arriving at this hostel were, in fact, Americans. Note to self – before making ignorant, blatantly anti-American remarks, ensure that there are no Americans in your presence. Better yet, avoid making them at all.

Mike and Phil would never make the same mistake because, besides not being ignorant, they would never have had the chance to misjudge my nationality. Like most Canadians abroad, I had a maple leaf plastered to every surface that would accommodate one. When Mike had the audacity to criticize this custom, I was infuriated. He suggested that Canadians wore flags on their packs not to identify themselves as Canadian, but to distinguish themselves from Americans. I refuted this vehemently, spitting out numerous reasons for donning our flag: we are patriotic, proud of Canada, and internationally beloved. I insisted that it had nothing to do with America, and everything to do with Canada.

Will Ferguson believed that too, until he didn’t. Early in his book, Why I Hate Canadians, he discusses the popular belief that placing a Canadian flag on one’s backpack guarantees travellers the best treatment abroad. “Just sew a maple leaf on your backpack, my boy,” Ferguson writes, “and when the terrorists storm the bus they’ll be offering you tea and crumpets while the Americans, Israelis and Brits are being lined up against a wall and shot…They will thank you for being a model of tolerance and goodwill.” He goes on to say that the maple leaf on the backpack myth was the first of his youthful starry-eyed beliefs to die. “The truth is, people do not treat you better when they know you are Canadian; they simply treat you less bad because they know you are not American.”

Mike was right. The flag on my bag (and shirt…and pants…) wasn’t meant to single me out as Canadian. It was intended to make it clear that I was not American.

The use of the maple leaf to distinguish Canadians from Americans reflects the way we define ourselves – one of the many concepts of national identity central to Why I Hate Canadians. We are Canadian, it seems, because we are not American. In eleventh-grade social studies, my teacher asked the class to define ‘Canadian’ in one sentence or less. After we handed in our responses, he read them aloud to us. As Mr. Eikenaar seemed to predict, every definition had the word ‘American’ in it, or a reference to America. He asked us to try again, but with no reference to our southerly neighbours. This time, it was much harder – and that’s exactly what concerns Ferguson. In one of many chapters discussing Canadian-American relations, he stresses that “we must stop defining ourselves in terms of negation.” We must know what and who we are, not just what we aren’t.

Antagonism with Americans is only the first of three great trends of Canadian history, according to Ferguson. The three great themes, he says, are 1) “keeping the Americans out,” 2) “keeping the French in,” and 3) “trying to get the Natives to somehow disappear.”

Smaller themes include “Sucking up to the Royal Family; Waxing Poetic about Nature While Huddling Inside Shopping Malls; Electing Boneheads; Trusting Authority; Avoiding Extremes; and Resenting Success. All of which are played out against the larger Myth of Niceness.” In a series of essays, Ferguson address each of these themes, and several others. His criticism is both enhances and tempered by his masterful use of irony; it is both scathing and delightfully funny. Still, he takes on serious Canadian themes, including multi-culturalism and Indigenous rights, and manages to give each its due respect, using humour sparingly as a rhetorical device.

Besides our love/hate relationship with the United States, the other characteristic with which Canadians love to define ourselves, and to which Ferguson takes particular offense, is “niceness.” At the beginning of the book, on a plane en route from Japan, Ferguson converses with a fellow Canadian, who is perplexed and irritated by the writer’s blasé attitude towards Canada. When Ferguson challenges the woman to explain what is so great about Canadians, she remarks that they may not be the strongest, the richest, or the best, but they are nice.

Ferguson responds with dismay, “There you have it. The blandest adjective in the English language, and we have claimed it proudly on our own. Canadians are nice. I was never more depressed.”

Ferguson explores and attempts to undermine our ‘nice’ reputation throughout the book, calling attention to some of the less ‘nice’ events in Canadian history, including the exploitation of First Nations peoples and the assault of Somalians by officers in the Canadian military. At times, Ferguson seems determined to undermine Canadians’ self-perception of niceness, while at others he acknowledges that we are in fact nice, but arguing that being so will be the “death of Canada.”

As it turns out, Will Ferguson doesn’t hate Canadians. It takes him 200 pages to admit it, although of course one suspects it all along. I found myself somewhat disappointed with this revelation, as Ferguson’s humour wanes and he seems to begin to subscribe to the Canadian self-image that he so fervently criticized. In the book’s final scene, Ferguson is stirred by watching a Canada Day performance by a diverse group of patriotic youth.

“There it is, shining through….That Peter Pan faith. That stubborn, hard-won naivety. That unwavering belief in magical gestures. Canada. My homeland. It was good to be back.”

After 200-plus pages of sardonic, brash social commentary, this is not how one expects – or even hopes – How I Hate Canadians to end. It almost feels as though Ferguson is buying into what he coined as “The Myth of Nice.” Ironically, he is the archetypal Canadian.

Despite its slightly trite conclusion, Why I Hate Canadians is a funny, readable and informative book. Reading it, I was struck by how little I truly know about Canadian history, despite years of studying it. It seems that Canadian history just doesn’t stick. By using satire and evoking some of Canada’s least proud historical moments – moments that don’t jive with our ‘niceness’, that we prefer to gloss over – Will Ferguson dispels the “Myth of Niceness” and makes Canadian history something far better: interesting. Perhaps if Why I Hate Canadians were required reading in the high school curriculum rather than textbooks that romanticize our country and downplay its disgraces, Canadian history would stick. Perhaps students would learn to appreciate Canada, not for its self-congratulatory image of itself, but for what it really is. Perhaps then, the maple leaf on their backpacks would not be an anti-American statement, but a Canadian one.

What do you think, friends? Are you Canadian? What do you think of Canada 150? If you’re from the rest of the world, do you find Canada a bit obnoxious? Go on. You can tell us.

Top photo of Lake Louise by Rob Moses Photography
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