Oh, Canada. My Misrepresented Land!
The other day I plucked a novel off my bookshelf and curled up on the couch to while away a rainy afternoon reading a story by one of my favourite authors. I noticed (in the ‘Acknowledgements’) that the author had extended her thanks to an individual who had taken her to visit the Hockey Hall of Fame and Maple Leaf Gardens (former home of the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL hockey team) in Toronto, and for ‘showing [her] more of the warmth and beauty of Canada than [she] already knew’. Apparently she had chosen to create a hero who was a French-Canadian NHL player. As a Canadian who thinks Canada and Canadians get short-shrift in popular fiction, I was pleased that ‘one of our own’ was going to be featured in a novel by a New York Times Bestselling author. That is, until I began to read the book.
Like so many Americans, this author did not seem to understand – or incorporate into her writing – the fact that Canada is a huge country (second only in size only to Russia, and larger by a small percentage than the United States) with ten distinct provinces and three territories (similar in concept to the 50 ‘states’ that make up the United States of America). Throughout the book she referred to a small lake ‘in Canada’ (as the central point of reference for the area where the hero was from); what she neglected to include was the fact that the lake is located in the Gatineau region of the province of Quebec. Considering there are more than three million lakes ‘in Canada’, skimping on the specific location would have made it extremely difficult for most readers to properly orient themselves in the story. Why leave this important geographical detail out?
She also mentioned several Canadian cities throughout the telling of the story, and in every single case she neglected to mention the province they are in (e.g., ‘Calgary, Canada’). I’ve noticed this same sort of circumvention in American television shows and news stories – whenever something takes place in Canada, they simply refer to the city and the country and leave out the province or territory (for example, ‘Toronto, Canada’, ‘Whitehorse, Canada’). I find this very odd. You don’t hear or read about cities in the United States being referred to that way (e.g., ‘Los Angeles, USA’, ‘Houston, USA’; it’s always ‘Los Angeles, California’, ‘Boston, Massachusetts’ – and regardless of the country of origin of the story ‘USA’ is usually left out as if it’s assumed that everyone knows what country these places are in).
Another thing that really irked me was the way the author wrote a significant number of the hero’s lines of dialogue – she insisted on putting ‘eh?’ at the end of many of his sentences. Every time I saw it, I wanted to scratch it out with a pen! While some French Canadians do use this figure of speech, it is not all that common. In fact it is one of those ridiculous stereotypes (instilled in the public consciousness by comedians who think it’s funny to satirize a particular nationality or ethnic group by over-emphasizing some peculiar ‘quirk’) that drives most Canadians crazy! I actually had an aspiring writer – a member of a critique group I moderate who lives in Florida – email me not long ago to ask for clarification on ‘the correct way to use the vernacular eh?. ’ She had included an example sentence [with ‘eh?’ at the end] and wanted to know if it was ‘an appropriate use of Canadian talk’. I was blunt and unyielding in my reply – I told her: DON’T DO IT!).
I will not deny that there are some Canadians who end sentences with a casual ‘eh?’ (or use it in conversation as a short form for ‘What do you think?’) but there are probably as many Canadians (and Americans and Australians and Europeans) who insert ‘You know?’, ‘Huh?’, ‘Okay?’ or ‘You reckon?’ at the end of sentences (and/or scatter ‘Um’, ‘Uh’, and ‘Like’ throughout their conversations). You certainly don’t want to read a story with those sorts of euphemisms peppered throughout dialogue!
To be honest, I have lived in Canada for 60 years and met thousands upon thousands of people and I don’t recall a single one ever using ‘eh?’ at the end of a sentence! Bob and Doug Mackenzie (the fictional Canadian brothers from ‘The Great White North’, developed for the comedy show SCTV) aside, we don’t speak that way! (And while we’re on the subject of language, although French is our second ‘official’ language, only about 20% of Canadians are actually French-first speaking; 60% are English-first and the remainder primarily speak any one of almost fifty languages including Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Punjabi, Cantonese, Arabic, Tagalong, Mandarin, Portuguese and more than two dozen Aboriginal dialects. If you put 100 Canadians and 100 Americans in a room together, you would be hard pressed to figure out who was who).
Another perverted view many Americans have of Canada is that the entire country is covered in ice and snow year round. Customs agents often tell stories of visitors from the US arriving at crossings in the middle of July dressed in parkas, with skis on their roof racks, as if they expect to encounter a sudden glacial wall of ice and snow at the border! It’s shocking that so many people living right next door to us know little or nothing about our climate. While it’s true that 27% of Canada falls with the Sub Arctic/Arctic climate zone, the other 73% is a mix of Boreal, Temperate, Grassland, and even Semi-Desert (only 2% … but, still, we have a desert in southern British Columbia). The largest state in the USA is Alaska – which means almost 18% of the country is SubArctic/Arctic – yet you don’t hear Canadians (or Europeans, Australians, etc.) suggesting that the USA is covered with ice and snow! Personally, I cannot fathom this kind of ignorance!
Temperatures in some areas of Canada (like Southern Ontario, where I live) can soar into the mid 80s and 90s (Fahrenheit) for up to three months during the summer, and we’ve had some winters with almost no snow at all. (NOTE: Canada converted to the metric system a couple of decades ago, so perhaps some of our more ‘clueless’ neighbours don’t yet understand that ‘temperatures in the 30s’ [in Celsius] is the same as ‘temperatures in the 90s’ [in Fahrenheit]). It’s not unusual for parts of the eastern seaboard of the US (and as far west as Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) to actually have worse winter weather than we experience in many parts of Canada, especially southern Ontario and Quebec and western British Columbia. (NOTE: while the 49th parallel is considered the ‘dividing line’ between Canada and the US, a significant portion of both Ontario and Quebec and the Atlantic provinces [New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland] are geographically south of that latitude – in fact, they’re actually parallel to or more southerly than the states of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New York, Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Idaho, Washington, Oregon and parts of Wyoming, Nebraska, and Iowa; the southern-most point in Ontario is actually in line with northern California, Nevada and Utah).
There are lots of other misrepresentations or misunderstandings about Canada. I don’t have the space to list them all here but suffice it to say we are very similar to – and on equal footing with – our American neighbours when it comes to language, culture, entertainment, technology, medicine, education, fashion, music … and just about anything else you can think of. While we have only about 10% of the total population of the US (35 million compared to 315 million), our top ten cities are as modern and populated as the top 35 cities in the US (while we don’t have any cities the size of New York or Los Angeles, Toronto is equivalent in population to Chicago, Montreal to Philadelphia, Calgary to Dallas, Ottawa to Austin, Edmonton to San Francisco, Winnipeg to Boston, and Vancouver to Portland).
Some of the world’s most popular and/or (in)famous actors have come from Canada – including Ryan Gosling, Jim Carrey, Donald and Keifer Sutherland, Michael J. Fox, Matthew Perry, Dan Ackroyd, Ryan Reynolds, William Shatner, and Eric MacCormack. We’ve also produced a huge range of musical talents – Celine Dion, Bryan Adams, Avril Lavigne, Shania Twain, Nelly Furtado, Sum41, Barenaked Ladies, Rush, Neil Young, Nickleback. And let’s not forget that Canadians invented quite a few miraculous products that have changed the world, such as AM Radio, IMAX, the telephone, the zipper, Pablum, basketball, SONAR, the Blackberry, the electron microscope, and the Canadarm.
All in all, we’re a pretty damn great nation and we deserve a great deal more respect and acknowledgement than we often get in the foreign media and from people who are too lazy or too arrogant to take the time to find out more about us. I for one am proud to be a Canadian on … the other side of 55.