This last weekend I briefly passed through Montreal on my way to meetings in Washington DC. I had a really nice day hanging out with an old friend, trudging around the Vieux-Port in about -20 centigrade. To a first approximation it was a winter pub crawl (and a tiny bit of business).
However, every time I go back to Canada my visit almost always starts with annoyance. This is because each time I arrive at the “frontier” I am exposed to some distinct quirks of “Canadiana” that I think are culturally insightful. I mean let’s face it, there aren’t that many real differences between people on either side of the 49th Parallel. The two countries have been lambasting each other with TV signals, fast food chains and poor quality cars for decades. Indeed, as you drive from Vancouver to Seattle and pass through the Peace Arch border crossing, the inscription on the US side of the arch is “Children of a common mother.” Presumably this refers to Britain and not Eve.
The less touching version of this is “Canada – the 51st State” … but I digress.
Don’t get me wrong, there are a few distinct cultural differences between Canadians and Americans – they are somehow “different” beyond just ice hockey and ending sentences in ‘eh. But they are not THAT different, I would say that the variations in custom are about as distinct as west coast US (i.e. California) and east coast US (i.e. Boston). Of course, we can agree that francophone Canada is very different, but I also think that we wouldn’t call that Canada – that’s Quebec.
I should also point out that I am a Canadian citizen, so I don’t want any hate mail about some goofy foreigner passing comment about Canadian culture.
So on to my story:
When one arrives at the Canadian border there are two queues. One queue is for Canadian residents. The other queue is for “visitors.” It’s that first queue that irritates me – it’s not for Canadian citizens, but for residents. A non-resident citizen is actually a visitor and every time I go through that line I pretty much end up getting an interview (even with the automated system).
This pisses me off every time.
Some years ago, I arrived in Vancouver to see my family and the border officer asked me “what is the purpose of your visit to Canada.” I felt my ire raise and I gave a polite but curt answer “visiting family.” The officer then went on and asked “oh, what family is that?” My blood pressure rose again and I snarkily answered “living family.” She then paused, glared at me and said “will you be staying with your living family or will you be staying elsewhere?” At this point I completely lost it and retorted “I haven’t worked it out yet but if I want to stay in a friggin’ (that’s the polite version) bus shelter, it’s my prerogative.”
Not one of my finest hours, I admit, but I was jet-lagged, irritated and I needed to pee. Needless to say, I was shuffled off into a room for a more detailed interview. After sitting on a sofa for about 20 minutes, presumably with someone watching me from the other side of the silvered window, this friendly looking officer, a geezer with a bushy white moustache walks over to me, sits down opposite me and asks “so what’s going on, eh?” Breathlessly (hey, I was in my 20s) I expressed my ire. He sombrely listened without expression and at the end of it he says “hmpf.”
“Well young man, I can see you are indignant about this and, to some extent I can understand why – but we can’t have visitors (note the term “visitor”) acting abusively toward our staff. These are our standard security questions and we expect people to comply.” Then he said something else, his expression softening, “Look, the next time this happens and you are feeling hard done by, take a deep breath and with a smile on your face say ‘do I really need a reason to visit my home and native land?‘” For those non-Canadians reading, this is a phrase from the national anthem. Clever. Cocky but irrefutable.
Over the years, I have used this response a dozen times with consistent effect, including last weekend. Sometimes it elicits barely concealed distain, sometimes it induces a chuckle. Most importantly, usually the interview stops there. But the contrasting observation here is that an American citizen returning to the US would possibly be asked “where have you been?” The border officer might be interested in drugs, or prohibited agricultural items, but the tenor (and I have heard it hundreds of times in airport line-ups) fundamentally assumes that if you are a Citizen, you are entering the US because you are returning home.
A US homeland security / border protection officer would never ask a US citizen “why are you here?”
This, folks, is the difference between Americans and Canadians – the fundamental notion of citizenship, identity and belonging. For our American brethren, it doesn’t matter where in the world you live, it is your identity that matters first – you’re an American (and a taxpayer) dammit. America is your home and guiding light, that beacon of civility and oversized food portions amidst a sea of chaos and al-Qaeda sleeper cells. It is my perception that the US government would unhesitatingly send in the Marines to airlift a citizen out of a foreign territory in a crisis. A less spectacular example is that if you lose your passport, you can get it replaced in 24 hours just about anywhere in the world.
Americans brag about this at cocktail parties…
In contrast, a Canadian abroad is not a citizen ambassador, is not a proud son or daughter acting upon the world stage – a Canadian outside of Canada is an outsider. If you ever got into strife in some third world country, the Canadian government would probably hold a referendum about it and then grudgingly send an emissary from a nearby British Embassy. If you need to replace your passport outside of Canada, it’s 8 weeks of gruelling paperwork out of Ottawa.
Living outside of Canada? Not really Canadian.