June 25, 2007
Crossing the bridge from Gaspť into New Brunswick was a shock. The bridge was little more than a street spanning a stream, but the time moved ahead an hour and the language shifted from French to English. And then back to French. And then back to English, until I didnít know which language to speak. In some places the Tim Hortonís were totally anglophone; in others they were francophone and every house had an Acadian flag proudly flying in the yard.
Identity seems important in Canada. In the US hardly anyone flies national flags, and Iíve never seen anyone fly a state flag. In Canada the maple leaves are everywhere, and provincial flags almost as common. In front of houses, on car antennas, on t-shirts, ballcaps, jackets, everywhere you look. In francophone areas Acadian flags replace provincial ones. In Newfoundland some people fly the provincial flag while others fly the pink, white, and green Republic of Newfoundland flag, the one that
dates back to when the island was an independent country within the Commonwealth, loyal to the queen instead of to Canada (though never, in fact, a republic). Flags are sold everywhere; in Walmart and Canadian Tire, in tourist shops, in gas stations, in convenience stores, in drug stores. Of course Iím flying one too, on the back of Matilda, but thatís Philís fault, he gave it to me. And anyway, Iím not Canadian.
Sometimes I think the national flags are a way to make it clear that this is not the US. I get the same sense listening to the radio here. Programs with names like ďSounds like Canada,Ē the explicit emphasis on Canadian writers and artists, the implicit approval of those who make it in Canada and do not head south for a wider world of opportunities. South of the border no one would bother doing that. We take for granted our identity and donít need to assert it. Our challenge is to rise above the huge crowds of people doing exactly what we are doing, whatever our field - not to show that we can make it as the only one in a small community where no one shares our interests. Not that Canada is so small, of course, but compared to the US it is.
The flags remind me of something I noticed many years ago traveling through Europe with a backpack and a Eurailpass. The Americans and Australians never put flags on their packs, but the Canadians and New Zealanders always did. Canadians had to show they werenít American, New Zealanders had to show they werenít Australian. We preferred to hide our identity, assuming it was an automatic strike against us, whereas our neighbors were anxious to let strangers know that they werenít us.
I suppose Iíve always been so much a part of the dominant culture that Iíve never even thought of needing to take pride in my particular background. I do sometimes assert my identity as a New Yorker, and occasionally even as a Jew, but I donít live in New York or practice the religion. That background has influenced who I am in some ways, but it doesnít determine how I live my life. I do have a New York City t-shirt, but only because I bought it for almost nothing at the used clothing table of a bazaar a few years ago. I have far more t-shirts that assert my identity as a vanagonaut. They show what Iíve chosen to do, who Iíve chosen to be, not the identity I acquired simply by birth.