My Country, The Caricature

By Zak Vescera

“Living next to you is in some ways like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast, if I can call it that, one is affected by every twitch and grunt.”- Pierre Elliott-Trudeau

One year ago, a troupe of Sciences Pistes flooded the glass hallway, clutching trays of pancakes, bottles of maple syrup, and anything and everything white and red. It was 7:30 AM. A maple leaf is draped over a table; another pinned to a wall; and “Oh Canada” blares out of a portable speaker, drawing in a mix of hungry students and confused staff.

It was Canada Day on campus, one of the few chances that Canadians have to showcase their nation, and one of fewer still that others will be able to learn about it. For a day, Canadian students launched a photobooth, presented historical tidbits, and even held an on-campus version of the 2015 election.

We were amazed by the warmth and enthusiasm of students to our event. We were even more amazed by how little they knew about our home.

We may be the Euro-North American campus, but that name is often erroneous. “America” is taken as referencing only the United States. Canada ceases to be an object of serious consideration or study, and instead becomes a caricature– a loose collection of images, tropes, and stereotypes that does little to impart Canadian history, culture, or values.

You are the kindest country in the world. You are like a really nice apartment over a meth lab.”- Robin Williams

When Pierre Trudeau compared Canada-U.S relations to “sleeping with an elephant”, he was referring to the unconscious impact the superpower had on its northern neighbour. On campus however, the weight of “the elephant” pertains to the dominating influence of the United States over campus culture, curriculum, and spirit. The beaver mascot might be one of Canada’s national animals, but few students are actually aware of this. Minicrit songs are based solely on the United States (we’re waiting on a tribute to Trudeau, UVs). Most worrying of all, there is not a single course in any program that concerns itself solely with Canada. In a “North American” program, the less powerful nation has been absolutely crushed by the elephant—and were it not for the fact that Mr. Trudeau attended Sciences Po, most students probably wouldn’t even know who he is, something that the administration is looking to change.

“Canada? I don’t even know what street it’s on.”- Al Capone

“Too often, North America is equated with the U.S.” said Euram program director Olivier Ruchet. “This is not what we have in mind on this campus, and we have the objective of introducing either courses that are completely on Canada, or courses that will consider Canada as one element in comparison.” Students share the sentiment. “We are the Euro-American campus, but history here only concerns relations between Europe and the United States”  said Julien Coquelle (3A). “I feel that it’s a bit unfair… all I really know about Canada are the stereotypes.”

These stereotypes are all-encompassing and permeating. Maple syrup. Hockey. Saying “sorry”. Meese. Poutine. Tabernacle. These are tropes that we Canadians admittedly embrace, maybe a little too fondly, and maybe because they’re largely true (our women’s and men’s hockey teams have won the Olympics more than any other country, so suck it, America).

“Americans are benevolently ignorant about Canada, while Canadians are malevolently well informed about the United States.” – J. Bartlet Brebner

To be fair, this isn’t different from any other nation. But the difference is stereotypes are usually accompanied by a grain of salt, a tacit knowledge of a country’s culture. You can joke about America’s love affair with firearms largely because you know about the 2nd Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Complaints about la bureaucratie francaise go hand in hand with a respect for French workers’ rights, maybe even the Declaration of the Rights of Man. You know about their revolutions, their battles, their losses and victories.

Chances are you don’t know about the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. You’ve probably never heard of La Crise D’Octobre, and how it almost ripped Canada in two.

You may not know that insulin, sonar, and basketball (yes, actually) were invented by Canadians.

You may not know that as many as 65,000 Canadian soldiers who fought in WW1 are buried on French soil, and that nearly a sixteenth of our population crossed the Atlantic to fight.

You might not know the significance of “just watch me”, “Vive le Quebec libre”, or even “nice hair, though.”

You might share videos of Justin Trudeau proclaiming himself a feminist on your timeline, but you may not know of the ongoing search of dozens of missing and murdered indigenous women across our country.

You might see Canada as an innocent, idealistic paradise, because you’ve never learned about our countless crimes against our First Nations communities, or the Komagata Maru, or the horrors that Romeo Dallaire struggled to stop in Rwanda.

“Let us be French, let us be English, but more importantly let us be Canadian.”- John A. Macdonald

Perhaps our nation’s misrepresentation is partially our own fault. Our nationality is a sometimes-paradoxical mosaic of British, French, American, and First Nations values, tossed with huge diasporas from the Ukraine, Iran, China, India, Italy, Ireland, and, well, pretty much everywhere. We take pride in our linguistic duality, our diversity, and our relative “newness”. We take pride in our diversity. Because of this, discussing a single system of Canadian values is not only challenging, but almost frowned upon.

But this year, Canada Day on campus is coming back– and this time, its sights are set higher. On October 10th (Canadian Thanksgiving), Canadians will gather in the Salle Des Actes to present something a bit more personal than a pancake (don’t worry– there will still be snacks).

This time around, we’re seeking to tell you a little something about ourselves. Our cities. Our universities, for those of you looking forward to 3A. Our music. Our history. There may not be a single “archetype” of Canada–but we reckon 40 of us can get the job done pretty well.

“In a world darkened by ethnic conflicts that tear nations apart, Canada stands as a model of how people of different cultures can live and work together in peace, prosperity, and mutual respect.” – Bill Clinton

Ironically enough, it might be a little nationalistic to celebrate this lack of a single nationalism. It might be arrogant to believe that my country, 150 years young, has something it can impart to the rest of the world.

But in our short history, Canada has always been hopelessly, hilariously, and blissfully idealistic about the potential of our little national experiment. When a war of ethnic division had just ripped the former Yugoslavia asunder, Canadians were fighting tooth and nail to maintain the unity of our own country at the ballot box. It worked. When America and the Soviet Union were on the brink of a proxy war in 1956, it was a Canadian diplomat who suggested to– quite literally– step between the opposing armies. It worked. Today, when women continue to fight for abortion rights in Ireland, Poland, and even the U.S, we can look back at when we first effectively legalized abortion– in 1967.

Inside our country, Canadians search frantically for our identity. But once we’re outside, we feel more Canadian than ever. Maybe because only then do we realize the incredible human potential that made and is made in Canada.

So this Monday, let us share some of that with you.

“I am so excited about Canadians ruling the world.” – John Diefenbaker

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