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What is it like to be a Canadian?

While the title is the tag line of a successful beer advertising campaign that ran for a few years, much to the delight of Molson Brewery shareholders, it begs a better explanation. From my position as one of those self same Canadians as described by the commercial's raging tongue in cheek nationalism, I can sympathize with a bewildered American audience. No one does nationalistic pride like the United States of America. The red white and blue, stars and stripes, bombs bursting in air, mom and apple pie, football and cheerleaders motif has become universally recognized as America. The American Dream. The American Ideal.

A lot of being a Canadian is shouting about how much we aren't like Americans.

Which is silly, from one point of view. There is a reason that the US-Canada border is the longest undefended border in the world. We generally get along as people. We have so many common characteristics that it is hard to tell us apart in a crowd. The majority of the population of Canada lives within 200 kilometers (124.274238 miles) of the border. Most Canadians live in urban centers, watch American TV, buy American brands, drive American cars, and live standard, normal North American consumer lives. We have malls, and paved roads, and skyscrapers and dogs and cats and kids.

Here's the pickle: While everybody up here knows this, saying this in polite conversation will cause flatware to fall on plates, and jaws to drop in aghast shock.

Why? Well, since 1867, Canada has been the younger sibling in North America. The Junior partner, if you will. It wasn't always this way. The Vikings landed in Newfoundland in the 1100s, and the French had been hanging round the St. Lawrence for nearly a century before Virginia popped up in 1607 and stole our sunshine. If it wasn't for the French, the original Thirteen Colonies could well have been a bit higher on the map.

We owe the French a lot. That's why we try not piss off their descendants in Quebec too much. It hasn't really been working out too well, but that's another issue.

So, even in the very beginning, this country was defined by people busy trying to draw tentative lines on a map that meant little to those living in the area. Come 1776, when America rose up against the English throne and fought the Revolutionary War to form their new country, that silly line came in handy. People that didn't have much issue with the King and his taxes stepped to the other side and went about their business. Some of that business involved telling the Americans that they were ingrates for tossing out the British. We've sort of stuck with doing this, as tradition. Old habits. We never had a revolutionary war. We sort of asked for our independence. Queen Elizabeth II gave it to us in 1982.

1812 rolls around and America has a go at taking a bite out of the British Empire, by way of invading Canada. Largely through luck on our side and pathetic incompetence on your side, we resist invasion, sneak into Washington in the dead of night and burn down the White House. We are really really proud of this. That we snuck into a city with British sappers and destroyed one building. But still, it was pretty sweet. Once again, we define ourselves as "not Americans", with the help of British Redcoats. We've depended on other countries for military protection for a long time as well. Not to say that we haven't had armies. We've had great armies. We kicked ass in the World Wars. The problem is that there just hasn't been many of us for a long time. There are 10 Americans for every 1 Canadian. 300 million of you to 30 million of us.

America turned its attentions elsewhere, as America is wont to do, while we gazed fixedly south. While we would never let on, behind closed doors, politicians were scared. Very scared. If America wanted to steam roll us, they wouldn't have much trouble. The fear of invasion had implanted itself deeply into the Canadian psyche, even before Canada was formed. A solution was rushed into place. If you want to define a border, you need people to live in the places along it. Empty land is indefensible. Looking west, politicians saw lots of empty space. How do you fill that space? Immigrants. Lots of them. Lots of them fast.

While America is the great melting pot, where foreign people came to become model Americans, to change and chase that American dream, Canada became a stewpot. Bits and pieces of cultures from around the world were shipped in wholesale. No great base of people behaving the same way existed for new immigrants to conform to, so they continued their old ways in a new place. We raced to build a railroad west, our great nation building exercise, back filling with farmers to make a line across the map official. America was busily divided in half, North versus South, while we rushed into place.

Our fear drove us to some of our greatest accomplishments. Our culture was born from gathering up all the spare people we could lay our hands on and letting them do their own thing.

Remember what I was saying about the French? We would have been screwed without the French. In the beginning, most of the people in the area that was to become Canada were French, from France. It used to be called New France for crying out loud. Back in Europe, England and France played their traditional roles of warring with each other. The Seven Years' War (1756–1763) popped up and French colonies saw English troops besieging them. The Battle of the Plains of Abraham, fought September 13, 1759, was the end of French rule in North America. Was it a huge bloody many year battle? No, it took half an hour. Was that how the French lost the war? Nope. The British-French hostilities were ended by the Treaty of Paris, which involved a complex series of land exchanges. France was given the choice of keeping either New France or their islands in the Caribbean, and chose the latter to retain their source of sugar. They got traded to the English for sugar. Needless to say, they are still mad about it.

Quebec is like a microcosm of Canada within Canada. Surrounded on all sides by another language, the people of Quebec define themselves largely by their differences from the rest of the country. We argue amongst ourselves, but they have been a part of the country since before it was formed.

Canada in North America is in much the same place. Surrounded on all sides by another country, culture and way of life, the people of Canada define themselves largely by their differences from America. We argue amongst ourselves, but we have been a part of the West since before it was formed.

Naturally, self love is the most rewarding kind of love, and nationalism creates competition. It's the same all round the world. When we trumpet about hockey and donuts and strong beer and French girls and primo weed, it's not just because we think they are better, it is to puff out our chests with a little pride, to create that twinge of jealously in the hearts of the others, to wave the flag like all others do. When you see somebody from another country being patriotic, you tend to want to promote yourself. And who in the world is better at self promotion than the United States? Canadians sometimes fall into the trap of taking this a step too far, enjoying a moral superiority that sadly finds its way into our culture a bit too often. We try to keep a sense of humor about it, just in case the tanks start massing at the border.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go oot and put my boouts on, eh? The polar bears are out back of the igloo sniffing round my neighbor's two-fours and we need to make sure there is some left for curling, ya hoser. Take off! Gimme back my smokes!

Kooo rooo koo koo kooo kooo kooooo koooooo!
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