Canada's greatest gift

Canada Day reflections on what our nation means to the rest of the world

Canada Day: the day we all gaze inward at our awesomeness or down the barrel of a beer bottle while playing that age old game: What’s Canada’s special gift?

It’s the wilderness, you might say, those great cliffs on the sea, gargantuan trees, horizons of ice or very spiky mountains. “Caesars!” you might shout (truly, a close runner-up). The clichéd might pick our kindness or keenness to apologize (yawn). Or William Shatner. But you’d all be wrong.

Our nation’s real gift is invisibility.

That sounds like a bad thing, but I assure you, it’s great. And it’s a realization I reached while living outside Canada for a few years and during the odd trip  beyond our borders.

The first hint came in 2010. While backpacking in Europe right after the Olympics in Vancouver (which Maclean’s declared the “Greatest Games Ever!”), I wore my red mitts with the white maple leafs everywhere, figuring I’d be known as a Canadian whether I was in Amsterdam or Berlin, Prague or Sarajevo. But I wasn’t. Some people didn’t even know the Games had been on (even though they were the “Greatest Games Ever!”). It’s a heavy blow, to leave the centre of the universe and realize you weren’t even on the map. As many of us know from our travels, when asked if you’re American and you clarify you’re Canadian, the questioner generally looks either sheepish or relieved, and that’s it (on occasion, the person might note, “I’ve never been to Canada”).

On a recent trip to London, I met an Italian who said, “Everything I know about Canada comes from the U.S.” He cited South Park (remember “Blame Canada?”) the Simpsons (the family travels north to buy drugs) and Michael Moore’s opus to Canadian gun laws in Bowling for Columbine as his main sources for facts about this country. So, I asked, what do you think of us? Even with that bevy of research to pull from, “I’ve never really thought about it,” he said. He was also stumped as to how to spot us in the wild. You see, he said, you can often tell where someone’s from by how they take their coffee (Greeks) or when they eat dinner (the Spanish). But Canadians? (I know, I know, we can tell us apart from Americans. But we’ve has lots of practice and indoctrination. The rest of the world has not.)

Our former colonial lords are about as informed. On that same trip, I witnessed a plaid-clad, ballcap-wearing Canadian writer marry a well-to-do English woman on a country estate. The Canadian contingent was treated as an amusing oddity. There was a sense that we were being watched—from beneath hats shaped like models of the solar system—just to see what we might do. And there were a few things, as it turned out, they really hoped we would. One young man kept begging under his breath for the father of the groom, a retired RCMP officer who proudly wore his scarlet serge, to say “about” during his speech. He disappointed, but not fully: there were plenty of “eh’s”.

It’s not just that people outside Canada don’t know much about Canada, it’s that from an international perspective, there’s often not much to know. A few years ago, I was working as a producer for world news radio programs at the BBC in London. Every shift, I fought to include stories from Canada. It was tough work, not only to convince others, but to actually find news I myself thought would be worth knowing if you weren’t Canadian.

We achieve invisibility because, on average, we’re pretty average. We’ve little of the cultural bravado of the U.S.—our fraternal twin. We’ve few strikingly idiosyncratic leaders—Harper, if headline-grabbing of late, is no Berlusconi, and neither, for that matter is Rob Ford, who despite the crack scandal escaped the notice of most people I spoke to on that London holiday, and whose alleged antics include reading while driving, not hosting sex parties. Even with Laval and Montreal’s recent rotating doors of allegedly corrupt mayors, those cities can’t really compete with Detroit, can they?

Our politics are moderate, middle-of-the-road, our health care reasonably accessible. Extreme right-wing groups have not, of late, gained in the polls (Greece), nor marched through the streets decrying immigrant customs are destroying our Canadian-ness (Britain). Boring should not be conflated with content. And even in our discontent (Idle No More, for example), the ensuing debate is largely diplomatic.

We might wish we were better known, as blue beret defenders of universal human rights, or as a nation which actually does have summer, but I’ve come to believe that quietly going about our business of building and maintaining a decent place to live is Canada’s number one strength. If we’re not that newsworthy, that’s not bad news. It might even be something to be proud about.