In a box in my basement, I keep a small bag of letters from my Canadian friend Dayna. We got tight in high school in Phoenix, Arizona, but after she moved back home to Calgary, Alberta, we corresponded by mail. Growing up, cars with Manitoba and Saskatchewan license plates filled my city’s streets during the mild desert winters. “Another snowbird,” my dad would say from behind the wheel. “Be nice to them. They’re good for the economy.” Dayna was the first Canada I actually got to know.
For four years, Dayna and I kept in touch by exchanging mixtapes and letters filled with our teenage obsessions. Hers also contained tantalizing visions of a foreign land. She called dorks “knobs” and heavy-metal kids “bangers.” In the photos Dayna and her friends sent, their cars shimmered with a crystalline sheen and you could see their breath. It all seemed so exotic.
Every election cycle leaves thousands of horrified Americans vowing to move to Canada, myself included, but back then, I’d never traveled north of Montana. I didn’t know Ottawa from Montreal or the name of beloved Canadian culinary creations like the butter tart, but when Dayna wrote lines like “Just hang’n out in below-zero weather,” I wanted to know everything. After my family took our first trip north of the 49th parallel in 1994, I returned to Canada the next year, and the next. I’ve visited six times, traveling through Alberta and the Rocky Mountain parks, up to the Yukon, and camping alone on Vancouver Island, and I developed Canphilia.
I coined the term in my thirties when I realized how hard I’d started crushing on the place. I’d amassed a pile of Canadian books and magazines like The Walrus. I called my winter beanie a “toque” and drank my daily tea out of a white Tim Hortons mug that I’d pinched from a shop in Edmonton. “Toujours Frais” the logo says, “Always fresh.” I’d even toyed with moving to British Columbia, and here in these letters was the root of it all. Canada seemed like the perfect country: scenic, peaceful, friendly, progressive. Its national parks were the envy of the developed world. It had one of the highest standards of living, a low drinking age, and a functioning public-health system. Canada and the United States share the world’s longest international border, but beyond vague notions of Britishness, hockey, and maple-syrup production, it took a few years to really get to know the country beyond the stereotypes.
With a surface area of 3,854,085 square miles, Canada is the second-largest country in the world, after Russia. The cold North shapes the Canadian psyche, yet over 80% of the country’s 34 million inhabitants live in large urban centers within 125 miles of the US border. In his book Canadians, Roy MacGregor calls Canada “a country so large it defies generalities; defies, we sometimes think, even slight understanding.” In Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw, Will Ferguson says, “Canada is not a country but a collection of outposts.” Although the provinces and territories are united under the same flag, each possesses very different identities and problems, and the country’s size and heterogeneity make the idea of one national character impossible.
Because the two countries share a language, brands, and other recognizable features, both Americans and Canadians often describe Canada in American terms. Where we have Silicon Valley, Canada has Kanata, Ontario, the so-called “Silicon Valley North.” Canada celebrates its own Thanksgiving holiday, which shares a name but differs wildly from the American one. Canada has its own version of Hollywood’s Walk of Fame, in Toronto, and its own B-movie genre, Canuxploitation, filled with such awesome-sounding pap as Cannibal Rollerbabes and FUBAR.
Ideal as it once seemed to me, Canada has familiar contradictions. Like the US, it has a disgraceful record of mistreating and marginalizing its First Nations. The massive northern territory of Nunavut is a stronghold of the Inuit people, and since its recent creation in 1999, it’s developed a homicide rate 1,000% higher than the Canadian average, and sees seven times more violent crime than the rest of the country. On the flip side, the Canadian people have sponsored Syrian refugees with more warmth and enthusiasm than many other developed nations. Despite its stunning national parks, Canada has also clear-cut its boreal forest and old-growth coastal forests, and it grows gross farm-raised salmon. But it also legalized same-sex marriage in 2005, outlawed the death penalty, and operates North America’s only federally authorized drug injection site. It gets confusing: Canada’s awesome, Canada’s as screwed up as us.
Part of our love-hate relationship involves economics. The US consumes over 80% of Canada’s exports and imports more oil and gas from Canada than from any other foreign country. The Keystone oil-sands pipeline deal exposed the ugly details of both our shared economic interests and philosophical differences. It also showed that Canadian business interests can become as exploitative and environmentally rapacious as America’s.
Years after first writing to Dayna, my Can-crush has matured enough to appreciate the country, warts and all. I see that being “Canadian” is about more than maple syrup and The Tragically Hip, but maple syrup really does pump through the country’s heart, as thieves recently proved when they stole $18 million worth of the stuff. The heist left people debating whether they were heroes or hoodlums. All of which raises an important question: where can a guy get some good butter tarts in America? I’m in the market.
- Miles from Nowhere (Edward Hoagland, The American Scholar, June 1, 2006)
- My Maple Coma: In Praise of the Canadian Butter Tart (Aaron Gilbreath, April 9, 2012, WordPress.com, Apr. 9. 2012)
- The Great Canadian Maple Syrup Heist (Brendan Borrell, Bloomberg, Jan. 3, 2013)
- A Polar Turn of Mind: Finding Peace and Quiet in the High Canadian Arctic (Tom Bissell, Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2005)
- The Trials of Nunavut: Lament for an Arctic Nation (Patrick White, The Globe and Mail, Apr. 1, 2011)
- Big Lonely Doug (Harley Rustad, The Walrus, Oct. 2016)
- Refugees Encounter a Foreign Word: Welcome (Jodi Kantor and Catrin Einhorn, The New York Times, July 1, 2016)
- The Eh-List (John Semley, Maisonneuve, Aug. 31, 2010)
- Keystone (John H. Richardson, Esquire, Aug. 10, 2012)
- Yer Favourites (Eric Koreen, Hazlitt, Aug. 19, 2016)