So, what does it mean to be a Canadian? What does it mean beyond not being American? Isn’t it time that "not American" isn't enough of an answer? But try coming up with something else!
I’m here in Edmonton in rehearsals for Madama Butterfly with Edmonton Opera. We open in a couple days! It’s been a lot of fun preparing this opera and it’s going to be a great show. Now, the other day our fabulous Italian tenor asked me “what eez Canadian food?” I started to give an immediate answer but stopped short, mouth gaping a little, because nothing immediately came to mind.
I explained that maybe bannock or beavertails would do. Then I had to explain what those were, which didn’t go too well. Or maybe poutine. Maple syrup? I explained that Canada, being a mix of cultures, has a variety of foods that it calls its own like perogies to Ukrainian-Canadians and pizza – a good Canadian pizza with bacon, ham, sausage and cheese…MMMM. That’s about when his eyes glazed over and he said “si, si” kindly and we moved on to another topic.
Why was that so hard? Why did I feel so apologetic, that perhaps most universal of Canadian virtues?
Well, recently I’ve been thinking that perhaps it’s time to enter the fray and put in my 2 bits plus GST about what it is to be Canadian. Why? Well, because I’m proud about being a Canadian. You might be too. For me, my ideas about being Canadian mainly derived from growing up overseas. While I was born in St. John’s, Newfoundland, my dad’s job moved us all over the world for most of my childhood. Hockey, football (the north American kind), skiing, skating, sledding, and often snow were not parts of my childhood. One Christmas, Santa arrived in a canoe on a rainforest river. Sleigh? Reindeer? Wut?
My ideas of being Canadian came from the reaction my family got when we identified as Canadians in countries like the Netherlands, England and Greece – a reaction of respect, kindness and appreciation, though that doesn’t quite cover it. It’s the same sort of reaction that motivates some Americans to wear Canadian flags when they travel, though that respect seems somehow diminished today.
I believe this reaction is the fruit of seeds sown by the blood of Canadian soldiers in the world wars. It was the result of kindness, interest and respect given by travelling Canadians to the nationals of the countries they visited. The reaction was earned in part, I believe, by judicious, fair, generous and honourable foreign policy by our government, at least that which we knew about.
My Canadian identity also came from what my parents told me. They said Canada was a place where there was much less poverty and corruption than some of the places we lived, where people from all nations were welcomed, where healthcare was by nature inclusive and universal, where there was less concern about being robbed in the middle of the night, where there were freedoms to be enjoyed. These things, though looking pretty Utopian and far from absolute in reality, define being Canadian for me - these things and how diverse and beautiful our country is.
Getting back to the opera, the interesting thing is that Madama Butterfly was written by an Italian, is sung in Italian, is set in Japan and is about the relationship between a Japanese geisha and American sailor (and you know that’ll never end well). The singers, directors and crew involved in the show are from the USA, Italy, France, the UK, South Korea, and…Canada. How very Canadian! It’s a mesh, a patchwork quilt of nationalities coming together to create something beautiful and bigger than each one alone.
So, while I can’t help but think and feel that my childhood identity about being Canadian has been diminished in the last decade or two – that my Canada isn’t the true north strong and free that I once knew, Canada is still precious to me. Being Canadian means something special and I find it annoying that it’s so difficult to define what it is to be Canadian!
So, I have an idea and need your help.
I want to create a concert about being Canadian. While it will take a while to put together, I hope to use it to engage Canadians across the country about what being Canadian is. Maybe it’ll help all of us to come closer together.
Here’s how you can help. What does being Canadian mean to you? Whether funny or serious, what stories can you share? In your opinion, what ideals bind us all together? What do you think we need to talk about more as a nation? Are there any poems or other artistic works that mean Canada to you?
These ideas will help to fuel the narrative and musical selections for the concert and also give inspiration to composers who will write some of the music. I’ll give more details about this concert here in the blog as it develops. I really hope you’ll choose to pitch in your ideas and stories and pass the word along, eh!
So, there it is. That’s all for this blog post. Be well!