across the great divide

Between the US health care debate fiasco and the Vancouver Olympics, Canada has been in the US news more than usual. Seldom does the US media really "get" Canada, and most Canadian mainstream sources don't know the US any better.

But there's a difference in the misunderstanding. Mainstream Canadian media is likely to take the US at face value, like they've swallowed a press release. Thus in the Bush era, the Democrats were the beleaguered liberal opposition, who would build a peaceful, liberal society if only someone would give them the chance. Now the country has solved its racial issues, abortion rights are safe and sound, and the only threat to this lovely liberal vision in Sarah Palin.

The mainstream US media, on the other hand, invents and re-uses its own stereotypes of Canadian society. So you're likely to see phrases like "slow-motion health care system" and "sky-high taxes," and lots of references to arctic, tundra, sled dogs and maple syrup.

Mike from Veterans for Peace (his chapter is here) sent me a piece that comes a little closer.

Timothy Egan, blogging for the New York Times, contrasts Canada's "modesty and humility" with the high-volume chest-thumping of his own country. Even at its Olympic own-the-podium worst, Canada is still a gentle soul compared with its southern neighbour.
Confession: When I was 17 one of my best friends, now a police officer, molded a few scraps of official-looking paper with camera-booth photos, and just like that we turned 21 — old enough to drink, and Canadians as well.

Our fake I.D. cards said we were from Saskatchewan, a province so distant we figured no one would ever catch us not knowing our prairie wheat from our Molson hops. Questions from clerks trying to talk Canadian seldom went any further than, “Pretty cold up there, eh?”

But my detour into fraud did force upon me an early education in all things Canadian. I not only learned the celebrity exports (Neil Young, Peter Jennings, the wicked talents of SCTV), but I developed a lifetime love for the Great White North, its subtle humor and its unknowable insecurities.

Now, with a global audience of several billion focused on one of the world’s most stunning cities, Canadians are presented with “the biggest branding opportunity a nation ever gets,” as Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff said of the 17-day Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

I was hoping Canadians would take their turn on the stage and step out of national character for a few weeks, losing their collective sense of modesty.

But the rough patches in the opening days of the games, and savaging from a snit-loving British press that has no athletic feats of its own to cover, have put Canadians on the defensive.

The death of Nodar Kumaritashvli, the Georgian luger, was a horrid blow. The weather, at a time when we in the Pacific Northwest and our Ecotopian neighbors just across the border are experiencing the warmest winter on record (note to East Coast global warming deniers who can’t see beyond their snow banks), has forced canceled tickets and delayed events. Breakdowns of ice resurfacing machines have been an embarrassment. Is there no workable Zamboni in all of British Columbia?

The biggest gaffe was imprisoning the Olympic torch, exiling the cauldron behind a hideous chain link barrier. After hearing calls to “tear down this fence,” Vancouver officials have done just that, losing the Cold-War-era prison look for more open access.

It seems like eons ago that the opening ceremony, a triumph complete with magical bears and sub-surface killer whales, prompted some Canadians to take a long overdue bow.

“It made me proud to be from here,” said Ian Brown, writing in The Globe and Mail, a Canadian national paper. But then he added, “I hesitate to say it. Such declarations are always unwise.”

No. Say it! Can you imagine an American being afraid to make such a simple declaration of national chauvinism? “Maybe for a while again,” Mr. Brown concluded, “we can feel alright about being Canadian.”

The prime minister, Stephen Harper, had to make a similar pitch last week in front of the British Columbia legislative assembly. He urged Canadians to show “an uncharacteristic outburst of patriotism and pride.”

Why the prodding? Why the lack of self-esteem? Canada — snap out of it! You’re gorgeous, baby, you’re sophisticated, you live well. No need for an apology.

There are more people in California, at 38 million, than in all of Canada, with about 34 million. But if Canada were the 51st state, they would be on the American medals podium nightly: Their murder rate is just a third that of the United States. They have universal health care, and while the system prompts much grumbling, it works for most people — without the death panel quality of America’s heartless private insurers.

And when our financial system caused the world economy to tank because of reckless deregulation, Canada’s banks were steady as they go, boring and mostly healthy. . . .

Perhaps not the most original observation, but not bad. Mike suggested I read some comments: numbers 3, 5, 40 and 42. Commenter #40 is a Canadian type I have heard from frequently and would enjoy never hearing from again:
How flattering it is some of you want to move to Canada as the last resort if you can't take your politics anymore. You get what you vote for. Deal with it or become pro-active. We are not interested in your faux religious values and violence. We don't want you. We're full. To the writer who fakes a birth certificate- you don't know Canada at all. Our 'modesty' is really our 'tolerance' and 'respect' of others. Believe me north of the border you get quite a view of the U.S.A. No thanks.

I guess she doesn't see the irony in referring to her own tolerance and respect while spitting out such obviously irritated snark. USians are all "faux religious values and violence," but Timothy Egan doesn't know Canada at all. I think he knows Canada better than this Canadian woman knows the US, since she thinks USians get what they vote for. Millions and millions of USians never come close to such a thing.

The second piece Mike from VFP sent is a nice bit of fun: It's Not Political, but More Canadians Are Lefties. Hint: he's not talking about the NDP. It's all about the national pasttime.

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