The DNA of Canadians: What makes us?
We are bound together by common threads: Politeness. Diversity. Respect
It was a young woman who made me start asking the question, ‘What makes a Canadian?’
I was interested in where she came from — she and her daughters were visitors to a place in the North End that I know. She was standing in the doorway, her hands in the pockets of one of those puffy quilted coats. The coat was grey, the colour of the chilly sky.
“Where are you from?” I asked, thinking Thailand or Vietnam.
“Locke Street,” she replied, or something close to it, a local street anyway. “No, no, before that,” I clarified, smiling. She repeated the street name. After I rephrased the question, she told me her country of origin — South China as it turned out. Later, on the drive back home, coffee in hand, (a Tim Hortons; this is about Canada, right?) I reflected on the woman’s response, thinking, How Canadian. And asked the question: What makes us Canadian?
There are countless stories like this. Overhearing the absolutely Canadian conversation between two guys at the grocery store, complaining about the Leafs, the national pastime.
Later, when I looked back, one of their turbans was a bright blue. Syrian women joining a cooking class in downtown Hamilton, learning to prepare Canadian and their own recipes with local produce, creating a sort of Arab-Canadian fusion. The cultural awareness training we took in an inner city clinic years ago to understand Latin American customs.
There is strength in diversity. This is Canada, home of newcomers and original peoples, of bilingualism and beavers, of loonies and liberal policies (small L of course), of multiculturalism and multiple complaints about our favourite losing sports team. The home of immigrants: my parents for one, my wife’s parents for another.
For the last several weeks, I‘ve been asking people what they thought our distinguishing national traits are. The commonest answer, no surprise, was politeness, a national distinguishing feature if there ever was one.
I used to commute to Washington from Toronto Island on one of those itsy-bitsy tin cans Air Canuck likes to call planes. Taking my 200 pound (well, it feels like 200 pounds) laptop one Monday morning down from the overhead I accidentally walloped a guy, hitting him with enough force to make me wince. In a nanosecond, before I could get the words out of my mouth, he said, “I’m sorry!” To me. After I hit him. Poor guy probably still has a bruise the size of PEI on his shoulder. (They say by the way that the average Canadian says ‘sorry’ 45,000 times a day. I know we do it a lot, but c’mon, 45,000 times?)
And, once in the US, where I think I don’t have an accent, someone will say, “You’re a Canadian, aren’t you?” Why? I say PRAWcess like a U.S. native, swallow those ‘eh’s’, don’t wear my Jays T-shirt. I am totally incognito, the invisible Canadian, but I still get spotted. Maybe it’s in subtle things, like compromise. Figuring out what the other person thinks or feels. Respecting the other guy. Holding the door to the 7-11 open for the mother with her three young kids.
Most of all, I think, unlike the nations of the yesterday, where people found common ties in their appearance — the fair freckled skin of the Scot, the broad serene face of the Finn — we are a nation of tomorrow, a fabric bound together by common threads. Politeness for one. Diversity for another. Respect for the other guy yet another — a kind of shared, common value as strong and tough as the railroad that runs across the country. Who knows? Maybe one thread made of Tim Hortons. One making Canada ‘home’.
As big as those things are, it’s more than those threads though.
Canadians are the living demonstration of an idea, stronger than mortal genes and their short-lived expression. It’s this notion: that humans from across the world, trusting that if two cultures can live together in peace, prosperity and the pursuit of health, then many more can achieve those same goals. Not bad ideas to build a country on. For sure, we’re not perfect (take the plight of our native peoples for example) but we’re young yet (150 puts us in like kindergarten for countries), but our kind of bond is definitely more durable than genes or customs. “There is nothing stronger,” Victor Hugo said, “than an idea whose time has come.” Canada is one of those ideas. We are, above all, a nation of the future. It’s in our DNA.
Oh, I got one other answer to the question, ‘What makes a Canadian?’ contributed by my grandson, ten years old going on twenty-five. “Luck,” he said. For emphasis, “Canadians are lucky.”
He and the lady from Locke Street have it just right.
Dave Davis, lives in Dundas, Ontario and Fort Myers Beach, Florida. He’s a husband, father, grandfather and a retired physician, writer and speaker. You can follow him, if you have nothing better to do, @drauthor24 or write him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He likes it when you write
Canadians are the living demonstration of an idea, stronger than mortal genes and their short-lived expression, writes Dave Davis.