I’m not a very good Canadian, whatever that might mean. I don’t really watch hockey; though I sometimes get caught up in the fever of the playoffs, I prefer the three-week commitment of the Tour de France, not to mention the scenery. I drink more imported than local beer. I’m tired of the snow after the first storm and I’m irked by what the veneer of multiculturalism allows us to ignore. On the other hand, I wake up to the CBC. I consume healthy quantities of maple syrup and I continue to read the Globe and Mail, such as it is after the unfortunate redesign that stripped out most of the content in favour of photo spreads featuring $100+ toques one can purchase at one’s local Holt Renfrew. So, although I don’t consider myself a particularly good Canadian, I am, perhaps, typical as far as Canadians go: content enough to live here, complain a bit, go to the doctor without fear of bankruptcy and paddle around in a canoe once a summer, though with dreams of relocating to California, if only for the avocados and temperate climate.
Since my relation to this nation seems a sort of an accidental, if filial, love, rather than passionate affair, I’m surprised, kind of appalled, and yet, admittedly, totally primed, when I travel and find myself inevitably slipping into the role of Canadian. I enjoy telling people what’s different (weirder, better, worse) about Canada: ketchup chips!, it’s not illegal to deface the flag!, healthcare!, the LCBO!. Even I think this is obnoxious. How can I presume to know what anyone else’s national experience is like compared to mine? How can I pretend to know what Canadians think or feel, what Canada is like? I’m no authority, and yet, there I go, explaining Coffee Crisp, the draconian structure of the LCBO, our (who is this “we” of which I speak?) relationship to the British monarchy and the concept of First Nations. Why should anyone care?
Apart from an anxious (and I’m sure somewhat disenchanting) tendency to try to fill blank spaces in conversations with things I think I know for sure, my insistence on parsing Canada to non-Canadians comes in part from my fascination with a system of identification that’s so naturalized and yet so arbitrary, so absurd. When I leave the land of beavers behind, I’m compelled to look at it, at my place in it, its place in me. I become conscious of my “ehs,” my tendency for self-effacement, my pronunciation of “about” (I still don’t really hear that one). Why should longitude or latitude or climate or population density or national media production influence how you present yourself to others, how you are perceived by others? And yet they do. One of these factors, or all of them, some strange thing we call Canada, or America, or Croatia, these national entities get under our skin and into our cells, quite literally shaping the way in which we place our tongue against our teeth to spit out vowel sounds. I find this compelling, I guess, particularly when it’s thrown into the relief of travel, and so I use my time away to measure the distance between myself and others, to find the places at which something called Canada sticks to me, the places at which it falls away, to try to identify the bits of nations clinging to the people I meet.
I’m sure not all Canadians seem so, well, Canadian when they travel. It’s a bit annoying. I’d rather be mysterious and alluring than a know-it-all nationalist. Alas, mystery was not my fate, at least not in terms of nationalism. I’m far too interested in it. In this, I suppose I’m a product of my nation, an anxious space obsessed with the idea that it might have no identity at all, and so a nation that overproduces itself in every outlet. This is, after all, the same country that created The Beachcombers.
Have you heard of The Beachcombers? For those of you who didn’t watch it on Sunday nights after Fraggle Rock, The Beachcombers was a show about two beachcombers, as the title would suggest. That’s right, it was a nationally broadcast television show about two rival log salvagers, two guys who zip around the Sunshine Coast in motor boats looking for the rogue logs that escape from logging booms in order to salvage and sell them. Of course, one is upstanding and honest (Nick) and the other (Relic) is shady and opportunistic. Of course they get into regular tiffs and even, occasionally, have to learn to work together. Of course the lead character is identified as Greek Canadian and of course the cast includes many First Nations actors who reinforce the idea that this town represents the ideal coastal hamlet, the ideal Canadian space in which we all just get along. Of course the show takes place in one of the most beautiful bits of natural landscape in Canada. The Beachcombers, perhaps even more than Kids in the Hall, more than Little Mosque on the Prairie, is quintessentially Canadian. It’s a show about community more than family and it’s about forming a community out of very little, almost nothing, it’s about forming a successful show out of very little, almost nothing.
The Beachcombers not only managed to remain on the air for 19 years, but was also wildly popular in this country. And so I can’t help myself but talk about it to an audience who inevitably hasn’t heard of it (though the show was syndicated in a number of different countries). The Beachcombers is too simultaneously bizarre and banal to have been made anywhere else, and, in a huge way, I’m proud to be from the country that produced it—I want The Beachcombers to be the thing people think about when they think about Canada: an absurd and yet earnest show that ran for season after season on an impossibly thin premise. I want to be from a Canada that is known for its weirdness, its attachment to mundane scenes, just because they’ve been collectively declared its own, its perpetual desire to laugh at its own attachments. That, and I’d like Canada to be celebrated for its bold insistence on the rationality of the metric system, even against the monumental pressure to succumb to the Imperialists to the south.
In fact, I think nationalism in general would be a better thing if it were exercised through a process of trying to one-up each other’s odd national habits, productions and attachments, preferably over beers. If every nation were identified by its most absurd cultural production, rather than it’s flag, anthem or national bird, the Olympics, at least, would be far less weepy and much more entertaining.
**If you’d like to participate in a moment of Canadian nostalgia and harbour a blind faith in the democratic process, you can sign the petition to CBC to return The Beachcombers to the airwaves, or at least to release it on DVD, which for me would provide some much needed proof that this show (and by extension perhaps also this country) really does exist.