I am celebrating 30 years in Canada this Canada Day Weekend. #canada150 #humberpr How fitting, an immigrant in a society that welcomes them reaches this milestone on the country’s 150th birthday. Having come here from Chicago with Nancy, my Canadian wife, who persuaded me that raising the children would be better here, as it was safer, cleaner, had healthcare and the public schools worked. She had spent too many frightening evenings hearing about Chicago’s murders leading off the news (that city’s version of Buffalo’s fires) and for a variety of complicated reasons I agreed to start over here with her. It was the Reagan era’s sunset and the Bush dynasty’s dawn. Seems like so long ago. Bill Clinton was then the relatively unknown Arkansas governor, Barack Obama had just enrolled in Harvard Law School, and by most accounts George W. Bush was an alcoholic. Canada’s PM, Brian Mulroney, was in the middle of his mandate; his and Reagan’s mentor, Margaret Thatcher, had unfurled the Iron Lady’s banner of U.K. conservatism, much emulated by the American and Canadian leaders.
When Americans like me arrive in Canada, the first thought is “The two societies are the same.” It takes a while to figure out they are not. The common language throws you off. I’d divide my time here in three distinct periods.
In the first decade, I apparently had a Chicago or American accent I was not aware of. Hardly five minutes would go by in almost any conversation before someone would say—“Oh, you are from the States,” that also being a new term, like North America that is distinct to Canadian English and not part of everyday speech in the place people call themselves Americans. North America implies Canadian inclusion in the larger whole while the U.S. assumption is that it is the larger whole.
Then I had to understand anti-American bias and derision for basic assumptions. I was raising funds for a publishing venture and when I secured the financing my barber said, “Of course they’d give that to an American.” Then there were the stereotypes: Americans were loud, bumptious, terrible dressers, generally fat and enjoyed huge portions in chain restaurants. Not like our small portions in exquisite boutique Toronto bistros. Also having to build basic knowledge was part of the first period. In my publication I actually asked, quite stupidly, if Ottawa was in Ontario, assuming Canada had to have a federal district like Washington, D.C. A writer had secured an interview with an out of office Jean Chrétien and I asked—who’s that? I also asked the same question about Jerry Seinfeld so I guess ignorance crossed borders. Recently I went to a casual meeting in flip flops and was told it was ‘so American.’ The problem persists.
In this period, I still had not planted two feet on the ground, though I was about to, given that I now had two Canadian-citizen children, Josh and Tal (also U.S. citizens). Mentally I lived in the U.S; physically I resided in TO. With the media grid, it is possible to do. CNN and CBS on TV, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal available everywhere. American news affecting daily life. When my friends asked how I liked it here, I’d say, “Well I really like living in Toronto—I just didn’t realize I’d get the rest of Canada with it.” Or what are Canadians like: “They are unarmed Americans with healthcare.” I had this woefully wrong attitude that I was American, hence accorded special status here. I still used American terms, when I knew the corresponding Canadian word or pronunciation. “Route” gave me away—root or rowte?
In the second decade, things changed. My son and daughter were growing up. Bad things happened in the “States”; Bill Clinton was impeached; George W. beat liberal hero Al Gore, with the help of his dad’s picks on the Supreme Court and then Saudi terrorists flew two jets into the World Trade Center (American spelling in a name of U.S. origin) and 9/11 became a day and a phrase we would all remember. Canadians shined that day—welcoming stranded jets into Newfoundland, now the subject of a musical Come From Away that I am about to see in TO. Living in Canada became a good thing. I was not going back to the U.S. Miraculously, the Midwest accent faded away and the Chicago Da Bears, Da Bulls voice grated on me and no one asked that embarrassing question any longer. Canadian institutions became second nature; I visited Ottawa and was proud of it. I could do a pretty good imitation of Chrétien but also admired him greatly. The stupid one was George W., not ‘le petit gars’ from Shawinigan. I explained OHIP and my American friends were jealous. Ironically, I worked in mostly American-owned PR firms.
Then I became a citizen in my third decade. At first I said it was for ‘technical reasons,’ as I didn’t want to continually renew my permanent resident’s card. Then, in the citizenship ceremony, with 100 people from 25 nations, I embraced it wholeheartedly. I still traveled on an American passport, until dual citizens were required to obtain one, my last hesitation. I taught Canadian politics to Humber College students, though I did insist they learn about the differences between Ottawa and Washington; many resisted, surprisingly, given that most would work for U.S. multinational PR firms. A former employee was recruiting for what might have been the perfect academic job in Chicago and he said, “It would be mine for the asking.” But with a deep emotional attachment to my partner Ellen, the city, and my son and daughter, I turned it down. About my only sadness was not being in Chicago in the Barack Obama era; people I knew well supported him and I was certain that had I stayed there, I would have known and backed him too. Even so, you don’t have to live in the U.S. to be proud of his election—and how he and his family conducted themselves, not to mention Obamacare and his Supreme Court appointments, Elana Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.
However, then came Trump and the Hillary Clinton’s astonishing defeat at the hands of an unhinged incompetent, making policy on Twitter. My friends asked how they could come here. They said, ‘tell me about the health care.’ I spent an hour on Skype recently explaining it all to my old buddy Tom Rubens, now living in Dayton, Ohio. I told him that Canadians really do care about each other, and want the lesser among them to be taken care of, and not go broke due to catastrophic illness. I pointed to a map of Toronto and said you can live anywhere, so unlike the divided, segregated, ghettoized Chicago, with its 323 murders so far this year, on pace to reach 700, according to the Chicago Tribune. I am even considering renouncing my U.S. citizenship, not just because of the fool in the White House but also for tax reasons, due to my home’s substantial increase in value and onerous U.S tax reporting requirements (I have filed a U.S. return all these 30 years). Then Justin Trudeau’s election demonstrated Canada’s better instincts, when the U.S. had gone mad at the polls. Our handsome PM was admired around the world; his better judgments were in fact better. The insane marijuana prohibition would end and he carefully stick handled the new crew in Washington, taking Ivanka to Come from Away on Broadway. He and his family were people to be proud of; we had healthcare and the streets were safe and clean and the public schools worked. Yes, Nancy was right; it just took me 30 years to realize it. Happy Canada 150 @justintrudeau.