I am Canadian!

… but I didn’t know just how Canadian ’til I emigrated to Germany. It’s been 4 years, and when people ask me if we’ll go back, my answer is still a diffident “perhaps some day”. Germans seem surprised that I don’t spend time in Canada yearly… but my life is here now, and “foreign vacations” are not a financial priority for us every year.

“But what do you miss?” they ask. Well, oddly: Hellman’s Mayonnaise, sweet-and-salty peanut butter, and Lebanese lentil salad on every other corner. And beyond comfort food, the things I miss most are things that happen unplanned, in a moment: laughing with strangers in an elevator or café; smiling with parents in the subway at their children’s creative play; employees taking pleasure in being of service; random acts of kindness like the college students, strangers, who dug our car out of a snowdrift during a Christmas blizzard, just before I left the country. And I breathe a sigh of relief when I am once again surrounded by the visible and audible human diversity of my home cities of Montreal and Toronto.

I recently submitted an entry in a CBC competition to name the beaver triplets followed on beaver-cam by researchers. (Did you know that the beaver is our national animal? Industrious, quiet, annoyingly persistent :-) I just got a tweet tonight from the CBC: my names were chosen! I’m godmother to 3 beaver kits! :-) You can see them here.

Since I’ve been thinking about values, I chose names that reflected some key attributes of home. Not unique to Canada, certainly, but I will include some examples to show how these values are deeply rooted in Canadian culture.

Pax (latin for “peace”)

Did you know that the term “Peacekeeper” was coined by a Canadian? Lester B. Pearson won the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize for his role in sending the first UN peacekeepers into Egypt to de-escalate international hostilities over the Suez Canal. And Canadians played key roles in the founding of the United Nations itself: McGill University law professor John Peters Humphrey established the UN’s Division for Human Rights in the UN Secretariat, and crafted the first draft of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Canada is consistently ranked among the “most peaceful nations on earth”.

Ami (french for “friend”)

One of the hilights of being in Germany is proximity to landmarks that tell the story of western history: Aachen’s 9th century “imperial” cathedral near the train station, Trier’s massive Roman “Porta Nigra” outside my hotel window, the 12th century castle prison of Richard the Lionheart – seen on a hill in the pre-dawn mist while commuting to work. What I wasn’t prepared for was that the people are, in some ways as ancient: some families living for many generations in the same small region, creating a strong feeling of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’ (less than 2 generations is “new”!) In Toronto, by comparison, almost half of citizens are born outside the country, and the other half need not look far back to find an immigrant ancestor! Canadian communities have been welcoming newcomers with food and help and friendship for over 350 years… creating a culture of inclusiveness that makes space for strangers who look, speak, act or even believe differently. Canada isn’t perfect, but my experience is of a place that ranks tolerance and friendship between people and communities as values worth teaching our children explicitly in school.

Moxie (North American slang for “courage” or “vigour”)

Historically, many Canadians-to-be arrived with little and found even less here: towns that needed to be built, but not ’til they’d cut a space in the forest! Prairies rich and fertile, once they applied back-breaking labor to clear, till and sow them. Barren rocky shores to be transformed into isolated fishing villages, with not a hardware store in sight. Today, with so many of our basic needs provided for, and so many luxuries besides, Canadian moxie shows up in other places now: for example, in the innovative research and design we bring to the world – I think of architect Frank Gehry; the heart pacemaker; IMAX film; and the early days of RIM. It also powers our support of the oppressed worldwide, and is fed by the energy and optimism injected into our society by continuing waves of immigrant professionals, business visionaries and families. From a young age I was taught in school that courage is necessary to make a better world; and still today, the thought “if I don’t do it who will?” is second nature to me. Our schools, highways and community centers are named for Canadian heros like Judge Louise Arbour, a former Chief Prosecutor of the UN International War Crimes Tribunal; 17-year old Terry Fox, who ran 5300 km cross-country on one leg raising funds for cancer research, until cancer forced him to stop; and Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, who refused, on moral grounds, the UN order to withdraw his peacekeeping troops from Kigali in 1994, remaining with volunteer troops to witness and protect locals during the 100 days of the Rwandan mass genocide. And if Craig Kielberger, who at age 12 founded Free the Children, a charity of “children helping children” to eliminate child labor, doesn’t define “courage and vigour,” I don’t know who does.

Pax, Ami and Moxie: good names for industrious Canadian beavers, in my opinion. Also: a constellation of three values I now know to be very Canadian. Perhaps even annoyingly Canadian?

So be it!


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