From America To Canada and Back Again

Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau took his sons to watch the official opening Canada Day ceremonies on Parliament Hill July 1, 1983 in Ottawa. Fred Chartrand/CP

What I’ve learned as a citizen of two very different democracies

This week, when “60 Minutes” asked Justin Trudeau, on the occasion of the Obama’s State Dinner in his honor, what he didn’t like about America, he said: “‘Having a little more of an awareness of what’s going on in the rest of the world, I think is, is what many Canadians would hope for Americans.’”

Margaret Atwood has been talking about this isolation for years. She once said, “Americans don’t usually have to think about Canadian-American relations, or, as they would put it, American-Canadian relations. Why think about something which you believe affects you so little? We, on the other hand, have to think about you whether we like it or not.”

I’ve been thinking about what it is to be of two countries, raised in Canada, but choosing to raise my own children in America. And, at this week’s tribute to Canada, I’ve been thinking about the Americans who want to leave the recent Drumpf-fueled hatred, and why Canada remains a compelling escape.

I grew up in Canada. My American father left his family’s tobacco farm to become a chemist, and soon after, a distillery invited him to make Canadian whiskey in a bucolic bay town in southern Ontario.

When I was born, we lived in a trailer in Western Kentucky, and my mother had one baby every year throughout my father’s college education. Despite never having left home, my mother thought going to another country might be an adventure.

At eight years old, I took my first plane ride. My two sisters and I were dressed in green plaid jumpers hand-made by my grandmother, and my brother had a bow-tie, and the stewardesses pinned gold wings upon our chests and called us voyagers. When we arrived in Collingwood, Ontario, it was November 1968. We had never seen snow, but that month produced the heaviest snowfall in forty-one years, and soon there were snow banks tall enough to make forts.

The exotic beauty and freedom of that place became my salvation. I was leaving all of the ways old-boy authority had restricted my movements.

I no longer was under the gaze of steely-eyed nuns. There was no Pledge of Allegiance or prayers to memorize. There was no set of instructions providing fictional safety from atom bombs. We did not practice hiding from enemies.

Instead we stayed out until dark climbing trees, playing hockey after supper. We went to public schools where we were taught global geography, world economies, creative thinking, evolutionary biology, and sexual education that included orgasms. We were even exposed to the early days of deep history, by which I mean that we studied processes rather than simply individuals and events. In school, we paid more attention to kinship and developing traditions, instead of who won the wars.

By middle school, we were enrolled in the open-concept form of study, where we could self-regulate our learning and no longer had to sit in rows. We studied in pods (little classroom caves in which we might move about) and we were encouraged to question the morality of conflicts, to ask how histories might be narratives created by the power-brokers. We were instructed in the necessity of diversity. And we read Canadian literature — Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Margaret Lawrence, Farley Mowat, Northrop Frye, Michael Ondaatje, L.M. Montgomery — which taught us the value of survival, self-deprecation, failure, and humour.

This happened in the era of Pierre Trudeau, who embraced multiculturalism as the antidote to nationalism, and the dominant duality of French and English. In the 1970s, Canada was adopting policies and financing programs to enable minorities to maintain their own identity and resist social assimilation. We lived not in a melting pot but in la mosaique culturelle.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Canada has been one of the world’s most welcoming societies, and it remains so today, under leadership of Pierre Trudeau’s son, Justin Trudeau. The effect of this policy upon a childhood is not one of reducing understanding, or limiting unified membership, as some would suggest. To imagine oneself as all of us, each in our inherent complexity, is to activate curiosity, wonder, and empathy. My childhood classrooms in Eastern Canada were full of first-generation Scots and Irish and Italians. My children’s classrooms in Western Canada were nearly one-half Japanese immigrants.

I grew up, then, with one foot in Canada and one foot in the USA, straddling the 49th parallel. My American parents insisted that I understand where I came from and took me back to Kentucky once or twice each year. There I rebelled against my family’s jingoism, exceptionalism, xenophobia, and religiosity. My extended clan of aunts and uncles spoke of the ‘bad’ parts of town in which we were never to walk alone and openly said the ‘n’ word. My grandparents feared my friendships with black children, and as they aged, they became increasingly suspicious of other ethnicities and cultures. And their families criticized my parents for allowing us children to attend public school and for permitting me, at thirteen, to refuse my Catholic confirmation and limit my exposure to the Church on the basis of my growing feminism.

My parents wanted me to become more of a patriotic, proud American, but it was too late — I had already developed a Canadian mind. I felt free. This inner knowing of my freedom, even as a girl, gave me all the authority I needed to thrive.

At sixteen, I quit my first job as a cap-wearing marshmallow-maker at the Candy Factory after a few weeks because, as I told my father, “It’s unreasonable for a teenager to spend her summer sweltering over coconut.” He told me that we were not quitters. I told him that the Canadian Unemployment Insurance Act ensured me benefits, the same that were guaranteed for all workers.

Though I wouldn’t take a cheque from the government at that time, I did so at least three times while we lived in Canada. I knew that I could go through periods of loss of work and be stabilized by the same fund that we all paid into. Benefits had been liberalized in the 1970’s, meaning that I was eligible for up to 51 weeks of unemployment if I experienced job loss, illness, maternity leave, or took retirement.

Before I married, I took work in Canada as a babysitter, fast-food worker, farm worker, waitress, Red Cross worker, and news editor. Married and pregnant by the time I graduated from college, I tried to find work anywhere that would hire me. Most took one look at the swell of my belly and wouldn’t. Or employers fired me when they thought I couldn’t do the physical labour. (I demonstrated lifting heavy boxes to no avail.)

I ended up cleaning chalets for wealthy Torontonians. It was physically challenging work, and the guilt-plagued women householders pitied me, then pointed out the spots I missed on the floor.

But I was energetic and strong. I rode a bike everywhere. At 22 years old, I was completely unafraid about bringing a child into the world.

Part of my courage came from the fact that I knew that I had guaranteed medical care, some of the best available in the world. I knew that Canada had a lower infant mortality rate and a higher life expectancy than America, and that my country covered every individual, no matter their circumstances. When I came home from having our son, the state sent a nurse to ensure I knew how to breastfeed and to help me navigate the emotional and psychological challenges of having a child.

“You might do well with an afternoon pint,” the lovely Scotswoman shared, as she showed me how to burp our colicky little one.

I received coupons from the hospital for buying supplies. The home nurse helped me find a thrift-store buggy, and park it on the porch so our first-born could take naps in the fresh air. I received monthly cheques called a Baby Bonus, a universal child care benefit, which was entirely up to my discretion to spend.

In those years that I had two children and worked full-time, I never waited to see a doctor or get an emergency service. The government-sponsored care in Canada is today about one-third less costly to its citizens than in the U.S., per capita. Our costs for the family portion of our health care, when we lived in the great white north, was never more than $100 a month.

My husband and I invested in community-supported day care that filled in the gaps in our limited parenting skills. When our children were ready for school, we knew that no matter what province we lived in, we were guaranteed the same high-quality education, from elementary to university. Still today, because of massive government support for Canadian universities, the cost for a full undergraduate degree is about the same as one year of tuition in the U.S.

When we lived in Canada, we were so free that we moved when we felt like going places. We lived in cities, villages, a national park. We moved to the Canadian Rockies where I cleaned hotel rooms and houses, booked bus tours, worked in media relations for the Banff Springs Hotel, and found my way to the Whyte Museum, one of the world’s great mountain archives and art galleries. We lived in that vast mountain landscape popularized as ‘brutal’ and ‘punishing’ by the actors of the film The Revenant, only we did that with two babies, no television, no car, and definitely no private plane to take us out of the minus twenty temperatures.

The value of living in this kind of government, which most would say is democratic socialism with a free market economy, is that it makes most people more open-minded and empathic. It also makes them prosperous. According to Bloomberg, Canadian households now have more net worth on average than Americans, and its financial institutions are highly regulated, resulting in stable banks and a stable housing market. Canada is ranked as one of the top five countries to live in by the United Nations and the Human Development Index rankings.

But my two countries still have about the same gender pay gap, and women are promoted less to management positions. The same old tired story sadly still happens all over. Perhaps Canada’s Liberal influence, under the new Trudeau, who insists upon equal representation of women in government, will inspire (or mandate) businesses to follow their lead.

By the time I was thirty, I wanted to return to the United States and bring our children, so that I and they might understand more intimately the country of my birth. I was curious about what it might be like to experience America — its creativity and ingenuity — directly, rather than as an outsider. I wanted to influence its politics not just as a voter, but as a member of the community, a part of the grass-roots.

It’s been challenging to think as an American, though, to realize that the safety net doesn’t exist here, or if it does, it only seems to occur haphazardly, through the whims of the states.

Our first year here, my four-year-old daughter had to have a life-saving operation, and my employer declared her illness a pre-existing condition. I was stupidly shocked to have to borrow money and rely upon the generosity of a surgeon who donated her time. For myself, I’ve endured long waits in hospital emergency rooms in America. And I’ve stopped myself from going to the doctor when I’ve been sick because of the biggest barrier in America: fear of the cost of health care.

We quickly learned that in America self-reliance is a survival tactic.

Even though we have resided in the USA for two decades, we cross the border as often as possible, so we might keep a sense of what it is to live in the cultural mosaic. I’m following everything that Justin Trudeau is doing, from the national inquiry on missing indigenous women, to creating a new tax-free child benefit, to clean energy initiatives. I want America to follow Trudeau’s suggestion and open up to the possibility that Canada and the world might have something to teach us.

Most importantly, I want to hold inside me all of the risk-taking that was possible when I was young, and to keep alive that famous Canadian joke:

Q: How many Canadians does it take to change a light bulb?
A: None. They don’t change light bulbs. They accept them the way that they are.

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