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Canadians Abroad, It's Time for an Attitude Adjustment

10/06/2014 12:53 EDT | Updated 12/06/2014 05:59 EST
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I'm Canadian, and feel lucky and pleased to be so. But that doesn't mean I don't think Canadians abroad couldn't stand to benefit from some attitude adjustments.

Just for starters, my fellow Canadians, it isn't a cause for outrage if someone thinks you're American. If you're from English-speaking Canada, chances are you talk like an American, dress like an American, carry yourself like an American and share many cultural references with Americans. And if you're French-Canadian, three out of those four things are true for you. This is neither a bad thing, nor should it come as a surprise to anyone with a cursory understanding of history and geography. We share historical connections, a culture, a language and many, many positive values, I'm not sure why so many Canadians appear to consider being mistaken for Americans an affront.

I'm currently abroad, and when boarding a plane recently, I witnessed something all too common: Canadian huffiness at being mistaken for Americans. A Canadian couple were chatting with a German flight attendant who said, as they were heading to their seats, something about them being American. As soon as I heard it, I thought "uh oh. Herr Flight Attendant is going to get it." Sure enough, the couple -- now halfway down the aisle -- turned around and shouted in an unpleasant tone that they weren't American. They were Canadian, and there were, they asserted, huge differences. To the offending flight attendant, though, they were American, rather like a French-speaking Belgian traveling in Canada might be mistaken for a Frenchman.

True, that Belgian might get huffy, too, which brings to mind Sigmund Freud's term, "the narcissism of small differences." For the differences that exist between Canada and the United States are fairly minor, especially if you consider Canada and her other North American sibling, Mexico. And yet people that I like to call "Canadian rednecks" make a huge deal about those differences, or assume people should be able to know, from looking at us, that we have "free healthcare." Or that we're "peacekeepers." Never mind that we would never be able to enjoy the successful and peaceful society we have were we not, by simple twist of history, situated next to the United States. Location, location, location.

Which brings me to our next item, not unrelated: the "maple leaf on the backpack" myth has got to stop. The idea that somehow you will be treated better if you wear a Canadian flag on your backpack, that we are a universally-beloved people, needs to be addressed. True, Canadians travelling in the Netherlands will still often be offered a drink on the house, as a thank you for the major role played by the First Canadian Army in liberating that country in 1945. And identifying as a Canadian may have been marginally beneficial had one been stuck in the middle of an hysterical anti-Vietnam war protest in London or Paris circa 1968. Other than that, most people give us little thought, and I'm utterly certain that a member of, say, ISIL, keen on kidnapping a Westerner, would not be moved to mercy by the sight of a maple leaf.

I am currently studying in Italy and most of my classmates -- students from across the globe -- think all of Canada is cold all of the time, that Canadians (including those of us in Toronto) look out our windows and see moose and sparkling streams and that there is passionate hatred between English and French Canadians (whereas feelings currently range from indifference to exasperation). None can name our Prime Minister and only a handful know that our capital is not Toronto and that Queen Elizabeth II is our queen, too. Canadians routinely accuse Americans of not knowing much about them. And perhaps they don't. But, excluding the odd Justin Bieber reference, no one else seems to, either.

The only time I was ever tempted to put a maple leaf on my bag (it's been a long time since I travelled with a backpack) was about 11-12 years ago, when our dollar was sinking. I considered it because I wanted potential pickpockets to know my money wasn't worth the trouble. I resisted the urge, and now that Canada enjoys relative economic stability, the last thing I want to do is make my little bit of money tempting.

Besides, attaching your flag to your belongings strikes me as rather a nationalistic, patriotic, rah-rah-rah-my-country-is-great kind of a move, something Canadians would disparage and condemn in no time flat were Americans to do it.

Which brings me to my final point. Canadians abroad -- as at home -- compare themselves to Americans obsessively, generally asserting that we are better, nicer, kinder, gentler, more enlightened. That sort of preening is every bit as arrogant as the behaviour for which we hold our neighbours to the south in contempt. And I promise you, Canadians abroad can be as boorish, loud and lacking in respect for different cultures as any other group of people out there. Yes, that includes Americans, whom I generally find to be open and respectful travelers.

I know of what I write. I lived overseas for a decade and have continued, when possible, to travel near and far. Make no mistake, there are groups that fit -- generally speaking -- the "obnoxious tourist" stereotype, and Americans aren't even in the top tier (my good Canadian manners prevent me from naming names). Nor are we.

And that's a good thing, but Canadians could travel even further down that list if we stopped fretting about the small differences.

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