PERSONAL
11/18/2020 16:19 EST

As An American, I Last Felt Welcome In Canada 4 Years Ago. This Election Changes That.

When the United States' reputation took a hit under Donald Trump, I felt it every day.

“You people really ruined things for the rest of us.”

The father of my daughter’s schoolmate had just overheard my kid proudly declare we were from New York City, and probably didn’t notice my cheeks burn as he went on to make me feel even smaller. 

“You must feel relieved knowing you no longer live in a country full of people stupid enough to elect a fascist!”

It was December 2016, a month after the election that secured Donald Trump’s presidency — and the first time I truly felt unwelcome in Canada. While I knew the rest of the world was unimpressed with Americans, I wasn’t really prepared for how the next four years of my life were going to play out.

Lee Hennig
The writer in 2016 just after Donald Trump won presidency of the United States.

I’m American. I grew up in a very poor area outside of New York City, and accumulated a massive medical bill before I was 22. I grappled with my sexuality throughout childhood because of an intolerant, abusive mother. So before I moved to Canada, I had many reasons to be like many other Americans, who pictured our northern neighbour as a welcoming beacon of hope and free visits to the doctor. A safe haven.

I moved to New York City proper and had never planned to leave, but in 2013 I found myself a single mom and decided I’d try to start anew in Vancouver. I didn’t see it as long term, but life had other plans. I met the man who would become my husband and adoptive father to my daughter. I made lifelong friendships and surrounded myself with people who loved me as me, regardless of where I came from, and these served as motivation to cultivate a life in Canada.

Lee Hennig
Moments after the writer and her daughter were granted permanent residency in Canada.

The next seven years chipped away at my preconceptions of Canada as a welcoming bastion of equality. At first, I was teased for my accent and the prevalence of junk food in an American diet, and dealt jokes about getting a green card. Mostly small jabs that were tiring and highlighted my difference, but seemed harmless enough.

Living in Canada also showed me that racism is as alive and well here as it is back home, being gay is not nearly as safe as it seems and, as evidenced by male superiors who’d made a habit of calling me a know-it-all, women are still constantly undermined in professional settings.

After the election in 2016, however, if I was feeling homesick for my city or confused about things like the metric system, I started hearing sharp comments like “maybe that’s how it is in America, but you’re in Canada now.” Mocking Americans for being intellectually inferior became normal fodder during lunch breaks, despite my colleagues knowing where I’m from. I don’t think they realized the negative impact of their break-room talk, but it hurt on a deeper level and I felt worn down after months of listening to it.

The absolute lowest point was when my previously accepting in-laws found out about my fluid sexuality and gender, and condemned me for it. In contrast to New York City, I was surrounded by large pine trees and rampant homophobia, far away from home.

I retreated into my network of Canadians who loved me, and did my best to seem as un-American as possible.

Canadians (and the rest of the world) were already smirking at Americans as U.S. President Donald Trump turned the clock back on human rights and equality. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and things took a nosedive. Deaths skyrocketed as the U.S. launched an unconvincing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Americans were caught sneaking across the border into Canada. I understood why Canadians felt mistrustful or apprehensive of U.S. citizens.

I retreated into my network of Canadians who loved me, and did my best to seem as un-American as possible. My husband and I seriously considered moving back to New York. I figured that living in my own country’s mess was better than being punished for it by a country that ignored its own.

Before it came to that, in 2020, Americans took to the streets with a message — No more. We’ve had enough. — and the world finally saw America take a stand against the injustice, violence and oppression it had become known for. Protests erupted across our country in response to George Floyd’s murder. Americans were awake to the dangers posed by right-wing movements and MAGA hat-wearing anti-maskers.

America seemed to earn back a modicum of its reputation. This seemed to not only earn favour from Canadians, but it served to inspire protesting here, too. Canada began to turn inward at the racism and injustice rampant within its own borders and, for the first time, I felt seen by Canadians as more than a springboard for their jokes and anger. We were in this together.

I went to a Black Lives Matter protest in Calgary, and I finally felt safe discussing racial injustice and anti-maskers not only with my Canadian friends, but others I didn’t know well, possibly due to me being seen as part of the solution, rather than the problem. Canadians seemed to realize, with what felt like the first time, that they share the same side with millions of Americans who want fundamental, progressive change and a coronavirus vaccine.

OLIVIER DOULIERY via Getty Images
People celebrate at Black Lives Matter plaza across from the White House in Washington, DC on Nov. 7, 2020, after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election.

When the 2020 U.S. presidential election was called for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, I was hundreds of miles from the U.S. and yet I could hear cheers ringing through the streets of my neighbourhood. Canadians were cheering everywhere, not just for themselves, but out of love and pride for Americans. 

Remembering the sound of bells ringing and pots clattering on balconies still makes me cry — sweet notes in stark contrast to the hurtful words of the man on the playground. For the first time since living in Canada, I was not just an American trying to get by, but someone whose Canadian neighbours cried for, cheered for, were proud of, even embraced as one of their own.

That moment renewed my faith in the place I will always call home. Maybe Canada is finally my home, too.

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