paroxysm of humility

I used to joke that Canada was a great place to live if you’d come from a war-torn country, some other place where things were violent and chaotic. It’s so quiet and orderly, I’d say, that only those from who’d lived in an aggressive din where life and limb were constantly threatened could – would – appreciate it. I, a born Canadian with no such history, was too bored to stay. Canada offered none of the thrill someone born into its existential calm might seek, not the rush of directly taking on Western racism or sexism or imperialism or capitalism as one is apt to do here, in the US, at every turn, voluntarily or not. And, besides, I’d say, my people come from warm places, and the only thing warm about Canada is… I don’t have a punchline for that joke. I find Canada cold in ways I cannot bear.

In Canada in the 70s and 80s, my parents and their generation were refugees, of a kind, from the grinding post-colonial poverty of their homelands and the class-trapped rat race of London. But, even then, out of their group, Mummy and Daddy were uncompromising wanderers. And, so, I guess Amanda and I, like them, see through Canada’s placidity to it’s cold racist, classist heart, and enjoy, very much, a ramble. Maybe. It’s doesn’t get much quieter than my ‘burb.

The best advice I’ve ever had, hands down, was given to me by Katherine, my dear friend and former MFA mentor: follow through on ideas as first envisioned, then reassess and change. This is very Canadian advice. Or, rather, it is the advice of a contemporary someone whose life or history necessitates a Canadian experience. My Katherine, god love her! Her family is from Ukraine. This is her work.

Two of my closest friends in Minnesota, Jen and Natasha, are, like me, first generation born Canadians. We three are kindred in that we have a relationship with institutions that is hard to comprehend: irrationally, we choose to work in and through existing but broken systems rather than set up a new, ‘better’ something. It was hard for me to describe this relationship until Canada’s election earlier this autumn. Now, it is crystal clear what the relationship is, it’s roots, and why I am a bit ashamed of my previous glib dismissal of Canada.

As a child in Canada, I could feel individual white, or rather, Anglo Canadian, dismissals of me and other people of color. Sure, we others stayed in our neighborhoods for the most part (the Greater Toronto Area is still the most aggressively Balkanized place I’ve ever lived [and I’ve lived many places]). But if we all were in shared spaces? Gah. It was horrible. It’s horrible to be looked at warily and then, worse, ‘tolerated’. I have not forgotten that feeling. It’s not a thing I think I can forgive because it has not changed.

On the one hand.

On the other hand, Canadian institutions – government, infrastructure (except Toronto highways), schools, healthcare systems, social services – provided and continue to provide for my family (not me, I’m mostly American these days) and all Canadians – born, naturalized, and otherwise – a quality of life that is a thing to behold: there was no threat of voter disenfranchisement during this last election, Canadians’ privacy is protected by law and not sold to the highest bidder, my elementary education meant I was years ahead of my American classmates until college, neither illness nor retirement mean a loss of dignity (although unemployment is still a terrible stigma). I get it now, why I was so happy – relieved! – at the Liberal win in October (interestingly, it was the same feeling I had after both of Barack Obama’s wins): individuals might suck, but the framework must support everyone; if not a more perfect union, then, at the very least, aim for an equitably run system.

The world is full of refugees whose suffering, maybe obliquely, maybe directly, is the result of my North American way of life. I’ve chosen to cast my lot in with Americans for reasons both self-serving and noble. But, the Canadian in me was proud and a bit embarrassed when, after my cool (accurate, but cool) analysis, Justin Trudeau visibly, fearlessly, welcomed Syrian refugees to Canada.

Then again: