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Nothing about our proud tradition of lumberjack poetry?


Jared Bland, “Griffin Prize Judge Alice Oswald on Canadian poetry’s humour, modesty,” The Globe and Mail, May 31, 2016

I prefer to focus on books, but this brief article/interview contains a stunning concentration of ideas about Canada held by people from other countries, and also illustrates a key aspect of how we Canadians feel about ourselves — I just couldn’t resist it.

You can read the full article here; the essentials are that British poet Alice Oswald is one of the judges of this year’s Griffin Prize, and Jared Bland (the Globe’s Arts editor) is interviewing her, mainly about her impressions of Canadian poetry. What’s striking about the article is how closely her ideas about Canadian poetry track more general ideas about Canada and Canadians that we have noticed repeatedly here at Wow — Canada!

Before we even begin to consider the content, the fact that this article exists at all speaks to the Canadian character. I hate to get into the ugly habit of quoting myself, but in the interests of economy I will reproduce the first paragraph of the “About” section of this website:

We Canadians judge our country by the opinions of outsiders. Every time a celebrity of any wattage touches down in Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal, some breathless local journalist can be counted on to ask them, “What do you think of Canada?” They say something politely anodyne and we all sigh with relief and go back to admiring their glorious foreignness.

This article perfectly expresses that impulse; confronted with a British poet, come (literally) to judge us, we can’t help but ask that almost pleading question, “What do you think of us?” (It is phrased as “What do you think of Canadian poetry,” but the larger implication is clear.) In fact, Bland’s first three questions are basically three different re-wordings of this same question.

And what does she think of us?

Oswald first mentions Anne Carson and Robert Bringhurst, but seems to set them apart from her idea of Canadian poetry, which is based more on Moosewood Sandhills — a book I haven’t read, but the title strikes me as a two-word compendium of ideas non-Canadians associate with Canada. Based on this book, Oswald describes Canadian poetry as “a quiet discipline — watchful and outdoor”. We’ve noticed the word “quiet” before, and it carries the standard suggestion that we are a humble, unassuming people quite happy not to attract any notice.

“Watchful and outdoor” is interesting, and Oswald restates it when she talks about “a bashful attentiveness to the natural world” in her answer to Bland’s third question. Both “outdoor” and “natural world” express the common view of Canada as a wilderness nation, but Oswald extends this idea, implying that when you live in a country like Canada, where the natural world is so dominant, the work of poetry will naturally (sorry!) focus on observing the elements of nature that surround the poet. (Just by the way, here is my favourite example of this idea of Canada as an untamed wilderness: a gorgeous Sylvia Plath poem that enacts this process of poet observing nature, and then questions how nature might affect the poet in return.)

Oswald also says, with apparent surprise, “Poetry is hard at work out there!” — “out there” meaning, of course, here in Canada. This politely patronizing phrase is typical of a British person speaking of a (former) colonial possession, and suggests Canada is a distant, rugged outpost — the sort of place our colonizers have heard of but never actually been, and certainly not the sort of place where poetry is written (she was “astonished at the quantity and variety” — she doesn’t mention the quality). She goes on to say that it was “particularly good” for her “to come across so much urban Canadian poetry.” Why particularly good? Oswald doesn’t say, but it’s hard not to feel that urban Canadian poetry was unexpected for her because she thinks of Canada as a wilderness rather than an urban nation, and she was happy to have that preconception shattered. (There may be a little self-interest involved here too: if her tasks as a Griffin Prize judge require her actually to come to Canada, I’m sure she’s relieved that we have hotels, and she won’t have to stay in a tent à la Plath and Hughes.)

Finally, we come to the word “modesty,” which echoes “bashful” and seems to be the keynote word in Oswald’s impression of our poetry: it is picked up in the headline, and Oswald herself repeats it several times. Like “quiet,” “modesty” seems a close cousin to “politeness” and repeats a generally accepted idea about the diffidence of Canadians. Regarding the books she read for the Griffin Prize, Oswald noticed “a certain modesty to the Canadian submissions” — “Modesty is a good quality,” she hastens to add, “although….”

Yes, there it is, the “although,” and as soon as we reach that word, the questions begin. Is “modesty” code for “not very ambitious”? Is “not very ambitious” code for “not very good”? And suddenly, looking back over the whole article, we become aware of an undercurrent of ambiguity in all Oswald’s comments on Canadian poetry, as though she is trying to say enough to make us feel like she thinks it’s good, without actually coming right out and saying it’s good.

Am I over-reading? Am I such a typically insecure Canadian that I’m searching for hidden criticism where perhaps there is none? Oswald also identifies “anxiety” as a Canadian characteristic, and the whole article is expressive of that Canadian anxiety about what others think of us — and this entire post is, by extension, a form of meta-anxiety, as it were, an enactment of anxiety about Canadian anxiety.

But I’m tying myself in knots. I think I need to get outdoors and pay some bashful, modest attention to the natural world, all leavened with a soupçon of self-deprecating humour. That will soothe me.



Canada: Where the Hipsters Come From


Peter Stevenson, “With the Rise of Justin Trudeau, Canada Is Suddenly … Hip?” (NY Times, Jan. 16, 2016)

Suddenly? As readers of this website know, there is nothing sudden about Canada’s hipster status. We’ve been here all along, just waiting for you to notice.

I was actually away at a hockey tournament (how Canadian!) the weekend (not The Weeknd) this article appeared and, clearly, it has taken me a while to catch up with it. But then, this article really represents The New York Times finally catching up with something we’ve been talking about here at Wow — Canada! for more than a year, so I don’t feel too bad.

You can read the whole article online if you’re curious. I could quote pretty much any paragraph of it, since nearly every line contains some sort of idée reçue about Canada, but here’s a representative passage, just to give you the gist:

His [i.e. Xavier Dolan’s] obscurity may have something to do with the fact that he is from Canada, the country that gave the world ice hockey, the snow blower and Labatt beer.

But the notion that our neighbor to the north is a frozen cultural wasteland populated with hopelessly unstylish citizens is quickly becoming so outdated as to be almost offensive.

You couldn’t really ask for a more complete compendium of Canadian stereotypes: obscurity, hockey, snow, beer, and a frozen cultural wasteland full of unstylish citizens (a reference to the Canadian tuxedo?) all pile up thicker than snowflakes in a Canadian blizzard (sorry — it’s contagious!) once Stevenson gets going. And then he tells us that these ideas are “becoming outdated” and are “almost offensive”.



But I’m not really interested in unpacking these tired clichés about Canada for the umpteenth time. Instead, I want to provide an answer to a question the article ignores, namely: Why is Canada hip? (Hint: it’s not because Justin Trudeau got elected, and it’s certainly not because The New York Times says we are.) At the risk of seeming self-serving, rather than rehashing an argument I have already made, I’ll simply quote from something I posted back in February 2015:

What gives Canada its hipster cachet is precisely its oddness, its difference, the fact that it is like the U.S. and yet not the U.S. We stand at a slight angle to the U.S., off to the side as it were, and of necessity we look a bit askance at mainstream U.S. culture, understanding it and consuming it but not precisely of it. In other words, Canada as a nation perfectly incarnates the intellectual state that hipsters aspire to, because what hipsters desperately want is to be different, not average but somehow special or set apart from everyone else – “everyone else” meaning mainstream Americans.

The Canadian is, in fact, both the original and the ultimate hipster because by definition we stand outside mainstream American culture. And we achieve our hipsterism without effort – a key point because the least cool thing in the world is trying to be cool. Canadians are the true hipsters – we are, in fact, born hipsters – and American hipsters are, in the end, nothing more than imitation Canadians, striving to acquire a status that comes to us effortlessly, as part of our very essence.

So there you go, New York Times: Canadians are hip because we are what you most want to be — a slightly different version of yourselves.

That quote, incidentally, comes from one of our posts on Patricia Lockwood; for more on Canada’s place in the hipster imagination, you can consult our posts on Tao Lin, Leigh Stein, and another one on Lockwood. If you still want more after that, seek psychiatric help.

The Demonstrably More Peaceful Land to the North


Pascual Restrepo, “Canadian Violence, From the Prairie to the N.H.L.,” The New York Times (October 11, 2015)

I happened to come across this article as I was browsing through the Sunday NYT this past weekend. The whole thing is about Canada, and I can’t quote the whole thing, obviously, but you can read the article if you’re curious. Here’s the first sentence:

For many Americans, the phrase “Canadian violence” is an oxymoron.

There, in miniature, is the American attitude to Canadian violence: Canadians are peaceful by nature, and therefore Canadian violence cannot exist.

I’m not going to debate the merits of the article, which argues that the presence of RCMP outposts at the time the Canadian west was settled prevented it from becoming a region of lawless violence like the American west. Instead, I just want to note a couple of points that relate to our purposes here at Wow — Canada!

First, the article suggests that specific historical factors could have made Canada a less violent nation than the U.S., and so it offers some background for the cliché of peaceful Canadians that we have considered several times ourselves.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the article indicates that Americans find Canada’s peaceful nature compelling enough that it is the subject of scholarly research at major American universities. (The author the article is originally from Colombia, but he’s studying at MIT, so, if we wanted to be grandiose — which of course we don’t — we could almost say that interest in the history behind Canadian non-violence spans the rest of the Americas.) And not only that, but it is compelling enough — and the apparent oxymoron of the words “Canadian Violence” in a headline is considered “grabby” enough — to be featured as an op-ed in the closest thing the U.S. has to a “paper of record.”

Whatever you think of the content of the article, its existence (like the presence of cartoons about Canadians in The New Yorker) indicates that our neighbours to the south have noticed us and find us, to some extent, interesting. At last we’re getting some of the attention we deserve — and we haven’t even had to change our polite, non-violent nature to get it. Who says virtue isn’t rewarded?

That Little Development League to the North


David Waldstein, “As N.F.L. Prepares for Longer Extra Points, C.F.L. Offers a Preview” (NY Times, August 16, 2015)

The title above is the actual headline of the article, but if you look at the photo you’ll see the teaser that appeared at the top of the front page of the Sports section: “Long extra points make Canada’s league a laboratory for the N.F.L.”

Having read that, it’s not even necessary to read the article; everything you need to know about the American attitude to Canada is already expressed that one word, “laboratory.”  This is a classic instance of the way Americans see Canada, and anything that happens here, not as significant in its own right, but only insofar as it could have an impact on the U.S. Canada is visible only through an American lens: the CFL, in the view of the august New York Times, is not an independent national league with its own long football tradition (the league was founded in 1958, but the first Grey Cup was awarded in 1909); it’s nothing more than a development league, a “laboratory” where rules experiments can be tested in a consequence-free environment before they’re incorporated into the NFL, where the games, and therefore the rules by which they are played, really matter.

The attitude continues in the article:

The National Football League will also introduce longer extra points this season, and with its two-month head start, the C.F.L. has become a test laboratory for the new extra-point rule, which will add more uncertainty to games, and perhaps more excitement.   (S6)

The phraseology is a little more gentle there, making the CFL’s status as a laboratory sound more like an accident of chronology than an essential aspect of its nature, but the idea persists.

And later in the article we get this:

Higgins, Daniel and Bede all said that the kickers in the N.F.L. were generally superior to their C.F.L. colleagues….   (S6)

So even the key CFL figures who are quoted in the article (Alouettes coach Tom Higgins, CFL statistician Steve Daniel, and Alouettes kicker Boris Bede) admit that the CFL is inferior to the NFL. (I’m not saying this isn’t the case, of course, only that it’s another element of the paternalistic view of Canada expressed in the article.)

All this shows that football is yet another arena in which Americans tend to look down on Canadians and see us as their adorable, bumbling little cousins, not up to the high professional standards set by leagues and athletes in the U.S., but still trying our best to keep up, and occasionally useful when we allow Americans a glimpse of how rules changes might work out in their own league — though needless to say (except that, of course, they do say it), the much higher skill level of NFL players makes the comparison a bit tenuous.

Canadians: The Decaf of North America?

Java Jive by Ben Schott

Java Jive by Ben Schott

Ben Schott, “Java Jive,” The New York Times (Sunday, February 10, 2013)

I’m not sure how legible that image is; it shows part of “Java Jive,” an “Op-Chart” by Ben Schott (he of the Original Miscellany, various spin-off miscellanies, and related products. One can only assume the world is better for having so many miscellanies in it.)

But returning to “Java Jive,” it’s essentially a glossary, giving definitions of barista terminology from coffee shops across the U.S. It’s mostly unremarkable: for example, a “crushtomer” is a customer on whom a barista has a crush, and “spro” is a common abbreviation for espresso. Nothing earth-shaking there.

But then we come to the entry for Gimme! Coffee (locations in New York City and the Finger Lakes) pictured above, and what do we find? Why, this:

A decaf Americano.

A CANADIAN with an extra shot of decaf.

Ouch! I try not to take these references to Canada personally, but … ouch!

First of all let me state, for the record, that I have never in my life ordered a decaf Americano. I regard coffee primarily as a palatable caffeine delivery system, and don’t really see the point of decaf.

But I don’t think the idea here is that Canadians are always ordering decaf Americanos. Call me paranoid, but I think something more insidious is at work.

The real joke is this: Canadians are to Americans as decaf is to “real” coffee; that is, lacking in punch, kick, force and power. By now we can recognize this as a recurring trope: Canadians are essentially the same as our neighbours to the south, only less warlike, more polite, and more socialist. In short, we are weaker, less interesting Americans.

This is a bit rich when you consider the origin of the Americano. According to my extensive research, the Americano came into being when American soldiers in Italy in the Second World War added hot water to the espresso they were served there in order to more closely approximate the weak, watery brew they were accustomed to at home. So if Americans are just weaker Italians, and then Canadians are just weaker Americans … and where does that leave the French Canadians?

Here lies, to me, the most interesting crux of the joke. A French Canadian is a Canadian with an extra shot … but an extra shot of decaf. In Canada, we’re accustomed to hear about how French Canadians – or at least Montrealers – are so much more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than the rest of us, with a passion for art and literature and public intellectualism English Canada can only regard with sick, pathetic envy. (We hear this mostly from Montrealers who live in Toronto.) This seems to fit with the “extra shot” idea: a French Canadian is a Canadian, only with an added dash of alluring intrigue.

But the extra shot is an extra shot of decaf; it’s more blandness piled on top of something that was already rather bland; it’s an extra dose of dullness. This presents a view of French Canadians directly opposed to what we’re used to: they’re just like other Canadians, but a little more blah.

As a side note, one of the eager young writers on staff here at Wow Canada Publications Inc. suggests that a “Canadian” should actually be what we up here call a “double-double,” i.e. a coffee with two creams and two sugars (a common order at Tim Hortons, a Canadian chain purveying vile coffee and uninspired doughnuts to rushed commuters and named after – what else? – a hockey player. I try to outrun the cliches, but they keep catching up.)

If it were up to me, a Canadian would be a quad espresso – my personal Starbucks order, on the rare occasions when I buy coffee out. But that’s neither here nor there.

Skiing with Socialists

New York Times Comic Strip

Bryan McFadden, “The Strip”

Bryan McFadden, “The Strip,” New York Times Sunday Review (January 27, 2013)

In case the image isn’t clear, the “rich victim of climate change” in the first panel is saying:

I had to go to Canada to ski! On their socialist slopes, no less!

First, hats off to Bryan McFadden for fitting several cliches about Canada into such a small space. It begins with the larger idea that lies behind the joke: that Canada is not really a nation in its own right, but rather a vast northern playground that exists solely for the pleasure of rich Americans.

Specifically, skiing; because all of Canada is covered by snow, right? It doesn’t seem to occur to Americans that if their climate is changing, ours must be too. Earlier this week, I was looking out my window at puddles so large they should almost have been given names; a couple of days ago, the temperature reached 13 degrees (that’s Celsius, of course). And yet, in the American imagination, we’re sitting here shivering, buried in snow, our ski slopes eagerly awaiting their captains of industry.

And then … socialism. (Is it possible for Americans to refer to Canada without mentioning either socialism or extreme politeness? I suppose time will tell.) We sometimes see Americans refer to Canada with some apparent envy at our socialistic health care system; in this case, however, it is clear that the capitalistic American is offended by our purported socialism, as if setting foot on our left-leaning slopes will somehow corrupt the independent, pull-myself-up-by-my-bootstrtaps spirit that allowed him to achieve his immense success in the first place.

Sigh. This hardly even seems worth unpacking anymore.

Instead, I’ll just remark that when I started this blog, I genuinely intended to focus on books, not newspapers and magazines. But suddenly, the New York Times just can’t seem to stop mentioning Canada! If I come across another of these, I’m going to stop reading that paper and re-dedicate myself to literature.

Of course, if they don’t mention Canada for the next six months, I’m going to be hurt and wonder why. Such is the nature of insecure nationalism.

Canada: Meh?

The Meh List, January 20, 2013

The Meh List, January 20, 2013

Samantha Henig, “The Meh List,” New York Times Magazine (January 20, 2013)

So Canada is on the “meh” list. As you can see from the photo above, this is for things that are “not hot, not not, just meh”; in other words, things that arouse a response no more visceral than a shrug of the shoulders or a muted sigh. Isn’t it a little bit harsh to relegate a whole country to this list? Things like orange Starbursts and panini I can understand; particularly something like panini, which has been trendy for so long that it has now become tiresome. But Canada? We are, after all, a country that most Americans probably know almost nothing about; how can we have become ubiquitous enough to merit such aggressive disinterest?

And to add insult to injury, we place sixth on a list of seven; so, not only are we “meh,” but we’re not even particularly “meh”; we’re less “meh” than January and downward dog; we’re less “meh” than orange Starbursts, for God’s sake. We can’t even excel at being uninteresting.

(And even more stinging, every time I type the word “meh” I can’t help noticing that it contains “eh,” our national intrjection. It’s as if this whole thing has been carefully calibrated to be as insulting as possible.)

It’s especially hurtful considering that, just a couple of months ago, we were being lauded in the New York Times for our willingness to welcome left-leaning Americans in the event of a Romney victory in the presidential election. Now that the danger has passed, it’s safe to sneer at us once again.

Even stranger, though, is the fact that Canada is actually praised in another part of the paper, in an article titled “Inequality Is Holding Back The Recovery”; and it’s written by Joseph E. Stiglitz, no less, a Nobel laureate in economics and so perhaps a slightly more authoritative voice than Samantha Henig:

Our skyrocketing inequality – so contrary to our meritocratic ideal of America as a place where anyone with hard work and talent can “make it” – means that those who are born to parents of limited means are likely never to live up to their potential. Children in other rich countries like Canada, France, Germany and Sweden have a better chance of doing better than their parents did than American kids have. (New York Times Sunday Review, January 20, 2013, p. 8)

Now that’s more like it. Canada – land of more opportunity than America! Doesn’t sound so “meh” to me. And notice we’re mentioned first in this list – ahead of France and Germany, and even ahead of Sweden. In my experience, when Canada is mentioned in this context, we always seem to be trailing behind Sweden, and perhaps another Scandinavian country as well, almost like an afterthought. But not this time.

Take that, Samantha Henig.

A Refuge for Les Refusés


John Ortved, “At a Loss? There’s Always Canada,” New York Times, Sunday November 4, 2012

I wouldn’t ordinarily consider including a newspaper article here, but it’s topical, it features a common trope, and the opportunity may not come again. And I like the way Kate Moss seems to be transfixed by the article herself, as if thinking, “Canada? Hmmm….” (That looks to be as far as the thought goes.)

I doubt Americans spend much time thinking about Canada, but there is one particular moment when we’re in their thoughts: every four years, whenever it looks like a right-wing Republican (is there another kind any more?) has a chance to win the presidential election, centre-left Americans start talking about packing up and heading to Canada if the Republican becomes president. (I have my doubts that any of them ever follow through.) Apparently they see us as a refuge from everything they hate about America, and they’re convinced that everything is so much better up here. Or maybe it’s just a way to get away without really getting away; we’re all following their election, watching the NFL and so on. Nevertheless:

Cher recently declared on Twitter (and later deleted) that she could not “breathe the same air” as Mitt Romney. Susan Sarandon and George Lopez have both cited Canada as a potential escape.

George Lopez? Really?

As for Cher (and Susan Sarandon), what’s the point? Do they think Americans planning to vote for Romney would change their minds if they thought there was a chance their vote might drive Cher and Sarandon out of the country and into the frozen expanses to the North?  I would tend to think the opposite: most people who are going to vote for Romney would probably see getting left-leaning movie stars out of the country not as a reason to change their minds and vote for Obama, but rather as a fringe benefit of voting Republican.

And why did Cher remove her remark from Twitter? Because she realized it might have the opposite effect to what she intended? Did someone point out to her that she and Mitt Romney had been “breathing the same air” for decades now and she had managed reasonably well? Or was it the realization that air moves freely across the border anyway, and so Canada provides no real refuge?

(This reminds me of the old line about how every time we inhale, we breathe in at least one molecule from Caesar’s last breath. If that’s true, we must all be gulping Romney’s used oxygen all the time. And he’s been using a lot lately.)

The article also quotes Canadian Douglas Coupland:

“And if anyone trips while crossing the border, we’re happy to set their broken bones for free.”

Ah, there it is – the obligatory reference to our government-run health care system, one of the key building blocks of our reputation in the American mind as a liberal paradise/socialist nightmare, depending on your politics.

For all the details you can check out the full article.



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