In Canada, we are often torn between feeling ignored and getting too much of the wrong sort of attention.
A common refrain is that people in the US “know nothing” about us. Then we usually add that they don’t take us seriously enough, even if they do notice us.
We just can’t make up our minds.
Take last week’s opinion piece in the New York Times headlined “With the rise of Justin Trudeau, Canada is suddenly….hip?”
It was like something written by a marketing professional with a sense of humour. Gentle gybes about our weather (cold) and old-school national icons (often bland) are interspersed with praise for today’s young filmmakers, fashion designers, artists and a country on the cusp of change.
There’s even a sort of index below the article, just in case readers need more information about these counter-intuitively edgy Canucks – people like film directors Xavier Dolan or Sarah Polley, rapper Drake, pop star Justin Bieber and Tanya Taylor, who has designed dresses for the US First Lady Michelle Obama.
I thought the piece was fun. The praise was palpable, often lavish; the jokes certainly worth a smile or two.
But judging by the social and legacy media reaction up here, we don’t want to be hip. Or perhaps it’s that pesky question mark. Hip? You mean we’re not?
Some found offensive the description of Canada as “a frozen cultural wasteland populated with hopelessly unstylish citizens”. That’s even though the writer was quick to say that view was outdated. Oh. You mean we used to be hopelessly unstylish in our frozen cultural wasteland?
Twitter was its usual acerbic, abbreviated self.
“Canada’s always been hip” and “Yep, known this for years” summed up the breezy putdowns. Others bemoaned US “delusions of cultural superiority” or simply pointed out that “it’s unhip to say you’re hip”, whatever that means.
The thoughtful columnist Colby Cosh found the Times hip list solid proof that Canadians – English Canadians as opposed to those from French-speaking Quebec – seem to lack “a…national genius, a distinct collective personality or set of practical strengths of the kind the Australians or the Scots or the Swiss are understood to have.”
Writing for the National Post, he said most of those praised were people spawned in our northern climes who’d sought and received success in the US – a most Canadian form of achievement it seems.
‘Comfortable in its own skin’
But the man who touched off this firestorm, writer Peter Stevenson, protests he had nothing but the highest motives in penning the piece.
Speaking to Canada’s CTV television news network, Stevenson said he was surprised to find so many young interesting Canadians challenging US perceptions of the northern neighbour.
No surprise then, according to Stevenson, that the hippest of all, the leader of the new in-crowd, is the new Prime Minister with an old surname, Justin Trudeau.
He embodies a confident, no longer self-effacing Canada that’s “comfortable in its own skin,” says Stevenson.
“Down here in America, we’re living through sort of a bizarre, political season and there’s something very refreshing about a prime minister who’s talking about compassion to Syrian refugees, and not building walls.”
That’s of course a reference to Donald Trump’s bellicose Republican Party primary campaign. No, we don’t have the equivalent of that in Canada, not yet, anyway.
Those of us of a certain age and level of experience have, of course, seen this happen before. Many a US or overseas writer has found merit in our land. And many a time have we squirmed in the afterglow of their praise.
In fact, the reaction to Stevenson’s piece shows that we haven’t changed all that much. We still care a lot about what Americans think about us. And once they tell us, we rush to parse, agonise over and criticise their words.
Politely of course. We’re Canadians after all. Sorry.