My Valentine To Canada

February 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm 3 comments

I’m a little weird about the Olympics. They seem to come around every so often (every four years, I hear) and there’s a great flare-up of national pride that goes along with them, along with the inverse questioning and self-analysis of whether this outpouring of overt Canadianness is, well, Canadian.

A seemingly infinite number of op-ed pieces bemoan the dearth of medals we’re earning or have earned, and the inevitable and oh-so-Canadian dialogue as a result of this failure to ‘bring home the gold’ occurs: are we funding our amateur athletes appropriately? Should we be giving them more? How do we distribute it equally? The undercurrent is: how do we instill a love of competition in our kids, a deep-seated and permeating desire to WIN, WIN, WIN, but in a way that doesn’t violate our inherent “niceness” or corrupt the love of those activities that are quintessentially Canadian: swooshing down a pristine powdery slope, twirling on a frozen pond, playing pick-up hockey on a busy suburban street where the goalie has to awkwardly move a tattered net (bought on sale at Canadian Tire, and handed down from brother to brother, neighbour to neighbour) every time someone yells “CAR”?

Other countries don’t seem to get enmeshed in discussions of the amateur sport bureaucracy or economics, or some shameful and stillborn sense of competitive fierceness. When the U.S. speed skating team’s sponsor dumped them, Steven Colbert–a comic!!–jumped in and single-handedly became benefactor, fundraiser and PR/media machine all in one. And then promptly began whipping the team and their supporters into a fervour by poking fun at Canada. How did Canadians respond? In most cases, we found it as funny as anyone else, of course. To really understand how this epitomizes the Canadian character, reverse the situation and think about how the U.S. speedskating team and their supporters would have responded if Jim Carrey did a Second City sketch ridiculing Wisconsi-whiners or Vermont syrup-suckers. Uh huh.

So, the Olympics, to me: every four years, a contingent of young, well-scrubbed and healthy-looking Canadians of whom I’ve never heard are touted as great Canadian hopefuls to bring honour to the nation, by performing well at activities that I pay no attention to, and bringing pride to a nation that is slightly embarrassed by any blatant display of national pride.

Sports, all sports–team, individual, amateur, professional, even the local community centre’s tiddlywinks championships–are “other” to me. Completely foreign. I learned to do the basics, more for survival than any desire for recreation or love of competition. I learned to swim in the freezing cold Vermilion River in northern Ontario, where ice was still floating in June, and where a line up of parents with brightly coloured beach towels spread like bullfighters’ capes waited for us to emerge blue-lipped and goosebumped into their waiting arms after the obligatory three-minute dunking.

I learned to skate on a flooded portion of our backyard under the glare of a rigged-up Christmas spotlight (since darkness would have fallen by 4.30 or 5 p.m.) I can still hear the whoosh-whoosh sound of my ski pants as I lurched wobbly-ankled from one end of the ice to the other, my hand-knit red woollen mittens holding on for dear life to the kitchen chair that I pushed in front of me to keep my balance.

Ahhhhh … the hand-knit red woollen mittens. Could there be any more emblematic object of the Canadian winter, indeed, of how Canada has grown up? Until my NYC-based friend Donna mentioned them, I didn’t even know the red Olympic mittens were a hot commodity. Donna pointed out what I probably wouldn’t have given a second thought to, even had I known about the mittens, which was their subtlety. There is no Canadian flag, no flagrant display of brand–not the designer’s, the manufacturer’s, the retailer’s or the country’s. A white maple leaf, made of felt, is appliquéd on the *inside* palm. The five-ringed Olympic symbol and the words “Vancouver 2010” are embroidered in white wool on the outside.

So very Canadian. Self-effacing and discreet. And yet, in what I think is a delightful ironic twist, the mittens have gone viral. They’ve become a must-have Olympic accessory-slash-souvenir, symbolizing the 2010 Winter Games and their host country. And, I noticed, when the Canadian team entered BC Place during Friday night’s opening ceremonies waving to the crowd of 60,000 uncharacteristically loud Canadians, the placement of that white maple leaf, shining brightly against the red wool backdrop (our flag in reverse), said: Hi! We’re here, we’re Canadian, and (please excuse us, but) we’re damn proud of it!

The placement of the maple leaf had to have been intentionally conceived just for that moment. Had to. And at other times, it’s a subtle reminder not to take us for granted, that you may overlook us–we may, indeed, be overlookable at times–but we’re actually always here on the world stage in ways that you might not even realize. We’re walking here beside you, hand in hand with you. The rest of the ceremonies drove that point home, again and again.

The opening ceremonies were a stunning spectacle of Canadian artistry. The choice to produce such an artistic display of Canadiana was in itself very Canadian. They will–for me–be what these Games are about, because it’s pretty unlikely that I will pay much attention to any of the events. Again, I wasn’t going to even watch them…I probably wouldn’t have but for my many U.S.-based friends who were all watching.

Apparently, there is a 100-page media brief prepared to help commentators and journalists understand the meaning behind what they were seeing. I would love to get my hands on that book, but even without it, the images washed over me and tapped in to something pretty deep, pretty close to my heart, and pretty surprising…for me.

I love my country. I’m proud of it and its accomplishments on the world stage in a way that goes far beyond a two-week effort to win medals. I don’t love it in an anthem-singing and blind allegiance-pledge-reciting kind of way. I love that it is filled with forests and surrounded by oceans, and populated from coast to coast by people who want to protect them.

I love that we have apologized to and are doing our best to redress the injustices we’ve perpetrated on our First Nations people and that, despite the swirl of controversy and protest that led up to and continues during these Winter Games, we strive to keep the dialogue going to find acceptable compromises.

Although I wish we weren’t there, I love that we said no to Iraq, but yes to Afghanistan–not out of fear or anger, or as the unthinking act of a puppet, but because we react to and seek to help people who are oppressed and suffering regardless of politics or culture. I love that we donated more money per capita than any other nation to emergency relief in Haiti and that our government matched our citizens’ contributions dollar for dollar–and no one, not even the right-wingiest of wingnuts even thought of turning that tragedy into a pulpit from which to espouse egregiously distorted, hateful and incendiary (not to mention just plain wrong) beliefs.

I love that, even though the 2010 Winter Olympics are taking place right next to the oft-cited poorest postal code in Canada–a postal code incidentally filled to overflowing with the outcome of our appalling treatment and racist policies towards our aboriginal founding peoples–that it is also a neighbourhood populated by safe-needle exchange facilities (although I hate that we have to have them).

I love my country because gay marriage is legal, everywhere, and so is a woman’s right to choose what happens to her own body, and neither is subject to a legislative system that can overturn the legality of these decisions on a whim or because of the disproportionate but loud and well-organized bleating of so-called “faith-based” or “family values” lobby groups who are eroding the fundamental democratic principle of the separation of church and state while simultaneously turning a religion supposedly founded on love into a tool of hate.

I love my country because it produced Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen–artists whose poetry transcends their medium and genre, borders and time–and I love my country because kd lang, an Alberta-born lesbian vegetarian, can stand on a spartan stage in a white suit and bare feet surrounded by sparkling lights and maple leaves and 60,000 people who couldn’t care less about her sexual orientation and who, instead, are moved to tears by the power of her voice singing an anthem by a Montreal Jew-turned-Buddhist poet, a song of such complexity and paradox whose original lyrics are never sung, a song that no one really knows the meaning of, but one that speaks to us anyway and when voiced by kd, reaches its mitten-encased fingers way deep down into our heart and soul and guts and expresses what it is like to feel gratitude and belonging to something bigger, much bigger, than we are as individuals or even as a country, but what it feels like to be human: to struggle and seek and strive and make mistakes and learn from them and want something you can’t have and get something you don’t want and still want more.

I love my country, because we can celebrate THAT, all of that. That we have all of that to celebrate, and that we did so with such artistry and subtlety this past Friday. And because, god knows why or how or whose cockamamie idea it was and why they believed or even whether they believed it would work as beautifully as it did, the second-most-talked-about (next to kd) moment of the opening ceremonies was the spoken-word poem by Shane Koyczan, a 34-year old Metis man from Yellowknife, who wrote and performed We Are More, holding the crowd spellbound when not cheering for such lines as: “some say what defines us / is something as simple as please and thank you” and “we are an experiment going right for a change / with influences that range from a to zed / and yes we say zed instead of zee.”

I just about leaped off the sofa, screaming “a POEM!” “a POEM!“, so disbelieving was I of the audacity, the brilliance of whatever creative mind chose to include it.  And not just any poem, but a contemporary poem by an average Joe, a poem with real edge and an insidious, revolutionary, cultural-stereotype-blasting purpose.  A poem that echoed a beer commercial, but THAT. IS. CANADIAN. !!!

Even when I couldn’t get all the rapid-fire ideas about Canada and about Canadians as Shane was speaking them, I got the cadence and the energy and the exquisite use and love of language that is also so Canadian and I knew–as did so many of us, whose responses lit up the blogosphere in the hours that followed–that this moment was special and nation-defining in a way that simply choosing to showcase a poem and poet like this was.

This poem “We Are More” is the equivalent of a white felt maple leaf on the palm of a mitten.

If you haven’t already clicked, read it in its entirety HERE.


Entry filed under: Personal Musings, Poetry, Politics. Tags: , , , , , , , , , .

Where You Lead, I Will Follow Skeletons In The Closet

3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Annie Anderson  |  February 14, 2010 at 10:45 pm

    Have I told you lately that I love you? Have I spoken of my deep seated wishes that our country could embrace all that yours has.
    I am proud and honored to call you friend and your country my neighbor. My neighbor.
    As I get to meet and greet some of my neighbors across the river, I find heart and soul and kindness. A Canadian gave me her cane because I admired it. A Canadian woman touches my heart with her passion, her truth and her honesty.
    Thank You.

  • 2. Olympic Bookend « Eccentric Muse  |  March 3, 2010 at 4:08 pm

    […] March 3, 2010 My friend Lynne asked me if I was going to write a follow-up piece on the Vancouver Winter Olympics closing ceremony as a kind of bookend to my Valentine To Canada. […]

  • 3. dearth | Tricky words | Grammarist  |  March 12, 2010 at 12:29 am

    […] of correct usage: A seemingly infinite number of op-ed pieces bemoan the dearth of medals we’re earning or have earn… Aleksandar Hemon points to this dearth of translated literature in his introduction to Best […]


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