Earlier this year, Samantha Nutt gave a a speech for The Walrus 150 series. Here is the video and text, just in time for Canada Day.
In the 1970s my parents returned to Canada after a five-year posting in Africa. I was an infant when they’d left and so, while you couldn’t call me a newcomer, this country was nevertheless utterly unfamiliar to me. The neighbourhood we moved into was about as old as I was; the kind of newly built housing development nestled beside a busy 400-series highway which became the white noise of my childhood. On my street, Faye Drive, it was easy to spot which layout from the five options families had chosen, as these repeated themselves ad nauseam all the way up to our local Becker’s Variety Store, which was nestled in the kind of drab brown strip mall that is the staple of suburban architecture, and where the Slush Puppy machine was always reliably on the fritz. My friends and I, a mix of first generation kids from Italian, Greek, Scottish, Portuguese, Eastern European, Indian and Caribbean families, would ride around those streets hanging off of our banana-seat bikes, helmetless, through endless summer days and nights, only coming home when someone was hungry, or bleeding (or both). That’s just how kids were raised in the 70s and early 80s. It’s a miracle there are any Gen Xers alive at all, when you think about it. And what did that freedom do? It turned us into the kind of hyper-vigilant parents who bubble wrap their kids every time they leave the house and who are afraid to let them fail. From one extreme, another is born.
Coming from Africa, I was a pro at summer. I faced it shoeless and bronze-skinned, like Jodi Foster in that Copper Tone baby ad. I also hardly ever wore clothes. Like, any clothes at all. Ever. My mother tried, unsuccessfully. Turns out Canadians are a little more prudish and judgmental when it comes to nudity than Africans. Perhaps it’s our climate: at a certain point, you just have to cover up or be prepared to sacrifice body parts. But in any event I owned that first summer, in the Nutthouse, on Faye Drive.
By fall, though, I was ready to renounce my citizenship. Without warning, the banana seats were crudely packed away in the back of the garage to make room for school books written in a strange, foreign language: French! My parents had chosen an immersion school, back when Trudeau (the other one) was making them popular, and when it all seemed like a giant Skinner experiment. The teachers never addressed the children in English, which did little for our French proficiency but instilled in me a lifelong sensitivity to facial expressions, particularly the ones implying I’m an idiot.
But tragedy loomed. One day, in late November, the most horrifying, terrible thing happened: It snowed. I watched it from our second story window and shouted “MOOOOMMMM. Come quick. The clouds are broken!” I knew something about this. I’d read Chicken Little (the older, English version, where the fox eats them all in the end. Good Night Moon it was not). And instead of making things better, my mother did the unthinkable: She stuffed me into a giant sleeping bag with legs and shoved me out the door. “Your first Canadian winter! Have fun!” she declared, in that maternal way that let me know it wasn’t open to interpretation. I was filled with panic and dread, and possibly pee, because that’s what happens the minute you stick a kid in a snowsuit. There I was, alone and motherless, staring up at the crumbling sky, waiting for the world to end. And in that moment, I did what I imagine legions of new Canadians have done when faced with snow for the very first time: I ate it. That’s right. I stuck my tongue out and scarfed down those snowflakes like a frog in a fly swarm. I was a tenacious child, and didn’t quit until I’d eaten my way through the driveway. One small step for the preservation of human kind!
My exasperated mother eventually yelled from the front door, in the way that you can never quite imagine yourself doing until you have kids of your own: “Sam, stop eating the snow and just play in it like any normal Canadian child!”
I have to be honest, I still feel as if my world is ending the moment I see those first white clumps falling from the sky. Maybe that makes me a bad Canadian. But I don’t think so. I would like to propose that resenting winter, for Canadians, is as much a part of our national character as enduring it. In fact that duality, those stories of being persecuted by the elements alongside tales of resistance, are at the heart of our Canadian identity. We like to believe it strengthens us, defines us, “the true north strong and free”, even as the majority of us go to great lengths to shield ourselves from it, with lined boots, Gortex coats, central heating and hydroponically grown tomatoes. Indigenous communities, of course, recognize the hypocrisy of those of us who came later in the starkest of terms: We conquer all that we claim, take more than we put back, then laud it as an accomplishment while concealing uncomfortable truths. That, to me, is the narrative arc of our sesquicentennial: The paradoxes within our stories; our Canadian mythologies.
But in my quest to figure out, and become, a “normal” Canadian, here’s what I’ve learned: We are, to be sure, a country that is resoundingly polite, so long as you never find yourself in Toronto during rush hour. We are suspicious of political extremes and, for the most part, tend to land in the centre, thus avoiding much of the pageantry and insanity that so frequently afflicts our southern neighbours, even if our democracy could benefit from a few renovations – something politicians like to talk about before they move in, but then are content to abandon once they’ve unpacked the boxes. Hey, at least the roof isn’t leaking! We don’t possess nuclear weapons, and don’t aspire to, because as long as it remains possible to blow the world up 15,000 times over, nobody wins. We don’t start protracted wars in foreign lands then close our borders to the very people displaced and threatened by them. At least, we try not to. Sometimes. And we believe that health care should be free and available to everyone, mostly, whereas guns should not, ideally. We also advocate for tolerance and diplomacy over nativism and pugilistic ultimatums, though not always, and only when it doesn’t compete with our economic interests, or how else to explain a $15 billion arms deal with one of the most notoriously despotic and human rights abusing countries in the world? Similarly, we champion peace, humanitarianism and good governance on a global stage, just as long as it isn’t too expensive: At a time when the world is facing the worst refugee and famine crisis since World War II, our contributions to humanitarian spending are in declined, to one quarter of one percent of our national wealth. One quarter of one percent. The UN target of 0.7 percent was set by a Canadian, Lester B Pearson, in 1969. We pay homage to First Nations communities at official events, launch public inquiries, and craft heartfelt apologies, but one quarter of them still persist under boil water advisories, indigenous women are missing and murdered at rates far above the national average, and children on Reserve remain up to four times more likely to die by the age of five than other Canadian children. These are the irreconcilable addendums to our nation’s good intentions.
Yes, this is the birthday of one particular and rather exclusive Canadian story: 150 years since Confederation….a time to gather the friends, haul out the red and white, and crack open a beer. But here’s the thing about birthdays after a certain age: Beneath the veneer of self-satisfaction, there’s a disquiet about the many things we’d hoped we’d be by now, but have yet to figure out. No matter how old we get, or how successful, there is room to grow, improve and make amends.
I’ve changed a lot since my snow eating days in all ways but one: Worlds beyond our borders remain an indelible part of me. I cannot shake them. War zones in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Places that are at once beautiful and perilous and complicated and heartbreaking. I have made friends, and lost too many of them, to war, and that violence has very nearly claimed my own life as well. But through it all there is one thing that has been my constant, my sanity and my reprieve: Canada is home. And I will always know how lucky that makes me. Thank you.