My first encounter with Canada was in a children's book in which a boy, separated from his mother by a hot air balloon, takes a trip around the world. After visits to Africa and Asia, he finds himself over the land of polar bears, walruses and Eskimos, as we called them then.
A few kids standing by an igloo in sealskin clothes smile and wave before the boy drifts on and nearly wrecks his balloon on the skyscrapers of New York.
I finally made it to Canada myself on Aug. 21, 1971, and I was confused. The sweltering mid-summer heat of Montreal's Mirabel Airport made me wonder if I'd caught the wrong flight and landed in some French-speaking part of Africa.
Not one of my fellow graduate students at McMaster University was Canadian. Hamilton, I found out, crawled with Italians. Toronto felt like a collection of ethnic communities built around a nominally Canadian core.
Exactly what that core was made of appeared to be a puzzle to most Canadians themselves. More often than not, the best answer I could get was, "Well, we're not Americans."
Sauerkraut and pasta sauce
Ethnically I fit right in, "Eskimos" not withstanding. Half German, less than half Austrian, and the rest Italian, I've never had a problem locating the right pavilion at any of the multicultural festivals held each year across the country. There was always a sausage with sauerkraut to be found, a plate of pasta with tomato sauce.
Figuring out what it might be like to feel Canadian was a different matter.
The country's social fabric was too complex a patchwork to give me useful clues. Wherever I turned, being Canadian seemed to be more about unbecoming than becoming, about gradually dismantling whatever ethnic and cultural armour you'd arrived in.
Canada, I came to realize, is more about citizenship than about roots, and Canadian citizenship is less about national identity than about entering into a social contract with people who in many cases couldn't be different from you if they came from the moon.
That suited me fine. As a product of old Europe, I'd come to escape identity, not to be saddled with more, especially the noisy type. Let others have the scream of the Eagle and the clanging of Hammer and Sickle.
Loving the leaf
I prefer the discrete trembling of the Maple Leaf. The greatest appeal of The Leaf, whether on the backpacks of Canadian globe trotters or on relief shipments to disaster zones, has always been its statement of a positive negative — the absence of what makes boastful nations nasty.
But I hadn't looked carefully enough. There's Quebec after all, and how it still wants to fit in. And then there's the extent to which Canada's aboriginal peoples haven't been allowed to fit in.
The picture is clearly far more complex than Canada's glittering, multicultural surface would suggest. You have to dig deeper to get to the real identity behind it all. And if you dig far enough you'll find it still stamped all over the country's core institutions and oh, so familiar — white, male, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant.
I assume it's no coincidence that, on the national calendar of events, Canada Day comes four days after Multicultural Day, which in turn comes six days after Aboriginal Day.
Historically, Canada is last, not first.