Canada 2017

How I learned to hear the Canadian accent

Must we leave Canada to truly understand it? How travelling abroad and talking to strangers shifted one New Brunswicker's perspective.

Make the strange familiar, and the familiar strange.

Isabelle Boiteau, seen here in Peru's Machu Picchu, says her travels have exposed her to many ideas about Canada from a global perspective. (Isabelle Boiteau)

I remember arriving at the Halifax airport after my first long trip abroad.

It was 2014, and I'd just spent eight months in Europe mostly in countries where English was a second language. I had spent much of my time overseas speaking in either Spanish, French or very bad Italian.

I'd also had many awkward two-language conversations. I would insist on practicing the local language, however well or badly I spoke it, while my interlocutors would try to practice their English — which also varied from quite good to very bad.

While navigating the airport after so much time away, it really hit me: for the first time, I could hear the Canadian accent — more specifically, the East Coast Canadian accent.

The specific way of speaking, which I'd previously associated with only my New Brunswick family members, was everywhere. I heard it from people waiting for their luggage to appear, from people making announcements on the loudspeakers, from everyone …

It was an odd feeling— like my entire family was at the airport to pick me up. 

And even though this accent quickly faded back to normal for me, my trip had, for that brief moment, allowed me to step outside my own Canadianness.

Making the familiar strange

Distance gives perspective. This is an old adage. I first heard it while studying anthropology at McGill University. One of its basic principles is that you must "make the strange familiar and the familiar strange." That this is how you gain insight into societies and cultures.

For the first time, I could hear the Canadian accent — more specifically, the East Coast Canadian accent.- Isabelle Boiteau

As a child, I didn't have that distance. I grew up and spent all of my time in Canada, mostly in Eastern Canada. For much of my life, I was incapable of putting my finger on what was specifically Canadian and what might make a "Canadian identity."

To me, everything always seemed to trace its history back to another culture. It seemed like the only thing that I could identify about Canada was that it was multicultural, and I wanted more than that. 

Everything changed when I started travelling as an adult.

Must we leave Canada to truly understand it? Fredericton-born Isabelle Boiteau, seen here in the ancient city of Balasagun, says travelling abroad has shifted her perspective. (Isabelle Boiteau)

I've spent the last two years living and travelling abroad. I've taught English in Peru and Kyrgyzstan. I've backpacked through many countries in Europe, South America and Central Asia.

The students that I teach and the travellers that I meet seem confident when explaining their countries. And they are all just as curious about my country as I am about theirs (and that is a lot).

Throughout my travels, I've listened to many Canadian stereotypes and learned what people who've never been to Canada know about our country.

For most of my life I was incapable of putting my finger on what was specifically Canadian and what might make a "Canadian identity."- Isabelle Boiteau

Most bring up just how nice Canadians are, usually by telling a story about an incredibly nice Canadian that they've recently met.

Every time this happens, it makes me think about all of the times I have been particularly loud, pushy and perhaps even mean — the complete opposite of the stereotypical friendly Canadian — and then I feel an incredible guilt.

But it also makes me question what it really means to be Canadian. To what extent are we defined by stereotypes? And to what extent must Canadians be the same? 

'So, what's it really like?'

When I'm asked to provide an all-encompassing and honest definition of my country, I find myself struggling.

I want to depict my country and its identity as accurately as possible. However, doing so requires that I make generalizations and that inevitably overlooks so much.

Nothing I say can be applied to Canada as an entire entity. For example, everyone always thinks that it's cold — and yes, it can be, but that of course depends on the season and also on your location.

When I'm asked to provide an all-encompassing and honest definition of my country, I find myself really struggling.- Isabelle Boiteau

Similarly, whenever I mention that I like the cold, I'm told that it's because I'm Canadian, yet I've spent my whole life listening to Canadians complain about the cold.

These contradictions make it very difficult to explain Canada and make me feel like I end up confusing people instead of telling them what my country is like. I simply cannot construct an image and then share it with them.

Although I try my best, the process always makes me uncomfortable. But maybe this very struggle is quintessentially Canadian.

A beautiful struggle

Travelling has made me see my own country as if it were a strange place, and, in the end, Canada has revealed itself as a nation of true diversity.

Isabelle Boiteau sits on a king's throne in Bukhara, Uzbekistan. (Isabelle Boiteau)

Maybe being Canadian is about accepting this incredible variety and our inability to truly understand it in its entirety. This is perhaps why I always took my Canadian identity for granted and why I still have such a hard time explaining it.

In the end, I'm happy that I can't clearly answer these questions. There's something about this struggle which feels liberating and true.

Maybe being Canadian is about accepting this incredible variety and our inability to truly understand it in its entirety.- Isabelle Boiteau

This struggle allows us the freedom to define ourselves in many ways. It makes space for many stories and many perspectives to exist in the same place. It opens endless possibilities for the future.

I am in Central Asia at the moment discovering a new part of the world — but I'm also looking forward to seeing which aspect of Canada will suddenly hit me in the face the next time my plane lands on Canadian soil.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Isabelle Boiteau was born and raised in Fredericton, New Brunswick. She first left Fredericton to attend university in Montreal and, later, to travel and work abroad.

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