A Good Day for Slagging off Toronto and Canada in General...
Look if you don't want your Canadian national pride hurt right now, don't read this okay? I'm just a bitter grinchy person, that neds to vent I guess, but sometimes I really hate being Canadian and from Toronto. Yeah, I know I'm ungrateful, I could have been born in some horrible war torn place like Sierra Leone. I'm glad and mostly grew up in a place that is peaceful. I believe it has had a positive effect on my own personal beliefs. I am definately a person that believes in diplomacy over war and violence, for example. I'm not saying there isn't anything good about living in Canada. In fact, for some people it's probably the best place in the world for them to live, but not for me I think, and definately not right now.
I've only been back less than a week but already I'm burst with things I have to vent about! You don't have to read it if you don't want to. Just think of it as my little form a therapy.
The first thing upon arriving back in Toronto to maison Rotstein that caught my eye by the door was a Macleans magazine with the headline: "Why the World Hates Canada."
"Why the world hates Canada?" I thougt to myself shaking my head sadly. What conciet. The world doens't hate Canada. It's much worse than that. Most of the world doesn't even think about Canada. Most people don't even know it exists, certainly most young British school children don't and I don't consider that a fault in the school system. Why would they know about Canada? We don't start wars and we don't really do anything to attract international attention other than have a film festival. If we dropped off the face of the planet, and had never existed to begin with the only people who'd really suffer would be the diabetics, (insulin for diabetics was a Canadian invention). Is that an exaggeration? Yeah, sure, but I feel like exagerating. People in England always assume I'm America because of my accent. The Canadian accent is nearly indistinguishable fromt he American, especially to people who's ears aren't attuned to it. The fact is though, if you're in England and you hear someone talking like me, than it's far more likely to be a Canadian than an American. I find that Americans don't tend to leave their country as much as Canadians do. If an American finds he or she doesn't have enough opportunities in the place they come from they just move to somewhere else in America. Small town Americans flock to big cities like Los Angeles to make it in the film or music biz, to New York to make it in the theatre or as an artist or intellectual or writer, to San Diego to become a surfer, to Miami to open clubs, to San Francisco to become a dot-billionaire and liberal or gay icon. You want to get into law you go to Chicago. You want to make a fortune in biogenetics you go to Boston. Most Europeans don't "get" the States. All they see is the movie face, the government face and the tourism face. What they miss is the variety. Like a rainforest with millions of species compared to the relative biological poverty of the grasslands, in a country of 367 million people there are many, many attitudes, religions, and that just aren't visible from afar. There are Americans even uglier than the common stereotype and Americans more beautiful and more liberal than the most liberal folks I've met in England. It's just a very full spectrum of humanity and culture, even if the culture is relatively young in comparison to that of Europe.
To compare the situation to Canada: If you're from smalltown Canada and speak English you move to Toronto or Vancouver to try to make it in anything. Worse than the relatively small size of the population for supporting artistic efforts is the fact that the US has decided to use us as its low cost film studio. This means the American products filmed in Canada use Canadian crews, locations and background actors, but American directors, principal actors, scriptwriters, etc. Basically, if you are any good, you are poached by Hollywood and are happy to go, because there just isn't enough work for any but a few Canadian actors to actually survive here. Possibly screenwriters and directors have it worse, because film products only need one of each.
If you speak French you move from small town Quebec to Montreal or Ottawa. And if you can't find opportunity in these places and you don't happen to have won the citizenship jackpot of having dual citizenship (usually Canadian-American is the most common), that's it. End of the line, unless you are part of the tiny cultural cliques that run the arts in Canada or finagle your way across the border or happen to have a proffession like medicine or accountancy that's in demand. I come from the biggest city in Canada and it's still not even half the size of New York or London, and much younger. Yes, we do have a horrible rash of buildings made in the 60's from reinforced concrete, possibly the ugliest building material ever invented and far worse when the sky is most commonly the same concrete gray colour, or as Douglas Coupland so aply put it in Neuromancer "sky the colour of a television turned to a dead channel. Maybe a long time ago, when the border between Canada and the US was relatively poorly monitored and porous people could move back and force easily, but not anymore. Which means Canadians have this weird inferiority complex to the States, sort of the like the fox and the grapes parable. Because that more exciting world is denied to us, we say turn up our noses at it and revel in the belief that we are more peaceful, enviromentally concious, humane and morally superior. Maybe our government policy is, but are we the people of Canada really that much better than our cousins south of the border or across the sea? I don't think so.
One thing we definatley are though, is more cliquish.
Everybody who comes to Toronto from outside Canada goes on and on about how "nice" Canadians are. From someone who's lived here I would like to dispel that myth. Canadians are not nice. Canadians are surface polite. It's like the ground in those northern towns, where every year the ice melts and the grass grows a little and it seems like it's good soil, but you go under the surface and you hit the permafrost-- that's the deeper ground that stays permenantly frozen all year round, so nothing, but the shallowest rooted plants can grow. There's the surface politeness, but you try to go any further into friendliness with people and you hit something frozen.
That something is a lack of passion, a lack of vibrancy, a lack of adventure, the desire to push beyond the social niches so nicely carved by the friends you make in infancy. Here people become friends in nursery and stay friends forever, marrying each other, etc. and never looking outside their circle to see what other people are out there. Everybody has their little clique of friends or coleauges or people they go to chruch or synagogue with and that's it. To find places where people are eager to meet new people you have to go to universities with large boarding populations of students, and even then the cliqueishness, where kids from the same towns stick together is impossible to avoid.
If there is one thing I hate in this world above all else is the tendency of humans to form into little groups whose sole purpose seems to be to lock other people out. I come by this dislike of cliques honestly, having been exposed to them when I was a school kid, newly arrived in Toronto from Buffalo into a class that had known each other from nursery. Where there is so little transitory movement of populations this is what happens I guess.
The truth about Canada that no one talks about is this:
For most people it was really their ancestors second choice. I know my ancestors tried to get into the States, but it was closed and at least Canada was better than getting killed by the Cossacks so they came here. Other people followed because they at least had some family here and free digs to stay at and kin to help them out until they got established.
People in Canada also seem to have conviently forgotten that like Australia, some key Canadian cities were originally also British penal colonies (Belleville for example, check it up if you don't believe me). A whole bunch of other early settlers of Canada weren't actually straight from Europe, but were the descendents of American colonists who were loyal to the British crown during the war of Independence, that the United States kicked out. Canada being the closest British stronghold they came here. So no matter how great you think Canada is, it was probably your ancestors second, third or fourth or only choice to escape to with their lives. Or they were so unsuccessful in Britian, France or the United States that they decided to try their luck here.
One thing I truly hate about Canda is the weather. British people have no understanding of what this entails. All you have to do is read Phillip Pullman's descriptions of sub-freezing temperatures and arctic enviroments to know he has no idea of what it's really like. If you come in from the cold in a Canadian winter it takes a while for the full sensation to return to your fingers and legs. Then you feel this uncomfortably hot tingly feeling in your nerve endings that means full feeling is returning. Snow here is not romantic like a Christmas cards. It is deadly. Snow and ice on the roads cause accidents and deaths. There are public health advertisements to warn old people off snow shoveling because they frequently die of heartaches doing snow shoveling, because they're not use to the exertion and the cold does something to their blood flow. it is also a major cause of people getting disabling back problems. Homeless people and drunks literally freeze to death or lose limbs due to frostbite. The same thing happens to old people and children who wander out during the winter months. People death by freezing is funny or something that only happens to arctic explorers in the distant north, but it happens all the time every year to people who live in modern Canadian cities of millions of people. It happened to a relative of mine. It happened to the father of famous Canadian novelist Margaret Lawrence. It happens to the hobos at Byward market in Ottawa, many of whom are missing fingers or feet.
The cold of winter, even in Toronto, a relatively hot city for Canada is opressive. It is so cold that even bundled up in coat, mitts, hat and scarf and thick pants, you fell the cold on the exposed places of your face and your legs and it is painful. Your skin stings and your eyes start to tear up and your skin quickly gets very dry and you have to put on cream all the time to keep it from getting dry and itchy.
Inside there is heating of course. Unfortunately, the heating in different places is highly variable. Some places, like my bedroom are not heated enough and are freezing, especially when the temperatures plummets even further at night. Most places you got to when shopping though, are oppressively warm. So you freeze outside and walk around inside sweating inside your super-thick coat. Another problem is the air quality indoors. With people packed in tight to stay warm, there's lots of breathing in of the same air, and airborne infections like SARS and swine flu spread fast. The heated air is also very dry. Adding to the lack of moisture outside it dries up the inner cavities of your nose and makes your lips crack, all opening up sites for infection. The only bonus is that the sun stays out later than it does in London in Toronto, even if it's colder. Sometimes if there is not enough circulations to the outside people can die of gas poisoning. They just go to sleep one night and never wake up.
But forget the health and safety hazards. What sucks the most about winter in Toronto is that it impairs your mobility, especially for older people and is really depressing. The trees all lose their leaves and the grass turns brown and dies under the snow. Even the snow itself, far from being the beautiful white fluff imagined by people in England, quickly turns grey or black at the sides of the road, from the car fumes of all the cars passing by. It also isn't fluffy, because it quickly hardens into rocks of brown and grey ice. The snow plows push it to the sides, but then it makes it really hard to park on the street and your car ends up with two wheels high up, a foot off the road. Cars by the way, don't last long in this environment and have to get snow tires in the winter.
Canada is a country with a plethora of natural resources and natural beauty, but there is a catch twenty-two to it. If you live in the city, you need money to go out to the places where you can really see the natural beauty. If you already live in the countryside, you often lack the better job, education and artistic opportunities available in the city. In Canada things are very far away from each other as well and often less accessible than they are in smaller European countries with more roads and rail lines.
People who aren't from here often assume it is cold all year round. This is absolutely not true. The winters are severe, but then suddenly, usually in May summer will abruptly descend like a fever, bringing serious heat, humidity and insects galore. One of the things that has so far impressed me about Los Angeles and London is the relative lack of mosquitoes at night. Here you just have to look at a streetlight around July around 6pm -9pm to see swarms of blood suckers- yecht! So to live comfortably in Toronto, you absolutely need central heating and air conditioning. Trust me on this one, I road around LA for a few summers in my car without air conditioning and also for summers without it in Toronto and Toronto is far worse, mainly because of the humidity. It is far more humid in Ottawa though, where you can walk down the street and the air feels thick as soup and your clothes get stuck to you. Of course, the city doesn't often catch fire the way San Diego does so that is good.
A word about the class system in Canada:
Like in the States, people in Canada seem unaware that a class system exists. People in England seem to think first class or working class are permenant divisions, and are hereditary. This idea doesn't really exist in Canada. The people who fill the bottom economic bracket in the city though, tend to be recent immigrants, aboriginal people and people from the countryside, come to the city for work. Jobs like being in sanitation or taxi driving or construction are not generally seen as permenant, rather a stepping stone to a better more white collar or administrative job. It's hard to explain people don't proudly claim ownership of these jobs, mostly because a lot of the people doing them are migrants or immigrants. Whereas in England you could have a dynasty of sanitation workers and they are proud of the job they do. There is such a thing as working class pride. Here no one wants to admit to being working class, so it allows more abuses of people with working class jobs, especially because there are more people who don't speak good English in them or are not aware of what rights they have in this country. Like in the States, the whole class structure thing is kind of figured in a racial/immigration way. What I mean by this is that in the States, the big societal conflict is seen more as that of race rather than that of class. It is somewhat the same in Canada, although the lowest economic group would be made up of Native Canadians.
What has happened to the Native people of Canada is one of the things that depresses me about this country. Hundreds of years ago the British and French stole their land out from under them. But now that millions of immigrants and descendents of the original European settlers all live here, we can't turn back the clock. Traditionally their populations were fully occupied trying to get the sustenance they needed out of this harsh land. Unfortunately, their traditional ways of life interfered with the European ways of life. The colonists of Canada herded them into small areas in the worst parts of the country, the most remote parts. There is no way, of course that Canada could support 32 million people if we all adhered to the traditional native ways of hunting and gathering. You need cities, farms and oil fields to support the people who have settled here. Unfortunately, the native people who were cruelly thrust onto the reserves against their will and prevented from practicing their traditional way of life, were given nothing meaningful to replace it with. With nothing to occupy their time, and far from the places of job growth and plenty, many turn to drink or drugs. There is also a lot of suicide in their communities. Not to mention they have to spend all their money on food and cleaning products and heating and housing, which is many times more expensive than it is in other parts of the country where there are highways to bring food and goods from far away and lands which yields more crops and housing that don't need as much heating for such long periods of time. I began to think more about the situation after talking to people who are working as teachers in native communities around Canada and the situation is just unspeakable, worse than some third world countries. The government has given the native people self rule and their own country within Canada for the Inuit (Eskimos) in the coldest part of Canada, but the winters have no sun there and the people are dependent on manufactured goods that are expensive to get out to where they live. They are far away from hospitals and good medical care and jobs and the youth frequently feel hopeless. I have thought to myself that at least in the hood in LA (which I did live in for a short time) and in the council estates of south east London, (which I know live amongst) even if the immediate surroundings are grim, it isn't hard or far or expensive for kids, youth or adults to travel out from where they live to see that life can be better and people can live in a better way. From working with kids in a poor socio-econimic place in England I know that it can be very inspiring for children to see places like the Greenwich naval college and to visit universities and learn that these are place they can go to and learn at when they are older. It fires their imagination. There is more out there than their neighbourhood and if they can see it, they can dream of it and strive to attain it. However, if you can never see anything better, how can you imagine it or think of ways you can go about achieving it? What is a good way to get people inspired? I think some people get inspired by rediscovering their native culture, which is now, no longer surpressed, but some of it has been lost for good and some of it no longer applies to life in modern society. I think it is spiritually helpful to reconnect this way, but it still doesn't generate enough money or opportunities for the people, which is what would really change the situation.