The US From North of the Border

Canadians have a unique perspective on the United States. In terms of culture, they differ little from their neighbors to the south.  Most Canadians, in fact, live within several hundred miles of the United States border.  Walking through Montreal, one would feel hard-pressed to imagine themselves not in an American city except for the prevalence of French on signs and in the voices of passersby.  All the Canadians who I spoke with, however, found my line of questioning about Canadians’ views of Americans absurd at worst, and entertaining at best. Little, in their opinion, separates Canada from the United States.  With a few exceptions, most would have felt perfectly at home moving to the United States.  That being said, however, a few matters do stand out.

Speaking with a young woman around 25 years old, she lamented the crass nature of many Americans.  “They are friendly enough,” she relayed, “but often come to Montreal surprised to learn that, you know, we actually speak French here.”  Americans come to the province of Quebec, she surmised, expecting to experience a sort of “Disney World” encounter with French: a few quaint street signs here and there with French words, perhaps substituting “Bonjour” for “hello” in their greetings.  Many (not all) Americans travelling here quickly learn that French constitutes the language of business, and English is not privileged, but rather accommodated when possible.  Later in the same week that I spoke with this young woman, I out for dinner with a friend. We sat next to an American couple who seemed befuddled by the fact that the server (who, to their benefit, spoke very capable English), would not accept American cash in lieu of Canadian dollars.  The point about the “Disney” experience hit home at that dinner: these “peculiarities” of Canada are viewed by many Americans as none of their business, and expect to be treated as if in the United States even while in Montreal.

Of course, no Canadian I spoke with about their opinions of the United States could go long without commenting on the presidential election in the United States.  Their reactions ranged from entertained to downright frightened by the prospects of the election.  One man who I spoke with, a 50-something-year-old businessman, spoke gleefully about the election.  “I’ve never seen better material from Stephen Colbert and the other late night talk show hosts…this is great stuff, I mean, I feel bad for you as Americans, but thanks for providing us with endless entertainment!”  His partner asked me in a much more somber tone about the state of politics in the United States.  She expressed difficulty in comprehending the arcane structure of the presidential primaries, and once explained, confusion over why no uniform system exists across the states.  Even in Canada’s federal system, where the provinces typically have more powers than the American states, she noted, elections at the national level are uniform across all of Canada.  Both of my hosts for that evening also expressed surprise at the disparity in importance of each of the states in the presidential competition.  They thought it odd that certain states should matter more than others, or why some votes in some states mattered more than others.

Everyone whom I spoke with, however, shared the sentiment of Americans as neighbors.  Like any neighbors, Americans have their quirks, and approach their problems in their own way, and sometimes have parties that get a bit loud and out of hand.  But at the end of the day, the differences can easily be overcome to establish a respect, if sometimes grudging, for each other.

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