Confessions of a Closet Canadian
By Susan Smiley
Ever since my first trip though the Windsor/Detroit tunnel when I was four years old, I have loved Canada. When I was a toddler appearing on Romper Room I liked Canada because they had salt & vinegar chips – something that was not yet available in the U.S. – and the Coffee Crisp candy bar which is to this day my favorite and not widely available “state side.” I still have the silver maple leaf bracelet with “CANADA” emblazoned on the largest leaf as well as the red comb and mirror set with the maple leaf insignia that my dad bought me during one of our trips across the Detroit River.
I didn’t realize as a youngster that the mile drive through that tunnel was taking me to a country with a totally different culture than that of the United States.
Earlier this month I was over the border for Windsor Blues Fest. I go over the border frequently but the friend who was with me that night had not been to Canada in several years. Two things stuck her right away; the cleanliness of the city of Windsor and the presence of many older buildings and homes that were all very well maintained.
“You don’t even see any cigarette butts on the sidewalk,” she noted as we walked from the parking lot to the riverfront. “And these beautiful homes! This reminds me of my old neighborhood in Detroit and what it used to be like.”
What it used to be like before homes were burned out, razed or abandoned.
We ended up sharing a table with a couple of native Windsor gentlemen. In the course of the conversation, one of the men mentioned that he had lived in Vancouver, British Columbia for 10 years and while he acknowledged it is very scenic and a great location for someone who enjoys outdoor activities, he found the people there to be somewhat unfriendly compared to those from his hometown.
“Really?” I said. “I’ve been there and thought folks there were very friendly.”
The gentleman nodded and smiled: “That’s because you’re American.”
Canadians perceive that Americans are much less friendly than folks in their native land. Maybe unfriendly is not the right word, but there is a sense that Americans are kind of self-absorbed. Someone in Detroit is not likely to say hello when you pass on the sidewalk where in Windsor they would be likely to do so. At least that is the perception. Canadians also believe that every American is packing heat.
My friend innocently asked at one point if there were a lot of car jackings in Windsor. Because I follow a lot of Canadian news sources, particularly from Windsor, and because I’ve been going to Canada most of my life I knew the answer even before the two men started chuckling.
“Car jackings? Oh no. We don’t have that kind of thing over here,” the gentleman named Jamey said.
“Not only that,” said the gentleman named Andy, “but you can pump gas over here before you pay. You can even do that in the ghetto over here and at any time of night.”
“You guys just have weird crime stuff over here,” I said. “I read a story in the Windsor Star a couple of months ago about a lady who held up a variety store using a large axe. She wanted cash and two packs of cigarettes.”
“Ha!” said Andy. “It isn’t like in the US where everyone has their own AKA 47.”
Andy and Jamey admitted they both travel to Detroit frequently for Tiger, Red Wings and Lions games. There are things the like about Detroit and the U.S. and they both have favorite dinner spots and watering holes in and around Motown. But my Canadian friends are perplexed about the American gun culture and the abandoned and burnt out areas of Detroit because those sort of things don’t exist across the border. Violent criminal acts that are a daily occurrence on one side of the border are nearly unheard of on the other side. Windsor and Detroit; so close and yet so far.
Toward the end of the Blues Fest concert, I asked Andy and Jamey if any stores would be open in downtown Windsor where I could procure a Coffee Crisp. Or two. Or three.
“You mean they don’t have Coffee Crisp in the U.S.?” asked Andy. “You’ve got every other thing over there but you don’t have Coffee Crisp?”
I know, right?
A couple of weeks prior to Blues Fest I was chilling with a longtime Canadian friend in his Windsor home watching television. It was the day a gunman had walked into a Charleston N.C. church and killed nine people during a bible study. My friend, who has previously lived in the U.S., looked at me and said: “I love your country and it has a lot of great things but when stuff like that happens you really have to ask yourself if America is home of the free. How much freedom do you have if you have to worry about getting shot while you’re in church.”
I love America and cherish the freedoms we have here. But as an American I am deeply disturbed by the violence that seems to have become an acceptable part of our culture. I’m not arguing the second amendment here but the overall culture of violence. I’m not sure if we have become numb to it because there seem to be so many instances of rape, stabbings, shootings, and the like or if we as a society have decided these things are acceptable and unavoidable.
It also saddens me that Canadians perceive Americans as unfriendly – or at least less friendly than Canadians. I find there are friendly folks on both sides of the border I love my Canadian and American friends alike. Perhaps what Andy and Jamey see is less an unfriendliness and more a wariness on the part of Americans in part because of the difference in culture. We in the U.S. may be slower to trust and perhaps with good reason.
I have a couple of Canadian friends who refer to me as a “closet Canadian” because they feel that I am more at ease with their culture than most Americans. I am a proud American but one who wishes we could borrow some things from our neighbors to the north that might enhance the American experience. The aversion to violence, the respect for the environment be it city or rural, and, of course, the Coffee Crisp.