We're different, eh?

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“Living next to you,” Canada’s prime minister Pierre Trudeau once said, is “like sleeping with an elephant. No matter how friendly and even-tempered is the beast . . . one is affected by (its) every twitch and grunt.”

He called the United States an elephant, Canada a mouse. Despite much in common, size, as Trudeau noted, is a big difference. In fact, though, Canadians and Americans are different in many other ways. And, the differences are more real than apparent.

I was reminded of the differences and learned of more last month when I drove to Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia for the annual Celtic Colours music festival. This was my fourth trip to Celtic Colours, my fifth to the island, my first alone.

Having lived five years in Canada, I acclimate quickly. We moved to Montreal in 1972 in pursuit of a dream begun in 1956 when I traveled Canada coast to coast alone. We felt right at home, at first. Our grocery was an IGA. We filled our gas tank at a Shell station. We fed our son Cheerios. We attended a concert by Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. So, daily life wasn’t a total reset as it might have been had we moved to, say, Tanzania.

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But, differences emerged. Milk came in plastic bags. A neighbor taught us to buy a pitcher made to hold the bags, place a bag in the pitcher, clip off a corner of the bag and pour. Cream containers told the butterfat content: 20 percent, or, 30, rather than “light” or “whipping cream.” Dairies thought we knew about butterfat. We didn’t.

Cape Breton’s name is French but it is the romantic home of the Scots in North America. And tightly knit by music. Celtic Colours had 49 concerts in nine days, 47 reportedly sold out. The island is heavily Scottish, albeit with francophone settlements at Cheticamp, L’Ardoise and other spots. Scots are almost evenly divided between Catholic and Protestant. At the edge of each village, a sign tells you the village’s name in two languages, just as signs had done in New Brunswick. But on Cape Breton, the signs are in English and Scots Gaelic, not English and French as in Nouveau Brunswick.

Three things struck me this trip. This was the first trip that no Canadian asked me about U.S. politics. That’s odd because Canadians usually love to talk about politics down here. Some nights, the CBC newscast gives more minutes to our politics than to Canadian. But in conversations this trip, I sensed that each Canadian I talked with wanted me to tiptoe into the topic so she could ask, “Just what were you people thinking?” I expected the query but never got it. Good thing, because I’d struck out trying to prepare an answer.

Second, Canadians are far less skeptical than we are of government. Where we rebelled for “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” they called a convention to draw up a charter, under the British crown, to ensure “Peace, Order and Good Government.”

So, Canadians are more likely to use government actively. This trip, I noticed the use of government to manufacture jobs. At road-repair sites, a scout truck escorts motorists down one-lane stretches past the road job. A man drives a pickup with a yellow rotating dome light past the construction, then turns around and escorts traffic in the other direction. But wait, there’s more. Another guy rides shotgun, leaning against the door with nothing to do but wait for the driver to take a break so the shotgunner can take over.

At two sites where a road was closed we were detoured. At each, a sawhorse straddled the closed road with the detour sign directing us around the blockage. And behind stood a crew member. Just standing, or leaning. To keep us from stealing the sign, maybe?

My mother used to complain at road-work sites about state employees leaning on their shovels. She always counted those moving and those standing still. That rumbling sound you hear from the south is my mother spinning in her grave in Kennebunk over someone being paid to supervise a “detour” sign that the vast majority of drivers could read.

The third thing that struck me is ethnicity. Where we see a melting pot of new and past immigrants, Canada sees a cultural mosaic, encouraging ethnic groups to maintain their historic identity even while becoming “New Canadians.” Canada no longer has “Indians” but “First Nations People.” To be sure, many oppose that sort of renaming. Quebec and perhaps other provinces have a vicious, even deadly, nativist fringe entirely out of keeping with the noted cordiality of all Canadians who aren’t wearing hockey skates.

My first day in Canada, a front-page column in the Halifax ChronicleHerald showed a face different from the American face. In the 1960s, about 400 African-Nova Scotians were living in northern Halifax when the city bulldozed their houses and denied title to lots their families had owned for nearly 200 years. So, the Nova Scotia government has ponied up $2.7 million to rework the paperwork and get the land back to the families. There is talk, too, about reparations for those families. Most Americans are sensitive to racial injustices of 170 years ago, less so to the evils that continue. The Canadians seem to be responding to recent history, as well.

Once in a while, the differences between countries stand right out. Rhiannon Giddens, a founder of the Carolina Chocolate Drops and a force in folk music, performed at Celtic Colours. Her father was Irish, her mother African-American. At one point, she used the old southern term “all mashed up” to describe a melange of disparate elements. Then, she pointed at herself and said, “All mashed up is good, y’all.” If you had freeze-framed the audience reaction you could have picked out all the Americans in the arena. We Yanks got it, the Canadians didn’t. All mashed up is good, y’all.

Being able to leave home for a homecoming in another country is sweet. Vive les differences.

Bob Neal has lived 72 years here, five in Canada. This week, he is in Ottawa, Ont., for the funeral of his boss at the Montreal Gazette, who died last week at 88. Godspeed, Tim Creery.

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  • hugh curran

    There are a lot of Irish interspersed with the Highland Scots. I lived 15 years of my youth in Canada, have a seasonal home in Cape Breton and meet as many Irish background residents as highland Scots. Cape Breton also has five First Nation reservations and a sizable population of United Empire Loyalist in the Sydney area. Although the word “Breton” comes from Brittany, France the name of Brittany and the Breton people originated in Wales & Cornwall in the 5th & 6th century, the old British people who were displaced as a result of the brutal invasion of the Anglo-Saxons.