The Canadian reserve explodes in tears and anthems—just like the Americans we used to mock.
OK, now we get it.
As Canadians, we’ve often acted like the adolescent male cousins in the back of the hall sniggering at the overwrought uncle struggling through his tears to toast his favourite niece on her wedding day.
As a collective, the American personality tends to put it all out there. You folks let us know how you feel, whether you’re mildly irritated or freaking angry. In joy and in grief, you’ll wave the Stars and Stripes, put your hand over your heart, and belt out “USA” at sports events such as the recent Ryder Cup.
This ain’t the Canadian way. Showing your feelings is so … lame. Weird. Certainly not chill. All that patriotic stuff makes a lot of Canadians uncomfortable, so we just mock Americans and have a good laugh. We’re your passive aggressive neighbor who smiles and says “hi” every morning, but directs our dog to crap on our lawn in the dark.
That’s immaturity for you, largely borne from lack of experience. Well, Canada had a milestone experience on Wednesday. While that Canadian reserve held—our national media, our armed forces and the Ottawa police responded professionally and proportionally—a palpable depth of sadness descended on Canada.
As a nation we are in mourning. For two soldiers killed in three days, for the attack on Parliament and for the sense that we’ve lost our innocence. Our childlike faith in each other that no one will do anything particularly nasty, and our pride that most Canadians don’t lock their doors or even to the front door of our Parliament.
That’s shattered. The events of this week doesn’t mean we’ll lock up everything, or that hundreds of people will no longer do yoga on the front lawn of Parliament on summer days, but things will change and they have.
Now we’re in the tough, grown-up world. Now we understand a little better why most Americans love with their country; they are thankful to be American, and certainly willing to sing about it and make a big show of patriotism, whether at a high school football game or the Super Bowl.
For years, you couldn’t get more than a handle of Canadians to warble “Oh Canada.” For most of us, singing is a risk. We’re not in complete control. We might make a mistake and sound silly, which would be unbearably revealing and shatter the safe haven of reserve.
But extreme moments unlock deep feelings that erupt uncontrollably and overwhelm defenses. On radio and TV, I heard Oh Canada about half a dozen times on Thursday, the day after a lone gunman shot and killed a Canadian soldier and then stormed the Parliament buildings where he was killed in a hail of bullets.
The attack on the Canadian Parliament, the symbol of democracy and the heart of our nation, was a shock to the Canadian psyche. It was just one deranged guy, who is reported to have struggled with drug addiction and mental instability, but his actions were traumatic and game changing.
Perhaps now, instead of rolling our eyes and sighing with impatience, we’ll be a more understanding of our American friends and comport ourselves a little more gracefully as our cars idle at border crossings, or we stand in line at the airport in our socks with our belts off. Searching a grandma in a wheelchair or swiping the carry-on of a nursing mother is still over the top, but at least we can understand what’s driving it.
It’s natural to mock and make fun when you’re inexperienced and immature. Well, that’s changed. Attacks on our soldiers and the storming of our national government—the unthinkable stuff that happens in the big bad United States and elsewhere—happened here.
It’s my sense that many Canadians have suddenly grown up. We’re no longer the sniggering cousins, the kids who haven’t seen adult horror or felt deep grief. We have.
And now we get it. We have suffered just a smidgeon of the pain inflicted on Americans and their symbols, but one attack is all it took.
A lot of Canadians always got it, but after the events of this week, a lot more of us do.