Friday, July 3, 2009

Reflections on the 4th of July - From a Canadian Who Grew Up in America

I am Canadian born, something for which I am extremely grateful, but up until the age of twelve the majority of my youth was spent in the United States. When I was less than a year old my father was transferred to New York City, and we settled in the borough of Staten Island. After three years in the Big Apple he was transferred back to Canada, but we only stayed a year before he was asked to go back, working once again in the shadow of the Twin Towers.

Seeking more of a bedroom community the second time around he opted for New Jersey. We lived in the northern suburb of Glen Rock from the time I was four until I was nine. Norman Rockwell might well have used this sleepy little burg as inspiration for his paintings, with its quaint little downtown and rolling green lawns. While less than an hour from Manhattan, the northern burbs of NJ are a world removed from the hustle and bustle of New York City.

Canadians don't learn much about our country's rich and storied history until high school. American children on the other hand are spoon fed the story of their nation's birth almost from the moment they can walk. Children as early as kindergarten wear Pilgrim hats made out of construction paper every Thanksgiving, learning about the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. I asked some kids recently if they knew who the first Prime Minister of Canada was...I got blank stares. That would never happen with school aged children in the United States being asked who their first president was.

American history is captivating, with heavy doses of mythology to stir the imagination.

George Washington owning up when asked by his father who had chopped down a cherry tree saying, "I cannot tell a lie". The first president setting the tone for Americans to believe their leaders to be true and honest men. The orders given at Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War: "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes". Young Americans learning about the Minute Men who fought and won against enemies more numerous and better armed.

The crossing of the Delaware at Valley Forge, the Boston Tea Party, no taxation without representation, 'give me liberty or give me death'. I could go on and on. Doubtless there are many Canadians who know this history every bit as well as Americans do, given our fixation with and exposure to U.S. media. But when you couple that with the daily routine of reciting the pledge of allegiance in school, its no small wonder that Americans are imbued with a deep and boisterous love for their country.

And in Glen Rock on the 4th of was something to behold. A packed parade route with floats you'd expect to see in a big city, not in a sleepy little town. The kids in grade six got an extra special treat, they could decorate their bikes with flags and streamers: red white and blue. Then they'd pedal their way along the parade route, not as spectators but as actual participants. WoW!!! Alas, we moved before I had that chance. The fireworks display was in the neighboring (yes I know that's the American spelling) town of Ridgewood, and once it was over the ten minute drive home took over an hour.

I mentioned the flag, "Old Glory" as its known to Americans. What's the Canadian flag called? The red and white banner with the leaf in the middle? The U.S. flag has a history and symbolism all its own. The 13 stripes (7 red, 6 white) represent the original 13 colonies. The number of stars (50) correspond to the number of states. Even the colors have meaning, red for hardiness and valor, white for purity and innocence, and blue to represent vigilance, perseverance and justice.

As Americans gather to fete their nation's Declaration of Independence from British rule we Canadians sometimes look on with something of a turned up nose, or perhaps with even some envy. To understand Americans you really have to spend some time living among them. Americans may seem loud and obnoxious compared to the more staid and conservative Canadian attitude, but ultimately the vast majority live up to the ideals ingrained at an early age, that of being honest, truthful and brave. I'm not talking about the political leadership, but of ordinary citizens.

I'll leave you with a short Schoolhouse Rock song and cartoon. For those old enough to remember the 70s this will probably bring back some memories if you lived in or close to the U.S. Call it "Early American History 101 - The Simplified Edition".

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