On Trying Hard: Four Months in Canada

The Toronto sign.

Is it May already? I’m asking, when May is already almost gone. Maybe it’s the persistent fog and rain of a Toronto spring that has me confused; it feels like I’m only just waking up from the long bearish sleep of winter, with occasional peeps of summer sunshine emerging one day a week. I don’t know yet if this rainy, overcast few months is typical, but Toronto, you haven’t won me over weather-wise.

There are compensations, though. Delicious baked goods in too many patisseries to count that I’ve been sampling all over the city. Good independent bookstores with great readings. Margaret Atwood, resplendent at a book-signing, warning and reassuring all at once. A swift, easy-to-navigate public transit system. Oh, and the health care. I’m officially in the system now, and greatly appreciating the simple, no-nonsense way I’ve been able to see doctors and get care. I still feel like I’ve dodged a strange political bullet by moving here at this time; I feel a little guilty every time I remember I’m here when others are not.

Beyond the government institutions, though, I’m beginning to learn a little more about the Canadian ethos. There’s the politeness, but something else: Canadians try hard. They’re so darn earnest. I see this trying hard in the way people park a little crookedly and then get out and check and get back in again and re-adjust their parking. In a toddler running gleefully across a city square with mother in his wake, crying, “This is what Mommy talked about!” In the determined readings of poets and novelists in the back rooms of cafes, the feeling of goodwill growing warm and swelling, filling the room. Artists here try hard. The cynicism and one upmanship of New York won’t fly. Writers engage me with earnest discussions of what my stories mean, on the very sticky wicket of cultural appropriation, which is the current controversy, thanks to a very insensitive suggestion for a “cultural appropriation” prize. There is disagreement even at the table where I’m sitting on what was meant and what line can be drawn. But the Canadians are listening. They’re trying.

I see that earnest effort in the much greater visibility of indigenous art, artists, and culture here than in the United States. In the U.S., awareness of Native American life and storytelling can seem almost nonexistent at times. We still see the painful clichéd characters and the blatant use of sacred images or costumes or artifacts. Canada has the same history of terrible mistreatment of native peoples. But in its current cultural time, the government and the culture at large is making a concerted effort at reconciliation and increased visibility. At every museum I visit, I see indigenous art displayed, along with stories of the dark past of residential schools. At a writing festival, I listen to an indigenous chief of her tribe describe her childhood, the stories and language that were robbed from her generation, to a rapt audience. She speaks on a panel with a trans activist and a woman writing about the internment of the Japanese during world war II. Each speaker has dark stories to share; the news they bring is uncomfortable, outrageous, unjust. But they’re speaking to a packed room. Canadians are trying.

The U.S. might be experiencing a wave of nation-wide cynicism. When the chasm between left and right is so great, it’s tempting to shrug our shoulders and give up talking to the people who anger us, who refuse to listen; we retreat into our bitter divides. It’s tempting to stop listening to problems because we experience tragedy fatigue; we cannot bear to hear more, so we walk away. But whether a problem is insurmountable or not might be a question of perspective more than anything else. I see Canada bearing the same burdens of the United States in many respects; but maybe just out of luck, the Canadians I’ve seen still seem so earnest about improving, changing, growing. Planting trees and shaking hands and feeling deep concern for the vulnerable even though it’s exhausting and hard. I like that earnestness. I hope it’s rubbing off on me.