How Canada is Bizarro World — and Other Thoughts in Black and White

Bizarro World was a planet conceived of by DC comics in the 1960s  — it was a cube-shaped planet known as Htrae, or Earth, backwards, and everything there was an opposite, or in some way slanted version of what happened here on our blue marble patrolled by Superman.

I don’t mean any insult when I say that Canada has always struck me as Bizarro World – it feels so familiar, but everything is a few ticks different. Canada and the United States share so much in the way of ingredients – influenced by the British, the French, similar tribes of Native Americans, similar geology, topography, flora and fauna…I suppose this is why some people call it the 51st state.

But it’s not, of course, and just as can make a number of different dishes from the same set of ingredients, our differences are significant. Cross into Canada, and you immediately notice the trivial changes: the bills have become coins, the coins are called “loonies” and everything is in metric.

The border is more than mere cartography.

The writer Clark Blaise was born in Fargo, North Dakota in 1940, to Canadian parents. He grew up shuttling back and forth across the border, and wrote about that time in an essay called “Memories of Unhousement”, which I just read in The Pushcart Book of Essays.

Blaise tackles what was the primary cultural divide in Canada historically — between the French speakers and the English speakers,  a subject that was particularly inflamed during the Trudeau administration.

“In Toronto, I have heard the familiar retort “Speak White!”.  I’ve seen my (one time) fellow Torontonians demand of young Québec tourists chattering away on the immaculate Toronto subway to please remember where they are; that so much jabbering in French is giving everyone a headache…On Prince Edward Island, in a tourist home modelled on Anne of Green Gables, the landlady, in showing us our rooms and remarking on my Québec license plates (but not on my French name) confided in me, “the white man built this country! What are the French trying to do?”

The great thing about visiting Bizarro World is that it lets your see own world with more clarity. I mean, doesn’t it seem strange, from a modern U.S. perspective, that someone would be considered “non-White” by virtue of language?

It does indeed, because  race is an entirely imaginary and flexible concept. (At various times in US history, many people who would solidly be considered “white” today — Italians, Greeks,  for instance — were considered non-white.)  “Race, as a meaningful criteria within the biological sciences, has long been recognized to be fiction,” writes Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “When we speak of “the white race” or “the black race,” “the Jewish race” or the “Aryan race,” we speak in biological misnomers, and more generally, in metaphors.”

We humans do tend to put great stock in these entirely imaginary differences, with quite real and often sickening consequences. And we, here in the United States, are now in the midst of a defining race by virtue of mother tongue — only we’re talking about people who speak Spanish and who hail from below that other border, to our South.

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