Early October found Aaron Veerasuntharam ’14 and Maddy Oswald ’14 ready to celebrate Thanksgiving—Canadian Thanksgiving, that is. Oswald prepared a turkey and cooked mashed potatoes; Veerasuntharam commandeered social networking sites to coordinate fellow Canadians.
“Aaron and I tried to do this last year, but this year so many more people showed up,” Oswald, a Toronto native, said.
Veerasuntharam, also from Toronto, was thrilled by the event’s success.
“There was an awkward silence, but it was a ‘we all have this thing in common, and this is awesome’ silence,” he said of the celebration. “Even though we camouflage well with Americans, at the end of the day we’re still international students. That in itself presents challenges. Having Canadian Thanksgiving together allows us to be mindful of these challenges and share an enjoyable experience that generates the same fuzzy feelings we would experience back home.”
The fact that they blend in so well with American students can be attributed in part to cultural overlap, which Oswald thinks is responsible for similar senses of humor in the two countries.
“Humor is related to pop culture,” she said. “Because we all watch the same movies and the same TV shows, it’s become the same. I was surprised at how many people here knew about ‘Degrassi,’ a show I grew up watching. It’s set in Toronto, with Canadian actors.”
Assistant Professor of History Jeffers Lennox, who has lived in the Canadian cities of Toronto, Halifax, Montreal, and Vancouver, agreed that Canada’s cultural output hits above its weight. He thinks that the Canadian brand of humor retains something unique, though.
“Canadian humor is more self-deprecating,” he said. “I probably laugh about stuff with my Canadian friends that my American friends don’t understand.”
Veerasuntharam agreed that he jokes differently with his Canadian friends, hinting at underlying divergences between the two countries.
“My friends at home aren’t very PC,” he said. “We’re pretty progressive, politically, but we aren’t PC. We take our tolerance of others for granted sometimes, and we make statements that you couldn’t make here.”
Lennox attributes Canadian progressivism in part to the flexibility of the Constitution of Canada, which was patriated from an earlier act—and thus refined—in 1982 as opposed to America’s own Constitution, drafted in the late 18th century. He also noted that the separation between church and state has been more successful in Canada than it has been in America.
“There has been more of an effort to keep religion out of government,” Lennox said. “Many people are spiritual and have faith, but it’s not so much about organized religion. Being religious and being progressive are not mutually exclusive.”
Oswald, Veerasuntharam, and Lennox agree that Canada stands in stark political contrast to America.
“During the [2012 Presidential] election, people were so much more invested than anybody I knew in Canada,” Oswald said. “Their political views were so much more known—so much more part of their identity. At home, nobody’s like, ‘I’m a conservative.’ It’s not this big hype, these two- or three-year-long campaigns that people invest time and money into. Politicians are like celebrities here. I don’t even know the Prime Minister’s wife’s name.”
Lennox believes that lack of strong partisanship contributes to a sense of cohesive Canadian identity, a feeling that Canadians themselves struggle to define.
“There’s the obsessive question of what defines what we are. The perennial question is, ‘What is the Canadian identity?’” he said. “A lot of people say, ‘A fair country,’ or ‘a country more concerned with global well-being.’ What makes it unique is that it has competing identities and still has succeeded.”
Veerasuntharam, too, is proud of his country’s many identities that form one tolerant nation.
“Part of the Canadian identity is multicultural, inherently,” he said. “Just generally, we’re an extremely diverse place that’s pretty accepting.”
Perhaps it is this atmosphere that people in the United States find appealing. Still today, Americans often see Canada as a haven north of the border, a refuge for those dissatisfied with American policies and politics. Lennox believes that this view is evidence of a lack of understanding about Canada.
“Americans moving to Canada would have real shocks,” he said. “It’s obvious that people who say, ‘If Romney wins, I’m moving to Canada’ don’t understand what the government is like in Canada. Right now there’s a conservative government, so people looking to flee to a left-leaning bastion would be disappointed.”
Veerasuntharam agreed that Canada is not the stereotypically progressive, anything-goes country that some Americans make it out to be.
“I think we’re less liberal than we think we are in Canada,” he said. “I thought that I was ready for Wesleyan when I came down here, but I felt conservative at the beginning. It’s 10 times more liberal than anything I’m used to.”
In response to those who proclaim that they will move to Canada if their favored politician loses an election, Veerasuntharam extends an invitation.
“The more the merrier, in my opinion,” he said. “My parents are immigrants. My dad moved from Sri Lanka to England, which he found to be racist. Canada is safer than America, that’s the biggest thing. Walking around at all hours of the night, not worrying about being mugged—that’s a big difference.”
For Lennox, the realization that he is in a different country comes daily on his commute to work.
“I always ride my bike past the Wallingford Gun Club,” he said. “I don’t think I ever heard guns shot before [I came here].”
As far as stereotypes about the differences between the United States and Canada go, Veerasuntharam is not bothered by comments about his accent.
“If people are looking for my accent, they’ll call me out on it,” he said. “But people in America have accents from different places too. It comes out more at some points than at others.”
Oswald, on the other hand, finds others’ obsession with her accent irritating.
“I tried to tone my accent down because people focused on it so much,” she said. “In freshman year, I couldn’t go three sentences without this girl I knew commenting. I thought at the time, ‘Maybe I shouldn’t talk the way I do so people will talk to me for me.’ Now I don’t care. And now my friends at home make fun of me for talking like an American. You can’t escape.”
In addition to the comments on his accent, Veerasuntharam also has no problem with the prevalent image of Canada as a peaceful, even overly mellow and nonthreatening, nation.
“I’m okay with Canada being nice if it means I can travel around the world and have people not hate me—in fact, the opposite,” he said. “I think it’s awesome.”