By: Wilma Slenders
July 1st, Canada turns 150! It’s a good reason to celebrate. It’s also a good time to stop and think about what it means to be Canadian.
Stereotypical images of Canadians include being polite, saying ‘sorry’ a lot, being humble, and enduring long cold winters. In reviewing that statement, some of those stereotypes are actually true. Most Canadians are polite, we do say ‘sorry’ a lot, we tend to stay on the humble side (but not always!), and it can snow in parts of Canada any month of the year.
Canada has a large land mass (9.985 million km²), but is small in terms of population (36m). We are a country comprised of immigrants; a mosaic versus a melting point. Compared to other countries, we are relatively young at 150, but some of our cities are older than our country. Montreal, for instance is over 375 years old.
On being a Canadian
On this momentous occasion, I find myself reflecting on being Canadian and what it means to me.
My parents immigrated from the Netherlands in the 1950’s when many people left Europe for a better life in Canada. Initially, I’m sure, their lives weren’t better. They worked hard, were frugal, saved money, and created a family and life in a new land. They eventually learned the English language and Canadian customs, but still surrounded themselves with others from the Netherlands to speak their native tongue, share experiences, and give them comfort that they were not alone.
My parents, alone among their peers, taught my brother and I Dutch. This was a great gift, considering that almost all of our relatives are still back in the old country. When my Opa and other relatives visited, we could communicate. And when we visited there, I could engage with my aunts, uncles and cousins.
I am a first generation Canadian. When I talk with others who are as well, we share common bonds, regardless of where our parents immigrated from. It is the experience of having non-Canadian born parents, living up to different, and usually higher expectations than our friends, and having one foot in Canada and the other in a country that we might never have visited. I tell people that I grew up Dutch on the prairies. I never felt that I belonged anywhere, but could fit in anywhere. It’s a hard concept to understand if you haven’t experienced it.
Our family moved around a lot when I was growing up. Already feeling different, and then repeatedly being the ‘new kid’ at schools where school populations were relatively static, was traumatic. Being a geeky, rather unattractive, athletic kid didn’t help either! Somehow, I was able to fit in with all the cliques in school, but didn’t belong to any of them. It provides interesting observational experiences.
In different cultures, people think differently. Their contexts, norms, assumptions, and beliefs are different. Even within a culture, people think differently. I was always the kid who asked the stupid (or some not so much so) questions, which sometimes stumped the teachers. In those days, if you were different, you were slapped down (figuratively). After a while, you realize that keeping quiet is a better option, and being as uninteresting as possible is best. Interestingly enough, being different and asking those ‘stupid’ questions makes me very good at what I do now. Coming from a different background helps me challenge the norms and status quo. I am no longer hiding this gift from others, like I did in school.
Being a Canadian gave me opportunities that my parents never dreamed of. Their mission in life was to be farmers. It took a while, but finally they accomplished that by owning their own small farm. They are still working it, even though they are in their mid-late 80’s. I knew that the farm life wasn’t for me and am one of a very few members of my extended family to attend university and go on to graduate studies. Being a poor fit for bureaucratic systems, I was fortunate to start Transcend in August 1997, as well as a professional leadership series, financial wealth management firm, and real estate holdings company. I’m not sure that I would have had those opportunities if I lived elsewhere. Systematic biases against women in many countries prevent entrepreneurial pursuits.
Canada is a country where merit matters more than pedigree. We still evaluate people on who they are as people, rather than where they grew up and the family they were born in to.
I’ve had the good fortune to travel fairly extensively and have lived in Chicago, London, England, China, Australia, and Europe. Although, I’ve enjoyed my visits and stays elsewhere, I’ve always been drawn back to Canada.
Recently, my cousin Wilma (yes, we have the same name) visited from the Netherlands. She had never visited Canada. She also didn’t research anything about Canada, coming with a blank slate and no expectations. It afforded my husband and I the opportunity to see our country with fresh eyes. The spread-out wide open spaces, the mountains, the stillness of the prairies, and our unique coffee experience – Tim Horton’s! Every experience was somehow different and more special with someone who hadn’t experienced it before. And during that time, I don’t think we ever said ‘eh’!!
Canada has many things going for it, but it is not perfect. However, I don’t expect it to be. There always is room for improvement – personally, professionally, and as a society. I embrace that. We’re still young at 150. Boy, I can’t wait to see the contributions that Canada has to make in the next 150 years, although I won’t be here to see that.
Happy 150th Birthday, Canada!! I’m so grateful that my parents chose you as the country they would immigrate to. I couldn’t be more proud and pleased to be one of your citizens.