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My Canadian Confusion

A U.S. leftist moves to Canada and plays the part of the clueless American while discovering Canadian politics and culture in Montreal.
Jonathan Sterne

Issue #72, April 2005

Prior to last summer, I had never lived outside the United States, just like the majority of Americans. Sure, I had traveled outside the United States, but the truth is that I had done far more traveling within its borders than outside them. It dawned upon me a few years ago that a European who had traveled the same distances I had in my life would be considerably more cosmopolitan than I by virtue of a simple geographical fact: the countries are smaller.

Everything changed last spring when my spouse and I accepted academic positions at McGill University in Montreal. At the time, the international dimension of the move seemed like the smallest of our concerns. We were looking for two tenure-track jobs at a good school in a good place to live. As anyone who’s in an academic couple will tell you, getting two good jobs – and by “good” I mean suitable to each person’s career ambitions and dispositions – is like finding the holy grail, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. But this is not a story of the search, but rather what happened afterward. Suffice it to say that while normally people would carefully weigh the issues in an international move, we were more impressed with the fact that we had just scored two jobs at an excellent institution in one of the world’s most interesting cities. As former Minnesotans, the cold didn’t scare us either. So while I often get the question of what it was like to weigh the options on a big international move, the truth is that we never really did. The decision was frankly one of the easiest life decisions I’d ever made.

Canada at Night

The other question I get all the time is a variation of “what’s it like to be an American in Canada?” I hear it in equal proportion from my friends up here and my friends in the U.S. This essay attempts an answer, since I’m not sure I even knew how American I was until I left. I doubt any of what follows is news to a Quebec resident, or even many Canadians. It’s actually difficult to generalize about Canada. Quebec is very different from Ontario or British Columbia. It’s a very small country population-wise. I think of it as geographically similar to Chile, except with gigantic northern colonies. This isn’t really fair to Canadians who live in the north, but if you see a picture of Canada at night from space, you can see where the idea comes from. A band of light stretches across the southern border, while much of the north is dark. Canada’s three major cities appear to be in some kind of rivalry with one another. Toronto is clearly in the lead in terms of being an economic and cultural center for the country, but Vancouver and Montreal each have their own claims (and indeed Montreal once was the country’s economic and cultural center). Clearly my experience is entirely shaped by living in Montreal and Quebec; I know Toronto and Vancouver would give me another perspective and the smaller cities and the north are a whole other story. This might seem like old news to Americans, who are used to huge cultural differences as they move from the northeast to the south to the Midwest to the west. But the difference is that Canada has that level of vast cultural difference and a population of only 30 million people. Such is the nature of Canada’s small country problem.

Canada’s size can lead to all sorts of condescension from Americans. I never dreamed that one of the hardest part of moving from one country to another would be changing my address. But indeed, while it is true that there are many bureaucratic hoops to jump through on my way to permanent residency (and even to renew my work permit in the meantime), getting my bills and other documents sent to my Canadian address – or any Canadian address for that matter – is the hardest thing imaginable. This is not at all a slight on the Canadian post office. They are a bit slower than the U.S., and they don’t deliver on Saturday. But I can’t complain. I have had letters listing only my street address and “Canada” on the envelope arrive at my door: no city, no province, no postal code.

Pierre Bourdieu famously said that intellectuals are the dominated fraction of the dominant class, by which he meant that although intellectuals identify with many of the values of the dominant classes in a society, they don’t have the power or resources that other class fractions have. But my middle class status itself shifted upon entry to Canada. It’s not that our income changed, because we’re making roughly what we were before (if you adjust for the exchange rate). It’s that being middle class means something different here. Our Canadian friends go on vacation much more than our American friends ever did. And yet if I say to them “gee, you Canadians go on a lot of vacations,” they rightly look at me like a crazy workaholic American. Of course they’re right.

The whole process of consumption is slightly different. Produce items – even avocadoes – are relatively cheap, processed foods are expensive. The same logic works at the guitar store. Strings are cheap, but that shiny new G&L bass is almost twice as expensive. I can’t imagine my bass strings are price-regulated, but the fundamental principle is sound: make the basics more accessible and make the luxuries harder to get. There also seems to be a more casual attitude toward consumer goods. Though professors are as likely to spend money on meals, alcohol and fashion (yes, some academics do dress well), they are not as wedded to all the consumer goods in the same way that I learned to be. For instance, we took it as an article of faith that we would need a dishwasher in our apartment. Friends of ours, including professors who make more money than we do and are older than us are just getting around to buying dishwashers or just “thinking about it.”

The slightly different class culture is most clear and most controversial in the healthcare system, which is one way in which Canadians define themselves as Canadian. A basic level of healthcare is free to all, and drugs are indeed pretty cheap here. But higher-level healthcare can be difficult to get. Thankfully we haven’t had much call for that sort of thing, but even getting Carrie’s insulin pump supplies reimbursed at 80% – supplies that were 100% covered by our old healthcare – is quite a challenge. If we fail, it will be an added expense on the order of a few thousand dollars each year. I don’t know what to think: as U.S. professors, we had the best healthcare in the world. Here we don’t, but the tradeoff is that some of my working class neighbors have free basic healthcare. And the price is right. Taxes are high, but if you include the amount we had to pay into our healthcare plans at the University of Pittsburgh, the difference is negligible in the proportion of our pay we take home in each check.

Poverty is painful everywhere, but I imagine that it is a little less painful here than in other places. It may be a starry-eyed American leftist’s idealization of Canada, or it may just be true. Rents for small apartments are still pretty reasonable, and you could eat a healthy diet at home and see the doctor – on a walk-in basis, I might add – on very little money each month.


Foreigners are considered exotic to some extent by the locals pretty much anywhere I’ve been, and Canada is no exception. It’s hard to think of myself being exotic. I am, after all, a balding guy with a Midwestern accent, which is to say I have the accent Americans recognize as “no” accent. But there are moments when I am exoticized just like any other foreigner. I suspect it’s a sign of American privilege that I sometimes enjoy it. I remember at my first faculty meeting here I uttered the phrase “A to Z” and pronounced the last letter of the alphabet “Zee.” The room erupted in laughter, since I’d obviously mispronounced the letter known as “Zed” here. Look at the quirky American!

Quebec is also possibly the only place in the world (outside the U.S.) where it’s better to tell a stranger that you’re an American than it is to say you’re Canadian (cf: all of Europe). Whereas in most places I’ve been outside the U.S., declaring myself an American raises all sorts of questions, such as whether I support George Bush and whether I am an asshole, here it gives me an important pass on language politics. While it would be an overstatement to say that all Quebecois (that is, Francophone residents of Quebec) love Americans, I have more than once seen a look akin to relief on the face of a Francophone person when he or she learns I am American rather than an Anglophone Canadian.

To understand this strange inversion of what happens in Europe, you need to understand a bit about what makes Canada different from the United States. Canadians obsess about this question. There is a lot of grant money to be gotten if you want to study the question professionally (or make art about it), and indeed everything from art to news to telecommunications policy in part hangs on the question of what makes Canada “Canadian.” It seems like Canadian identity is often thought of in the negative, as in “well, Canada’s not the United States.” And indeed, I suspect that Quebec is the least United States-like province of them all. But Canada has several things that define it positively. I’ve already mentioned the healthcare system and price controls on groceries. The “language issue” would also be near the top of the list.

What race is to the United States, language is to Canada. By that I mean that it is a national hot-button issue. It is the kind of thing that divides people, leads to infuriating arguments, and sets property values. (Of course race also operates as an important category in Canada, but Canada’s unique racial history means that the term doesn’t signify in the way I’m used to.) Montreal is especially important here, since it is the major bilingual city in an otherwise largely Francophone province – with the notable exceptions of some Anglophone-settled towns to the south and a number of important First Peoples towns and villages to the north. The city was historically divided between Anglophones and Francophones and those divisions still exist. Until the 1970s, the Anglophones controlled much of its commerce and held most of its wealth; the Francophones made up the working class and most of the population. With the rise of Quebec separatism and a kind of Francophone identity politics this has changed in the last 30 years. I gather that it is almost impossible to get a good job in town (outside McGill, that is) if you do not speak good French. Street signs, phone directories, business signs, menus, bureaucratic documents, and ATM machines all use French as their default language. We are told that we probably live further east than any other McGill professors, and indeed our neighborhood is well east of the dividing line between Anglophone and Francophone Montreal. Its Frenchness means that rents are cheaper, which was a big motivator for us, and the location is actually great for getting around town. But it is probably a bit weird that we live here. An informal survey of our block reveals that us and a crazy elderly lady down the street are the only Anglophones around.

This is not as big a problem as it might seem. To begin with, many of the Francophone Canadians we meet speak English well enough to communicate. Indeed, my experience of bilingualism here is that it is mostly bad English and bad French and a lot of laughing and hand gestures, though in general Francophones are much more likely to speak some English than Anglophones are to speak some French. Such are the politics of linguistic privilege. Interpersonal communication across the linguistic divide requires some effort, and despite my distaste for all the talk of authenticity in the writings of the existentialists and other 20th century philosophers of urban life, there is something precious, intense, meaningful and funny in the effort to achieve understanding across a linguistic divide. The fact that it’s a routine makes it all the more significant: though far from Jurgen Habermas’ ideal speech situation or Emmanuel Levinas’ hope for recognition of otherness, the conversations I have with cab drivers, neighbors, people in stores, and occasional strangers can have an intersubjectivity to them, a willed recognition of otherness, that I find quite profound and unique in my experience.

While this seems like a banal point I think it’s actually an important geopolitical fact. Separatist sentiments in Quebec seem relatively low right now, and as I mentioned above, I think I get a “pass” for not knowing French by virtue of being an American. If I was from Ontario, my own embarrassment at not knowing French, combined with French Canadians’ collective annoyance with Anglo Canadians’ at the asymmetry of language practices in a supposedly bilingual country (yes, this is a gross generalization and lots of people wouldn’t feel this way) could easily derail the encounter. But there is an amazing degree of patience: unlike the Parisian stereotype, here you get credit just for trying. It means that I’ve gone from no French to a little bit in a year without taking a class. I can get through a menu, read signs, direct a cab driver and introduce myself to a Francophone person and apologize for not knowing much French. I know how much change I’m getting at the store (though I have to think about it a bit). I credit this level of learning to my lack of embarrassment at my own linguistic ignorance. Perhaps in some twisted irony, my comfort for years at being an essentially monolingual American has made it easier for me to learn another language. Though I’m sure my accent is hopeless.

Since I am a clueless American, my experience here has involved the discovery of a distinctive North American French culture and language of which Canadians have always been more aware. Many of the verbal expressions here are unique to Quebec, partly fueled by centuries of physical separation from France, and partly fuelled by a linguistic identity politics. While the French would say “bon week-end” the Quebecois say “bon fin de semaine.” Both mean “have a good weekend.” This is reinforced by a Quebec school system that requires Anglophone children to be educated in French. It is as controversial among Anglophones as the Canadian healthcare system is in the United States. One of my colleagues who was hired this year (not in my department) is actually delaying her application for permanent residency so her son can finish high school in English. The school system does, however, ensure the reproduction of the French language from generation to generation, and those most concerned with preserving Quebecois identity seem to have focused on language as the means by which that preservation will occur. This has even found its way into Canadian constitutional law: language laws can actually trump freedom of expression – shop owners cannot complain because the province of Quebec requires their signs to be in French. Before my American readers get all indignant about this, keep in mind that there is a strong English-only movement in the United States, that despite the large presence of a Hispanic population many services are not available in Spanish, and that immigrants who wish to send their children to public schools will find them educated in English and Americanized in the process. The only difference is that Canada is bilingual, and therefore the Francophone minority is more visible, more politicized, and more able to effectively advance its cultural agenda. I sometimes wonder whether some of the present day French language politics might not suggest a possible future for Spanish language politics in the United States.

Speaking of French, the accent is also as unique to French speakers as a Boston accent would be to English speakers. While there is much French culture in Montreal, much of the culture in French is not from France but local and regional. My French aunt reports that a Quebecois movie showing in Paris was subtitled because the accent was so difficult for the Parisians to understand. Call it a reverse-Trainspotting effect, where a movie made in English had to be subtitled for American audiences. The Quebecois are not the only French culture in North America – there are also the Acadians who lived in the Maritime provinces and were expelled by the British. Their descendents make up the French culture of New Orleans.

Student Protests

Though I have come to understand Quebec and Canada as distinctively North American places (without being “American”), there is a certain “European” tinge to politics, especially here in Quebec. As I write, over 230,000 students have been on strike to protest $103 million cuts to education by the provincial government. Essentially, they are turning student grants (“bursaries”) into loans and thereby encumbering students with a good deal more personal debt. Now it’s true that tuition is lower in Quebec than anywhere else in the U.S. or Canada. It’s true that the students still would have a relatively good deal compared with most other students in North America. And yet they strike. In thousands they strike. What is most impressive to me, accustomed as I am to the increasingly conservative climate in the United States, is that the strike appears to be working. The education minister has already made to offers to student leaders to partially reinstate the cut money (the students have rejected the offers – they want full restitution) and the opposition parties are salivating at the opportunity to topple the ruling coalition over the education cuts.

All of which brings me to my own Canadian confusion. I marched with the strikers last Wednesday because as a college teacher I feel some solidarity with the students and I believe in affordable, accessible education, though in reality many of my own undergraduates are not affected because they are not Quebec residents. And yet the politics were somehow exotic to me. It will be years before I can vote here. Meanwhile, I am also on the outside of U.S. politics. Of course I sent in my absentee ballot for Kerry, but that’s not the point. When I signed on to a friend-of-the-court brief for an intellectual property case coming before the U.S. Supreme Court, the brief listed the signatories as “concerned media scholars in the United States.” But I am now “of” the United States without being “in” them. I am hardly a postcolonial subject, but I am just beginning to understand the degree to which “home” becomes a conflicted and shifting image just beyond reach, an imagined place not quite “here” or “there” for people who have migrated from one place to another. I am not nostalgic. I do not feel a longing place from which I’ve become unmoored. In some ways I’m more settled than I’ve ever been in my life. And yet I feel strangely confused. I am becoming a little more Canadian each day, and yet I have never in my life felt more American, even as that Americanness is now undergoing some kind of transformation of its own.

Jonathan Sterne, is an editor of Bad Subjects and teaches in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies and the History and Philosophy of Science Program at McGill University. He is author of The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction (Duke, 2003), he thinks poutine is structurally similar to nachos, and he has not yet developed a taste for curling. Visit his online home at, where among other things you'll find his banal blog and a useful batch of information for academic jobseekers in Communication Studies.

Copyright © 2005 by Jonathan Sterne. Photos: Sterne Collection. All rights reserved.