Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Staying Canadian

Recently – through facebook of all places – I have had the wonderful experience of reconnecting with a lot of my old high school friends.

And they tell me that they have enjoyed very much my stories of being a teenager in Lawrenceville, Georgia, and my adventure of moving back to the Great White North.

But – as they are Americans – and proud to be so – they often ask me why I stayed in Canada after school.

America is the land of opportunity you know.

I returned to Canada – as I have said before – simply to go back to school yet again – to get the education – to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I knew I didn't want to slug it out doing the hard work I did in Louisiana, delivering electrical supplies to all corners of that odd and interesting state, or managing grocery stores – and especially not digging any more damned ditches.

So I returned to Canada, land where I was born but had left when I was three years old. I was a Canadian citizen – but I was not really Canadian.

The personal computer had just arrived, but had not yet made its niche on every office desk like it is today. People were just trying to figure this new version of technology out. And I found that I understood the concepts of the mainframe and mini computers – their roles – how they worked – and how they fit into the schemes of what was then called data processing.

So I studied hard for several years – occasionally slipping back into those youthful desires to have too much fun – which got me in so much trouble in my previous attempts at achieving a higher education.

But my Uncle Fred – a wonderful man who I miss dearly now – and who I can never pay high enough tribute to – had this time instilled a work ethic in me.

"Keep your eyes and ears open – and your big mouth shut!" I was told over and over again.

I still have not learned that lesson.

After the second year of school, I was fortunate enough to land what was called a Co-op" position with Revenue Canada – in their headquarters in Ottawa, right across the street from the Parliament buildings – the very seat of the federal Canadian government. The Canadian version of the American House of Representatives.

On a fairly frequent basis, as part of my duties, I would deliver documents and reports to the Minister of Finance or a Deputy Minister in charge of this and that and what-not.

One of my Mom's cousin's – therefore a cousin of mine I suppose – was a gentlemen who represented the riding of Owen Sound – Mr. Stan Darling.

Cousin Stan had held that seat for a good number of years – as conservative as conservatives can be... in Canada – and was often seen on television standing just behind then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney in Parliament sessions – and as the Prime Minister would speak – cousin Stan - sitting right behind the Honourable Prime Minister - would holler things like "here here" and "that's right" – in unison with his colleagues seated on both sides – pounding their fists on the table, face red and jowls jiggling.

A true back bencher.

"You should go visit your cousin Stan", Ma would tell me from her nice warm Pensacola paradise in Florida. "Just to say hi, and to tell him I said hi too".

So I tried, but he would never see me. Later at a family reunion, Uncle Stan claimed to my Ma that he had no idea I was in Ottawa, let alone trying to stop by to say hi.

Politicians are politicians – no matter what land you live in.

Canada, as you probably should know if you don't already, is a bilingual country. The French Canadians and the English have for years struggled in cooperating with each other. The best government jobs go to those who are bilingual, so mostly the French – who had little option but to learn English – hold the best cival servant positions.

So picture if you will – a young good old boy named Fred, still talking with a thick southern drawl, still driving his favorite little Mazda 626 with Louisiana license plates – still planning on returning to the sunny south of Florida when his degree was earned – totally French illiterate to say the least - working in a French Canadian office environment where French is the predominant language.

I made very few friends.

A beautiful girl in our office named Sylvie – who spoke only French when I was around – despised me. My nickname to her was not a French name I can repeat.

I understand it is a vulgar term .

In a second work term, I actually worked across the Rideau river in Hull Quebec. My luck there was better, but still not one that made me feel … welcome.

So I returned the following Fall to London. School started up and I had a very good school year.

My grades were all A's with the odd B here an there. When that semester was over, I decided to fly down to Pensacola to visit my Mom and Dad for Christmas.

Uncle Fred drove me to the Airport in Detroit. We crossed at the Windsor bridge – and I was pulled into customs for questioning. They examined my bags – and they asked for my identification – proof of citizenship. I pulled out my little green card – the one I had been carrying since I was three.

My picture was still that of a three year old boy.

A heavy set African American lady was the customs officer inspecting me. She watched as I pulled my green card out of my wallet and handed it to her.

"What was that in your wallet?" she asked.

Caught off guard – I held my wallet open. She pointed to my old security card from Revenue Canada – Customs and Excise. She recognized the logo. I pulled it out of my wallet and handed it to her.

"That's my security card from Revenue Canada in Ottawa", I said politely and proudly. "I worked up there on a co-op job for my schooling".

She looked at me, and her face went so sad. She told me that the terms of living in Canada and retaining my American green card meant I was not supposed to work in Canada.

"But … how was I supposed to survive if I couldn't work?" I asked. "This was part of my schooling – I had to take a co-op job for this program – for this degree!"

She actually started to sob, and told me she was so sorry she had to do this – that she wished she didn't.

I simply looked at my watch and knew I had to catch my plane.

In that blink of a moment, as this very sweet lady with a downtown Detroit accent cut up my green card while crying – I made the decision that I was going to stay in Canada after school.

Canada would be my home. I would be a Canadian.

I had already been honorably discharged from the United States Coast Guard for being Canadian. And I never really had any luck making anything work in the States.

So I thanked the lady. "Please don't be upset", I said. "You helped me make a decision I had been wrestling with."

She really was a very nice lady, and she felt much more horrible about this tragedy than I did.

I took my bag and my wallet and I turned to my horrified Uncle Fred who could not believe what had just happened, and we left for the airport.

In the car, Uncle Fred turned to me and said yet again, "how many times have I told you to keep your eyes and ears open and your big mouth shut!".

This time I looked at Uncle Fred and said, "It's all for the best".

America may be the land of opportunity, but it was clear to me that day that America didn't really want me there.

So I am a Canadian. And proud to be so.

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