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Wherefore art thou Wisconsin?

2003-10-30 - 11:26 a.m.

When I read journals that are starting to complain about winter coming, I think to myself, huh, wimps, they think they’ve got it bad, imagine what it’s like up here in Canada. Sort of a we’ve-cornered-the-market-on-winter snobbery that I bet a lot of Canadians feel. And then I check Mapquest and see that, in fact, Green Bay, Wisconsin is roughly on a parallel with Ottawa and when Weetabix talks about the daylength varying with the seasons and it getting cold these days, she’s speaking from experience similar to mine. Heh, heh, oops.

If you’re a Canadian, you are probably familiar with the stereotype of the American that knows nothing about Canada. You’ve heard the stories of Americans arriving at the border in July with skis on their car roofs. You have probably even heard the less believable claim that Americans think we live in igloos and take dogsleds or skidoos to work. I personally know people that have propagated these stories when in the southern U.S. because they thought it was funny that anyone could be so gullible.

And I have to admit that this stereotype exists for a reason – I have rarely found an American that knows that Ottawa is the capital of Canada. I was at a party in Boston a couple of years ago that was full of guys serving in the American Airforce. To the common question, where are you from, I replied, Ottawa. I got blank stares and head shakes. Ottawa, Canada? Still nothing. The capital of Canada? This was met by grunts and a couple of “hunh, never heard of it”s.

I have to admit I was shocked. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the military is full of violence-loving morons. I am proud to claim as friends some extremely clever people in the military in fact, and I respect the job they do. And the guys at the party were world-travelers. I had met one of them in Spain and visited him in Germany where he was stationed, after he’d finished his posting to Turkey. I couldn’t get over the fact that no one had heard of Ottawa, the capital of their immediate neighbours. It’s not like we’re on the other side of the world; we share a continent and there’s only three countries on it! Just writing about this now brings back my dismay and disbelief.


I must admit, though I know some of the basics about the U.S. – the name of the president, the capital, the rough layout of the States (after all, I’ve been in/driven through almost all of them), the extent of my knowledge is by no means comprehensive. I don’t know the names of the heads of their States (except for the recent news about Ah-nold of course) and I think they’re called governors, but I'm not totally certain. And I know the capital of Mexico is Mexico City but I don’t know if they still have Fox as president and he’s the first and only Mexican president I could name, and we share a continent. I am not one to be casting a lot of stones here.

It was once pointed out to me (by a fellow Canadian) that Canada isn’t a large figure on the world stage and why should the Americans care enough to learn much about us? We’re this large, cold country that’s mostly empty once you get beyond a hundred miles of the U.S. border. Americans worry more about the cold air masses that descend from us in the winter than they do about how our policies could affect them, partly, I suspect, because they don’t see that they can affect them. And I see his point, to a degree (although we are by far each other’s most important trading partner and our economies are very intertwined) and I certainly get tired of hearing Canadians go on about Americans knowing nothing about us. Why should they know the provincial capitals... unless we want to memorize the fifty state capitals? I didn't think so.

My expectations are actually pretty low – when I say I’m from Ottawa, I’d be delighted to hear “Oh, the capital of Canada” more times than I hear, “Never heard of it.” Know that Canada is made up of Provinces, the name of our Prime Minister and the name of our capital. That’s it. That’s really all I ask, lest someone ask more of me.

One last thing: I was relieved that the later arrivals to that party did seem to have heard of Ottawa. Then we decided to hit the bar and when I opened the door to leave there, hastily scrawled and taped up, was a sign.

“Odawa is the capital of Canada”


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