Americas

That Awkward Moment When Your Life is a Canadian Stereotype

This is Canada. Apex, Nunavut, to be exact.

This summer I went on my first transatlantic flight since moving to Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Like all Canadian travellers landing in London, England, I was treated to the standard Canadian joke questions. Only this time I had a different answer for questions like,  “Oh, you live in Canada? Do you drive a snowmobile to work?” or “Canada, EH? So do you guys build igloos?” or “Canada! Have you seen a polar bear?” And that answer was, “Yes.”

 A simple answer, one would think. And yet this response baffled my interrogators. In fact, they seemed downright uncomfortable, as though I had told them I didn’t know Will and Kate were having a baby.

 By just saying yes, I confirmed a stereotype they didn’t believe anyway while I simultaneously eliminated any chance for humour at the expense of Canadians (i.e. me). Basically, I ruined the joke, and everyone fell silent.

 In order to diffuse the situation, I did create a long-form version of the answer, the much more explanatory, “Yes, but…” followed by statements like:

Nunavut is almost entirely above the treeline.

This map shows Nunavut's location in Canada. Image from courses.washington.edu.

This map shows Nunavut’s location in Canada. Image from courses.washington.edu.

This means it has climate and weather that are distinct from the rest of the country. For example, it snowed at least once every single month in the last year in Iqaluit. Yes, even in July. Now that snowmobile makes sense, right?

Over 85% of Nunavut’s population is Inuit.

As such, the cultural landscape of the territory is unlike any other place in the country. Most Nunavummiut (people who live in Nunavut) recognize and value the history of the land and its peoples, and there is a strong interest in traditional knowledge gathering and exchange. For example, igloo building: igloos are built for function (temporary shelters out on the land) or for fun (cultural days or competitions) in and outside of Iqaluit. So, yes, we build igloos, but the motivation is history and skill, not Canadiana.

Nunavut is Canada’s newest, largest, and least populated territory.

We hold 1/5 of the land mass but only 0.1% of the population. Not exactly your average Canucks, eh?

Not every person from Nunavut can build an igloo.

I certainly can’t. Nor does everyone drive a snowmobile. Especially in Iqaluit, the metropolitan hub of the territory, the influx of “southerners” (people who are not from northern Canada) has a noticeable influence on the local culture and lifestyle. For example, the annual Iqaluit arts festival Alianait featured a Bollywood workshop one year.

As for the polar bears, it’s not like they walk through town in Iqaluit.

You’d have to go to Arviat for that. So viewing them, while not impossible, is not easy. I once saw a mama bear and two cubs while on a Civil Air Search and Rescue Association training flight.

This extended answer has a few advantages over the simple “Yes”. First, it creates an opportunity to talk about Nunavut and northern living, something  not many people have experience with, though most show an interest. Secondly, it is clear that in most interactions, the Canadian cliché is used as an innocuous icebreaker. When presented playfully, it is a universal way of saying, “I know something about where you’re from, and I feel comfortable enough around you to tease you about your homeland”. It’s an invitation to say more, to welcome people into your little piece of this massive country. And while it is fun to be the cause of surprised faces and wide eyes, I still feel that for the sake of international small talk, it is my duty to explain my way out of the Canadian caricature.

Anubha Momin
Anubha is the creator of Finding True North, an award-winning blog about life in Iqaluit, Nunavut, a remote town of 8,000 people in the Canadian Arctic, where she lived for the last four and a half years. Since she started Finding True North, which garners 10,000+ unique visitors per month, Anubha has transitioned from writing to film and television jobs, working on- and off-screen on various projects with The CBC, VICE, and Netflix. Anubha's words and photos have appeared in VICE, The Huffington Post, The CBC, Canadian Geographic, Up Here Magazine, Briarpatch, Chatelaine, and more. She was named one of 50 Outstanding Canadians by the Huffington Post in 2016, joined The Walrus Talks national tour as a speaker this year, and is a member of the Polaris Prize Jury. Anubha currently works as an Associate Producer at VICE.

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