There's a Peculiar Strangeness to Being Canadian in America

It is a long way from the west coast of Canada to central New Jersey. In August, I moved from the Lower Mainland to Middlesex County, some 35 miles southwest of New York City, and found out just how vast the width of the continent can feel. I traded not just the Pacific for the Atlantic but the city for the suburbs, mountains for flatlands, wilderness for concrete, green for grey. I gave up forests of cedar and spruce and gained (far fewer) oaks and sycamores. I swapped dollars for dollars, the only currency that counts. I left behind the rains only to find myself parched. I was no longer in the land where I was born. I had become an alien.

There is a peculiar strangeness to being Canadian in the United States. Everything is familiar and yet foreign at the same time. Most Canadians like myself are steeped in American culture from the moment they can read a sentence, watch a screen, or hum a tune. Likewise, a good deal of what animates American political life is known to Canadians by way of “the news”; after all, it’s important to keep tabs on your neighbour, not least when they happen to be the world’s foremost superpower. There is so much of America in the northern air that it can be difficult at times to pinpoint what exactly constitutes a homegrown cultural or political identity, except in relative terms. It is easier, for example, to cite a popular image of a given region of the US — speaking of Jersey: The Sopranos, anyone? — than it is to come up with even one significant representation of anywhere in Canada. Most Canadians will have some idea of Boston or Brooklyn or even Hoboken. How many Americans can imagine Vancouver?

On the other hand, some aspects of living stateside can seem outlandish to a Canadian, not to say jarring. I was naïve about how difficult it would be to get around in the sprawl. I had grown used to relying on a combination of carsharing, public transit, and my own two feet. I soon discovered that my suburban corner of New Jersey is situated firmly in car country, and that it is far more convenient to take the train to New York than it is, say, to ride the bus to the grocery store. The idea of a car co-op is baffling in this context. What’s the use when everyone has their own wheels? Pedestrians, too, were clearly the last thing on anyone’s mind when it came to building roads and other infrastructure. (“Designing” would imply too much intention.) I discovered this the hard way when I tried to walk to the movies. The bridge spanning the river — across which lies an AMC multiplex, the only theatre for miles — has a walkway, of course. It’s just that it ends abruptly on the other side, spitting you out onto eight lanes of highway traffic.

In other respects, a person is simply on their own. A very different paradigm abides in these parts, where medicine, for example, is merely business by another name. My gut twisted the first time I saw two consecutive ambulances drive by, each with a different private hospital’s logo painted on its side. If it came to it, what illness or injury could I afford to have healed? What would bankrupt me? I knew beforehand that these are the kinds of questions that leave millions of Americans starting awake in the middle of the night. I had never known quite what it meant to open my eyes only to keep on living the nightmare.

Getting mowed over (pardon the expression) and left behind as carrion for the vultures of corporate healthcare is just one form of everyday peril. Because I was stepping back on to campus, I couldn’t help but feel trepidation at the prospect of a shooting. Printed on the backside of my new student ID is the slogan “RUN. HIDE. FIGHT.” No one bothered to explain it: American kids do active-shooter drills from the time they are in kindergarten. (The phrase itself is so commonplace that, a couple of years ago, a thriller was released with it as the title.) One day, while fording the asphalt moat that surrounds my college, I noticed a bumper sticker that read, “EVERY AMERICAN SHOULD KNOW HOW TO USE THESE TWO THINGS.” Below this was an illustration of a handgun next to a Bible. A couple of states away, in Virginia, two headline-making mass shootings took place in November alone. On the thirteenth, an undergraduate at the University of Virginia opened fire on his classmates, killing three of them. On the twenty-second, a night-shift manager at a Walmart in Chesapeake entered the store’s break room and shot six of his colleagues dead before taking his own life. As I’m writing, a story is breaking of how a six-year-old boy shot his teacher in Newport News, also in Virginia.

Of course, Virginia is not New Jersey, nor is it representative of the country as a whole. In any case, something which hit closer to home had already happened earlier in the same month. On November 3, the FBI in Newark issued a warning to all synagogues in the state, saying it had received a credible tip that an individual was menacing the safety of Jewish worshippers. There are no fewer than four synagogues within a fifteen minute’s walk from my apartment, one of which sits at the end of my street. The day after the FBI issued its warning, it came out that the individual in question “no longer [posed] a threat to the community.” This rhetoric is ominous enough. But with the likes of the artist formerly known as Kanye West brandishing the antisemitic torch, so was the national mood.

Then there was the heat. I thought I had learned to cope, having weathered the deadly “heat dome” that struck British Columbia a couple of years ago. But little could have prepared me to withstand the summertime temperatures on the East Coast, sustained not just for days but for weeks at or above 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). Unlike my neighbours’ apartments, mine has no AC unit. The lack of cool, shady greenspace — the few public “parks” nearby are little more than glorified lawns — and the abundance of naked concrete made it all the harder to bear. According to data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, temperatures in New Jersey are rising the fastest of any state, having gone up by an average of 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.4 degrees Celsius, in the last century. (As you will recall, a key goal of the Paris Agreement is to keep the rise in global temperatures below 1.5 degrees Celsius.) The latest figures show that even though renewables appear to have (just) surpassed coal for the first time last year, fossil fuels still make up the bulk of American energy; in New Jersey, more than half of electric power is generated by burning natural gas. Meanwhile, carbon-dioxide emissions rose 1.3 percent in the US, putting the country back onto its pre-pandemic course — that is, towards doomsday. This increase does not account for the copious fumes belched into the atmosphere by wildfires.

It is now known that climate change afflicts poor areas more severely than it does wealthy ones. This is true whether speaking globally or locally. Even within the same ZIP code, neglected communities are likelier to suffer from more punishing heat and to have fewer means of relief than their well-serviced, well-to-do neighbours. As with everything in this country, this tends to correlate with race. The grander, whiter avenues of my borough are lined with tall, leafy trees, and the homes are fronted by dim porches. Meanwhile, the streets below the apartment blocks where working people live, and where Spanish is as often heard as English, are planted sparsely, if at all; a sponge for the heat, the bare pavement soaks up the swelter, spitting it back out well past sunset. In the city across the river, the nineteenth-century Dutch Reformed Church is skirted by a shaded churchyard. Mere blocks away, the angular chapel of the local African Methodist Episcopal congregation sits across from an empty lot, in the shadow of a high rise.

With next to no alternative to private healthcare or private transportation, and with public resources flattering the interests of private wealth, there is little to buffer the violence of American capitalism. The toll it takes can be seen in the faces of normal people, the “99 percent” who are most vulnerable to its predations. When I started school last September, I found morale among my college’s full-time faculty, in the words of one professor, at an “all-time low.” They had been working without a contract since the summer of 2020, when their union’s prior agreement with the school expired. Since then, the college has been (unsuccessfully) strong-arming the faculty into accepting a four-year contract that would see them receive a zero-percent wage increase in the first year and paltry raises in the rest. With inflation, this means the faculty have been taking repeated cuts to their pay over the past several many months. Though by no means the worst case (just think of nurses), this scenario was especially dire at the onset of Covid, when they strained to adapt — with neither help nor compensation — to the rigours of remote instruction, and again last summer, when inflation climbed above 9 percent for the first time in 40 years. Meanwhile, the college has recruited a law firm to help fight its own faculty — to the tune of almost a million dollars. The college’s president, who pockets a five-grand pay-bump every year, now draws a salary in excess of $230,000.

If it seems there is little to love about New Jersey, it is only because, as a homesick outsider, I have been liable to notice some of its worst qualities. While I have grown deeply fond of many of the people I’ve met in my adoptive state, I miss the beauty and the relative humaneness of my West Coast home. This is not to say there is nothing wrong with it. Many of the same ills plague British Columbia: the same erosion of wages and working conditions, the same tendency towards reaction and unreason, the same reliance on extracted resources. Others are unique to the province. Despite the official rhetoric of “reconciliation,” for example, Indigenous peoples across Canada are still subject to a regime of unabated colonialism. In Jersey, on the other hand, talk of a reckoning with the land’s first peoples is almost unimaginable because the plains have long since been cleared — or nearly so. In the event, this contrast serves to highlight a common feature that both unifies and divides the two places. They are bound together by a common history, the legacy of settler colonialism and the malignant form of capitalism it bore to this continent (and abroad). They are at odds over the value of curbing the spread of the cancer. The one does its best to pretend it isn’t sick at all; the other sees the disease not as an ailment but as a virtue.

As I write, a long-circulating rumour has just been confirmed as true: despite the mayor’s best efforts, the only grocery store in town is slated to close for good. Online, some residents have speculated about what might be next for the area. The greatest hope for many is that a “plaza,” their euphemism for a strip mall, might replace the grocery. This is frankly the first time I have witnessed anyone express enthusiasm for what I had previously considered a kind of blight. And what about the store’s employees? Apparently, they will be offered the option to transfer to another of the chain’s locations. Locals who accept the offer will face the prospect of a longer commute; in the absence of an all-but-unthinkable overhaul of the transit system, this will hasten a rise in their cost of living due to the extra gas needed to get to and from work. How many will have to weigh fuel against food or healthcare or childcare? I can only imagine that the lack of an accessible place to buy groceries will push many in the area to resort to the likes of Amazon for the delivery of their essentials. As it happens, a monolithic Amazon warehouse sits just down the highway, dwarfing the other industrial buildings nearby; some of my classmates work there part-time to afford tuition. Meanwhile, with all the cars whizzing around, where is there hope for a shift towards a more sustainable way of life?

Moreover, who can you turn to in order to set things right? Politics might seem the natural field for this type of battle. But in Middlesex County, in contrast to much of the country, the two-party circus isn’t a site of much contestation: Democratic candidates often run unopposed in local elections. So, what to do when the party of “progress” stands in the way of necessary change? The only recourse lies with the people themselves. At first, this prospect may seem dismal. Centuries of propaganda have served to disarm the minds of everyday people on both sides of the border, leaving them abject in the face of their own powerlessness — and all the more susceptible to the lies of charlatans. Yet it is precisely at such a time that things stand a chance of being turned around. The events of the past few years have exposed the brittleness and injustice of American life, and it appears the centre may not hold for much longer. At such a rare time — as in, say, 1968 — the moment is ripe for renewal. It also threatens total collapse. Which way the pendulum swings depends on whether the masses of people on this continent can overcome their proud instinct to stick to themselves and instead come together for the good of all. Nothing short of survival is at stake. In this Canadian’s eyes, this much is clear. Either American civilization bucks the worst of its heritage — or it breaks bad once and for all.

Trevor Clarke

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