As an Armenian Canadian living in New York for over a decade, I’m conflicted when it comes to the idea of Canada Day. Growing up in the multicultural Rexdale neighborhood of Toronto, I was encouraged to explore the plurality of my identity by school teachers, the media and those around around me. There appeared to be no conflict between all aspects of my identity — born in Syria, being of Armenian heritage, being gay and Canadian. But as time goes on the question of what it mean to be Canadian pops up now and again. I feel Canadian but I’m also feeling increasingly American — I’m married to one — and I wonder if there’s a conflict in being both.
For a long time, multicultural Canadians like myself often defined ourselves against the backdrop of America. Our families easily sprawled past borders and it was common for most of my friends to have as many family members in New York or Boston as Montreal or Winnipeg. It was more about what we were not rather than what we were. We didn’t worship our military (less so before than now), we weren’t loud and boisterous (well, not as much), we understood what it meant to be overlooked, we consumed culture created by people most people around the world didn’t know much about, we felt great opportunity afforded by the resources of our nation and learned a history that wasn’t dominated by revolution or conflict since Confederation in 1867. In some ways being Armenian prepared me for life as a Canuck, with its parallel histories that differ from those trumpeted by empires and dominant cultures.
In March, I interviewed fellow Canadian AA Bronson and I asked him about Canadian-ness in his art, he replied:
The result is that, while Americans are embedded in their mass media, Canadians are observers of media. We are at once alienated and entranced.
It’s an idea I understand but it isn’t how I learned to be Canadian, in fact, after racking my brain I realized recently that that moment probably happened at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, just north of Toronto.
A small provincial museum devoted to the Group of Seven and art of the First Nations (though their mission has since expanded) the institution was comforting for me when I was young. It’s log cabin-like galleries, winding displays and its location in the woods made me feel like I was traveling to a far off land that was conveniently 45 minutes away. I was taken there by different school classes and even by my mother, who occasionally played hookey from work to spend time with me.
During my visits to the McMichael I most remember Lawren Harris’s large “Mount Lefroy” (1930). This beautiful painting confronted me almost every trip and it I don’t know how this painting made me feel Canadian but it did. I’m not certain if it was the affinity I felt to this single mountain peak that appears crowned by rings of clouds and light, but it created a connection that remains to this day.
I can’t fully explain what it means to be Canadian as much as I can’t fully explain why this work was the one that made the difference.
Happy Canada Day!