On Becoming Canadian
By Neil McKinnon
A recent newspaper carried an item about new Canadians complaining that their citizenship test had been too difficult, that even people born and raised in Canada would not be able to answer the questions. New Canadian, Aristotle “Limey” Woo-Alley-Sing agrees. “Even people born and raised in Canada would not be able to answer the questions,” Woo-Alley-Sing says.
There was also commentary by other Canadians who dismissed the complaint by saying that potential citizens should have to study and learn something of the country’s history before they are allowed to gain citizenship. Jeremy Riverbottom, a long-time Canadian, commented while skinning a beaver with the curved blade of his son’s hockey stick. “Potential citizens should have to study and learn something of the country’s history before they are allowed to gain citizenship,” Riverbottom says. “I mean, how difficult is it to remember that Justin Beiber is a Canadian.”
After listening to both sides, I’ve decided that Riverbottom is wrong. These immigrants deserve their new status, not because of any ability to regurgitate founding facts, but because of their instinctive recognition of the one characteristic, shared by all Canadians, that contributes most to binding us together as a culture and as a nation—our universal love of whining, bellyaching and complaining. I believe that this is the only relevant requirement for citizenship and that the recent grumblings have aptly met that criteria.
However, this does lead to a question. What is it that makes a Canadian? What unique traits define us and make us different from other cultures? After pondering this through most of my last coffee break, I believe that I have isolated two qualities. The first is well known—my and every other Canadian’s predilection for saying “eh.”
“Eh” is more than a sound. It’s a statement of opinion, “Eh Bob... she’s a fast one, eh.”
It’s a question, “She is, eh?”
It’s a fixed expression, “Eh Bob ... I’d run around her block, eh.”
It’s an exclamation, “Effin-eh ... maybe a marathon on ‘er mattress, eh!”
It’s a statement of fact, “Eh Bob ... I did it, eh. I chalked a story on her blackboard, eh.””
It’s a command, “Tell me the story, eh.”
It’s a narrative, “Eh Bob ... we were dancing, eh. We went out for a smoke, eh. We got in the back seat of my car, eh. I wrote my story, eh.”
It’s an accusation, “Hold on, eh. You’re lying, eh. You ain’t got a car, eh.”
It’s an insult, “Eh Bob ... Maybe no car, eh. But I got the chalk, eh ... and you don’t, eh.”
Eh is also an affirmation, a descriptor, an adjective, a salutation and a signifier of agreement. As such, it is almost as useful as the f-word. In fact, there is nothing more powerful in the language of a Canadian than the two used together. “Effin-eh” is as close as two Canadians can get to a meeting of the minds. “Eh” also has a number of punctuational functions, often taking the place of a question mark, an exclamation point or a period.
Eh is actually added because of uncertainty. Once you get to know a Canadian you will discover that he or she is uncertain about everything although often we cleverly disguise this fact with belligerence and insults to Americans.
The speaker is really trying to ascertain the level of comprehension, interest and agreement veiled within the listener. When I ask, “What constitutes a Canadian, eh?” It’s a question but I also want affirmation that it is a legitimate question. When I say, “She’s gained a lot of weight, eh.” Or ... “You know George, eh ... well, he got drunk, eh ... fell in the river, eh ... damn near drowned, eh,” I’m looking for affirmation that your following my drift, but I’m also looking for agreement that what I’m telling you is legitimate and that I’m not wasting your time. I’m actually inviting a supportive noise ... which can be “eh.”
Before I dispense with the topic of “eh,” I wish to shine a light on a couple of ugly rumours that have no doubt been spread by jealous Americans:
It is not true that Canada’s Olympic contingent is known as the “EH” Team.
It is false that we came up with our country’s name by putting all the letters into a bag and then choosing at random ... picking out a C, eh ..., then an N, eh ... and then a D, eh.
When performed in Canada, Take the A Train, made famous by Duke Ellington, is not known as Take the Train, Eh.
The use of “eh” is a natural outgrowth of the second uniquely Canadian characteristic—namely the tendency to preface every action and sentence with an apology.
If someone bumps me in a crowd, I say, “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry I left my shin where you were going to kick.”
“I’m terribly sorry but I stepped right where your dog just defecated.”
“Please accept my apologies for putting my ribs in the way of your elbow.”
Therefore, there are only three hurdles for new immigrants. The first is to complete an intensive language training program so that they come to understand that without the constant use of “eh” they will never be able to fully communicate with others in their adopted land.
Second, they must be taught to apologise in all situations. There is no circumstance where it is not appropriate for a Canadian to apologise.
Third, they must be taught how to gripe like other Canadians. They can start simple, by whining about the weather, gradually getting into complex bitching about the government and eventually graduating to a higher level of sophistication by complaining about Americans.
The next time you meet Aristotle “Limey” Woo-Alley-Sing, though he may be wearing a burka, if he says how sorry he is that you spilled hot coffee on his lap, or he comments that it’s been too cold, eh and it’s America’s fault, eh ... know then that you are in the presence of a bona-fide Canadian.
I’m sorry that this piece is not very good, eh ... but I was distracted, eh. I thought the U.S. was about to invade Saskatchewan, eh.
(Ed. Note: Neil is a long-time favorite with our readers and is also, we hasten to add, a Canadian!)