How To Be A Canadian (Even If You Already Are One)

by Will Ferguson & Ian Ferguson

Published by Douglas & McIntyre

225 pages, 2001

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Not a Bad Book, Eh?

Reviewed by Margaret Gunning


How do you tell a Canadian from an American? It's easy. Just ask them the standard social question, "And how are you today?" An American will say something along the lines of, "I feel great!" or "Just dandy". A Canadian will say, "Not too bad... and yourself?" (Translation: "Bad, but not too bad. Let's talk about you instead.")

Not that we're self-effacing (I am, after all, a practicing Canadian myself though practicing for what, I'm not exactly sure.) But we do seem to have a certain propensity for sending ourselves up. Just witness the legendary SCTV satire of the CBC ("The woodchuck lives in snowy climes...") or the enormous popularity of the most famous Canadian export, Bob and Doug McKenzie ("Howzit goin', eh?").

This other set of Canadian brothers, humor writers Will and Ian Ferguson, somehow get away with saying things about Canada that would be infuriating if any outsider (read: American) said them. A few samples: "If Canadians were porridge, Goldilocks would find us just right." "Being a celebrity in Canada is a good way to assure one's anonymity." "Feeling offended is a popular Canadian pastime." And yes, this might all be downright offensive if it weren't so painfully, hilariously true.

If you sincerely want to be a Canadian, and even if you already are one but don't feel you quite come up to the mark (which seems to be a national trait), then you must follow the Ferguson brothers' instructions to the letter. They take us on a whirlwind tour, a veritable literary skidoo-ride through Canada and all its quaint and quirky ways, from geography (Newfoundland's main export is "comedians") to language ("Asked to spell 'Canada', the average Canadian will unconsciously pronounce it thus: C, eh? N, eh? D, eh?" ) to culture ("Hey! That guy from the Canadian Tire ad is playing Polonius").

The Ferguson brothers have a way of hitting it on the head so hard you don't know whether to laugh or cry. In describing Canada's newest northern territory, they state, "Some have called Nunavut 'the world's most expensive guilt trip', but that simply isn't true." And their sample passage from a typical Canadian novel had me howling with chagrined laughter:

She looked back at the house. It was a good house. Not a great house. But still, not bad. As far as houses went.

The seagulls were staying close to shore. Seven generations of McGoogles had lived here. Seven generations. Their dreams were etched onto the rocks as surely as the lines of time were etched onto her face. She touched the bruise on her cheek.

'That bastard!' said Shane. He lifted the bottle to his lips. He drank. Then he stopped.

'They will be here soon,' she said. 'They will be coming down Cape Breton Road. Unless we're in Newfoundland.'

No book on Canada would be complete without multiple references to the U.S., which has always been the older, smarter, more popular brother to our 98-pound weakling. (Speaking of which, did you know Canada has its own version of Charles Atlas? It's yet another set of brothers, Joe and Ben Weider. Haven't heard of them? ... Oh.)

Will and Ian make it clear how very different we are from our neighbors to the south:

In the United States, presidents are removed from office by a) assassination, b) scandal, or c) scandal followed by assassination. In Canada, the prime minister is removed only when they begin to smell bad.

Yes, it's all here, from Twelve Ways to Say 'I'm Sorry' ("I'm... very... sorry, but this isn't the entrée I ordered") to How to Draft a Referendum Question:

Check only one:

YES: I do not want to not accept a rejection of this proposal

NO: I do want to not accept a proposed rejection of the accepted proposal.

Perhaps my favorite passage describes my own beloved stomping grounds:

Now, we're not saying the West Coast of Canada is a haven for spaced-out, looney-tune, New Age, wacked-out flakes, but it is a fact that at any given moment 70% of the population of B.C. is chained to a tree. And the remaining 40% is attempting to cut it down. (I know the numbers don't add up, but then, neither does B. C.)

It gets better:

The official emblem of Vancouver is an umbrella turned inside-out. With an activist chained to it. Drinking a latte.

So break out the Timbits, pour yourself a shot of screech (with a Molson chaser) and dive into this gorgeously funny book. After all... where else can you find the true meaning of that old Newfoundland expression, "Whale oil beef hooked"? | November 2001


Margaret Gunning has been reviewing books for many years but never gets tired of the grand adventure of reading. Her poetry has appeared in Prism International, Capilano Review and Room of One's Own. She has written two novels, A Singing Tree and Better Than Life, and is at work on a third, Nola Mardling. She lives in Vancouver with one fat cat named Murphy and one nice husband named Bill.