Atlantic Canadian “expats”

In Culture, Improbable Mutterings on August 10, 2011 at 10:13 am

My weird and wonderful home – outside Hampton, NB

In conversation with friends or new acquaintances, I often refer to myself as an “Atlantic Canadian expat,” or “expatriate.” I know I’m not the only one who does this, which makes me wonder at this tendency. It does not seem to happen often in my circles of friends who are not from Atlantic Canada. Is this just a regional peculiarity? What about Atlantic Canadian or Maritime Canadian culture encourages the use of this term? And why do those of us who have left think of ourselves as being somehow cast out?

A Nation Apart?

Of course, during the 21 years I lived in New Brunswick, I never thought of myself as a “NB national”; when I visited other parts of Canada, I never felt like I was in another country. Growing up on the Bay of Fundy, we were much like any other Canadians: we hated Toronto like good non-Torontonians (while still self-loathingly watching the Maple Leafs play every Saturday night), dreamed of visiting the Rockies like good barnacle-coated coasters, and knew “The Log-Driver’s Waltz” by heart. (Some space for difference might be left open for my Acadian friends: when they said “Canadiens,” they were referring to the Québéquois – a historical irony with deep roots.)

My first inklings that people thought of Atlantic Canada as a nation apart came in the summer of 1996, while I was working at Coleson Cove, an oil-burning power generating facility. Besides chopping wood and painting houses, it was my first proper “labour” job, and I got to meet a wide range of fascinating union types. One afternoon, while serving as a safety monitor on a welding operation, I shared a smoke break with the welders. One of them, a burly, bearded fellow with a host of union and trade badges on his coveralls, spoke passionately about a Maritime Union. “It makes sense,” he argued, especially given the recent threat of Quebec separatism and the wealth of natural resources in our region. Geographically isolated, could the Maritimes survive economically? I wasn’t convinced, but I was moved by his conviction that we could make a go at it.

But that was just smoke-break talk. Such utopian ideas tend to fizzle in the face of comfortable realities, being too unrealistic or too libertarian for the (in)famously moderate Atlantic Canadian voter.

And yet despite the demonstrable and persistent Canadianness of my home region, I still call myself an “expat.” As do many others.

“Expat,” as a self-applied term, is necessarily tongue-in-cheek. Neither Atlantic Canada as a whole nor its individual provinces aspire to nation-state status; separatist movements east of Quebec are more curiosities than legitimate political movements. Even “official” (a loose term) political parties like the Atlantica Party are too “fringe” for mainstream voters (although I give them points for their “aggressive privatization program targeting the liquor industry”). This was not always true: in the late 19th century, versions of a Maritime or Atlantic Union were proposed by elected and crown officials. Pre-Confederation, the idea of Union did have some currency, with the torch being carried primarily by New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor and Gladstone supporter Arthur Hamilton-Gordon. However, with Confederation taking centre stage after Hamilton-Gordon’s departure to Trinidad, the idea faded into obscurity. As an idea, Union and separation seems a dream even more remote than for Quebec.

Celebrating “Home,” Away

So if we’re not “expats,” by virtue of not having a “nation” to return to, what are we?

If it’s not something people back home clamour for, we nonetheless cling to this notion of cultural independence when we arrive in large urban centers like Toronto. You don’t have to go far to realize how many people leave the East Coast and Newfoundland for the fairer economic shores of Central and Western Canada. Half of the “Irish pubs” in the city host East Coast-themed music nights, and foggy coasters loudly and proudly boast of their “culture” as being the friendliest and colloquially unique the country has to offer.

So it’s not out of loneliness that Atlantic Canadians come together to celebrate our identity. Certainly, as a working professional, there are advantages to being part of this active community. For over three years, I’ve participated in various roles with a well-organized group of Atlantic Canadians under the umbrella of East Coast Connected, a Toronto-area network of young professionals and their senior mentors. It’s a fantastic organization that has opened a lot of opportunities for me as a writer, but it’s also been a thought-provoking experience. Part of that has come from a willingness on the group’s part to ask Atlantic Canadians living outside the region tough questions about themselves: what do we want out of life in a place like Toronto, and what role can we play as a self-identifying “expat” community?

At their 2nd Atlantic Business Summit, held in 2009, organizers formed a panel discussion about the “Atlantic Canadian diaspora.” Its title was “To what extent should governments support the establishment of expatriate community hubs?” During the open and frank discussion, one of the terms which really rubbed me the wrong way was the term “diaspora.” It stuck in my craw, and I just would not let it go.

For those unfamiliar with the term “diaspora,” it refers originally to the dispersion of the Jews among the Gentiles, or any Jewish community outside of the state of Israel. Obviously, the historical factors behind this term make it politically-charged: much of the Jewish dispersion over the centuries has been anything but willing. But the term was being used willy-nilly throughout the conference, and elsewhere, by intellectuals describing the Atlantic Canadian community living away from “home.”

It seemed pretty clear to me why I and so many like me had left: for better opportunities, and not because we did not love where we came from. Nobody had driven us out of town. We had chosen our paths.

What was going on here? Was I in denial, or was the so-called “diaspora” out to lunch about who we were, and why we were here? Why were we trying to reconnect, if we had worked so hard to leave?

The “Secret” Nation

Maybe the greatest thing I miss about “home” is the sense of being immersed in a cultural landscape with such a prominent sense of history. My hometown of Saint John is a place where history is etched into every stone building, and carved into the valley hillsides. People there know where they come from; they know where their families came from; they know that you are, regardless of your status or class, a “part” of the community.

Of course, ten years ago, it was precisely this quality that drove me to leave. I found it suffocating. And at the time, it did feel like I was being driven away – like my life in Atlantic Canada was, in a sense, “determined” – like I was destined to become a part of history, but not necessarily play a role in shaping it.

My perspective has changed now. I see that sense of history and community as a great boon – though perhaps it is only with distance and in retrospect that I am able to see and acknowledge this.

One of the peculiar qualities of living in Toronto is its formlessness. It simply teems with cultural mutation and experimentation. But with all that comes an accompanying feeling of rootlessness: the sense of being disconnected from origins. Toronto is Canada’s City of Immigrants, and that has set the tone for everyone – including people who are from Canada originally. Here, Atlantic Canadians are just another group, thrown into the mix and doing our best to make our way.

And so we develop and reinforce the myths that continue to bring us together: the myth of our “nation” that is no nation. I don’t use the word “myth” disparagingly; nobody’s getting hurt by using it. These myths grow in stature and become cartoonishly disproportionate as time goes on: “Our communities back home are the tightest-knit and most caring in Canada. They’re the hardest-working, the hardest-partying, the hardest-fighting places in Canada. Our beautiful corner of the continent is the most scenic, but also the ‘best-kept secret’ of Canada.”

That, in a nutshell, describes the Atlantic Canadian “nation”: a secret that is “kept” from the rest of the country. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if the secret is being kept because it’s shameful, or because it’s something that you want to preserve, unsullied.

But the term also reflects the deep ambivalence about being an “ex-pat”: it’s a point of pride to be from there, but not actually live there anymore. We all want it both ways, us ex-pats: we want to build an imaginary country for our memories to inhabit, but leave the actual land behind.


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