My Canada: The expat experience

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the first of seven parts.

When people ask me why I came to Canada and why I’ve stayed here this long, I usually say something like:

“I was working for UPI in New York and my first marriage was breaking up and I wanted to go somewhere, anywhere, because all my friends and family were in New York and I didn’t want them to think, ‘poor Ken,’ and a pal at UPI was then the Canadian news editor and, when he asked if I wanted to take over the Vancouver bureau, I said, ‘Where’s Vancouver?’

“Anyway, I went to Vancouver, and then transferred to UPI-Montreal and then to Toronto, where I met Linda, who, of course, is Canadian, and we got married and had a couple of kids who are, of course, Canadian – so I just stayed.”

The part I usually leave out is that Linda and I left Canada for a year or so, lived in a small town in Maine. But, when our first child died there, two days after he was born, we packed up and went “home.”

Yet, after all these years, I still think of myself as an American, an expat, an outsider. I’ve never lost my American attitude, which is really my New York attitude, which has always set me apart.

My first year in this country, in 1973, I was invited to spend Christmas with the family of my best friend in Canada, Joey Slinger.

I flew from Vancouver to Toronto, where Joey and I caught the train to his hometown of Guelph. When we arrived at the railway station, we were immediately confronted by a couple of cops.

What have you got in the bag?” one barked at Joey, who had stuffed Christmas gifts into a large black trash bag.

“Why do you want to know?” I barked back.

The cops looked at me like I’d pissed on their brogues. “We’re asking the questions here,” one said.

“No, you’re not,” I said, “not until you tell us what this is about.”

After a brief staring match, the cop said: “Well, you two guys fit the description of a couple of suspects who robbed a Canadian Tire store.”

I threw a puzzled look at the cops and pointed to the bag. “Does it look like we’ve got a tire in there?”

Joey broke up, the cops eventually gave up, and Joey explained to me that Canadian Tire didn’t sell only tires.

Several years later, in 1980, in his humor column in the Toronto Star, Joey wrote about his friend – me – who he called the Bronx Bomber:

The Bronx Bomber, an American, from the Bronx, has, thanks to his Constitution and perhaps genetically imprinted, a clear sense of citizens’ rights, particularly his own …

I have been with the Bomber when he sent three – three! – steaks back to the kitchen, while I sat in embarrassment at the table trying to gnaw the ungnawable.

“If I am going to pay for a steak,” he explained to the manager after the third strike, “I want a steak that Carl Yastrzemski could not smack out of the ballpark with an easy swing.” The Bomber then announced that we would dine elsewhere and that the restaurant could pay for the bottle of wine we had drunk while these indignities were being heaped upon our plates. The restaurant, to my everlasting surprise, paid and we marched out free, gratis; the Bomber vindicated, me mortified.

In this regard, if you ask my wife and children, I have not mellowed with age. But this is not a good time to be an American with attitude.

The creep in the White House appears to have given Canadians – and others around the world – license to flex their anti-American reflexes.

When the Child in Chief sulked away from the Paris Agreement a couple of weeks ago, among all the understandable and reasoned criticism, I spotted this from a friend of a friend on Facebook: Most Americans are not worldly or educated.

This comment, though obviously ignorant, still pissed me off. I wanted to shout back at the unknown woman, presumably Canadian:

Have you traveled to every province in Canada, plus the Northwest Territories, as I have? Visited every major city and hundreds of small towns, from Cow Head, Newfoundland, to The Pas, Manitoba, to Tofino, B.C.?

Could you ace a Canadian history and politics quiz, like the one I designed for my first-year journalism students at a Toronto college, many of whom knew next to nothing about their country?

Canadians love to point to that quote from Bono in 2003, and repeated by Obama in 2016: “The world needs more Canada.”

But, what does it mean?

To me, it means a generally peaceful, civil society where I can go to the doctor and not get a bill. I appreciate Canada’s people, its history and, especially, its geography.

I’d rather be Rocky Mountain high in Alberta than Colorado.

You can seamlessly substitute Canada for America in the opening lines of America the Beautiful:

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!

In 1976, for the U.S. Bicentennial, Canada gave the United States the gift of a book titled Between Friends, a collection of more than 200 spectacular photographs taken along our shared border, from the Yukon and Alaska to New Brunswick and Maine.

That June, I interviewed Lorraine Monk, who edited the book, as head of the photography division of the National Film Board of Canada.

It was an enjoyable conversation. She inscribed my copy: For Ken Becker, who understood what the book was all about.

I did. I still do.

Tomorrow: Arriving in Lotus Land


This piece and the rest in the series inspired me to write my book: The Expat Files: My Life in Journalism.


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