Time to Put Hyphens on the Back Burner? Counting our Blessings.

Time to Put Hyphens on the Back Burner? Counting our Blessings

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

Although I was born in Canada and proud to be a Canadian, I grew up with a soft spot in my heart for Americans because my family—and many other Canadians we knew – spent our vacation times mainly in the U.S.  Living in Montreal as we did, the U.S. border was only an hour away, and, after WWII (when travel to the U.S. once again flowed freely), my mother, sister, and I spent several joyous summers on the banks of Lake Champlain in Plattsburgh, N.Y. (unlike in Quebec, kids under 16 could go to the movies there, and a turkey dinner could be had at Woolworth’s for $1.25 each!), with my Dad joining us on the weekends. Later, my college friends and I got to know New England well in bucolic places like Lake Placid and Lake George.

When I married, my husband and I spent our honeymoon in New York City, attending a different Broadway play every night for a week. In Canada, we had a ski chalet in Mount Sutton, close to the Vermont border. My in-laws were part of the Snowbird crowd – my mother-in-law actually got a prescription from her doctor advising her husband that she needed to spend the winter in Florida (still a popular destination for sun-seeking Montrealers) for her “condition.” We were also grateful for our blessings, and we tried to “give back” to society in many ways.

As our four children grew, my husband and I became devotees of Ogunquit and Kennebunkport, Maine in the summer and then, venturing a little farther afield, of Cape Cod. How we enjoyed the sandy beach and tranquil waters of West Dennis and sometimes the daunting, cold waves of Nauset Beach! For several years, we explored the Cape’s artistic locations and innovators, its renowned aquatic museum in Wood’s Hole, and its marine cuisine. We loved American holidays like July 4th, when the population would always stand as one and place their hands on their hearts while lustily singing the National Anthem.

“Americans are patriotic,” we would say approvingly. “Americans make a lot of noise. Americans are a lot of fun.” Canadians, by contrast, were more circumspect, we thought, more modest then in their expressions of fealty to their country. Not everyone knew all the words to our own National Anthem, “O Canada,” which, as time went on and the words kept changing, we eventually sang in both English and French, especially in Quebec, where after much controversy, French became the official language.

The British Province of Canada was initially formed in 1841 by the union of Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Upper Canada’s population consisted largely of former Americans still loyal to Great Britain (that is, English-Canadians living in what is now Ontario), while Lower Canada (today’s Quebec) was mainly populated by French-Canadians, with long memories (je m’en souviens is still on Quebec license plates) of defeat to the English on the Plains of Abraham. Thus the tradition of hyphenated Canadians began. As Nova Scotia and New Brunswick joined the initial Confederation to create the Dominion of Canada in 1867, the Fathers of Confederation agreed that there would be two official languages in this new country, Canada, a decision that came back to bite a little more than a century later in the 1970s and 1980s when Separatism reared its controversial head. Suddenly we had a Quebec population divided into Franco-phones, Anglo-phones, and Allo-phones (people of neither French- nor English-origin). Separatist or Federalist labels merged into Quebecois or ROC (the Rest of Canada). And violence for a while.

It seemed then to be forgotten that, since Canada’s boundaries had grown over time to include ten provinces, plus the Northern Territories, the population now included immigrants from many countries of the world. Over the years, the French-/English- hyphen had proliferated to include many places of origin. In other words, while the country’s inhabitants were and are all “Canadians,” at various times in Canadian history, they or their ancestors had migrated from some other land. There were, indeed, many hyphens in Canadian identities. The federal government encouraged Canadians to celebrate the memory of their ethnic or cultural identity as a matter of pride. It added a welcome diversity to society. And eventually, native Canadian “Indians” were dignified at last with the title “First Nations” people.

Canada has long believed that “the cultural mosaic” enriches society. And it certainly has. But it seems to me that, in contemporary times, the mosaic can get in the way of a unified identity. In Quebec, La Patrie still strikes a chord in the hearts and minds of Franco-phones.

By contrast, Americans have traditionally believed in “the melting pot.” In days gone by, it didn’t matter where you came from. Once you became a citizen, you were an American. You enriched American culture with your prior knowledge and/or experience of other countries. You brought your skills, or you learned new ones. For me, this has always been a beautiful philosophy: The Statue of Liberty symbolically welcoming the oppressed, the homeless and hungry, with the opportunity for a better life in freedom and dignity. From sea to shining sea. From one coast to another.

Why break our splendidly diverse population into large or small demographic fragments (according to urban and rural locations and narrow definitions): a broad range of color, geographic, political, and even religious beliefs (evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim) compressed into a maze of charts on a TV screen?

Let us not lose the inspiring ideals that America encompassed. Let us remember that the Jewish value of b’tzelem Elohim, the creation of the progenitor of mankind in “the image of God,” extends to all humanity, along with the core concept of welcoming the stranger.

As Thanksgiving approaches, let us express deep gratitude for the cultural enrichment and initiative immigrants from so many countries have brought and continue to bring over the centuries since America’s inception. It’s self-evident, hopefully along with the Four Freedoms enunciated by an American President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1941 shortly before the U.S. entered World War II: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear.  These freedoms, he hoped, would become universal values. So why do we need the hyphens in 2018? These little word connectors, it seems to me, belong to an unequal past. Let us put the hyphen to rest.

When you travel to so many less fortunate parts of the world – shockingly so — as I have had the occasion to do in recent years, you know how good it is to come home to America.

© Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.