How Do We Expats Show Our Canadianness?
In our latest blog post, the DML is pleased to present a book preview and author interview by Pastured Moose, Erika Wah. And she’s interviewed the DML’s own David Stewart —another Pastured Moose and the author of a new expat memoir, True North, Down South: Tales of a Professional Canadian in America.
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“Are you out of bagels?” I ask the clerk at my grocery store. They are for my 17 year old who doesn’t remember the Montreal style bagels we noshed on until she was 6 and moved to the Bay Area from Vancouver. “Ah - you must be Canadian,” says the clerk, not answering my question. I immediately know that it’s not the bagels, but my accent. I’ve been “outed.” Sometimes it makes me smile when someone notices my Canadianness. Other times I am impatient with the stereotypical line of questioning that often follows. We expats have all lived these moments, and we talk about them when we’re with other Canadians. But few books examine these Canadian-American interactions or how they influence our identities.
I moved to the Bay Area with my husband, Scott, and our two kids more than a decade ago. I was working for SFU and UVic Co-op in the region and tried to track down David Stewart, at one time the person responsible for university relations at the Canadian Consulate. I finally met him at the 2013 DML Canada Day Alumni party. He had arranged all of the Canadian University sponsorships. He introduced us to Cassie Doyle, the Consulate General at the time. His daughters Isabel and Beatrice sang, O Canada.
David was - and still is - a recognizable face and force within the Bay Area Canadian community. David has provided counsel and mentorship for many newcomers and has assembled a remarkable network of Canadians. He has also significantly influenced the strategy and direction of the Digital Moose Lounge and I am honoured to share the title of Pastured Moose with him. However, David’s Canadian story here in the US is even bigger than all that, and my bagel story. And now he’s written a book about it.
David moved to the U.S. in 1996 to a start a new job and get married. He naturalized as an American four years later. For David, acquiring a new nationality was disorienting, so he went to graduate school to research the Canadian immigrant experience, and wrote an ethnography reflecting on his Canadianness. He later worked with immigrants, especially Canadians, in his subsequent roles as an immigration lawyer, a Canadian consular officer, and a Canada-US trade consultant.
In 2018, he set out to write a collection of stories reflecting on his cross-border cultural life. True North, Down South: Tales of a Professional Canadian in America is the completed works and has just been published.
I was excited to sit down with David to talk about this project and what inspired him to write it. He had shared teasers from the manuscript with me as he was working on it and I always wanted more.
Finally, I had a draft of the full manuscript in my hand and I couldn’t wait to talk with him more about all that we share as Canadians away from home. True North, Down South celebrates the deep roots that so many of us have with our Canadian lives, past and present. Plus, David’s stories are full of characters that shape this poignant, well-written and worthwhile read. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
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EW. There are 28 essays that make up the chapters in this book. How did it all start? What was the first of your Canadian-American Tales?
DWS: I was on a road trip with my American-born teenage son through my home province of Quebec in 2018. I began to see Canada through my son’s eyes, and started jotting ideas down, like a travelogue. So the book opens with me feeling nostalgic for my childhood in the asbestos mining town where I grew up. From there, each chapter unfolds by exploring different experiences of national identity and belonging that were all inside of me. At one point, I consider how Quebec’s separatist politics may have caused me to cling even closer to my Canadian identity.
At another, I reflect on my Scottish roots and how I used genealogy to express my Canadianness as well.
EW. You have many personas characterized in this collection of essays/stories. What is it like to write about yourself? Have you written anything like this before?
DWS: (Laughing) The many personas, yes! Learning how to write a memoir after years of legal and business writing meant that I had to un-learn all that. No more writing conclusions with evidence. I joined a memoir writing group and learned that in creative nonfiction, you leave things more ambiguous. I wrote not just about my Canadian childhood, but also about my experiences as a young adult working summer jobs. I spent a summer as a rock collector in Newfoundland, another as a border officer in Toronto, and another as a stand-up comic in Montreal. I also explore my transnational identity in a story about my time in France, where I represented Canada as part of a Rotary exchange program. Each experience taught me something about being Canadian. Then, after I moved to the U.S., even if I was trying to just be a guy in the room at work, I always ended up being THE Canadian guy. I worked with immigrants in North Carolina, so the book reflects on how my Canadian journey differed from that of other immigrants. Then in California I started working only with Canadians. I share a story about how I hung onto my Blackberry here longer than I should have, just because it was Canadian. And I recall how for a time my daughter worried that I was a Canadian spy. So it makes sense that each chapter explores a theme of national identity and belonging. It’s always where my head was going.
EW. Everyone has their reason for coming to America from Canada. Talk a little bit about your own circumstances.
DWS: I had finished up work for a law firm in Toronto. I needed a new job and the economy wasn’t great in Canada. I noticed the hustle south of the border, in the Massachusetts town where I eventually found
a job. Also, I had gone to McGill which was very international, so my friends and I were inclined to move away for a job and soak up what we could bring back to our work in Canada. I liked my work and married my American wife, Margaret, so I didn’t go back.
EW. You and I have talked about “immigrant nostalgia” before. What does this mean in the context of Canada and the U.S., for you?
DWS: I have always liked immigrant stories, like Isabelle Allende, or the French graphic novellist Cyril Pedrosa. So I think about these stories a lot. And every story is different. When I sat down to write, I was asking, what does it all mean to me? My sense is that Canadians have more experience, more reckoning with cultural identity. My own experience was Anglo/French. Working class/educated elite. In Canada most people live close to the border and have a sense that they are different from Americans. But Americans don’t always notice those cultural differences, so I explore those dynamics as well.
So my book unpacks theories of Canadian and immigrant identity through storytelling. Stories are a great way to share complex ideas in an entertaining way. I am still drawn to similar conversations here in the U.S. It’s part of why I love the DML.
EW. What do your family and friends say about this project?
DWS: My wife and three kids treat me like an artist - a writer. But, not everyone in my Canadian family remembers these experiences the same way. For one of my sisters in Canada, growing up Anglo in a French community didn’t carry with her. And one of my childhood friends seemed surprised by how I remembered things because he hadn’t noticed our class differences growing up.
EW. How should people read this?
DWS: Mostly I hope they enjoy and laugh along with the stories. I also hope some readers will come away with a new perspective on their own cultural experiences. My stories trace the strategies I deployed to maintain my Canadianness in Canada and in America, so hopefully they will resonate with others who’ve had a similar journey. If so, then I will have achieved something with this book.
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While we work with David's publisher to negotiate a public appearance for the Bay Area Canadian community, you can learn more about the upcoming release on September 20th of True North, Down South: Tales of a Professional Canadian in America by David Wayne Stewart, by visiting the book’s website at www.truenorthdownsouth.com.