Growing up in Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province located on the east coast, I occasionally visited Maine and Florida, but otherwise had little interaction with the United States. I warily viewed the country as an intimidating popular teenager — loud, obnoxious, entitled — and vowed I would never live there. And then, I did.
I moved to the United States for love. I married my college sweetheart, a fellow Canadian, in 1999, and promptly followed him to Portland, Oregon, where he received a job offer as an engineer. Armed with my shiny, new journalism degree, I had big plans to find work at a local news outlet. Then I discovered the harsh reality of immigration law.
As an engineer, my husband qualified for a NAFTA visa right away. My journalism degree, however, was nowhere to be found on the list of NAFTA-approved jobs (yes, there is a list).
I couldn’t manage to fit my education or experience into any of the non-media jobs listed, and getting another degree in a field I didn’t care for seemed like a waste of time and money. So, I waited. I waited for three long years until I finally got my employment authorization card. There was only one catch — by that time I had a newborn baby boy in my arms.
I managed to make it all work, and 17 years later I am now working full-time in my career, have two American-born children, and have set up shop in Seattle, with no plans to leave anytime soon. Throughout the years I’ve thought about the subtle differences that define culture on each side of our North American border. The stereotypes depict the crass, loud American pitted against the indecisive, ever-apologizing Canadian. I still think Americans are louder and more outspoken than Canadians, but now I also see the other side of the coin. I appreciate that American sense of fun and confidence that embodies everything from ordering wine to meeting strangers. Canadians are also much more decisive than we give them credit for, and the word “sorry” is more often used as a substitute for “excuse me” than a genuine form of apology.
The two countries have so much in common, yet exhibit distinct cultural differences — why? To find out, I traveled to Vancouver, B.C. to meet with Stuart McNish, a Canadian journalist who covers cultural-political issues in his public affairs program Conversations That Matter. McNish said the way in which the two countries were formed holds a key to explaining some cultural differences that are still present today.
“You have to look at the way that the United States became a country,” says McNish. “It chose to fight a war, with the mother country, which was Britain, to become the world’s first democracy. It was a union that was forged in steel and warfare and determination, and they started to build this concept of a country.”
One hundred years later, says McNish, Canada decided it also wanted to become a country. “But we didn’t do it by going to war,” says McNish. “We went to England and convinced them that they should let us be a country, and so we worked with them.”
McNish believes these disparate founding stories helped shape and define the culture of each country. The result was one country full of confidence that didn’t back down from confrontation, the other was a more democratic nation willing to listen more than talk.
So why would peace-loving Canadians move to the United States? In addition to a nicer climate and beautiful places to live, MacNish sums up the primary motivation in one word: Opportunity. “The diversity of our economy is nowhere near as rich as the United States,” says McNish. “I can become the best in the world in the United States — it’s a little harder to do in Canada.”
When you have the most powerful economy in the world, money talks. My husband and I certainly contributed to the Canadian brain drain when we fled our native country in 1999 during the Canadian recession to grab his job offer opportunity south of the border.
Jamie Ward took the opposite route. He moved to Vancouver from Texas three years ago to attend Emily Carr University. He currently works at Unit/Pitt, a non-profit artist-run center, through a three-year post-university work permit.
Ward says that for an artist, Canada offers more opportunities and a better quality of life.
“The main reason I’m in Canada is because this place allows me to do this kind of work a lot freer and easier than would be possible in the United States,” says Ward. “There’s a better structure for [being an artist] here, especially through the funding programs.”
Living in Canada, Ward doesn’t have to worry about health care insurance costs, and Canada receives far more arts subsidies than the United States. He also fell in love with Vancouver’s vibrant music scene, eclectic neighborhoods and progressive west coast culture. “Somebody once told me that you’re only part of your neighborhood, your neighborhood is where you’re from — and I really understand that now,” says Ward. “I live in a neighborhood that’s very distinct and I identify with my neighborhood. [I have] a pride in my neighborhood and that actually goes above being in Canada, being Canadian, Texan, anything.”
I can understand Ward’s sentiment. United States culture varies wildly from state to state, just as Canada’s does from province to province. I’ve lived on the east coast, Midwest, and now Seattle. It’s difficult to pinpoint one overreaching culture that transcends each of these vast countries.
For now, I’ll claim my stake in my Seattle neighborhood, where I adore living, and call it home.
Stacey Jenkins is the Managing Producer of What's Good 206. She is an Emmy-award winning producer who is passionate about pushing the boundaries of digital media and training the next generation of multimedia journalists. Stacey has been a Digital Content Producer at KCTS 9 for the past four years; her stories have been showcased locally on IN Close as well as nationally on SciTech Now and the PBS NewsHour's Art Beat. Stacey’s experience also includes working as a senior producer for KPTS, as an assistant media instructor and producer for Portland Community College and a TV news reporter for the CBC in Canada.
Fun Fact: Stacey’s guilty pleasures include over-the-top Halloween decor, eating sweetened condensed milk straight from the can and Maroon 5’s “Sugar” video.More stories by Stacey Jenkins