Earlier this year I was in Canada, performing my one-man show at the Montreal Just For Laughs Comedy Festival. I also played a couple of nights in Toronto. And I noticed something. Canada’s very nice. OK. This may not be the greatest insight ever. But let’s dwell on it. All countries are saddled with stereotypical adjectives, positive and negative – France: sexy, cowardly, gastronomic; Britain: class-conscious, repressed, alcoholic; America: fat, crazy; Russia: criminal – stop me before I become offensive… Oh, you haven’t bothered. Canada… nice is all I can think of. All right, outdoorsy, too.
Any Canadians reading this may feel a little patronised. But you shouldn’t.
And not just because it’s nice to be nice. Canada figures in a very particular way in our popular culture. See if you can spot the similarities. In The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s recently televised tale of an America overtaken by a fascist patriarchy, Canada is where the oppressed women dream of escaping; in Logan, Canada is where the oppressed mutant kids escape to via Wolverine’s sacrifice; in the 2007 TV thriller The Last Child, a young couple in a near-future world where couples are limited to one child spend the whole movie doing their best to escape to Canada; in Cloudburst, a movie from 2011, an elderly lesbian couple, played by Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker, embark on a Thelma & Louise-style road trip to try and get to the only place at the time they were allowed to get married. Where would that be, you ask? Oh, yes. Canada.
“Canada represents the place of safety. No nightmare visions are set in Canada”
Canada represents, in other words, the place of safety, the place where, if you’re lucky, you might be able to get to from dystopia. No nightmare visions are set in Canada. But they often end with the hero or heroine just making it across the border there. And not just in fiction. In Auschwitz, the barracks where the Nazis stored all the plunder, all the clothes and jewellery and sentimental belongings Jews had heartbreakingly brought with them to the concentration camp, was nicknamed, by those aware of it, Canada: a place of promise, of life, of health – literally, in this case, somewhere that was not Hell.
Which is why it’s meaningful to say the primary adjective that comes to mind for Canada is nice. It’s the nearest thing we have to an achieved utopia. All the other attempts – Ruskin Colony, New Lanark, Drop City, not to mention Communist Russia and China, plus the various mass-suicide-climaxing religious ones – have failed, normally at great human cost.
The key to this of course is that Canada is not a utopia. In fact, if you Google the words Canada and Utopia, the first three entries will return: ‘Canada is not Utopia’, ‘the problem with talking about Canada as a utopia’, and ‘think Canada is a progressive paradise? That’s mooseshit’. But keep on scrolling down a while and you will see one that says, ‘why Canada is as close to Utopia as it gets…’
Which is the point. Utopia is not achievable. All human society will be greatly flawed. Canada has got lots wrong with it – while I was in Toronto I saw homeless people begging on most street corners. But it’s better than most, and presently, with Benito Manbabylini running its big neighbour like a huge extension of Dystrumpia Towers, better than most feels a lot like Utopia. These days, Canada genuinely does figure in the liberal imagination like an escape hatch. Just now, it really is nice – and crucial to our survival as a species – to be nice.
David Baddiel’s new children’s book, Birthday Boy, is out now