Exploring Canada: Field Notes of an American Anthropologist

In the frigid, sub-arctic territory of Vancouver, British Columbia, I am in the living room of Doris Baker, a middle-aged beauty salon manicurist and part-time Zamboni operator. We are seated in hushed darkness, watching the closing ceremonies of the Torino Olympics. The event is being broadcast by the government entity known as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The whole house is filled with the distinctive Canadian smell of moose fat and bacon drippings. We are gathered about a seven-inch black and white television set. The antenna is rigged from a rack of bleached elk antlers, yet it works surprisingly well.

On the television, as a ceremonial nod to the 2010 Winter Olympics to be held in Whistler, British Columbia, there is an actor attired in the customary parka and mukluks worn by each and every Vancouverite. He is miming hauling a fish from an ice-fishing hole (a commonplace sight throughout the city and province). The members of the Baker family display a rudimentary sense of self-recognition, apparently becoming quite excited at seeing themselves portrayed. Like the figures on the screen, they begin to caper about with wild abandon, charging each other with their stomachs extended, and slapping each other with raw fish.

The most conspicuous item in the Baker’s home, as it is with all Canadian homes, is the seven-foot tall Inukshuk, a monolithic icon that may be fashioned from materials as diverse as Precambrian rock to recycled Molson Canadian beer cans. Reproductions of this ubiquitous sculpture have, for generations, been at both the literal and figurative centre of every Canadian household. Each evening, after returning home from their mostly government-sponsored jobs, the members of a typical Canadian family gather around the icon holdings hands. Tonight, I am invited to join them as they pass around a traditional bong (a type of pipe used for smoking the marijuana leaf that is supplied to all Canadian citizens by the Minister of Agriculture Marc Emery). We spend the rest of the evening sitting cross-legged in a circle, reciting the names of hockey players and the eleven hundred Canadian words for snow, as well as enacting Second City Television skits and singing Rush and April Wine songs.

Sometime in the early hours of the morning, I make my excuses and retire to my sealskin sleeping bag in a darkened corner of the living room, where I complete my journal notations for the day. Tomorrow, if I have understood correctly (my Canadian is still far from perfect), we will be travelling by dog sled to the shopping mall, where we will stock-up on the cigarettes they call “Exports” (a common phrase in the typical Canadian home is “pass the Export, eh”). It should be another interesting day.

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