I haven't mentioned it before, but here in Ottawa we're suffering through a public transit strike. It started on December 10, and effectively destroyed a good number of businesses by persisting over the Christmas shopping season. Now it's been on for almost a month, and the union has been ordered to vote on the latest offer on Thursday - it sounds as if they're planning to reject it, so the strike will go on.
On the radio the other day, I heard an old lady call in to say that she hadn't been able to go to church since the strike started. She's nearly 80, and the snow and ice on the sidewalks along with the extreme temperatures have made it impossible for her to walk the distance to her church. The radio host, appalled, asked if no one in her church could manage to pick her up to drive her and she just said that she lived in the opposite direction from her friends, so no, there was no one around to drive her.
This story stuck in my head, as it did in the radio host's - I just heard him mention it on the air a few minutes ago. And I wanted to mention it because I see it as illustrative of a certain strain in the Canadian character that compares very poorly to that of Americans. I saw the same thing at the Anglican church we used to attend in Ottawa. There were people there just like the old lady on the radio - frail little old ladies who walked to church and couldn't navigate the treacherous sidewalks in winter. When things got bad enough, they just disappeared from church for a few weeks until the weather improved. Nobody arranged to transport them to and from church, they were just left to sink or swim on their own.
By contrast, Dean and I lived 3 years in the U.S. when we were first married, and made a number of American friends through our church. We didn't have a car, either, and sometimes the weather got very extreme and it was hard for us to get to church on foot, too. I remember one friend of ours, who when she heard about this, told us that she would drive her car to pick us up and take us to church any Sunday we needed a lift - and what's more, she didn't even go to our church! She went to a different one in quite the opposite direction, but that made no difference to her. She was perfectly sincere, and never thought twice about the inconvenience. And I'll hasten to add that this wasn't small-town America, where everyone knows everyone else; this was Washington, DC, probably a place with more rootless, temporary inhabitants than anywhere else in the U.S. (except maybe L.A.).
To me, that's just the way Americans are - there's a generosity of spirit in them that Canadians lack. Canadians, by contrast, tend to be stingy and reluctant to put themselves out. We dress it up in a sort of philosophy of bogus self-determination: Well, if you don't have a vehicle to get you to church, it's because you've chosen not to have one. Therefore, we have no obligation to alter the status quo - you've chosen this situation, and we're off the hook. It's as if we're all on the verge of exhaustion, and don't want to exert ourselves for anyone else because we think we may need to conserve our strength to save ourselves.
Sometimes, an emergency will bring out hidden reserves of generosity - we're not quite as bad as the French peasants during WWII, standing by the sides of the road selling water to exhausted refugees fleeing the German invasion. But the downside is that we think that such actions should be recognized and praised as if they were extraordinary acts of virtue. Even today, there are people who still keep bringing up the fact that Canadians billeted stranded American travelers for a day or two following 9/11, as if we deserved a marble monument to our generosity, instead of seeing it as just the sort of thing a neighbour would automatically do for another. For all my gripes about America and where it's going, I don't yet sense that air of self-defensive fear and weariness that's everywhere in Canada. Americans still seem full of vitality and exuberance, with enough to spare for others.