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A surprisingly fascinating theory for why Canada is so boring

Max Mumby/Indigo/Getty

Why is Canada so boring? It's a question that Canadian journalist Jeet Heer tried to answer in a series of tweets that are both quaintly earnest (this is a Canadian writing about Canadianness, after all) and surprisingly insightful. The question, it turns out, gets to the very core of what it means to be Canadian. That might sound to Americans like the setup to a joke, but to the country's 36 million citizens it's a very real — and not totally settled — issue.

The full series of tweets is embedded below and well worth your time, but Heer lands on two theories. (As he clarifies, these apply to English-speaking Canada, not to the culturally un-integrated French-speaking Quebec.)

The nice theory: Canadians have cultivated an identity of boringness as an alternative to the two other cultures that loom so large for them: the British, whose empire they were a part of until relatively recently, and the noisy Americans to the south. "Canadian boringness isn't intrinsic: it's something we work at, cherish and reward," Heer writes. Because both of those cultural forces exert such power in Canada, cultivated boringness is another way of saying, "We are not British and we are not American."

The less nice theory: Canada's self-made image of boringness is really just shorthand for whiteness. In other words, Canadian culture emphasizes "look at how charmingly boring we are" as a polite way of saying "this is a white, Anglo nation." Or, as Heer put it, "The constructed mask of boringness is also the mask of whiteness." This, he suggests, "presents the county as being much whiter than it is" and is a way to exclude First Nations and ethnic minorities from Canadian identity.

There is probably real truth to both of these.

One point I will add is that I've noticed Canadians frequently describe their culture in contrast to American culture. But talking so much about how you are different from Americans is really just another way of talking around all the ways you're similar, and this preoccupation with highlighting the differences and downplaying the similarities has always felt telling to me.

Canadian writer Bruce McCall, in a great 2013 Vanity Fair piece on why Canada produces so many successful comedians, explained it as a kind of resistance to American culture. "It is impossible to fully express Canadian resentment of America's cultural dominance, and the sense of impotence and helplessness," he writes. "Humor — subversive, ironic, usually dark — is one of the very few weapons available to the oppressed." But that's not just a reaction to American identity, of course; it's also a way of dealing with the fact that it leaves very little room for a distinct Canadian identity. Cultivated Canadian boringness is perhaps a way of owning that problem, and making it the identity itself.

Here's Jeet Heer's full series of tweets on the subject:

If you made it to the bottom, as a reward, here is a great old Jim Carrey standup bit on American conceptions of Canada that speak to my earlier points: