Southern ignorance exposed

On EDGE: Opinion

by Herb Mathisen

The cliché still holds true: the North remains a black hole to much of Canada. Despite Stephen Harper’s pledge to use it so he doesn’t lose it and Arctic Air’s hyper-realistic portrayal of day-to-day northern life (because, you know, Yellowknife WILL be Calgary in 20 years), too many Canadians still think the North exists in a primitive, perpetual darkness.

Since moving to Montreal two years ago, this has become clearer to me. Whenever I introduce myself to someone and tell them I’m from Yellowknife, I get some version of the same reaction: a sort of disbelieving look, sadly followed by a series of sorry statements that force me to question the person’s base intelligence.

“Yellowknife? I’ve always wanted to visit the Yukon. Do you guys drive cars up there?”

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I’ve got a friend who started calling me “Yukon” after witnessing this scene on multiple occasions. But as funny and – at times – cute as this ignorance is, it’s frankly unacceptable, especially in our internet age where information is far too accessible. I scratch my head and wonder how people can consider themselves proud Canadians when they can’t point out a territory on a map.

Call it a chip on my shoulder, but to compensate for the fact that seemingly no one knew where Yellowknife was, I tried to do my homework on Canada when I was growing up. When I met someone, I didn’t want to be that yokel who embarrassed himself with an ill-informed comment. I mean, I’m certainly no Rhodes Scholar, but tell me where you come from and I feel I could rattle off a few pertinent tidbits to showcase some knowledge of said hometown.

I felt pretty confident about my supposed worldliness, until last summer, when I was traveling to a friend’s cottage near Kingston, Ont. and he texted me to see where I was. Surrounded by strangers in a ride-share, I suddenly realized I had no idea at all; I was on a road heading west from Montreal without even a general semblance of an inkling of where Kingston was.

My friend asked if I was on the 401 – which I surmised was a highway of some sort – and wanted to know if I was continuing through to Brighton, Ont. and could save him the trip. I was clueless and said so much. When my friend drove an hour out of his way to pick me up and take me back to Brighton, I became aware that I was the northern counterpart of the ignorant southerner. What’s that ancient adage? People in glass houses shouldn’t fling poo.

Seriously, I probably should have come to this conclusion earlier. My girlfriend lived in Meaford, Ont. and to hear me try to describe where that is was akin to Donald Rumsfeld explaining where the Weapons of Mass Destruction were in Iraq. “It’s somewhere north, south, east and west of Toronto.”

The embarrassment wasn’t over, as I traveled to Toronto three times for as many weddings that summer. My friend, an ex-Yellowknifer, warned me for months that I should rent a car to get to and from his wedding in the suburb of Vaughn. I shrugged off his suggestions, telling him I’d just catch a bus from Toronto or something.

But like the unprepared newbie in Yellowknife, who steps off a plane in February wearing a leather jacket and sneakers, I was panicked to learn that busing it was severely impractical – if not impossible. As a result, I spent two days riding shotgun with the groom, squeezed inconveniently amongst boxes of wedding cupcakes and corsages.

In short, I was a hypocrite. I dismissed my southern neighbours for the misconceptions they held about the North, but I was totally lost in Canada’s most populated area. I didn’t have an excuse either, since so much noise comes out of that region, in contrast to the relatively muted North.

Of course, southern Ontario was also nothing like I imagined it to be. It wasn’t endless gridlock and monotonous suburbia populated by self-obsessed and money-hungry Leafs fans. Toronto, believe it or not, was kind of cool.

And in the end, as a consequence of my own ignorance, I’m sure I committed a shameful offense, of which I am not at all proud. Stumbling through blunder after blunder, I perpetuated the myth of the naïve northerner, lost in the big city, getting by only through dumb luck, charm and the kindness of others.

For that I’m sorry, Yellowknife.

Herb Mathisen is an aspiring writer and soon-to-be perspiring Yellowknifer living in Montreal. While he still gets lost whenever he visits Toronto, he states with confidence that his girlfriend is from “Midwestern Ontario.” Whatever that is.

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