Breaking out the pointy white boots to celebrate Canada Day

Americans should know and care a lot more about our Friendly Neighbor to the North.
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Toronto’s CN Tower viewed from Toronto Islands.

I earned my Canadian cred in my early youth, when I found myself donning a pair of pointy white boots at a maple sugaring somewhere in the province of Quebec.

I was mortified, self-awareness stirring within me like sap in a sugar bush.

But I forgive you, Canada. I love you and wish you a very happy Canada Day, the country’s national holiday.

Here in the United States it’s known as July 1. And that’s a shame because Americans should know and care a lot more about our Friendly Neighbor to the North. Our countries peacefully share the longest international border in the world. Canada is our top trading partner.

Lamontanges and Led Zeppelin

It’s even more personal for me because I’m American by way of Canada. Each of my grandparents – a Goulet and a Lamontagne on my father’s side, a Gobeil and a Perron on my mother’s side – was born in Quebec before migrating to Maine.

My grandfather Pepere Gobeil was a barber. In his shop, above the long mirror, hung a wooden plaque featuring Franklin Roosevelt’s summer retreat on Campobello Island  in New Brunswick, Canada.

Trips to Canada, four or five hours away from where I grew up in central Maine, were fairly common occurrences within our extended family. (And there were visits from Canadian relatives, all of them seemingly named Gilles, heavy drinkers and smokers, and utterly incomprehensible to me.)

My second trip to Quebec took place in the fall of eighth grade, the highlight of which was seeing the Quebec Nordiques play the Philadelphia Flyers. We stayed with my father’s cousin’s family, my brother and I breaking the language barrier with her son via a Led Zeppelin album.

I remember there being conversation about the U.S. presidential election that was three days away, and my father’s cousin predicting that Jimmy Carter would win re-election. She was wrong, but it stuck with me all these years that she cared enough to have an opinion on the matter.

Too often, we take Canada for granted. Canada only seems to turn up in the news when it’s trivial, such as the exploits of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, or tragic, such as the terrorist shootings in Ottawa.

And we take much from Canada; just consider the sports and entertainment worlds.

Hockey players, comprising 50 percent of players in the National Hockey League (although down from 90 percent in the 1960s).

Comics and comedians: Jim Carrey, John Candy, Phil Hartman, Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, Mike Myers. (The current “Saturday Night Live” cast has no Canadians, which helps explain why the show’s no longer funny).

Bands and musicians: Neil Young, The Tragically Hip, Alvvays.

And yet most of us don’t know all that much about Canada. Who is that nation’s president? Who’s on the Canadian penny? How long would it take you to walk Canada’s coastline?

The first two are trick questions: Canada has a prime minister and did away with the penny in 2012; it would take you four and one-half years to walk Canada’s coastline, the world’s longest.

Bees and bikes

I wish I knew more about the Great White North. I know that Toronto is one terrific place to visit.

It’s where in 2004 I ended the “Curse of the Bambino;” saw the famous Hudson’s Bay department store transformed into the exterior of New York’s Madison Square Garden during filming of the Russell Crowe movie “Cinderella Man;” and carried my then 3-year-old son pretty much everywhere.

In 2012, we stayed in the historic Fairmont Royal York Hotel, where on the roof we had a private showing of the garden and bee colony and in the lobby I said hello to actor Jon Voight (fortunately, he did not bite my arm).

We bought pizza in the Loblaws supermarket in what used to be Maple Leaf Gardens; we rode bikes on the Toronto Islands, with a magnificent view of the CN Tower and mainland; we toured the Steamwhistle brewery and saw three Blue Jays games. I even got lost on my way back to Toronto from a hockey store, and seemingly drove every mile of Yonge Street, one of the world’s longest.

I treasure those memories, and I treasure what Canada represents.

From my Winnipeg Whips baseball cap right down to those pointy white boots.

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