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Thinking Canada Guest Blog

Introduction

For the second year in a row the CCA is playing host to EU students taking part in the Thinking Canada program. During the program, students spend three and a half weeks touring Canada and learning about our various institutions before participating in a two month internship. We asked this year’s students, Eszter Szenczi from Hungary and Sandra Siewert from Germany, to share some of their initial impressions and some of what they have learned so far in their study tour.

Pour la deuxième année de suite, la CCA accueille des étudiants de l’Union européenne dans le cadre du programme Thinking Canada. Lors de ce stage, les étudiants voyagent 3 ½ semaines au Canada et acquiert des connaissances sur les diverses institutions canadiennes. Plusieurs participent après à un stage dans des organismes. Nous avons demandé à nos étudiantes de cette année, Eszter Szenczi  de la Hongrie et Sandra Siewert  de l’Allemagne, de partager avec nous leurs impressions ainsi que ce qu’elles ont appris lors de leur voyage. Les blogues sont en anglais seulement.

“You have now left Europe:” A German Perspective on Canadian Uniqueness

I have only recently joined the CCA as one of two European interns for the next two months, but my adventures in Canada started about 5 weeks earlier when I left my hometown in Germany for what would become the most exciting, intense (and at times exhausting) experience I am now lucky enough to look back on. Based on an initiative of the European Network for Canadian Studies and supported by the European Commission, I was one of 32 students, representing 24 countries out of the current 27 member states of the European Union, on a first-hand academic and cultural mission called the “Thinking Canada” Study Tour.

After our group’s initial difficulty at the border and having been declared “good-to-go,” the first thing I noticed about Canada was how polite people here are. With that I don’t mean to say that Germans are particularly rude. However, I would argue that you find a different kind of politeness in Canada, which includes a casual chit-chat here and there, that you wouldn’t get in Germany unless you knew the cashier in your grocery shop around the corner in a familiar way. And while speaking of grocery shopping, another surprise was the variety of languages I hear while trying to find my way through one of those massive stores. I knew about the diversity of Canadian culture before I came to Canada, but in hindsight I don’t think I had a proper understanding of what diversity or multiculturalism looks like. Strolling through Chinatown in Montreal or Toronto, or walking down the streets of Vancouver, improved my comprehension of what being a “visible minority” really means.

In the last couple of years, several European politicians have observed that multiculturalism seems to be failing on a national basis throughout Europe. Yet, with the European Union potentially headed toward existence as the “United States of Europe,” I think that Canada offers a good template for Europe with regard to the cultural embedding of diversity. Although, on this note, I have to admit that, being German and loving our traditional dishes, I was disappointed to find there is no such thing as a traditional Canadian dish. Having also studied in England and just having celebrated my first Canadian Thanksgiving in the company of a mix of Brits, Germans, German-Canadians and Canadians who enriched the dinner table with Yorkshire pudding, cherry cheesecake and the biggest turkey I have ever seen, I can see “diversity” outweighing any other truly Canadian dish.

Another thing I noticed while walking around various Canadian cities was the presence of the history of and the relationship with First Nations peoples. Both in official governmental locations, as well as spread across the cities we visited, different forms of remembrance or acknowledgment of Canada’s First Nations are set up, be it in the form of totem poles, Inuksuks or other landmarks stressing the importance of Canadian-Aboriginal relations. Now you might ask how this is different from a memorial in Germany, and of course there are many monuments reminding Germans of the World Wars or important late-medieval figures, yet they differ not only in design, but more importantly in the way the culture of remembrance is implemented. This became even more manifest in some of the Canadian museums I visited. Although museum culture in Germany is slowly changing, most exhibitions appear somewhat sterile in the sense that visitors can walk around and look, read the information on info boards or listen to them on electronic tour guides, and then leave again. The Canadian culture of remembrance, on the other hand, seems to have taken on a more American approach, that is to say putting more emphasis on the possibility of personally experiencing and living through the history or matter presented.

Thinking Canada interns Sandra Siewert and Eszter Szenczi

I remember that after I had received my acceptance letter to intern at the CCA following my study tour, people at home kept asking me if I planned on buying a car while in Canada. And although I am sure they were referring to the long driving distances in Germany, I believe the bigger challenge during my first week travelling to downtown Ottawa from the suburbs was Ottawa’s bus system. Spoiled by the German public transportation system, which is very strict in terms of schedules, clearly indicated bus stops and electronic display boards, catching a bus in downtown Ottawa during peak hours seemed like a small-scale apocalyptic scenario. Here, all the different bus numbers queue up in a (at least to me) baffling order, and once spotting the correct route number, the bus often drives right by you because it had already stopped, behind all the other busses blocking your view. Once having made it onto the correct bus, however, Canadian public transportation is thankfully no different than in Germany.

Despite some of these differences, however, there are also many similarities between Canada and Germany, especially when comparing the issues of the average student in either country. While in Quebec, we were lucky enough to meet two speakers from CLASSE, who told us about tuition fees and the concept of fair education. Although I wouldn’t agree with everything discussed during this meeting, I found their issues with education to be very similar to those repeatedly discussed not just in Germany, but throughout Europe, and especially during my studies in the UK, which has witnessed a triplication of tuition fees in 2010, whereas German tuition fees are increasingly being reduced to a more reasonable amount per term. What surprised me was the extent of attention the student protests were given, not only by the public but, moreover, by the international media. Recent German events that received comparable media coverage were the protests against nuclear power in the beginning of 2011, as an immediate consequence of Fukushima. However, without wanting to include any value judgement on the student protests, I do think that public debates, as much as cultural diplomacy and cultural exchange, are essential to a fruitful culture and society. This is also why this year’s delegation of the “Thinking Canada” Study Tour was worried to hear that the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade abolished the Canadian Studies Program called “Understanding Canada” in early 2012, as everyone able to partake in our study tour has witnessed first-hand how important and valuable cultural experiences like these are.

Nevertheless, when thinking about major differences or similarities between German and Canadian culture or daily life in general, I cannot say I am experiencing a huge culture shock. I am confident that at least by the time I leave Canada to finish my studies in Germany, I will have gotten used to the bus system, as well as the different currency, but not necessarily to the different way of taxing goods and services and the additional provincial sales tax, which still results in surprise every time I have to pay for my groceries. But who knows? Maybe there are more surprises still to come during my remaining time in Canada. I am looking forward to everything that comes during my upcoming weeks in Canada, and especially at the CCA.

-Sandra