10/29/2014 01:42 pm ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Instructive Capers With the Capers

It's an old cliché that Canada is entirely like the United States -- a sort of 51st state. Of course, it isn't. It has some qualities that are characteristically Canadian, not American.

I've made some trips to Canada since the '60s, when I went to college in New Hampshire not far from the border and saw a bit of Quebec. (That province has its own, quasi- and pseudo-French peculiarities.)

General national Canadian characteristics include civility, a kind of friendly reserve, story-telling (much of it very funny) and love of music. The long, cold winters (and thus the need to entertain each other inside) and the vast, sparsely settled spaces presumably encourage these behaviors, and Canadian culture, for historical reasons, doesn't have quite the same sort of homogenizing effects that American culture has had on its citizenry.

The other week, I toured Cape Breton Island with some very energetic friends who own a house there near the island's geologically theatrical northern tip. (My maternal great-grandparents lived on the island as a way station from Scotland to Providence and ultimately St. Paul, Minn. My great-grandfather, a carriage-trade merchant, was what they now call bi-polar; perhaps that explains some of his mobility. And he may have been fleeing a scandal. In any event, he drank himself to death.)

The "Capers,'' a mix of Scottish, French, English, Irish and those whom Canadians call members of the "First Nations'' (our "Native Americans''), have a very strong regional identity.

The core culture is Scottish, albeit with additional flavors. Scots started coming to the island, whose hills and coast look remarkably like parts of Scotland, but with more trees, in large numbers in the late 18th and early 19th Century after landowners ousted them from tenant farms in the Scottish Highlands.

Besides the occasional road signs in Gaelic (tourism promotion?) the most obvious indication of Scottish culture may be musical. It seems as if everyone has a fiddle. This reaches its heights in the annual Celtic Colours (Canadians, like the rest of the British Commonwealth, love the letter "u'') music festival in various places all over the island every October. Such venues as hockey arenas and churches are taken over nightly for hours of mostly Scottish -- or Scottish-inspired -- entertainment. The fiddling, singing, dancing and joke-telling go on for hours.

People come from around the world to perform but most have Celtic names. There's lots of audience foot-stomping, and it's jolly, except for a few maudlin songs. And, yes, they say "eh?'' a lot in their jokes, too.

But at the same time, their body language on and off stage suggests that they need more personal space than most Americans do. There's not much hugging. And Celtic dancers on stage often move with their arms straight down and with a look of grim concentration.

Then there's the spectacular scenery, with mountains and cliffs along the sea, deep forests and fiords. The tourist photos of the main road in this region, the famous Cabot Trail, don't do it justice.

That, and the Celtic culture, give one the sense of being far away from the United States. And yet New Englanders can drive there in a day. The distances are long but the vistas make the trip go by faster than you'd think. And visiting such close and traditional communities offers edifying relief from our harsher -- if more dynamic -- American society.

Many Capers are poor; the dangerous coal mines that once provided thousands of jobs are all closed. However, publicly funded social services (especially in healthcare) are stronger than in the United States and neighbors tend to help each other more than here.

Some think that a merger of our two nations is inevitable.

I'd prefer them to stay separate. It's better for the United States if we have an example next door of a nation that works at least as well as the U.S. does but does so in different ways.


I went to a college fraternity reunion a few days ago. I did so out of zoological and psychological interest: To find out how my classmates (and I) have changed through the years, to better understand the long-term significance (to us) of big events during our time at college and to brood a little on mortality. During our dinner, the MC kept flashing '60's newspaper stories on a screen.

There were about 50 people -- enough to offer an outline of how such a cohort changes. I'd say the attendees were generally mellower and nicer than they were 45 years ago and have dropped a lot of psychic baggage. There was little sarcasm, name-dropping or job-bragging. Their references to careers were mostly review, since most have retired or are semiretired or will be soon.

Many have had very interesting careers. For instance, one friend, a lawyer, has been representing the Nobel Foundation and had entertaining tales of the white-tie prize ceremonies in Oslo and Stockholm he attended.

Almost a half-century later, attendees' core personalities seemed the same, if not necessarily their philosophies. In 1964, my father told me how surprised he was at his 25th college reunion that no one had changed much -- except for a man held in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp for three years.

The final feelings I had after the reunion -- sadness about the passing of the years but curiosity about what the survivors of this group will do next as they head into the home stretch.


Robert Whitcomb ( is a Providence-based editor and writer and a partner in Cambridge Management Group (, a healthcare-sector consultancy. He is former editorial-page editor of The Providence Journal, former finance editor of the International Herald Tribune and a Fellow of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy.