Marty Roth and Martha Roth Discuss Their Move to Canada in 2005
Marty: Strictly speaking, Martha is the expatriate. I was just a lost Canadian returning to the country of my birth after fifty-four years. But after fifty-four years, I surely thought of myself as an American. I had just retired from an academic position at the University of Minnesota, and we wanted to get out of the midwest with its glacial winters and humid, mosquito-infested summers.
Martha: We also wanted to get out of the United States, although we didn’t know it at the time. The Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld gang was tarnishing the image of the country we wanted to embrace. We had always been socially and politically resistant, originally anti-HUAC and McCarthy, then part of the peace community during the Vietnam war.
Clinton had felt like a cheap substitute for a good thing, but, lax Democrats or not, we bristled with outrage when the Supreme Court gave the presidency to Bush. (There was some class contempt in our reaction as well as idealism.)
Marty: Many of our friends had already left Minneapolis. Martha could work anywhere and I sensed that there was something sad about a retired professor dragging himself to the Campus Club for lunch every day and trying to engage his younger working colleagues in conversation. It all came together when one of us said, “Let’s go back to Canada.” But not to my native Toronto with its glacial winters and humid, mosquito-infested summers.
Martha: I’d flirted with left politics most of my life, and while Stephen Harper looked awful, I thought he couldn’t be worse than Shrub, as we called the young Bush. The essence of Canada seemed to me to be a kind of good-humoured diffidence, an aversion to hornblowing. I didn’t know anything about Canadian feminism or the long struggle for reproductive rights, but I knew some Canadian women and found them attractively forthright. Sure, I said, let’s go. I really had no idea what to expect, except a somewhat dowdier version of the US. There were hints of surprising hipness: “As It Happens,” SCTV comedians, Margaret Atwood, Northrop Frye. We spent a couple of holidays in Canada, the Atlantic provinces and Winnipeg, and we found edible food, affable people, terrific fireworks. Could we actually live there?
Marty: “Why don’t we try Vancouver?” “Ya think?” The notion of becoming coast dwellers appealed to us both. The city was raw and new, even younger than the Twin Cities where we were living, and from different Canadian friends we had formed an idea of British Columbia as a kind of rough-hewn frontier province, not unlike Minnesota. Our son stayed in Minneapolis but our daughters lived in Philadelphia and Seattle; Seattle was close to Vancouver, and we’d had a couple of lovely holidays in the city, although we knew no one there. Still, it was the West Coast, the ocean was there; the climate was temperate, and if they refused to let us in we could always relocate to Portland, another appealing West Coast city. We applied, took our various tests, scored rather high on the immigrant ranking system because we both had some degree of French competency and settled in to wait. While we waited we decided to divide our time between Philadelphia and Seattle, be with our children and get to know our newborn granddaughters. We had to wait for two years, about the average time Wikipedia told us, for elite immigration to Canada from US or UK applicants.
Martha: Well, no place is perfect. We weren’t prepared for a more complicated bureaucracy or a steeper cost of living. And we had to learn to speak Canadian: to say parkade instead of garage, loonie instead of dollar; reno, zed. We inserted U’s in a number of words that had dropped them in the US: favour, colour, honour. I came here with a deep loathing for the police and military and had to temper it when I encountered competent, civil people in both professions. A strong hiking buddy who rescued me when I couldn’t cross a shallow lake on slippery stones turned out to be ex-RCMP. To my surprise, Canada taught me the beginnings of humility.
Marty: It’s a little hard to tell where the clichés end and the real experience begins but Canada is a gentler, more civil place than the one we left. One hardly ever encounters honking or aggression on the road, wallets forgotten on park benches will likely be there when you go back to look for them. People seem to be more open and friendly (although that may be because we are now officially old), on the bus or in a line for tickets or groceries. The ethnic and racial diversity is gratifying (bus-riding offers one a wide variety of languages), although there are few black faces and those are usually African.
Martha: The politics of the country is also more various. While the NDP is not really left-wing it can often feel that way when compared to America’s Democratic party. There are Greens (one or two) in Parliament and more in the provincial legislatures. Canada went through milder anti-Soviet hysteria than the U.S. and consequently never outlawed the Communist Party. We left a country that regards immigrants as terrorists and are living in a country that welcomed 48,000 Syrian refugees.
Marty: We are delighted to be the beneficiaries of a single-payer health delivery system and it has served us well (although we know that this is partly a consequence of our living in a major city). Unfortunately, we immigrated during the conservative administration of Stephen Harper when business desires and Protestant resentment seemed to rule the country, and behind us Barack Obama began an era of fair-dealing and decency. Of course we registered the irony and felt some chagrin. But fast-forward eight years and that irony morphed into great relief as the crude, mean underbelly of the United States of America protruded in the person of Donald Trump, his political appointees and his Congress.
Martha: We are living in a country that pensions its citizens and has legalized abortions and same-sex marriages. Although Canada has treated its indigenous populations savagely, they seem to have more of a political presence (seem is the operative word) than the Native Americans south of the border, and elements of the federal government seemed to be working toward some kind of accommodation, as opposed to the invisibility of Indian affairs back home.
Marty: We are now living under the image of a darling boy, Justin Trudeau, whose Liberal administration is better in almost every way than the previous one, but still lagging and lacking as all actual governments must be. We receive pensions (minuscule in my case, a little better in Martha’s), and we have made good friends. We spend our time reading, writing and rallying for environmental justice and the Palestinians.
Martha: Unfortunately the door to Canada that we entered through has now closed. Harper, we have been led to understand, removed the retirement category from the short list of acceptable immigration categories. As luck would have it our timing was good.
Marty and Martha Roth are contributing writers to Jewish Currents. Marty appeared here most recently with an article on Roy Nathanson and Radical Jewish Culture. Martha appeared most recently with an article about Roger Waters of Pink Floyd.