One Tuesday night last March, returning home to YVR through the international terminal, I trundled my suitcase into an arrivals lounge full of expectant faces. By my reckoning, three-quarters of those faces were East Asian. Not long afterwards, at the publishing program at Simon Fraser University, I asked the sixty-odd students in the room how many of them had been born in Canada. Maybe a third put up their hands. The other day, heading to lunch in Richmond, south of Vancouver, I noticed that many restaurants eschew English signage altogether: Chinese logograms suffice.
It’s conventional wisdom that almost half the people in Vancouver are Asian. When I asked random white people what foreign nationality exerts the most influence on the city, most replied, “Chinese.” (“Indian? ”—after a thoughtful pause—came a distant second.) Not one said “American,” which speaks either to the power of a common tongue and appearance, or to the tendency of US expats to wear their origins with a diffidence most Canadians would consider distinctly un-American.
The inaugural National Household Survey (2011) put the number of American-born people in Metro Vancouver (population 2.3 million) at 26,240—a fraction of the number of residents born in China (159,200), to say nothing of those born in India, the Philippines, the United Kingdom, South Korea, and even Iran (28,475 residents were born there). Yet Americans have a profound impact on the arts and culture, the politics, the planning, the universities, the media, the zeitgeist, and the future of this city.
Oddly, they seem unaware of their collective influence. When I spoke with Jim Wright—the ebullient, sixty-five-year-old, small-town Indianan who in 1999 took the reins of the Vancouver Opera, having previously held similar positions in Charlotte and Anchorage—he knew about his counterparts at the Vancouver Art Gallery (director Kathleen Bartels is from Chicago) and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (its longtime CEO, New York–born Jeff Alexander, recently left to become president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), and even the Vancouver Aquarium (CEO John Nightingale is from Oregon).
But Wright had a ready explanation. “A big part of the job is fundraising, and we aren’t known for our shyness,” he said with a buoyant laugh. “I’ve had to tone down my brashness. The Canadian version goes, I see you gave us $1,000 last year—uh, sorry to bother you, but would you mind doing it again? What we say is, I’ll put you down for $2,000 this year. I’m sure that’s part of the reason we all landed at these organizations. We’re Americans; we understand that it’s okay to be assertive, even aggressive, for a worthy cause.”
Wright didn’t know that so many academics at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University were Yanks, nor that the planner most responsible for the configuration of downtown Vancouver was from Georgia. He was unaware just how responsible American expats are for some of the city’s best journalism, that they drive much of the social activism, that they are prominent in local business, or that Mayor Gregor Robertson had been funded and schooled by liberal Democrats from the US. He didn’t realize—even as he took part in the process—that Americans were helping turn Vancouver into a new kind of North American city.
The first wave came intent on riches. In 1855, gold was found in the Fraser Canyon (and, a few years later, in the Cariboo); some 20,000 Americans joined the rush. Following the US purchase of Alaska and the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867, the region’s fate was uncertain. Would it join the new Dominion (comprising Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia), remain a British colony, or be annexed by the US? The colonial governor of the day steered it toward Confederation by persuading the new Dominion to assume the colony’s debt and build a transcontinental railway. British Columbia joined Canada in 1871; the last spike, marking the railway’s completion, was driven in 1885.
Ever since, a steady trickle of Americans have been drawn to the city by proximity, opportunity, serendipity, love. One of Vancouver’s posh areas is named after Thomas Shaughnessy, the third president of the Canadian Pacific Railway; he was born in Wisconsin. Sewell Moody, a lumberjack from Maine, set up a mill on the Fraser River, east of the city. Benjamin Rogers, from Philadelphia, made his fortune in sugar. Sam Cohen, a San Franciscan, built the Army & Navy department store empire. Nat Bailey, a Minnesotan, founded the White Spot restaurant chain and today lends his name to the local baseball stadium.
Through the Washington Companies—which include Seaspan—Dennis Washington, a Montanan who was born in Spokane, Washington, and his son, Kyle, dominate shipping, shipbuilding, ferries, and dry-dock operations in Vancouver. The Ketcham brothers, from Seattle, grew a little milling business into West Fraser, one of the largest lumber producers in North America. Earl “Bus” Fuller, another Montanan, started with an A&W franchise and became the progenitor of the thriving restaurant chains Earls, Joey, and Cactus Club. Lululemon founder and billionaire Chip Wilson came to Vancouver from California.
It wasn’t until the late 1960s that Americans again arrived in numbers, to escape a political atmosphere they found intolerable. These days, when “civil disobedience” evokes the rather gentle protestations of Occupy Wall Street and Idle No More, and the data breaches of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden, it’s hard to capture the fervour of the day. Vietnam was an ugly, corrosive tug-of-war. In 1968, every week brought a new outrage. A Viet Cong leader dispatched with a shot to the temple. Martin Luther King Jr. murdered in Memphis, Robert Kennedy gunned down in Los Angeles. The My Lai massacre. Black Panther shootouts in Oakland. Riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In response to the chaos, Americans elected a law-and-order president, Richard Nixon. Canadians, smitten with Pierre Trudeau and his promise of a just society, elected a Liberal government. The border was a permeable membrane, and by a sort of political osmosis many left-leaning Americans ended up in this country.
Among them were Michael Klein, a doctor, and Bonnie Sherr Klein, a filmmaker and writer. After leaving Stanford University, they settled in Montreal and, ultimately, in Vancouver. Their son, Seth (who works at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives), and daughter, Naomi (author of No Logo and This Changes Everything), are carrying on a family tradition. Jim Bohlen, an engineer for the Atlas missile program, grew disenchanted with American nuclear policy and came here with his wife, Marie. Irving Strasmich and Dorothy Rabinowitz, anti-war protesters from Rhode Island, changed their surnames to Stowe (after the abolitionist writer Harriet Beecher Stowe), became Quakers, and made their way here via New Zealand. By 1969, their Point Grey living room had become a hub for opponents of nuclear testing in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and the cocoon in which a ragtag band of protesters, pacifists, and free-love hippies metamorphosed into Greenpeace International. Sleepy Vancouver found itself invigorated by fervent, disenchanted Americans.
Daniel Wood was one of them. He’d come home to Massachusetts from a Peace Corps exemption in Borneo, having learned that his exemption was rescinded and he owed Uncle Sam military service as well. After returning his draft card, he was arrested by the FBI. While awaiting trial, Wood, then twenty-five, considered fleeing to Denmark, where he’d studied anthropology. He also applied to Simon Fraser University (named after the explorer from upstate New York who charted southern BC). He knew little of Canada, but SFU, atop Burnaby Mountain, was an oasis of dissidence. Accepted into the teacher certification program, he said goodbye to his parents and drove through winter blizzards in his grandmother’s farewell gift, an old Ford Pinto. Heading west, he feared that every state trooper he passed was about to U-turn in his rear-view mirror. When he finally reached Blaine, Washington, crossing the border proved blessedly simple.
Less than a year later, Wood applied for landed-immigrant status. Asked why he’d left the States, he vacillated a moment before choosing honesty: “I didn’t want to serve in Vietnam.” After a mere glance at his application, the agent said, “Welcome to Canada.” Recalling that gesture forty-five years later, Wood still became emotional.
With such a reception awaiting them, no wonder so many Americans fled north—to Montreal, to Toronto, and especially to Vancouver. Jim Byrnes, the actor and bluesman, quit St. Louis after a tour of duty in Vietnam. The singer Leon Bibb came here from Kentucky. The essayist and teacher Stan Persky, a Chicagoan, served in the US Navy before coming to Vancouver via San Francisco. Writers such as Rex Weyler, Keith Maillard, George Fetherling, Tom Cone, Jim Christy, Tom Sandborn, and William Gibson either came directly or found their way here. Leonard Schein—a California-born psychologist who bought a string of movie theatres before founding the Vancouver International Film Festival—left his home country in 1972.
Jim Green’s decision to dodge the draft galled his father, a military man from the South. Green found work as a longshoreman, became active in the labour movement while working in a steel factory, and wrote a history of the Canadian Seamen’s Union. In the run-up to Expo ’86, he organized local residents facing eviction. Over the years he helped create low-cost housing, a credit union for the poor, tuition-free education for disadvantaged youth, and job-skills programs for street kids. “Social activist” hardly does justice to his impact on the city.
Green, who died of cancer in 2012, had the charisma of those whose work grows out of their beliefs. A Southern gentleman to the end, he was equally at home in sepulchral boardrooms and piss-stained alleys, ready to discuss anything with anyone, though the talk always turned to his passions: food for the hungry, treatment for the addicted, shelter for the homeless. The city today is bursting with monuments to him, but the one with which he was most pleased is the forty-three-storey high-rise where he spent his final years: Woodward’s, a visionary mix of subsidized housing and pricey condos.
A few months before his death, at a Downtown Eastside café, as unfortunates and SFU students shuffled past, I asked him why he, like so many activists of his era, ended up in this part of the world. I was thinking of Alexandra Morton, who’s from New England and loudly opposes salmon farming; Betty Krawczyk, a Louisianan who went to jail for protesting infrastructure projects before the 2010 Winter Olympics; Sister Elizabeth Kelliher, a Franciscan nun from New York who was a voice for the disenfranchised; and Elizabeth May, who’s from Connecticut and is now the member of Parliament for Saanich–Gulf Islands and leader of the Green Party.
Jim Green said he could not speak for others, but that by crossing the border he’d left behind “the ravaging legacy of slavery, indefensible gun and drug laws, record prison populations, God-mandated wars”—all that American liberals found hard to stomach.
Was it tough to leave? “I love Vancouver for many reasons,” Green said, nodding through the window at a fellow with a wobbly shopping cart, “but yes, you do give up something deep seated. The challenge has been to bring the best American traits—the confidence, the can-do attitude, the wish to set a positive example—to this new setting, while leaving the less noble traits behind.”
So perhaps, I suggested, Vietnam turned Vancouver into a kind of civic experiment—Canuck moderation jolted by Yankee activism and can-do initiative. Green thought for a moment, turning his black hat in his hands. “I don’t want to sound too grand,” he said, “but there’s certainly truth to that. Where I come from, the cement set a long time ago. Here, you can still think in terms of the possible.”
This notion of the possible—of Vancouver’s pliable future—resonates with many Americans. Patrick Condon, sixty-four, is head of the urban design program in UBC’s architecture department (which is led by Leslie Van Duzer, a Californian). He left Massachusetts in 1984 to teach at the University of Minnesota and settled in Vancouver eight years later.
“The city quickly revealed itself as a place of possibilities,” he recalled at a café near UBC’s Point Grey campus. “It was accommodating to newcomers, open to fresh ideas. Boston is ossified. New York is kind of frozen. After 9/11, I was part of a design group for Lower Manhattan, and people said the same things you hear in the suburbs: If we have more density, we’ll only have more traffic, more crime. New York has a few interesting projects, like Battery Park City, but nothing like our downtown point towers”—high-rise buildings on commercial pedestals. “Friends from the States marvel at the inventive ways we’ve dealt with density.”
The urban environment has long been influenced by expats. Cornelia Oberlander—among the first women to graduate from Harvard University with a degree in landscape architecture—came here in 1953. Working with the likes of Arthur Erickson and Moshe Safdie, she espoused the marriage of nature and architecture. Warren and Ellen Tallman came from Berkeley, California, to UBC and opened wide the stuffy, cloistered rooms of mid-century CanLit. Abraham Rogatnick, a Bostonian, arrived with his partner, Alvin Balkind, and became a pillar of the arts-and-culture community. A professor and an intellectual, Rogatnick mentored everyone from architects Bing Thom and Peter Busby to former mayor (and current Liberal MLA) Sam Sullivan. Ned Jacobs—son of Jane, author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities—moved here in 1980, bringing his mother’s passion for city building with him. Transplanted Yanks did not merely decorate the urban cake; they added ingredients to the mixing bowl.
Overseeing the recipe in recent years was Larry Beasley, the Georgia-born co-director of city planning from 1994 to 2006. His civic vision was inspired in part by the decorousness of Savannah, with its urban squares and townhouses, and, conversely, by the grotesqueries of Las Vegas, where he lived for a time. He helped make Vancouver a model of smart growth—a walkable, livable, emerging global metropolis—by filling the downtown with townhouses, parks, and those carefully placed, glass-enclosed point towers, which allow for both density and vibrant street life.
Condon, for his part, is especially proud of his work in the suburbs: “East Clayton, in Surrey, is the first large-scale development to incorporate legal secondary suites and lane houses above garages. And we were able to design a very advanced stormwater system. In the US, which is over-legislated, and where the default is litigation, it never would have happened.
“In many ways I see Vancouver as a vanguard for the US,” Condon added. “Americans come here by the dozens—developers, politicians, bankers, and so forth. Now you see point towers cropping up in San Diego and Seattle. Things are still fluid here, which is why I’ve been able to do some groundbreaking stuff I couldn’t have done if I’d stayed in Boston or New York.”
Anthony Perl, a New Yorker, teaches urban studies and political science at SFU. At a restaurant in Waterfront Station, the old Canadian Pacific Railway terminus overlooking Burrard Inlet, I asked him to guess the percentage of US-born people in Greater Vancouver. He sipped his beer and said, “In the teens? ” I told him it was more like 1 percent. He raised his eyebrows: “Really—that’s all? ”
Perl has a nuanced view of Canada, having done his Ph.D. while living at Massey College at the University of Toronto in the days of Robertson Davies, Douglas Lepan, and Al Johnson. He also taught at the University of Calgary—at a time when Tom Flanagan and Barry Cooper were mentoring an aspiring politician named Stephen Harper—before moving here in 2005.
“When I lived in Calgary,” Perl recalled, “it was full of Americans in the oil industry.* They do a tour for a multinational—three or four years—then move on to Houston or Dubai. Unlike here, they don’t really impact the city. They’re not invested because they’re not there for the long term.”
Perl, too, finds Vancouver a city of possibilities. “First of all, Canada is a more democratic country than the US,” he said, “which means you don’t have to be a billionaire to influence things.” The city’s youth also has much to do with its malleability, he suggested, as does its size. “Larry Beasley would not have had the same planning impact on a more mature city.”
Nor would Harry Kambolis, who’s from New Jersey, have altered Vancouver’s culinary ethos simply by opening some of the first restaurants (Raincity Grill, C Restaurant) to emphasize regional cuisine. James Wright, at the opera, found the same opportunity for change in his field—“a willingness at the board level to let us find a new way,” as he put it. “A wonderful openness to redefining what we do.” But perhaps no one has a more resolute belief in the possible than Joel Solomon.
A Tennessean whose father did well in shopping malls, Solomon, sixty, worked on Jimmy Carter’s presidential campaign in the mid-1970s; he learned that crisp organizing can turn social philosophy into political success. After Carter was elected, Solomon, having been diagnosed with polycystic kidney disease, passed up a chance to work in the White House and ended up in BC. “It’s a hereditary condition that had killed several members of our family,” he recalled, “and it felt like a death sentence. I was doing some soul-searching, and I spent time on Cortes Island.”
In 1995, he met an organic farmer named Gregor Robertson. Their views aligned, especially on the environment, and they became close friends. Solomon was investing in sustainable businesses; Robertson had started a juice company, Happy Planet. Solomon didn’t just urge his friend to embody their values in the political arena; using his networks and the money of like-minded friends—especially Carol Newell, an heir to the Newell Rubbermaid fortune from New York State—he helped Robertson win a provincial seat in 2000 for the NDP.
Seven years later, after a kidney transplant, Solomon had a new life. So did Robertson. As leader of the Vision Vancouver party, he was elected mayor—again with Solomon’s and Newell’s unreserved backing. Last fall he was returned to office for a third term; next year he’ll become the longest-serving mayor in the city’s history. He’s seen as a potential future premier or federal cabinet minister. Solomon’s smarts and Newell’s money might not have been enough to ensure Robertson’s success, but they were essential factors. Robertson simply would not be where he is without them, and the city—with its Greenest City 2020 mandate—would not be on the trajectory it’s on today.
Besides green initiatives, the Vision-led municipal government has actively sought investment in high tech and clean tech, with some notable success; “Silicon Valley North” now gets bandied about the way “Hollywood North” used to. Given BC’s periodic fondness for NDP governance, with its anti-business reputation, what’s the allure? Quality of life, certainly, but economics, too: tech workers here earn less than in Silicon Valley.
There’s another factor at play, which one entrepreneur described on condition that he not be named: “Canadians don’t come to Vancouver because they’re ambitious. People who want to climb the ladder go to Toronto or New York. So if you are ambitious, and willing to work your ass off, you have an advantage—which also helps explain why the Chinese have done so well. Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying there aren’t tons of ambitious, hard-working people in this city. But I also meet lots of folks who spend a lot of time talking about doing stuff. They have conversations and do research and strategize about how to get a government grant. Americans are more like, let’s do this.”
Johann Starke, forty-two, embodies that attitude. Born in Youngstown, Ohio, he vacationed in BC while working for Andersen Consulting in Denver. In Whistler he met a girl. He bounced back and forth between the US and Canada, working for various dot-com companies. At Expedia, in Seattle, where he spent four years, he kept a photo of Vancouver on his wall. Fatherhood (he married the girl) made him realize he wanted to raise his son in Canada. In 2005 he founded a digital agency, FCV, on his kitchen table. “Today we’ve got 130 employees,” he said recently, “revenues in excess of $11 million, and other offices in Toronto, Victoria, and Halifax.” An affair of the heart brought him here. What made him stay? “Well, I wanted to make a difference,” he said. “And I realized this is a place where you can make a difference. Lots of good things come together here.”
Those good things—political stability, dependable banks, quality of life, access to global markets—help explain why HootSuite, the social media–software company, has resisted offers to relocate south or east. It’s why US tech companies such as Microsoft, Salesforce, Slack, Amazon, Playyon, Facebook, and Twitter have set up shop here. It’s why SIGGRAPH (the computer graphics organization) held its massive annual conference here, and why TED—the world’s most vibrant incubator of big ideas—relocated from California. It’s why Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light & Magic and Sony Pictures Imageworks have created presences here. It’s why the Vancouver Aquarium, which is among the world’s best and draws more than a million visitors a year, is evolving into a global ocean-conservation institute—“transforming ourselves,” as CEO Nightingale put it, “from an aquarium with a mission to a mission with an aquarium.” And it’s why Peter Klein is building a global investigative centre here.
Klein, forty-five, was part of the wave of Americans who landed here after 9/11. He moved with his family from New York after his wife and kids were pulled from the rubble of the World Trade Center. He was then (and is still) a producer of 60 Minutes. Born in Cincinnati, Klein had visited Vancouver and liked it. He started teaching at UBC’s graduate school of journalism. Being smart, ambitious, and connected, he was soon running the place. Among his stellar recruits is David Rummel, a Texan, who ran the online-video unit at the New York Times and has worked as a senior producer at the major US networks.
While Canadian media companies struggle, Klein has his students doing remarkable work. They undertake global projects in partnerships Klein has forged over the years. A PBS Frontline/World documentary about the illegal dumping of electronic waste might have led to policy changes in Washington. A New York Times series on the killing of Indigenous people in Brazil over land disputes arguably prompted the arrest of murder suspects.
Klein is leveraging that acclaim to create a global non-profit that practises and teaches investigative reporting. “Washington, DC, has the Center for Public Integrity,” he said over coffee near his home off Cambie Street. “New York has ProPublica. Berkeley has the Center for Investigative Reporting. But they’re focused almost exclusively on America. The stories we pursue are international in outlook and interest.
“Such a centre could be anywhere—London, Paris, Delhi—but it really belongs here. We’re on the Pacific Rim. It’s relatively easy to get anywhere. We’re close to America, but not of it, so we don’t have that reflexive way of looking at global issues—namely, how does this affect us? We understand the North American audience, the main audience for our work. However, we’re multicultural, with ties to Asia. Our universities have scholars from all over. The city attracts excellent people because it’s a great place to live.
“Maybe the key is that there are no precedents here, no failed projects people can point to and say, forget it. It’s been tried. It doesn’t work. I’ve had discussions with the mayor’s office, and we’re now actively fundraising. Vancouver really is a different kind of North American city. That’s one of the things I love about it—the sense that you can start from scratch and build something here.”
What Tom Cooper has built is a network of the meek and the mighty. At sixty-four, Cooper has a snowy moustache, a professorial air, and the private numbers of everybody who’s anybody. Unofficial pastor to the city, he’s the sort of fellow who phones you shortly after you get fired (“Just wanted to take your pulse—you doing okay? ”) and signs his emails “Blessings, Tom.” Meet for coffee and he might be buying breakfast for a homeless man or counselling a despondent captain of industry.
The son of an executive who did well in advertising and insurance, Cooper is from San Angelo, Texas. Like Melissa Skelton, the Georgia-born former Procter & Gamble executive who’s now bishop of the Anglican diocese that includes Vancouver, he embraced his faith after a career in business. Having seen “the whole spectrum of money and power,” unsatisfied with “the pursuit of more,” he went into the seminary in Pasadena, California, spent two years in London working for the chaplain to the Queen, and then moved to Regent College at UBC in 1988.
One day he asked himself, who’s representing the soul of the city? Nobody, he decided. He founded City in Focus “to represent the spiritual side of the equation.” His networking and pastoral work led to philanthropy; over the years City in Focus has directed millions of dollars to charitable causes. When the premier needs someone to host a lunch for religious leaders, he’s the guy she calls. Once a year he organizes a big networking breakfast that attracts more than 1,000 people.
“Vancouver has its own character,” said Cooper. “Even self-made men understand that tax dollars built the roads their trucks use. They see, in a way many Americans don’t, that a social safety net is in everyone’s interest. Many of the most successful business guys in this city vote Liberal. Can you imagine an oil billionaire in Texas voting Democrat?
“Pierre Berton wrote an insightful little book about how Canadians differ from Americans,” Cooper said. “Americans don’t mind failing. There’s an attitude of, let’s try this and see. I’ve had people say to me, I don’t think a Canadian could have done what you’ve done in this city.”
The son of a California aerospace engineer, David Beers, fifty-seven, worked at the San Francisco Examiner and Mother Jones before coming to Vancouver with his wife in 1991. He signed on at the Vancouver Sun but left in unhappy circumstances. Then, in 2003, with $190,000 from the BC Federation of Labour (and later with software his pal David Talbot had developed for Salon), he launched thetyee.ca. The site, which provides a bracing alternative to Postmedia and CTV, has won many awards. I asked Beers why Americans are so disproportionately prominent here.
“As an immigrant, you have to invent a new existential narrative for yourself,” he said. “Americans are a self-selected group, and they come with more financial and social capital than most.” Many also come, he suggested, with a heightened sensitivity to the political climate. Speaking of the Harper government, he said, “Sometimes you feel like the guy in the village who goes around saying, am I the only one who realizes the barn’s on fire? ”
He’s not the only one. Linda Solomon Wood (Joel Solomon’s sister) also took her politics online. A native of Chattanooga, she paid her journalistic dues at the Tennessean, where she won awards for investigative reporting and public-service journalism. On that lovely sunny morning in September 2001, she lived fifteen blocks from the World Trade Center. Pregnant, and wary of the toxic air that enveloped Lower Manhattan, she moved to Cortes Island and then to Vancouver.
“I fell in love with this city,” she recalled over tea in her spacious condo near city hall. In 2006, wishing to capture “a mainstream mood and a culture I didn’t see reflected in the Sun and the Province,” she founded vancouverobserver.com. Like thetyee.ca, the site offers anti-establishment reporting on divisive issues such as oil tankers, pipelines, and rainforest destruction. She launched nationalobserver.com in April 2014.
“I don’t know why people don’t get more politically involved,” she said. “Don’t they realize that once you lose something like universal health care, or environmental oversight, or freedom of information, it’s not coming back? I’m a Canadian citizen now, I married a Canadian, and it mystifies me that so many people shrug at what Harper’s doing: Oh well, Vancouver’s still a great place to live.”
At her investiture into the Order of Canada last year, Bonnie Sherr Klein said, “Today’s Canada is not the nation that we chose. It is no longer proud of its difference from the US. Instead, the government of Canada seems to aim to emulate its southern neighbour as much as possible, even to grovel for its favour at the cost of this country’s independence and uniqueness.”
As in the Vietnam era, US-born writers and thinkers are among the city’s progressive ranks. Bestselling author John Vaillant, son of a Harvard psychiatrist, trekked out to Burnaby Mountain to join the protest against Kinder Morgan’s planned pipeline. Joel Bakan, a Rhodes Scholar from Michigan who teaches law at UBC, made his views clear in The Corporation. Brian Payton, Chris Cannon, William Gibson, Ruth Ozeki: all are troubled by what they see as American shadows falling over Canada.
Ozeki, fifty-nine, is a Buddhist priest and filmmaker whose novel A Tale for the Time Being was shortlisted for the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize. She divides her time between New York and BC, and finds it “sad and disillusioning” to witness the enfeeblement of the very institutions that drew her to Canada in the first place.
Vancouver’s civic motto, emblazoned on its rather goofy coat of arms, is By Sea, Land, and Air, We Prosper. The last time I saw Jim Green, at that Downtown Eastside coffee shop, we joked about coming up with a better slogan. I said, “How about, Thanks to Americans, Chinese, and Indians, We Prosper.”
“Manifest Destiny Is Alive and Well.”
“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Meet Peace, Order, and Good Government.”
“We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,” he deadpanned.
Green asked me who else I was interviewing for this article. As I rhymed off name after name, his curiosity turned to surprise. “I’ve met lots of those people,” he said. “I didn’t realize they were all Americans.”
“My thesis is that Yanks have quietly made Vancouver unique—hybridized, progressive, more global than continental,” I said. “It’s not like a US city, but it’s not quite like any other Canadian city, either. Why are Americans here so deeply engaged, do you think? ”
“We’re chastened optimists,” said Green, getting slowly to his feet. He’d lost weight since I’d last seen him, this civic pillar who’d spent much of his life making palpable contributions to his adoptive city. He put on his black hat, adjusted the brim, and caught his breath. “Maybe the attitude is, We screwed it up back home. Maybe we can help not screw it up here.”
This appeared in the April 2015 issue.