Why Success in Canada Means Moving to America

Canada’s modest institutions have lowered the ceiling on creative professionals. Is leaving the answer?

An illustration of a blue backpack covered in patches—including a Canadian maple leaf—left in a waiting area.

There were four of us around the table, eating tacos at a Nashville bar, when someone suggested we play “Dead or Canadian.” I’d never heard of the game before, but the title alone was enough to ping an instinctual dread. The rules of play are basically there in the name—for the uninitiated, you toss out the monikers of poor creative souls who didn’t make it, in work or in life, and then everyone guesses which kind of death they met. I was a few days into a monthlong trip to the United States. Nashville was a quick stopover on the way to a creative opportunity in New York, and already I was being put in my place. Still, I bit the bullet and said I was up for it: we were among friends, and bullets are very American. As the only Canadian present, I felt a little exposed, but my vulnerability was also my advantage—the competition was an American and two UK transplants, one of them my partner, Philip, the only person my sang-froid wasn’t fooling.

I felt defensive not because of my passport but because of my vocation. As a person of Canadian persuasion who works in the arts and is currently alive, that punchline is my destiny. Careers like mine are the reason it exists. I can labour my whole life and smash every record and maybe even get myself a green card, but people will still grade me by those two ignoble options. If you’re from the United States, the appeal of the game is obvious, a flash of the small-t trump card of cultural dominance against your opponent’s weaker hand. For Canadians, it’s harder to see the fun. Don’t get me wrong, my country deserves to be dragged for any hint of exceptionalism, which it emits so loudly and often that Americans can preemptively recite the talking points. In that sense, the joke is a justified smugness tax.

But it’s also a reminder that Canada’s tidy, modest institutions have lowered the ceiling on its creative professions. There’s also something very stay-in-your-lane about the presumption that a Canadian artist will never get big enough to be one of them. They’d sooner call you dead. So much for assimilation!

As it turns out, my hit rate for issuing accurate death sentences was no better than anyone else’s at the table. Despite Canada’s efforts to instill in me a sense of patriotism, something clearly hadn’t taken. I possessed no innate wisdom that sparked at the names of my compatriots, felt no special alarm go off when they needed rescue from imminent demise. Quite the contrary: I accidentally killed a lot of people. Maybe my score was tanking because I was distracted by the dread of stepping on my own grave. Or maybe it was because I, like a good American, have been known to occasionally confuse the Great White North with a kind of cultural death.

I have no metrics for how widespread Dead or Canadian is as an American pastime—it comes from a late-1980s game show, Remote Control, that had a four-year stint on MTV—but it makes sense to me that the power imbalance is figured, from a US pop culture standpoint, as a form of play. For people like me, it’s an identity crisis. America looms vast in the Canadian artistic imagination. During the developmental stage that involves the ecstatic and indiscriminate consumption of culture, US output forms, purely by numbers, a huge chunk of what young creators grow up nerding out on. By that point, it has passed into your blood.

Tajja Isen reads from the introduction of her book, Some of my Best Friends. Music is “Sneaky Snitch” by Kevin MacLeod.

At the same time, you’re subjected to a diffuse indoctrination program, from education to the law, that implies you’re supposed to do something different from what they do. You’re taught to value art that expresses a distinctly Canadian point of view. You’re taught that such a thing as a Canadian point of view exists at all and that there’s a whole set of aesthetic shorthand to convey it. You feel the expectation, transmitted at varying frequencies—who gets jobs, who gets published, who gets canonized—that your work will also express that shorthand or else define itself in predictable opposition to it. Some of these premises are the growing pains of a still-young country; others are my own paranoia. But I’ve long understood it as a kind of vise applied to storytelling. It has always struck me as a deeply unfair set of conditions under which to expect anyone to make art, let alone the kind that defines a nation.

If you’re lucky enough to eke out a piece of the pie and end up working in Canadian cultural industries, you’re in for a surprise. In the halls of studios and newsrooms and production offices, a different principle reigns: for talented careerists, real success means flying south. Go to America, veterans will tell their younger colleagues, held in place themselves by property or kids or the more mundane ballasts of habit and time. Get out while you still can. The prospect of my moving south had been coming up for years, resurfacing across my work in various fields and usually raised by people other than me. As a voice actor, I travelled to LA for award shows and met with directors who told me, correctly, that I’d never get cast in a blockbuster from all the way up north. As a law student, I was urged to apply to New York firms for better money and job prospects. As a fact checker and editor floating between contract gigs, my situation mirrored what I heard dispensed as common knowledge: there’s not much here. No matter the context, the southward drag was present and forceful, a density in the atmosphere. Get out while you still can. For years, I hadn’t listened. I’d heard it so many times that I stopped taking it seriously, writing it off as one more thing people just feel entitled to say to you in Canada, like Diversity is our strength and But where are you really from?

Instead, I stayed because staying was comfortable. I also resented being told by other people to take my life, tear it up, and start again. If the factor limiting my potential was truly just a fluke of birth and borders, the mistake didn’t seem like mine to pay for, especially if the price was to uproot my whole existence. Yet, at the same time, I felt the nagging worry that these people were right. Their advice set churning the same gut-level dread that later made me overreact to Dead or Canadian. They must have seen something light up in my eyes when they told me to go: a tiny American inside me, screaming, Let me out!

The real reason I never leaped at the advice to hightail it out is because I was afraid. My stubbornness didn’t bloom from any lack of want but from an excess of it, desire at a scale I distrusted my ability to control. Or so I told myself, since wanting it too much sounds sexier than crushing fear of failure. For all of my complaints, I was content to swim in a pond of this exact circumference. I praised the people who got out but wasn’t sure I had it in me to be one of them. That anxiety is a potent indicator: my most powerful attractions have been threaded with the suspicion that I’m not quite good enough to merit the object of my desire. Which may be the most Canadian thing I’ve ever said.

Hunger and raw talent may be strong enough to propel you across the border, but it takes grit to keep you there. You may have disavowed the meaningless signifiers of Canadiana in both your person and your work, but your essential self has still been forged at the intersection of comparatively stable social and political institutions. Free health care. Better gun control. Less money, sure, but also less competition. What if you uproot your life, head south, and discover, talent notwithstanding, that you’re just too soft for it?

This is the impulse I’ve worried about in myself—that a one-way ticket across the border might reveal some ineradicable contradiction between me and the life I think I want. At various points over the past few years, I’d start to lay the groundwork, like sending out job applications, but a part of me would shrivel with relief when I never heard anything back. Working in Canadian journalism, I’d often hear other editors reference the mythical former colleagues who had moved to New York—America, in this context, is always New York. My jealousy would swell or shrink according to superficial similarities or differences, like our respective ages or what subject we’d studied or the fact that we both wrote about culture in a country with too few outlets for publishing that kind of writing. But, while they had launched themselves into the open sky, I still had the security of always being able to see the ceiling. I liked the way it made me feel cozy, enclosed. Working in Canada, it is possible to keep the ceiling in your sights at all times, like a prison guard but also like a companion. It’s possible you’ll even grow tall enough to touch it, and maybe that’s enough of an accomplishment. Maybe you’re not meant to aspire to more than that. Maybe this is who you are.

In preparation for my monthlong New York trip, I skimmed Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That” in horror. Who would subject themselves to that city for life after reading a warning so clear? Sure, I was going to New York, but I wasn’t going to stay there. I knew enough of the city to know that I liked it but also enough to know that it terrified me. I’d milk that month and take some meetings, bring my connections back to Canada and bask in the cultural advantages of the United States with none of the prohibitive expense. The city and I would make our love work long distance. I had it all figured out.

Something had shifted, though. The gears that kept me travelling along the track in front of me, the one that runs around the tiny pond, were starting to lock. There were things I didn’t yet want to do but was no longer content not to know. Before I left for my month in New York, the city I had no intention of relocating to, I had a lot of coffee meetings with Toronto-based writers and editors. I had no job in place for when I got back at the end of the summer, and I was trying to put out feelers. Tucked in between very granular questions about their career trajectories, which were mostly there to show I’d done my research, I asked each of them if they wished they’d gone to America. My sample wasn’t representative, but the overwhelming answer was of course. I had no property, no kids? Then what the fuck was I still doing in Toronto? Only one person I asked said no, she’d never tried and regretted nothing. Another person told me that I was never going to do any better than where I was.

I spent the first week or so in New York overwhelmed and afraid. I held on to arbitrary signs of not being from there, like using only Wi-Fi—running into random subway stations every time I had to send a message—while Philip had the foresight to buy a SIM card. He was properly trying the place on as a prospective future home; I was “just visiting.” But the luxury of the month gave my feelings time to turn. A month was long enough to understand the difference between a place that makes you complacent and one that makes you feel contextualized, a backdrop that issues you a challenge and clarifies the stuff you’re made of. A couple of weeks in, when I stopped getting lost on the subway and had met some more writers and slowed down enough to feel the rustle and whir of ambition around me, I suddenly felt like a string of DNA somebody had sequenced.

When I got back to Toronto, I understood in a new, tactile way that I might one day leave it. Toronto’s energy flows endlessly toward the impulse to win, to never stop working until you hit your head on the visible ceiling. Then you work some more. New York has that vibe too, maybe even more so, but I feel like everyone’s more self-aware about it. And, more importantly, there’s no ceiling. You can try to dominate the world and touch the clouds, but the world is so vast it would obviously be foolish to try.

Toronto does not have this reality check; if it did, we would all live better and more balanced lives. The things I’d worried about—being too soft for New York, not being quite enough for it—were true. But, in practice, that inevitability now felt freeing. I guess I got tired of repressing my sense of possibility.

In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud writes of the “narcissism of minor differences,” his term for the tiny antagonisms that simmer between bordering nations. Such rivalries, he says, are both petty release valves for aggression and the glue that enables social cohesion. When it comes to Canada and the United States, this checks out—even as one wishes that Canada, faced with an invitation to be narcissistic, had chosen a better hill to die on. I’m grateful to have been born here and to have called it home for so long. I don’t expect leaving to be easy. But this accident of birth has never seemed synonymous, or even logically correlated, with believing in a set of principles that separate us from them. I was raised to pin a little maple leaf to my backpack when I travelled, to preemptively correct the assumption that I was from the Bad Place and make other people be the ones to say sorry. This, and no more, feels like the appropriate role for nationalism—a line edit, a correction, but never substantive enough to be elevated into thesis or theme.

Excerpted from Some of My Best Friends by Tajja Isen. Copyright © 2022 Tajja Isen. Published by Doubleday Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.

Tajja Isen
Tajja Isen is the author of the essay collection Some of My Best Friends and the forthcoming memoir Tough Love. She is also a contributing writer for The Walrus. She has edited for Catapult, The Walrus, and Electric Literature.
Celina Gallardo
Celina Gallardo is a designer at The Walrus.