Canada Lights Up

When people ask me, an American expat, what it’s like living in Canada, I tell them, “It’s kind of like living in the States, if the States were on lithium.”

This is the price of living in the land of “Peace, Order and Good Government.” With the notable exceptions of Arcade Fire fans and the Alberta tar sands developers, there’s just not a lot of mania to be found north of the border. But for a few weeks last February, all that changed: Vancouver hosted the Winter Olympics, and Canada went off its meds.

From that heartbreaking opening bell sounded by the Republic of Georgia’s Nodar Kumaritashvili when he collided with an unpadded stanchion to become the first Olympic luge fatality in nearly 50 years, to Sidney Crosby’s epic tiebreaker in the men’s hockey final, Canadians rode out the lows along with the highs. For two weirdly warm and sunny weeks in the middle of what was supposed to be winter, even the doomsayers — who saw the Games as a commercial boondoggle — were swayed by the excitement.

Gone was the usual gaze-averting reserve, and in its place was an ecstatic, high-fiving street party the likes of which Vancouver had never seen. The roar of the crowds cheering a Canadian goal against the United States was audible even through the walls of a house sealed for winter. For a brief moment, Canada embraced its inner patriot, and it felt pretty good.

“Canada isn’t one of those countries that wears its flag all the time,” one of my friends said, “but when I rode the SkyTrain, every single person was wearing red and white.” Another described it as a “gradual building of red energy,” adding, “Wherever you went, suddenly people were talking to you, laughing, joyful.”

Vancouver’s Olympic high took other forms as well: the lineup for free bong hits outside Marc Emery’s Cannabis Culture Headquarters was relentless, and there were some unfortunate run-ins with the billion-dollar security apparatus. During the torch relay, one free-spirited Canadian reached toward the Olympic Torch and tried to light … what? A cigarette, a firecracker, his finger? only to find himself wrestled to the ground by the police.

By March, Vancouver had come back down to earth as well and, by June, our red wave had been replaced by a “yellow zone” on the other side of the country — the security perimeter around the Group of 20 meeting in Toronto. Canada was back to its old self again — reserved, responsible, safe.

But deep in Vancouver’s heart, the memory of that manic red reprieve will be treasured for a long time.

John Vaillant, the author of The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival.

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