Taking Canadian Citizenship, Accent and All

THIS past summer I revisited the land of my birth for the first time in 13 years. At one point I was chatting with my 82-year-old mother in her sitting room and she said, out of the blue, ``You haven't changed.'' I knew what she meant. She was remembering the way I was - the way I expressed myself, manner of speaking, sense of humor, gestures, and so forth - before I emigrated from England 37 years ago. She was saying, in effect, that Canada hadn't changed the way I looked and sounded to her. I may have said something droll, because she made her observation with a hint of a smile.

When I came to Canada I tried conscientiously to lose my English accent. I wanted to be and sound Canadian. But I could never master the art of the formidable ``r'' - in words such as ``art,'' or ``Arthur,'' or ``port'' - and I found it difficult to set my jaw in the viselike hold required to shorten the ``i'' - in ``vice'' and ``nice'' and ``ice.'' In northwestern Ontario, where I lived and worked in the early going, Canadian-English was influenced by the Scottish dialect, and I couldn't discipline myself to it.

In Vancouver, I met a chap from the north of England who had lived in Canada less than a year. He spoke Canadian as if he had been born here. The manner of speaking in the Midlands and north of England is distinct; it carries more definition than that of southern England where I was born and raised. Normally I am soft-spoken. Canadians don't hear me.

Later, in Montreal, I found Canadian-English to be less demanding, more like my own, so I stopped trying to change. My French-Canadian colleagues graciously accepted my so-called accent; far rather that, they made it clear, than to have to listen to me brutalizing their language.

While in Montreal, I took out Canadian citizenship, which entailed swearing allegiance to the Queen. I made the mistake of revealing to an Albertan friend that my citizenship fee had been only half that charged non-British applicants. ``A cut-rate Canadian,'' he commented good-naturedly. Moments after he added to that: ``You're really a Canadian now, are you?''

That's what they tell me, I replied.

``Then why don't you drop that phony English accent?'' he said.

At a convention in Toronto in 1968, the Canadian publisher I worked for introduced me to another publisher. The other publisher asked me how long I had lived in Canada. Seventeen years, I answered. ``Is that right?'' he said incredulously. ``I figured you stepped off the boat yesterday.'' My publisher chuckled. ``They sound worse as they grow older,'' he quipped, meaning the English.

In connection with international conferences, seminars, workshops, and the like, there was a time when I could tell a Canadian from an American just by looking at him. If the man was quiet, relatively expressionless, and there was enough about his appearance that I could guess the department store at which he bought his clothes, then he was a Canadian.

No longer is that the case. These days, it seems to me, Canadian executives are every bit as confident and animated - and as well attired - as their neighbors to the south.

Over the years Canadians have told me I look English. I don't wear English clothes, or affect an English way of dressing, so it must have something to do with my ears, or nose, or the shape of my head, or possibly it's my demeanor or bearing. I really don't know. Nobody has been able to explain it to me. At first it puzzled me. Then I discovered it wasn't all that difficult to distinguish a British-born person from a North American in a crowd. But I can't explain it, either.

After all's said and done, we are who we are. With no regrets, I'm a cut-rate Canadian, with a phony English accent, and - to borrow a line from ``My Fair Lady'' - likely to remain so. About the Artist. Frederick Varley was an immigrant to Canada, moving to Toronto from England. He was a member of the `Group of Seven,' who were maligned for their wild and rugged paintings of Canadian landscapes. Although Varley never achieved the recognition of the others in the group, `Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay' is considered his first important work.

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