A Maybe-too-long Explanation of Why I Don't Know Where I'm From

At the end of this month, January 2018, my parents are moving away from a spot they’ve been in for just over ten years. It’s the longest they’ve been in one spot since they moved away for university. It’s the longest I’ve ever been anywhere, even if it doesn’t quite feel like it.

I mentioned in my last post that I’ve found it very difficult to answer the question, “Where are you from?”. It’s a certain kind of annoying when it’s asked to a person of colour, because even if you were born and raised in, say, Edmonton, the asker is probably expecting an answer like, “Japan” or, “Korea”. I don’t have to wade through those frustrating waters, as I am definably white (a primarily Scottish, British-Isle mutt, in case you were wondering). However, since I moved to Nova Scotia, there’s an interesting culture of people wanting to know where you’re from.

Having been raised by two Nova Scotians, and being fairly familiar with the area already, I completely understand why: If I can understand where you’re from, I can come to understand you; and if you’re from where someone I know is from, then you either know them, know someone who knows them, or are related to them. Nova Scotia is a small province, and according to Stats Canada, it is the second most densely populated only to Prince Edward Island (which is incredibly small and has a population of 56,462, according to the 2011 census data).  People here value connections, whether they be through family or friends. A joking phrase my parents might throw around with a Cape Breton twang is, “Who’s yer father?”, which originates from them hearing people say it around them all the time, because chances are they know Buddy McCullough from Mabou, and want to know if you know how his sister Dolores is doing. Within my first month working at my job in a cafe in Halifax, I stumbled into figuring out that one of our semi-regular customers was my aunt - albeit the sister-in-law of one of my great uncles, but nonetheless, related. Within that first month, I also faced a fair bit of questioning from customers as to whether or not I was “[a] local”, to which my answer is “Kind of?”.

Last week, a semi-recent coworker asked me where I was from, and I mentally prepared my convoluted response. I think she noticed my hesitation and asked me instead where I was born. I was born in Ottawa, but I only lived there for two years before my family moved to Toronto, so my parents could study at the University of Toronto. Because I moved at such a young age I don’t have any memories of living there, but because of the family and friends forged there, I’ve visited there a number of times and it holds a very special place in my heart. When I explained this (also not as gracefully as I did here) she tried to state that I was from Ottawa. I had to disagree. I have barely any familiarity with the streets and locale of Ottawa, as a proper Ottawan would. I could just as well say that I’m from Toronto, where I went to kindergarten, and where I learned to ride a bike. I can still make my way around the Old Vic area of U of T going by the landmarks there- including the tree where I learned to ride my bike (as my mom will enthusiastically point out), and I still remember when there was a family restaurant where that skyscraper now stands at the intersection of… of… now here’s the funny thing; I might need to look up what the street names are in order to tell you for sure. Charles and... Bloor? No, no, Bay. Charles and Bay street. See? A person from Toronto would know the difference between Bay and Bloor.

My coworker again tried to assert where I was from, this time telling me that I was from Ontario, which I really wanted to avoid because a) saying that you’re from Ontario is kind of a dirty word everywhere else in Canada, and b) it’s not entirely true, because after kindergarten my family moved to a small town near the American border in Quebec. You may have noticed Lac-Brome duck in a grocery store (assuming that if you’re reading this, you’re from Canada), the farm where that duck came from was kind of a landmark in the area of Lac-Brome, and I’d see it on a weekly basis. Living there was a strange but valuable experience and an extremely formative time in my life. I lived there from the age of six until I was ten… in an apartment above the library in the centre of town. That was one of the most interesting things about this town when I think about it; The town hall wasn’t the centre of town, and neither was the church, rather it was the library at the corner of the main intersection in Knowlton. I have a flood of patchwork memories from my time living above the library and having my backyard be the occasional host of a small petting zoo, and being steps away from local shops and a park. Eventually, I’d have the freedom to go on walks around the town by myself, through the paths along the river that led from the pond’s dam, and conveniently enough towards my school. However it was there when I realized that I was an outsider, because I was, at the time, from Ontario, and if that’s a dirty word anywhere in Canada, it’s most definitely one in Quebec. Still, I became a part of the local community quickly enough, as my dad was the minister at two of the churches in the region. Knowlton was where I got into theatre, it’s where I made friends with the other outsiders in town (I should expand upon this topic in the future, because the more I think about it, the more interesting that point is), it’s where I first got into Girl Guides, and it’s when I got my cat, who is now sitting at the end of my bed regarding me with nonchalance. Lots of important stuff happened during those four years, and I can’t discount my time there as part of where I’m from.

“But Leah,” you may be wondering, “Didn’t you then move to Mississauga, a city in Ontario, and live there for ten years? Isn’t that kind of how this weird essay/article/verbal-masturbation started?”. To which I respond, yes, but- I moved to Mississauga from Quebec, remember? To the kids in 5th grade at Whiteoaks, I was from Quebec, not Ontario. I was an outsider again, especially since I was the new kid coming into the grade just before graduating to middle school. I still remember how the school principal hugged every kid walking out of the auditorium on graduation day except for me. Middle school was better - I still look back on those days as the best times for having friends (in my experience, anyway - even if it ended on a sweet and sour note). Again, though, I became an outsider in high school when most of the kids there were funneled through the middle school right next door that had the same academic program. I eventually got my footing, but my real attachment to my time in Mississauga isn’t to the people I met there, it’s to the streets I walked all by myself when I needed to think. Like Knowlton’s nature paths and shops, the enclave of Mississauga I lived in had some great nature paths and neighbourhoods to walk through. I’d walk and think and/or talk to myself when I was sure no one was around, listen to music or a podcast, and make notes on the people and places I walked by. I took a lot of pictures too, I’ll post some of my favourites here:

When I was faced to reconcile the fact that my parents were moving away from this spot, my first thought was that now I’d really have no excuse to go and walk around those streets again. Those streets and parks I’d documented in pictures and words- I wrote a lot of pieces referring to my walks, and particular personal landmarks- I knew it would be a very long time until I got to see them again, even if they changed over time (I kind of looked forward to seeing how things changed, that was part of the beauty of it). Maybe my future partner will be from Toronto or have family there, and I can whip out my presto pass and hop on a Go train to my familiar station and spend a day walking around. Otherwise, those streets will go unrevised by me.

After high school I went to college in North Toronto, and lived for about a year at one of their residences, but I went back home to visit my parents (and my cat) practically every weekend, and before I finished college I moved home to save money and spent four hours on public transit practically every day. Then there was the strange limbo time after college and before I moved here, to Halifax, when I really didn’t feel like I belonged in Mississauga, and I felt exhausted by the general attitude of the Greater Toronto Area. There were very interesting opportunities for me there, but I knew it wasn’t where I needed to be.

So then I moved here, and people started to ask me where I was from. I’d say I had just moved from Mississauga, but my family was from Nova Scotia- which is true. My mom is from Pictou, my dad is from Dartmouth, and I am from… somewhere. You’d think after about 1500 words I would have come up with a succinct answer by now. Alas, I have neglected to mention a very important piece of timeline data: All along this timeline I have described, I spent every summer in Nova Scotia. Some visits lasted far longer than others, but every summer I spent at least some time in Nova Scotia with family, and those spaces are etched in familiarity to me- especially my granny and poppa’s home in Pictou (knowing them, they would be quick to argue that it’s not really Pictou proper, and I agree with them, but I hesitate to narrow that down here). The one constant throughout all my years between towns and cities and schools and friends was those summers in Nova Scotia. Additionally, all through my life I’ve been quite proud of my Nova Scotian heritage and would be adamant about my family being from Nova Scotia (even if more than a few of my colloquial quirks were from Newfoundland thanks to my great-grandmother). One can imagine how confusing it can be getting to the place you feel like you’re from and being an outsider; having Come From Away certification.

Maybe I need to move to another country so I can just say I’m from Canada, have the general pleasantries good diplomacy has rewarded us with, and get on with figuring other things out.