Grace: Couple’s yearly Canada party tonight, with an Omaha twist -
Published Monday, July 1, 2013 at 2:00 am / Updated at 7:27 pm
Grace: Couple’s yearly Canada party tonight, with an Omaha twist

Here's how you celebrate the First of July.

You get your red. You get your white. You get your family and your friends together.

You eat that familiar comfort food. You sing that patriotic song. The one that starts with an O and ends with a … Canada.

Today is Canada Day. It's the day our neighbors to the north pause to reflect on what it means to be Canadian.

Canada is still part of the Commonwealth and owes some, albeit technical, allegiance to the queen. But Canada Day reflects the day in 1867 when the British government united three separate colonies, the day Canada became one Canada.

So what's an expat Canadian couple to do in Omaha on their national holiday, three days before their world goes deafeningly red-white-and-blue?

You can find out today at the Waiting Room Lounge in Benson, where Bill Arab, a local musician, and wife Michele Demarais, a religious studies professor, will hold their annual Canada Day bash.

Doors open at 7 p.m. There will be beer and Caesars — a bloody-Mary-like drink with clam juice.

There will be bands — nine of them.

There will be Canadian snacks like Hawkins Cheezies (supposedly a superior form of Cheetos), coffee crisps (which allegedly go fast) and poutine, a dish that sounds so unhealthy, it's hard to believe it's not American: french fries, gravy and cheese curds.

The chef — another Canadian expat, Jessica Joyce of the trendy downtown sandwich shop Block 16 — will make the grub.

Neither national unity nor Canada Day comes for free. Part of the $8 door charge will go to a local charity, Heartland Family Service.

Bill and Michele celebrated their first Canada Day in Omaha about eight years ago.

They moved here from Vancouver in 2002 for Michele's job with the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She teaches courses on Hinduism, Buddhism, Sanskrit and First Nations studies.

First Nations refers to aboriginal people of Canada outside the Inuit, who inhabit the Arctic, and the Métis, whose roots are both indigenous to Canada and Europe.

Michele is both Métis and Dakota, which makes her feel both innately Canadian and American.

When the couple landed here, new friends in Omaha showed a small-town hospitality they say was unfamiliar in Vancouver. That city on Canada's western coast, while only slightly bigger than Omaha, at about 630,000 people, nevertheless is part of the 4.5 million population that comprises the Seattle metropolitan area.

The culture shock they experienced coming to Omaha had less to do with being Canadian and more to do with leaving the Pacific Northwest and the densely, diversely populated Vancouver, where more than half of the citizens don't speak English as a first language. Much of the signage around Vancouver is printed in two languages, English and the prevailing native language.

People there were friendly enough, but insular. Michele said Omahans seem more open.

“When I was taking the bus before I got a car, I sneezed and all kinds of people on the bus said 'God bless you,' ” she said. “I've even had that happen in a dressing room.”

As a way of saying thank you to their Omaha friends, Bill and Michele opened the door of their Dundee home every July 1.

They put up Canadian flags. They mixed Caesars and made poutine and lovingly embraced the Canadian stereotype of flannel-wearing people saying “eh” the way many Irish-Americans embrace the sometimes exaggerated symbols of Ireland on St. Patrick's Day.

Bill calls this “Danny Boy Canadianism.”

A musician who plays with a lot of local bands, including on St. Patrick's Day, Bill said there are always requests for “Danny Boy” on March 17, even though the song was penned by a British man and isn't a pure Irish classic.

His Canada Day in Omaha is like that: a hybrid of cultures. He and Michele see it as a fun way to embrace their Canadian roots among American friends.

“You get invited to everybody's July Fourth stuff,” Bill said. “And you want to say 'Hey, we drink too much and blow up a bunch of stuff, too.' ”

He's kidding. Kind of. They don't know anyone back home who buys fireworks for an individual use, like my neighborhood pyro who shoots off M-80s.

But Bill points out the similarities between July 1 and July 4. Both are national holidays; a day off from work; a time to wear your national colors, gather with friends and be somber and celebratory at the same time.

The two countries share much in common, not the least of which is a border spanning some 5,125 miles, including the border with Alaska.

The countries are major importers of each other's goods. Relations are generally friendly. Each sees the other as their country cousin.

I asked them what Canadian myths they'd like to debunk.

Bill: “We don't say 'aboot.' We say 'about.' That whole Bob-and-Doug-McKenzie thing? Nobody I've ever met has said 'Take off, eh, ye hoser.' The 'eeehhhh' thing.”

Michele: “We do say 'eh' a lot! I do have students who giggle at that. We do actually like cheese. I can't speak for all Canadians, but Bill and I really do like cheese, so that's true for us.”

Bill thinks the great American treasure is not the cheeseburger — it's barbecue.

Michele thinks the great American treasure is friendliness.

She misses the native culture she says is far more infused in Canada than it is here. But her native tie to this country, Spirit Lake, N.D., is part of why she is seeking dual citizenship.

“At least part of my family was here until Custer. And then they went North,” she said. “I'm always going to be Canadian. But I feel this is my family's place, too.”

Contact the writer: Erin Grace    |   402-444-1136    |  

Erin is a columnist who tries to find interesting stories and get them into the paper. She's drawn to the idea that everyday life offers something extraordinary.

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