Zed or Zee? A crisis of Canadian identity

Recently, I have had several conversations with my children that would suggest I don’t feel as old as I think I may actually be. I am a child of the 70s. I grew up on Sesame Street, Mr Dressup, Mr Rogers and the Friendly Giant. I knew the difference between the CBC and PBS, and the difference was simple: when I watched Sesame Street on CBC, the alphabet ended in Zed and the second language was French, while in the same show on PBS, the alphabet ended in Zee and the second language was Spanish. Thus began my sense of Canadian identity, and, as for many of my generation, it was centered on how we talk and spell and how those things proved we were not American.

My kids span the line between the Millennial and Gen Zee generations – and please note that I have to write “Gen Zee”, because if I write it “Gen Z” I will say it out loud as “Gen Zed”. It took most of my childhood years to figure out why the heck a slogan like “EZ-clean” held any meaning whatsoever. And when I did finally clue in, I reconciled it by thinking “well, that’s fine if you’re American, but otherwise it’s just silly.”

More than one of my kids has taken pretty strong exception to my insistence that Canadians call it Zed and not Zee. My stubborn adherence to these subtle speech and language differences apparently causes me to come across as stubborn, petty and chauvinistic. This is not how I want to be described.

But in mild self-defence and an effort to find perspective, let’s consider that in my adult lifetime, I have watched the following sweeping changes in the way the Canadians around me speak and write:

  • We’ve moved, almost completely, from Zed to Zee
  • We call the country to the south of us America, not the United States
  • We move, in school, from the 7th to the 8th grade, not from Grade VII to Grade VIII
  • We opt to leave out the u in colour, neighbour, favour, humour, and behaviour. We increasingly choose between US and UK spelling, and there is less and less tolerance for anything in between.

Canadians have struggled with their national identity as long as the country has been in existence. Hundreds of thousands of words have been written on the subject, coming to all kinds of conclusions ranging from the sincere to the ridiculous:

  • there is no such thing, really – it’s political, not cultural
  • Canadian identity is whatever makes us not American
  • it’s about hockey, poutine, and Tim Hortons (which was, ironically, absorbed by American corporate interest)
  • it’s about balancing unity with inclusion and diversity
  • it’s about being polite and apologetic
  • it’s about being liked internationally

Recognizing the complexity of the question of Canadian identity, my simple aim here is to come to terms with “Zed vs Zee” in a way that will make me a better person. And that’s it, really: how does being Canadian make me a better global citizen?

Being Canadian is important to me because I have a life-long belief that my country stands up for decency. To me, being a decent human being means understanding my place in the world as a global citizen, as a member of the most powerful and influential species on the planet. We’ve heard it many times: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

It will take me a long time before I stop cringing when my kids say “Zee” and refer to “the 10th grade,” but I will get there. I will bite my tongue when they tell me about something they heard happening “in America” or if they spell colour without a U. I will let these things go in favour of promoting good citizenship within and beyond our national borders.

When I dig deep, what I really want is for the next generation to understand how things work in Canada and how Canada’s relationship to the rest of the world matters more than how we “identify” as Canadians. I want them to appreciate the privileges that living here affords us. I want them to vote and to exercise their right from an informed place and an impassioned state of mind. I want them to remember that of all the species on the planet, human beings hold the most power over, and thus the greatest responsibility for, life on Earth.

Our national identity is useful only to the extent that it makes us better people. Ultimately, if being Canadian means that I strive to be a decent human being, I’m all for it, regardless of how we get from A to Zed. Namaste.

2 thoughts on “Zed or Zee? A crisis of Canadian identity

  1. Great post, Karen! As another Canadian Karen Rempel, now living in the USA, I cling to the U in colour when writing to Canadian friends. (And I still say Zed.) I agree with your conclusion that decency is a defining Canadian characteristic. 🙂

  2. I came across your post because I also wanted to figure out if I should say “zed” or “zee”. My co-worker and I are both 1st generation immigrants to Canada and we are millennials/generation z. She got a little confused when I said “zed”. I started trying to sing ABC to get a feel for whether “zed” or “zee” made more sense but it seems like either worked for me. I told my co-worker to just say “zee” as in zebra to avoid any miscommunication, especially because “zee” sounds really close to “C”.

    It still gets the point across and I avoid having to ponder what seems more right. I think it shouldn’t matter as long as the other party is on the same wavelength. In our line of work, we had to pronounce “z” sometimes to go through security questions for accessing certain information and if we fail, we cannot get the information we need and would have wasted time trying to get in the phone queue again.

    I had to write an internal memo to address this issue, instruct callers to pair a word with the letter if the pronunciation is too similar to another letter. I don’t know if it’s common but I seem to have terrible ears for distinguishing certain letters especially B and P, M and N, F and S.

    I think I almost got confused between G and J, but it could have been due to having learned French but not very well at one point.

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