Conversing in Canadian

This post has nothing to do with bees. In fact, I just set up a new category called, “Nothing to do with bees”—just to be clear. Instead, this post is about a vowel.

My husband and I decided to spend a four-day weekend camping in British Columbia. We left here on an azure September morning and drove straight through to the border station at Sumas-Huntingdon, stopping only long enough to change drivers.

At the border, the line was long, at least an hour. The day was getting warm and drivers were testy. A number of vehicles cut in line from the side streets and tempers were on edge.

When we finally pulled up to the gate, I passed the border agent my U.S. passport and my husband’s Canadian one. The agent glanced at them and asked our purpose—or rather my purpose—since my husband didn’t need one.

I said we were going camping. He asked where. I said, “Chilliwack Provincial Park.”

“Chilliwack,” he said.

“Chilliwack,” I confirmed.

“Chilliwack,” he said again, a little louder.

“Chilliwack,” said I, suddenly understanding why the line was so long. This was a ridiculous conversation.

He sighed and leaned right through his little window with a condescending expression that made me feel like I was three. “Chilliwack,” he said firmly. “It’s not ChilLEE, it’s ChilLA.”

“ChilLAwack,” I repeated obediently, though I couldn’t hear much difference. I thought I saw a hint of a smile, but I’m not sure.

“Do you have a place to stay?” he asked.

“We’ll stay at Chil . . . I mean, the park campground,” I said.

He sat back in his chair and stared through me. “There is no provincial park at Chilliwack.”

Now, seriously, I never thought there was a future in arguing with border officials, but this guy was wearing on me, so I took a stab at it. “Yes, there is,” I said. I had a fleeting image of being pulled into secondary and having my sleeping bag sniffed by dogs.

I don’t remember what he said next because my husband was stuffing a sheaf of papers in my hand. It was a Google map, directions to the park, downloaded and printed before we left home.

I passed it on to the linguistics/border guy. He looked at it and said, “Oh, Cultus Lake! Why didn’t you say so?”

I didn’t say so because we weren’t going to Cultus Lake, we were going to Chilliwack Lake. I thought that was clear by now, but I just nodded. I think I could say “Cultus” if I had to.

He took forever with the map, but finally passed it back along with the passports. “Well, okay,” he said s-l-o-w-l-y, although he didn’t sound one bit convinced. I mumbled something gracious, grabbed the paperwork, and bolted outta there.

The rest of the trip was perfect, although my husband, who had grown up in a border town, couldn’t figure out why the agent was so hung up on one tiny vowel. I didn’t think about it too much, not until that night when, sitting in front of the campfire, I got of fit of the vapors. You see, for dinner I had brought along a can of—you guessed it—chiLA!



Footbridge on the path to Radium Lake in Chilliwack Lake Provincial Park.

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  • You’d have a wonderful time in a place like Newfoundland, which you probably just pronounced incorrectly. Say out loud this short sentence: Understand Newfoundland. If you pronounce Newfoundland correctly, those two words should rhyme. Be honest, you got it wrong, didn’t you?

    • Now Phillip,

      If you were paying attention, you would know I’m married to a Canadian. I also gave birth to a Canadian. What makes you think I can’t pronounce Newfoundland? Honestly? I’m sorry to disappoint. (Although, that’s one of the few place names I’ve even thought about pronouncing.)

  • I used to live in north central Montana bordering Alberta. Lots of Albertans would come to shop in the States. Once when we were going to Lethbridge, my articulate 3 year old saw a very large rock (boulder) and wanted to know if that was a ‘canadian’, he didn’t realize it meant the people. When I was younger we used to say that Albertans spelled Canada; C-N-D. [C-eh-D-eh-D-eh].

    Nothing meant by that lil’ joke, I have many good friends from Canada, in fact, a brother-in-law. We never had a hard time getting in, it was the U.S. officials that could be a little testy.