About a decade ago, the world’s most serious newspaper, The New York Times—at that stage still interested in Canada—assigned a bright young man named Bill Borders to be its new correspondent in Ottawa. Borders, being a serious, well-educated type as are all its recruits, knew nothing about Canada, not an unusual malady. He therefore went to a world encyclopedia, to background himself on the basic demographics and statistics and relevant data on this strange clump of nothingness that was an hour’s flight away from Manhattan.
To his utter horror, his eye spied one fact: aside from Ulan Bator, Mongolia, Ottawa in the winter is the coldest capital city in the world. Borders, no dummy, immediately discovered the separatist stirrings in Quebec and persuaded his impressed editors that he should be stationed instead in Montreal, the charm of its restaurants instilled in him by certain scribes whose identity cannot be revealed because of incipient modesty.
It is a measure of our current angst that the Times’ interest in Canada is now of such intensity that its current nominal Canada man, a superb reporter by the name of John Bums, spends most of his time covering disputations in Afghanistan and other world hot spots—the paper having apparently decided (along with most Canadians) that this is, as one American commentator puts it, “technically a country.” Borders had it right in the first place. A country run by a capital this cold is not operable. A capital this cold which is trying to run a country is not functional. This computerstained wretch, thawing out his frozen face in a hotel room as he types, views out of the window a display of multicolored hot-air balloons across the sky. It is quite clear why they are aloft, fuelled by the supply of surplus gas exuded by such as Allan MacEachen and Harvie Andre and Sheila Copps, the principal export of a town based on persiflage, hyperbole and obfuscation—which could be the name of a law firm, and probably is.
The occasion is the opening of Winterlude, a shrewd local attempt to cash in on tourist
dollars by advertising how cold it is with ice sculptures and other folklore. American tourists, who cannot afford the airfare to Ulan Bator—and who basically don’t know where it is—pay good bucks to take home postcards from the spot that ranks No. 2 in the encyclopedia to Mongolia, which has yet to invent a tourism bureau.
Serious people walk the streets here clothed in headgear that resembles the protection worn by peasants in the Gulag Archipelago. Otherwise charming Gallic women venture onto the streets wrapped in scarves and woollen protectors that reveal about as many facial features as the veiled females of Baghdad.
People who are this cold can’t think properly. Which brings us to the congenital Ottawa myth that Canada is basically a Great White North, not welcome for brass monkeys, a land where basically all the population is in the same fix.
This, as a matter of fact, doesn’t happen to be true. Vancouver, you venture, must be left aside, since its salubrious climes leave inhabitants still playing tennis in Stanley Park on New Year’s Day, not to mention those despicable year-round golfers. But Vancouver can’t be left aside. Nor can Calgary, where chinooks turn winter days into spring in swift three-hour swoops. Toronto’s climate does not leave the entire populace wearing parkas and resembling the Inuit-as-civil-servants, as does Ottawa.
The point is that Ottawa is not just another “typical” Canadian town in winter or another collection of hardy Canadian survivors. It is not typical of anything Canadian, a freakish outpost where the frigidity of air translates into frigidity of the mind. Residents of North Bay and Flin Flon may be as rigidly frigid as Ottawa is; most Canadians are not.
The reason Ottawa has been so transfixed on the active minds in Quebec is because Ottawa tends to make governmental minds turn into sludge. Jacques Parizeau dances about in his double-breasted bulk like Kurt Browning, leaving the feds trailing in his wake with all the grace and speed of Turk Broda. Robert Bourassa, who has more moves than Elizabeth Manley, not to mention Katarina Witt, is moved beyond the compulsory figures into a triple Axel that has the PMO cross-eyed.
The Mulroney gang of one, in response, fights back with Keith Spicer’s Dead Poets’ Society, a Scud that never landed. In the fertile revolutionary redoubt of Montreal, you see, there is an underz ground city walkway be£ neath the frigidity. In Otic tawa, cabinet minds must !£ be exposed to nature, meaning the chilblains— known locally as the chillbrains.
This is a natural consequence of spending too many years in a climate surpassed only by Ulan Bator, not a single citizen of which has been recorded as having won a Nobel Prize. Eugene Whelan, rocket scientist in the previous Liberal government, once sued your scribe for saying what Whelan once said: that the reason why Africans were in the fix they were in was because they didn’t wear hats and we know what the hot sun does to the brain, et cetera.
Whelan, to my disappointment, never showed up in court to pursue his theory and my only wish is that some clever and exuberantly rewarded lawyer on behalf of the temporary Prime Minister will issue a libel writ to protest this insinuation that the arctic-like conditions of the locale, in truth, do affect the efficiency of the mental decisions.
If I were him, I would cite it as a legal defence.
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