COLUMN

A great time for Canadians abroad

BARBARA AMIEL May 1 1995
COLUMN

A great time for Canadians abroad

BARBARA AMIEL May 1 1995

A great time for Canadians abroad

COLUMN

BARBARA AMIEL

There has been a mini-boomlet for our team this past week. “I’m on a real Canadian kick,” said a complete stranger at a dinner party when she learned I had lived in Canada for nigh on thirty years. “They really are so impressive a people.” Friends of mine reported similar sentiments at their evenings out. “You’re a Canadian,” said one panting hostess to me. “Please come over on Friday.” I declined, fearful of being served turbot.

Meanwhile, the Canadian High Commission has run out of Maple Leaf flags to wave at VE-Day ceremonies, and we’re a hot commodity. This welcome turn of events hinges on two quite separate achievements: first, the publication in England, to uniformly ecstatic reviews, of Robertson Davies’ book The Cunning Man, and, of course, the Fish War with Spain. Each of these events reinforces the other, reminding me of a poem my former husband George Jonas wrote in 1973. The poem tells of a poet at a cultural book launch in London seeing a warship slice along the Thames. “Academic eyes, sardonic, secure,/view the passing of the ship. A great navy:/a great agent for a great literature.” I’ve always thought that was a brilliant insight: if you want to promote a country’s literature internationally, you can do more by giving to the defence budget than to agencies like the Canada Council. That’s why we know more about Russian literature and not half as much as we should about Swiss or Indian writers.

As it happens, I really don’t know about the rights and wrongs of the fishing disagreement with Spain, although a clue may be found in the words of a Spanish Embassy official here who told a reporter that the trouble was that “all you Anglo-Saxons see the European Community regulations as rules and laws, while we see them as an ‘orientation.’ ” But Fisheries Minister Brian Tobin won my admiration when he appeared on the BBC television news, holding up captured Spanish nets and pointing out that they were

To promote a country’s literature, you can do more by giving to the defence budget than to agencies like the Canada Council

small enough to catch “baby fish.”

The British are suckers for baby wildlife of any sort and that alone would have turned the day in Canada’s favor. As it was, I’m glad the Spaniards withdrew. I don’t want to disturb any Canadian myths, you understand, but my confidence in what our navy might have done is tempered by the fact that we have not fired a shot in anger for 40 years or so. At times like this, I rather wish we had not virtually dismantled our armed forces and had purchased the few helicopters that the coast guard and navy so desperately wanted instead of funding more statutory women’s councils.

When VE-Day arrived 50 years ago, I was living near London and only 472 years old, but I was unfortunately not allowed to wave flags in Trafalgar Square. I remember only the end of blackout curtains and, earlier, long nights watching adults huddled around the wireless. Later on, as a child, I heard talk about the brave Canadians. As Jews, we were ever-conscious of who our friends were in that awful war. One million Canadians, I was told, volunteered for a war 5,000 miles from their shores and a war unlikely to physically involve North America. Canadians were in Normandy, Dieppe, Dunkirk, Hong Kong and, said my refugee Dutch nanny, Canadians liberated the Netherlands. As Canadian broadcaster Brian Stewart recently commented: “Canada punched above its weight.” But the war was of vital interest to Canada: Hitler threatened the concept of liberal democracy as an organizing principle and, in this sense, Canada, along with all the other liberal democracies of the world, was vitally involved no matter how far the front lines were.

The other aspect, of course, was that back in the days of the Second World War, Canada was still a genuine part of the British Empire. She may no longer have been a Dominion, but the Commonwealth still meant something, and it was gravely threatened. In the half century that has passed since then, this link has been weakened. And even though I personally would want to see the remaining symbolic, ceremonial and certainly cultural ties with Great Britain preserved, it is futile to lament these changes. History evolves, this construct has outlived its historical usefulness and one can only hope that the institutions or ties that succeed those of Empire and Commonwealth will be as good or better.

But what was it that was suddenly so appealing about Canada? I suppose it was the sight of a nation putting its foot down. There was our high commissioner, Royce Frith, bow tie and porkpie hat, standing up for a vital national interest. Central casting couldn’t have done better: Frith is the straightforward, straight-shooting Canadian with the Yankee physique and the handsome Canadian potato face. True, Canada’s national interest coincided with a world ecological interest, since the unwise exploitation of vital food resources is a potential problem in an overpopulated world with diminishing food supplies, but that was a coincidence. What was so endearing after the British had watched their government crawling on its tummy to the Europeans in general and to the Spaniards in particular, was the forthrightness of the Canadians.

Putting your foot down, of course, requires two qualities: the political will and the foot. Without gunboats, we couldn’t have done a thing. Unlike America, where proposed cuts to the defence budget create huge political battles, the Canadian government, faced with any need to raise money, always turns first to hacking defence. But defence budgets are like insurance policies for fire: you hope you will never need them, you may only use them once in a lifetime, and paying the premiums each year seems a real waste—until that one time. Not to be able to send the gunboats out can cause a country real damage, and that’s worth remembering seriously on this VE-Day anniversary. One might also muse on the fact that all the Nobel Peace Prizes in the world cannot do as much for Canada’s image or be as great an agent for a great literature as the perception of national power. Which is why, just for a moment, to be from Canada is no longer a poor literary address.