TELL ME,” said my friend the Editor, after we had spoken of Canada for a while, “why did you stay in this country?”
It was a simple question, asked in a spirit of courteous enquiry. I answered without hesitation: “Because I liked it, I suppose.”
He shook his head, a little impatiently.
“Yes, I know that. But why did you like it? Why do you like it? Is it the people? The landscape? Its future? What is it? Tell me—I’m interested.”
It was not until I’d been wallowing in a verbal mire for several minutes that I realized how difficult it is to express in words one’s feelings about a country. I might, of course, have resorted to the usual catch phrases of the jingo journalist or the patriotic song, but that w'asn’t what my friend wanted. The problem of Canada’s identity among the nations is one that is very close to his heart. He is concerned with the establishment of fact, not with the bleating of hackneyed slogans.
When I’d finished trying to explain my viewpoint, he laughed.
“A pity you aren’t a poet,” he said.
“Because what you’ve just been saying, put into verse, would make the first part of a national anthem.”
“The first part? I’m afraid I don’t get you.”
He glanced through the window, across the roof tops of the city. Then:
“Yes, but only the first part. Canada’s theme song doesn’t end where yours does — not by a long
shot. Perhaps your children will finish it for you, and in a way you haven’t dreamed of yet.”
“Perhaps,” I agreed. “But I can’t see that far. You asked me why I like living in Canada, and I’ve told you. I’d rather leave it at that.”
“Fine. And now, how about writing it?”
I stared at him. “Writing it? What on earth for? I’m a nobody. What I think doesn’t matter.”
“All sincere thoughts matter,” he said. “Canada is a land of many voices. Yours is one of them. Let’s record it.”
Canada Seemed Exciting
IT MIGHT be just as well to begin by presenting my credentials. They do not take the form of a list of university degrees or a recital of worldly achievements. They are merely the briefest possible outline of the experiences of one Canadian immigrant.
They began, those experiences, on a rainy April morning almost 16 years ago. A young man of 23 stood on the docks at Southampton, England, watching his fellow emigrants and feeling more than a little dubious about the whole thing. He had the equivalent of about $90 in his pocket and a wealth of classical learning in his head. He had spent a year or so in Egypt with the RAF; he had studied art and written a few articles for magazines. He knew absolutely nothing of the real drama of living.
He was leaving England for several reasons. For one thing he was always hard up. For another,
none of the few poorly paid jobs available to him appealed to his impatient temperament. And lastly, lovely though England’s countryside was, he longed for vaster landscapes and more varied climates. That is about all I remember of him as he walked up the gangway onto the third-class section of a Red Star liner of forgotten name. He was, of course, myself.
I crossed the Atlantic to the music of accordions and violins; and sometimes, when the beer had flowed, very sweet music it was. I saw nothing of the ocean. I held almost uninterrupted wassail in the “General Room” with an assortment of Central Europeans who, like me, were following their dreams to the far Hesperides. Women suckled their young amid the revellers. The reek of vomit was present everywhere.
At Halifax the rhythm began which was to be the steady undertone of my wanderings for the next six years—the rhythm of wheels. For two days and a night we rattled along in “colonists’ coaches” through a dreary countryside patched with slushy snow. Each coach had a coal stove at one end and was equipped with horsehair seats that could be pulled out to form a rocky ledge large enough to lie down on. On these latter the colonists tried to sleep, or else gave up the attempt and made uninhibited love to the girls nearest them, unchecked by the sympathetic train crew.
As a prelude to adventure I went to Windsor, Ont., and recouped the fortunes by throwing cylinder blocks around in an automobile plant for six weeks. In Windsor I learned the meaning of mass production and the true significance of the
A Canadian by choice tells why he made his choice
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word “wage slave.” Then one night, in a bootlegger’s, I heard of a place called Sudbury, where the north began.
Within three days of my arrival at Sudbury I became a greaser of machinery on a vast construction project just outside the city. Waxing great in my vocation I rose rapidly to the dignity of helper to the mechanical superintendent. For the first time I caught a few stray notes of the symphony which the name “Canada” has since come to evoke in my imagination. I saw steel, brick, and concrete rising amid the wilderness, and the night skies above it red with the glow of molten metal, and chipmunks still playing in unassembled crusher drums.
Again the rhythm of the wheels . . .
In a logging camp north of Blind River I made winter roads through the bush. The pay was a dollar a day, and every bunk was lousy. About 10 washbasins were provided for 100 men, and no facilities for bathing. Most of my colleagues, therefore, remained uncleansed from the fall till the spring. They stank. They were not the epic loggers of fiction. They were not the great Scandinavians of the British Columbian forests. They reminded me of nothing so much as the inhabitants of a London slum. Somehow I had temporarily lost the Canada which 1 had discovered in Sudbury. After a month or so, being the worst axeman that ever outraged a tree, I cut my knee open. Since there was no doctor within 75 miles, I deluged it with iodine and tied it up with an old handkerchief.
Shortly before Christmas 1 made my way down to Sault Ste. Marie and put up in the cheapest boardinghouse, where my bed was canopied by peeling wallpaper. Mine host was a kindly Frenchman, who dearly loved raw moosemeat and who carried me on the cuff until I had earned a few shekels by
“cleaning up” in the holds of coal boats. A week’s shovelling for 12 hours a night finished off the knee completely, and I was taken to the hospital, to be treated by both doctor and nurses with exactly the same care that the local mayor himself would have enjoyed.
After that I went to Montreal, bought a pair of seedy-looking trousers and an odd jacket, and became an insurance clerk. Of the next 12 months the less said the better. The work had only one redeeming feature; it was so boring that I fell asleep every afternoon and was thus enabled to stay up late at night with interesting people, none of whom knew anything about insurance.
At about the time that my knee regained its full strength, the papers were colorful with tales of the wolves up north. The bounty was $40 per head. Accordingly 1 purchased a rifle and entrained for Amos, Que. Knowing nothing of either wolves or hunting 1 made a complete fool of myself, got into difficulties, and decided that it might be wiser to work in a mine than to freeze to death in my ludicrous tent.
Go West, Young Man
And so the story runs on. No Englishman in burlesque ever did more foolish things than I but nonetheless I saw Canada and slowly came to know the real Canadian people. Mucker in Siscoe, nightman in a Montreal garage, pulp cutter, contract mucker in Kirkland Lake, miner for a year in Timmins : . . until, in my twenty-seventh year, I climbed aboard a freight train and headed West.
For eight days I dodged the police, sun-bathed on top of boxcars, strapped myself to the rails of tank cars at night (for it was late fall, and freezing hard on the bald prairie), and shuddered across the Rockies in a refrigerator car. Sometimes we rode in lordly passage, 500 hobos on a single train, past tactful minions of the law; sometimes 1 was alone and not a bit defiant. But 1 was
young, and the iridescent wing tips of romance still shimmered above each new horizon.
In Vancouver I rested a while, reading largely, and forsaking romance for my old love, philosophy. Now and then I turned an honest penny by working as a model at the art schools. But with the spring the insistent rhythm of the wheels began once more to sound in my brain, and I followed the bogus gold rush to the Caribou.
Amid mountain streams and lakes I wandered in sheer delight, rustling a job underground whenever finances ran low. Then back to Vancouver in the wintef, and northward again when the sun re urned—this time to the Alaskan bo* 'er.
Rumors of he Bridge River country broke at last into a full-throated hunting cry that was heard throughout B. C. It became the Mecca of the prospector, the hobo miner, and the shifty promoter. I hurried back down the coast and hopped a freight . . .
One summer day as I came off shift, my head aching from the foul air of the stope where I had been drilling, a curious combination of late sunshine, and bird song, and the sound of the river far below broke the spell that had bound me; and I wished to have done with wandering. I thought of the riotous evening I had planned, and the thought depressed me. I was almost 29, and romance was no longer a lightwinged maiden.
I trekked southward on foot, savoring the casual adventures of the journey with all the more zest because an instinct told me that I was nearing the end of my little Odyssey. And at last I came to the orchards of the Okanagan Valley.
It was a country of brown-skinned girls and genial leisurely men, where Nature seemed to have forgotten all her harshness. I picked fruit by day and consorted with charming friends at night. When the fall came round and picking was done I decided that here in this Valley I would end my days.
That was 10 years ago, and I do not yet know where my days will end. For I became involved in labor troubles during the scandalous epoch of the relief camps. By mid-January the Valley was behind me and 1 was miserably making my way to Vancouver on the tender of a freight train
no pleasant trip, since it was icy-cold in the mountains and, furthermore, the police were on the alert for the transient unemployed, in anticipation of the trouble that never quite came. A year later (such are the strange workings of fate) I was a married businessman.
Even that, however, was not the end of the trail, though from then on it led through different fields of activity. I saw close-ups of politics and finance at work. I became acquainted with rackets, both high and low. I obtained an insight into the remarkable operations of the luxury hotel industry. I contacted that spurious form of life which refers to itself as “society.”
War broke out.
For the last five years, as a member of the RCAF, my lot has been roughly similar to that of thousands of others, save perhaps that the nomadic life which preceded them has led me to question motives and to analyze results and personalities more closely than those to whom war is the only break in a lifetime of routine.
I Like Canada
At 39, with 16 such years behind me, I find that there are few aspects of Canadian life with which I have not at least a nodding acquaintance. I have seen Canada at its best and its worst, rubbed shoulders with its crooks, its
idealists, its snobs and hypocrites, and its good common stock. I have known its mobs and some of its thinkers, its slave minds and its freemen. And I am without regrets, despite the fact that I have accumulated little except experience; for though perhaps I do not come within the meaning of the term “good solid citizen,” my attitude toward the country of my adoption is well-defined and based on more than hearsay, the press, or self-interest.
It is a very simple attitude.
I like Canada, first, because it is the Land of the Middle Course. It reserves its judgment. Indeed, situated as it is, both geographically and economically, it cannot do otherwise. It exerts, so to speak, an editorial function on the intellectual and material contributions of two of the three great nations of the world. Generalizing, I would say that the Canadian avoids aloofness without slipping into the pitfall of excessive friendliness. He is hospitable to the stranger, without ostentation. His trades unions do not run riot; on the other hand, the worker is not too docile beneath insincerity and injustice. Canadian education, though it falls short of the Old World’s in its purely cultural aspects, produces men and women who are eager and well-informed and—when given the opportunity—highly appreciative. They are tolerant in action, just to foreigners, and relatively free from national arrogance. They are by no means easygoing, yet stomach ulcers don’t appear to be the lot of every executive. They strike, as a rule, the happy medium between discipline and familiarity. Above all, they have initiative.
In the second place, I like Canada because it is a frontier—the last western frontier of the white race. Most Canadians have something of the wilderness in their souls, and there is no more potent vitamin than that. The back doors of the majority of our towns and cities open onto the bush or the prairie, and millions of our children know the smell of standing timber and smokeless winds. A vast proportion of our adults have at some time earned their bread far from the nearest movie, with axe, plow, drill or theodolite. And even those who have never travelled beyond the pavement cannot avoid frequent contact with the many who have.
I like the climates of Canada. I like the rolling snow-covered landscapes and the frozen peaks in winter, the silent flickering of the northern lights, the swish of skis and runners, the sharp skirl of skates. I like equally the long hot summers, the smell of sunwarmed forests, the tanned skins of swimmers and hikers, the endless green corridors of bush trails, the sparkle of innumerable lakes.
I like the mountains and the plains, the space, and the lonely railroad tracks that make their way through untrodden places. I like to reflect how narrow is the band of warm humanity that constitutes settled Canada, to be aware as I saunter along crowded streets that I am but a few steps from solitude. And I like to feel the north wind blowing down, fresh and strong, unburdened by any load of stale thoughts and desires.
I do not wish, however, to give the impression that Canada’s appeal for me lies only in her thinly populated regions. Even in her larger cities (with one or two exceptions) 1 seem to perceive a restless and tentative striving toward a new pattern for living. It is hesitant, at times too diffident of alien traditions—but it persists, which Is the surest sign of growth. I see it, or seem to see it, in the hurrying throngs of women, smart and clean of limb, but moderate even in fad and fashion.
I see it in the university professors, enthusiastic, and progressive with controlled gait. I see it in the appointments of middle-class homes. In spite of the fog of politics and finance which tries to shut out the north wind from our cities, his voice can still be heard, albeit muffled, above the noise of council chamber and exchange.
Regarding Canada’s physical destiny among the nations I have no fixed opinions. Perhaps she will become a great nation in her own right, perhaps economic pressures and lures will be too much for her leaders. It may even be that she will remain as she is now, a land apart, a training ground for individualists who will leave her and take their balanced idealism to the larger centres of the world. I have no idea; nor, to be honest, does that aspect of the matter excite me. I am far more interested in the development of vital, sincere, and liberal-minded people than I am in the production of great nationalists.
Mine is not the viewpoint of one learned in the problems which men debate in taverns and over which they go to war. But, though never forgetful of the tremendous part played in history by the land of my birth, or of the splendid emergence to power supremacy of the United States, I have a profound belief in Canada’s potentialities for the raising of a new and broader-minded type of citizen of the English-speaking world. I do not care to go beyond that belief into the realms of speculative controversy. My rask here has been simply to set forth the reasons for which one out of many thousands of English emigrants looks no farther than Canada fc his happiness and the fulfillment of 1 s life.
Possibly, as my frienc the Editor thinks, my children will complete my unfinished anthem for me. I do not know, and so long as I see my fellow Canadians justifying their frontier heritage and moving forward to their true spiritual destiny I do not care.