GENERAL ARTICLES

THE BIG LAND

Canada, to them, was a vision seen from a distance. They’re nearly all home now, to find the vision has become a nation

JOHN CLARE July 1 1946
GENERAL ARTICLES

THE BIG LAND

Canada, to them, was a vision seen from a distance. They’re nearly all home now, to find the vision has become a nation

JOHN CLARE July 1 1946

THE BIG LAND

GENERAL ARTICLES

Canada, to them, was a vision seen from a distance. They’re nearly all home now, to find the vision has become a nation

JOHN CLARE

WHILE we were away Canada became a nation. The becoming was slow, and to some Canadians, imperceptible.

It was slow because the big thing about being a nation is the consciousness of it. The trade balances, the men and women in uniform and in factories and on farms, the power to make things, all contribute to a nation’s stature. But until the people feel the thing that makes them a nation they don’t belong to one.

Walt Whitman grasped the essence and held it up in his big, ageless hands for the United States to see for the first time. He stated it for his people in terms as broad and strong and rich as the land of which he sang. In his hands they saw the nation for the first time bright and clear.

That is how it comes—as a feeling, not as a communique.

It came to Canada with the return of her men ar.d women from overseas. They brought back a vision seen from a distance. The vision they had seen from the slit trenches and the rear turrets and the lookouts became real as they returned to find their country living in a new house. While they were away their country had become a nation—and they had helped to make it so.

Other generations have felt the slow becoming. But only this generation, newly home from the wars, feels it with the urgency of their time and with the sense of consummation.

From the past comes the deep, distant rejoinder of the bearded buffalo hunters, who stayed to grow wheat; the firm, assenting accents of another generation, home from another war. But now all the voices, present and past, are joined in the way big music piles up a great, affirmative climax— “We’re a nation now.”

So this is a statement of how it is with Canada, this July 1, 1946, as seen through the eyes and told through the lips of one who has been away.

You didn’t see the nation Canada has become as soon as you stepped off the ship. The awareness came slowly, like a picture coming slowly into focus. You hit Canada and Canada hit right back at you when you landed. It hit back at you with all the old, familiar symbols charged with years and years of loneliness and apartness.

The Things You See

THERE was the first look at the big land—the little, humpbacked islands on the east coast, so tenderly green it hurt to look at them because they were part of Canada.

There were the grey ramparts of Quebec, inspiring the same reverence in the presence of history you felt in the other lands overseas.

There were the big railroad stations-the hearts by which this country has lived for the last six years. In Europe railroad stations are simply utilitarian sheds under which people can get in and out of trains. But here they are temples dedicated to the spaceandthe distances of the big land. Their marble, their shining metal, their freizes, carry strangely musical dedication to names which dot a vast expanseMatapedia, Trois Rivières, Capreol, White River, Moose Jaw, Medicine Hat, Revelstoke, Prince Rupert.

There were the lights of Winnipeg leaping out of the dark earth like a burst of flak as your airliner pushed stiff-winged across the prairies.

There was the drumlike pulse of Edmonton— frontier town on the edge of the top of the world.

There were the small cries of the sea birds on the water front at Vancouver, where the forest stands tall and stately on the edge of the city.

And through it all, and as much a part of it as the Rockies themselves, was the sound of the train whistles. Symbol of the big land, the long eerie c*y of the transcontinental echoed again through the night—lonely ar.d haunting like the call of a distant trumpet.

There were all those, and at the same time the more fragile, more powerful experiences— seeing once more the curve of a cheek, the look of a familiar street at lamplighting time, the sight of a woman lovelier than you had remembered—another older than you had feared.

The coming home, the being home has its own gentle hysteria caused by nostalgia coming into direct contact with reality. But time is a kind abrasive. There comes a time when being home is no longer a new things—a fine thing, but no longer new and exciting as it once was. You may even learn that memory was selective overseas and cunningly deleted wrinkles and harsh words. Perhaps you learn that even here, even at home, the spirit can wither and the heart grow weary. But

out of it comes calm and perspective by which you may measure Canada by the vision.

You walk with wonder through the quiet places untouched by the war. Probably the strongest feeling you experience is a feeling of thankfulness, that comes from seeing once again the strength and the richness of your country. Weary, sick Europe, with its sour-smelling caves that once were cities, has nothing like this.

There is something almost fantastic about a town that hasn’t been bombed this July 1, 1946, something almost unreal. And yet there is an understanding here of what the war was about.

There is pride in the deeds of those who went overseas; there is pride, too, in the big job done at home. Continued on page 26

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You find that many of the older people have died while you were away. Long hours without enough help, extra hours at the canteens and in war work added to the casualty lists. They were doing their share too.

And those who have been at home talk of their land in different terms today. It’s gently proud talk. But it’s essentially the same kind of talk you heard overseas when Canadians said, sometimes too loudly or too truculently for some of their allies, ‘T am a Canadian.”

It’s the same kind of talk, and, like your own, it has a new, proud note. In it is an assumption of Canada’s significant place in the world—an assumption lacking before.

In Ottawa you.hear the new voice of the country, deep and mature, above the political clamor. The accent is on Canada—the nation.

Canadians overseas talked the same way. Some of their British allies took a bit of convincing; some of their American friends took a bit of instruction, but eventually they all got the idea. On the beachheads and in the pubs the battle was won. The point was made for history to see— Canada is a nation.

And now that we’re home there is confirmation of the new status in every newspaper we read in every newscast we hear.

Whenever world politicians take a global air map, wring out the water and then spread it out to dry, they look long and hard at Canada.

And when they talk about nuclear fission they talk about Canada.

Maclean's Magazine, July I, 1946

The hungry nations of the earth look appealingly to Canada. Back home you realize that Canadians are conscious of that gaze—and conscious, too, of the responsibility.

And then you realize, too, that the world’s acceptance of Canada as a nation, an acceptance you saw displayed so many times in so many ways overseas, is the reflection of Canada’s new assumption that it is a nation.

It would be fine to report that all the men came home with the vision of Canàda shining in their eyes like a fire at sea. It would be fine to report that all found what they sought here in the big land.

But many were afraid to come home. For some of them the landing in Halifax was the toughest beachhead of their flaming young lives. Some were afraid the big country wasn’t big enough to accept them i.i their new maturity. Some remembered the years when a generation was out of work while the gentlemen talked about distribution. They remembered how suddenly in 1939 there were jobs for everyone. Some were just afraid.

‘‘Canada a nation? You can’t prove it by me, Mac. I can’t get a job,” one of them told me the other day.

Men don’t fight the way the Canadians fought on the Liri River and on the Scheldt and over the Ruhr and across the North Atlantic unless they have faith in their country. But for some of them the faith that led them to offer their lives has grown dim, gone sour.

These are the doubters-—and always we have had our doubters.

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Some rediscover their faith; some don’t. But their very doubts are part of the background out of which nationhood has come. For every doubt there has been a stronger faith —and faith in this country runs through the fabric of its history like a bright gold thread.

Faith laid the rails which scoffers said never could be flung across a continent. Faith found riches in the northern wilderness where scoffers said nothing but emptiness lay.

Always our men of faith have been stronger than our men of fear.

But perhaps it’s valuable to have a minority report from the doubters. It reminds us that the future doesn’t slope gently upward to a papiermâche sunset, like the finale in a patriotic tableau.

And there is another minority report which no man can give. It’s the report from those who, the small black type says, won’t be back. It’s too bad, because some of them said fine things about this nation— Canada. Like the airman from

Quebec, who explained patiently to a Norman miller, “You see, there are no English Canadians. My friend here just happens to come from a part of Canada where English is spoken most frequently. In Canada we are all Canadians.”

In moments of high drama life has a way of allotting corny lines to its players. In the war millions of spear carriers found themselves saying, as the barges clashed on the first rocks of the beaches, as the Lancasters pointed their snarling snouts to Berlin—“This is it.”

It was an acknowledgment of the precious present, a choking glance at the lovely past, anH a prayer for the future.

That phrase, worn smooth by a million tongues in the war, seems to fit this time—this July 1, 1946.

This is it. Those who have been away are nearly all home now. The men and women, matured by the years of war, have returned to the country which has become a nation.

This is it!

Canada’s future has come home.