General Articles


CATHERINE GAVIN November 1 1947
General Articles


CATHERINE GAVIN November 1 1947



THE transcontinental express was rushing eastward when I opened Maclean’s and read, “Why I Am Quitting the Old World”—the explanation by my former colleague, Richard D. McMillan, of his decision to emigrate to British Columbia. I read it with attention and with pain. At the end I marvelled-—still counting off the miles to Montreal, the coast, the Queen Elizabeth and home—at the divergence in philosophies which makes one Scot renounce the Old World while another speeds back to it like the arrow from the bow.

My decision to return to Europe is not a hasty one. It has been crystallizing slowly during all the nine months I have spent on the North American continent as a newspaper correspondent. Nobody can come here under more favorable conditions than that. To be a foreign correspondent in Canada and the United States is a very different matter from being a war correspondent in the Middle East, my last assignment outside Europe. There, the desert, the dysentery, the miseries of the Jewish problem and the difficulties which beset British troops from Tehran to Addis Ababa brought new hardships with each day that broke. Here the general friendliness, the common inheritance and language, the comfortable living conditions turn work into a pleasure.

“I Must Go Home”

IN SPITE of that I want to go home.

This, although I have in fact no home to go to in the sense of a roof above my head. When I landed at New York last January, I was as completely free to plan my life as any human being can be. If 1 had wished to settle down at any point on my journey it would have been perfectly possible to satisfy the immigration laws, write to Europe for what few belongings the aftermath of war has left me, and never go back again.

One or two fiattering offers of jobs in or connected with my own profession were made to me as I went along. I considered them for very little longer than it took to say, “No, thank you kindly, I must go home as soon as my tour is over.” For all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico, across to the Pacific, up to the lovely heights above Vancouver, into the Yukon, across the prairies and the Great Lakes, the conviction grew within me that I had nothing at all to give to the New World, nothing to give or get here but friendship and good will. That since Scotland was my birthplace and Paris the place where I chose to live, whatever strength and ability I possess must be given to the old, scarred, glorious continent of Europe.

The story of my journey to the east, like the story of McMillan’s journey to the west, had its preface 20 years ago. It began when a Scots girl, armed with the classic Scottish weapon of a modest bursary, set out for the libraries and lecture halls of Paris and an

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apprenticeship to the European way of life. That way, as I learned it, had little in common with the life of an Oppenheim novel, enchanting to the cub reporter. The parade of fashion, t he underworld, the casinos were a long way from the classrooms of the Sorbonne and the student’s cafés of the Boul’ Mich’.

Maybe that’s why my faith in France has lasted—because its foundation was the plain and solid kind. It is certainly why, after five years of war in Britain — years made additionally wretched by the separation and misunderstanding between the two countries— I returned with joy to a Paris whose liberation was hut two weeks old; proud and happy, as I have been ever since, to share whatever shortages, deprivations or distresses the French people might be called on to endure.

Because I tackled it in that spirit my life on the Old Continent has been extremely happy. Thousands of others feel the same way. It is sadly true

that there are broken hearts and homes there; ruined cities; ghastly battlefields. But there is still faith there, and truth, and love; and there are men who know better than to desert their countries.

Why is it that the British, impoverished perhaps beyond redemption by having poured all their resources into a war for liberty, still retain a moral prestige, a stature in world diplomacy which even America has not yet attained? That the French, hungry and disillusioned, working without adequate machinery in a broken country, have pushed their production back to the pre-1939 level? That Belgium and Holland have rebuilt their fabric and their national economy by sheer hard work, like Norway and Denmark? That Switzerland still makes that larger and noisier federation, the U. S. A., look like a mere apprentice to the kind of civilization which is not reducible to terms of plumbing?

I say it is because the citizens of these lands believe in themselves. Their belief is stronger than their dread of the Russian bogey just beyond the

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“iron curtain.” much as it seems to terrify the rich countries 3,000 miles away. And with themselves they believe in the future of their countries, which first of all depends on their own hands and hearts.

They Don’t All Want to Quit

This is what I so often feel about Britain in her present trials: that if

her children don’t help her she is lost indeed. 1 don’t blame the young people who think of emigrating to get away from the dingy, bureaucratic country that Britain has become. I saw with dismay, every time 1 went hack on leave to London or to Scotland, the steady deterioration of morale and the increasing signs of physical exhaustion; it is natural that young people should begin to think of change. But if disgust with Socialist administration—a disgust which I’ heartily share —is to be the basic motive for emigration, then, it is the wrong motive, and not one which will make the emigrants good citizens in the new land of their choice. If such people really feel that the Socialists are bringing Britain to the dust they should stand and fight them on their own ground.

Serious political argument is one of the most exhausting occupations known to man. It is far more tiring than raising chickens, which is to be Richard McMillan’s special contribution to the glories of British Columbia. I’ve had some and I know. Twice before the war I stood unsuccessfully for Parliament as a Conservative. I find it easier to be bombed and blitzed—anonymously—than to face the hostility of an audience out to wreck your chances if they can, not to mention the misconstructions, the whispering campaigns, the committee dissensions and all the other joys which go hand in hand with party politics. But I would rather fight and lose than fade out of the contest, or gracefully decline to fight at all.

Because there are thousands who have the courage of their convictions in Britain and in France—the countries I know best—I deny absolutely the opinion which Richard McMillan quotes approvingly from a French bank clerk—that every Frenchman, every European with ambition and selfrespect wishes for a chance to emigrate. This is not only silly but misleading. It adds one more bit of buildup to the legends now current on this continent, which represent Europe alternatively as one vast ghetto tenanted by displaced skeletons or as one vast luxury hotel in which black marketeers wallow in their ill-gotten wealth. And since the law of supply and demand operates in legends as in other commodities, it may well be that such tales circulate because they are enjoyed—because it is so satisfying to sit swigging soda pop in Toronto and thank God that one is not as those bankrupt Frenchmen who have nothing to drink but wine.

“Bread and Wine and Gaiety”

Of course, the bank clerk in McMillan’s story had been “with the Free French forces in London,” which explains a good deal. Many followers of De Gaulle are disgruntled today, now that the soldier they followed has turned out to be just another politician. I compare that bank clerk who dare not marry on 10,000 francs ($83) a month and longs to emigrate, with an elderly Parisian I know, a soldier of World War I who keeps himself and his wife with dignity on just that sum. He gave up his job, his only source of income, during the Occupation, rather than work for a firm which

supplied the Germans. To me, that man who would commit suicide sooner than quit Paris is one of the small, silent heroes of the Resistance—one of the little people who keep me proud of F rance.

In my student days I knew the Paris of the “little guy”; later, the Paris of the Bourse and the businessmen; later still, the delightful Paris of the Faubourg St. Honoré. The faubouig is supposed to be fashionable but it is possible to live there without pretentiousness. I had a two-room furnished apartment there last year, in the very heart of Paris, which I rented for $40 a month, paying $2.50 a week for the heating (by wood) of one room, and I made out well enough on the French civilian ration, supplemented by cigarettes, candy and soap from the British Embassy commissary.

In all my different groups of friends I know people who complain often, who repine sometimas, but who stand by their country always, and in the standing they have fun. In the impoverished Paris of 1200 A.D. a chronicler wrote that, “we in France have nothing but bread and wine and gaiety”; the same is nearly true in the Paris of 1947.

What will not be so funny, I know very well, will be getting accustomed to shortages again this winter, after enjoying Canadian abundance. I shan’t enjoy café nationale after Canada’s excellent café au lait, especially as not one drop of lait will ever come my way. It’ll be a nuisance to lie awake from the cold again and not be able to buy some needed article of dress at will, but if ever I learned that man does not live by bread alone I have learned it the hard way on the North American continent, cut off from nearly all the spiritual values of our European civilization.

These, I know, are not marked upon the yardstick of the quitters. They measure happiness by the honoring of the tea ration and the prompt delivery of their bread. It’s an anticlimax to the renegades of last century, the “Just -for-a-handful-of-silver-he-left-us” hoys. Our quitters move out for a handful of coffee beans.

Canada’s Not a Rest Home

So the solution of my personal equation number one, is just this: For more than 30 years of my life, Scotland and France gave me the very best that was in them. I grew up strong and healthy through a happy girlhood and received an education unsurpassable of its kind. Incidentally my university studies, pursued at Aberdeen and Paris over a period of seven years, cost my parents precisely $294 in fees. I think $42 a year compares very favorably with anything the “land of opportunity” can offer.

Then came years of work and travel in beautiful countries and sophisticated cities, a steady training in being a good European.

I don’t think even the long spell of war and war’s aftermath is a big enough item to swing the debit side. I don’t think it entitles me to run away just because the going has become a little rough. And I don’t think all the work I’ve done so far has nearly paid the debt I owe to France and Scotland. Such qualifications as they have given me (which are not those of a poultry keeper in British Columbia) are therefore at their service still.

I can perfectly understand the attraction of Canada for those who consider themselves entitled to make what is euphemistically called “a new start in life.” The vitality, the potential strength of the Dominion cannot be overstated. Canada is a Great Power in the making, so that it is

exhilarating to live here and see what will happen next. But Canada is, above all else, a young man’s country. She is not a Home of Rest for middle-aged journalists or for anyone else who has been worsted in the European battle of life. One has to start out here with energy and without the critical spirit. For those of us who are critical by habit or profession, there is indeed some reason to wonder why Canada should lx* built up as an earthly paradise.

1 shall never forget my first sight of Ottawa in a mantle of last winter’s snow. That tough, virile, cosmopolitan little capital warmed my heart as splendid New York could never do. The energetic people, their dawning consciousness of autonomy, the official notices written in both French and English, and above all the presence of a Speaker, French of aspect and accent, in a House of Commons built to resemble the British Parliament, greatly pleased and excited me. Given my personal mystique about the Auld Alliance, the fellowship of France and Scotland, it was inevitable that ‘I should feel with joy that here beyond the Atlantic was the beautiful and hopeful child which two old and weary countries had given to the world.

I didn’t know then that the child had two heads which gnawed each other.

The discovery of the antipathy between Anglo-Canadians and French Canadians was my first—as it is still my greatest—disillusionment in Canada. Instead of the traditional friendship between Scots and French it is the old hostility between French and English which has been fostered on this beneficent soil, where there was good living and to spare for both.

Feuds That Crossed the Sea

This hostility affects Dominion politie», it affects immigration policy, it affects the attit ude of residents toward newcomers. It has stultified the development of the West where provincial legislators have told me that, “Quebec is the tail that wags the dog!”

Canada will never become a Great Power nor even a great nation till she eradicates this racial cancer and drains her veins of the sectarian poisons which accompany it. For I have found in Canada the same violent Protestantversus-Catholic feuds that add venom to life in the slums of Liverpool and Glasgow. Though I am a Protestant myself, 1 will say that the scrawled, missjxdled anonymous abuse which reached me in Winnipeg was written by Protestants furious because I had used in an interview that same phrase, “racial cancer,” without uttering invective's against the Pope' of Rome.

Now if I wanted to live in the fetid atmosphere of Orange hatreds, 1 need newer have left the We'st of Scotland. Similarly, l am glad that a Paris friend of mine, an industrialist who thought of emigrating to Montreal in the disillusionment which followed the Liln'ration, liaei the sense to change his mind and stay in France. His reasem was that it was his duty to remain, to bring up his four fine children to be good French citizens. He did not know, and neeei never know now, that his urbane, liberal Catholicism would have been bound to clash with the priestridden -Jansenism of Quebec.

1 wonder if, after all, the heroic French and Scot tish pioneers of Canada brought the best traditions of their homelands with them? They certainly brought some of the worst faults of parochialism: parish-pump politics,

silly rivalries lx*tween towns and prov -inces, east and west : complacency and Grundyism: liquor laws which may he politely qualified as uncivilized.

Liquor control in the West has done nothing to abolish drunkenness. Witness the patrons who stagger vomiting from the beer parlors of Vancouver’s East Hastings Street, witness the bootleggers who flourish in Winnipeg’s North End, witness the drunken stevedores from the Maritimes who made hideous a recent journey of mine on the Hudson Bay Railway7. All the teetotallers of Canada have achieved is the turning of a social glass into a furtive adventure, so that Canadians now drink like Americans, in gulps, to the slogan of “Iyet’s get stinkin’!”

Those Terrible Meals

Canada, in fact, is busy7 getting herself a set of new traditions from south of the border. The Americanization of some of her cities and nearly7 all her young people is very apparent to European eyes. And the American model for Canadian cities, is alas, neither San Francisco nor New Orleans, but built on the smallest of midwestern lines—witness the hideous town of Winnipeg.

Good Old Country dishes are still put on the table in private homes. But in the luncheonettes and cafeterias which reflect the eating standards of the average citizen—the bountiful, delicious produce of Canada—is tortured into a facsimile of what America eats from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Hamburgers, cheeseburgers, hot dogs. Sandwiches slobbery with gravy and cole slaw. Soggy doughnuts and bilious cream pies. Rubber-stamped food for minds and bodies turned out on a Willow Run conveyor of similarity7.

(iive me the little Café de la Mairie round the corner from the Madeleine, where I ate a dollar dinner every day last fall. (Jive me the tasty soup from the pot-au-feu, the French-cooked meat and vegetables, the black coffee of that non-black-market table. Yes, and for my dollar I really got a table, with a clean paper cover; in Paris you don’t perch on a teetering stool with your neighbor’s elbow in your dish.

American newspapers and magazines, American movies and athletics, have as strong an influence upon Canada as American politics. No wonder there are Canadians who say, “Let us join up with the U. S. A. and have done with it.” The danger of Americanization does not threaten us in Europe although it may turn Canada from a potential Great Power into a mere satellite. Even the presence of American troops in our midst did not thrill us with the desire to become Americans. On the contrary.

In Canada America entices even while it penetrates. Young people cross the border in search of the bigger wages the States offers. Can it be that “the land of opportunity” is not, to quite the same extent, the land of remuneration? I am not impressed by the salaries or the assignments given here to the women in my own profession. The editor of the woman’s page in one of Canada’s most respectable dailies, who has charge of four subordinates, told me that in 25 years with the paper the highest wage she ever earned was $50 a week. That happens to be the starting wage for a girl reporter on the average London newspiper. Canada will have to do better than that if she wants to attract and hold citizens of talent, or have a population composed of any other than manual laborers.

I maintain that for people of initiative and resource there are at least as many opportunitiesand outside the black market at that in our warscarred continent as there are in unspoiled Canada. It is true that in Europe we have to pick our way

between quarrelsome factions and racial groups. So you do in Canada. Do you think the Doukhobor riots make elevating reading in Amsterdam? Do you think tJie Flemings and Walloons, who are often at loggerheads, will feel tempted to leave Belgium for Canada when they hear of the difficulties of the Mennonites and Hutterites?

Why do racial groups persist in Canada, so that a man of English birth remains an Englishman and no Canadian, a Ukrainian publication demands more jobs for Ukrainians os such, a Russian official issues such a ukase on policy as recently enlivened a Ukrainian picnic? Why, in short, is there ño more racial or religious unity in this beautiful New World than there ever was in the Old?

These are questions for Canada to answer, but in the meantime some of the new arrivals are in for a few shocks. They will find, for example, that exchange control is just as rigid here as in Europe, immigration officers just as hard to please. At my own entry via White Rock, B.C., I found the officer just as pertinacious in examining all my papers, just as grim in listening to my statements, as his jack-booted counterparts on the well - guarded Dutch frontier.

And the in-comers may find, poor devils, that the peace they sought is just as uneasy in Canada as it is in Europe.

If I dreamed of settling in Canada, it would not be among the orchards of British Columbia, or even in the French villages, to me so sympathetic, of the Province of Quebec. I would go to the Yukon, the last frontier, the magnetic north, where the finest young Canadians I know are building a province of the future. Up there it might occur to me (as a veteran I wouldn’t much care) that if Russia ever declares war on the democracies she is hardly likely to be so obliging as to invade through Alaska and let the Americans bear the brunt of the attack. She will strike across the pole, at those undefended, beautifully constructed airfields at Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Churchill; flying south from there in a few hours to Edmonton and Winnipeg and on to the Great Lakes, the gateway to North American industry. This land is just as vulnerable, and its people just as complacent, as ever were the countries which put their trust in the Maginot Line.

I’d Like To Visit, But . . .

So the summary of my personal equation number two must be: Since

all the dissensions of Europe, plus the threat of war, are also to be found in Canada, I may as well go home and cope with them where the way of living is both congenial and familiar.

Not that Canada is uncongenial to me. I like it a lot. I respect it. I have great confidence in its future. I want to come back often. My life would be poorer if I never saw the Yukon again, or the majestic Rockies, or touched the hands of my new Canadian friends. For them my sincerest wish is that they may pick the right citizens to help them in their tasks. For if Canada should wilfully turn herself into a vast D. P. laager, or an asylum for the quitters of Europe, she will hand herself over lock stock and barrel to the weaklings and the slaves.

Thanks, Canada, for the new energy you gave me. I’m likely to need it all. When the Queen Elizabeth pulls away fron New York harbor one day soon I’ll look north and think of your New World with much affection, even as I make my private act of faith and duty to the Old.