I CAME BACK AND I AM CONTENT
WHEN I was a lad I remember a cousin of mine coming out from England, loitering a while with us and then drifting off to Detroit. There his family still lives. His case was typical: in by the front door, out by the back.
For natives the door to the south opens even more readily than for immigrants. We all have relatives in the States. Apart from this moment, at which the movement is probably at an all-time low, thousands of the most energetic among us, the most skilled, the ablest, have gone southward, seldom to return.
They go for the rewards: most people would say for the dollar-and-cents rewards, because wages and profits are bigger there than here. That seems only half the story to me. They go for rewards, it is true, but not necessarily for monetary rewards. They go where they can find congenial work, where they find scope for their abilities, where their work is appreciated, where there is a vigorous current of life. They go because there is often little room and little demand for them in Canada. More often than not they go reluctantly.
Some come back and many others would come back if they could. Few ever get the chance.
I am one of those who came back. I lived four years in the United States. In so far as my day-to-day work went I was entirely at home there. I met with much kindness, witnessed much largeness of spirit and made many good American friends. Doors had begun to open and I suppose I could have gone up the scale in American life as many another Canadian has done.
In my case a career in the United States would have offered a good life. I would not have become rich, but I would have had enough; I would have had my books, my friends, good libraries, and the possibility, if I had measured up, of wide recognition. No door would have been closed to me because of my Canadian birth. And yet I came back. I often wonder why.
I came back to a position which was inconspicuous and ill-paid, its working conditions at times intolerable. And I came back with no illusions. I was quite aware that I was coming back to a country on the edge of civilization. I did not hide from myself that Canada was a backwoods country at that time, not in the sense that unsubdued nature was everywhere close, but that almost everywhere, even in our great cities, a kind of backwoods mentality still held strong.
I came back to a country with virtually no original culture and with little taste, to a land where no piece of originality could get attention because there were no native standards to judge it by, where everything fresh and vital had to wait the approving nod of our “elders” in Great Britain and the United States before we dared have an opinion of it ourselves. There, incidentally, lies the real meaning of Charles G. D. Roberts’ despairing line, “How long the trust in greatness not thine own?”
I knew that in the Canada of those days (we have moved a little bit since) the intellectual -—and I suppose I am a member of that unfortunate species—had rather less prestige than in Ashanti. I knew that my fellow citizens, most of them, entertained a deep contempt for the more subtle shadings of civilization. I had been trained as a historian and I was coming back to teach in a college. As a historian I knew I would continually have to be explaining my function to people who thought “history” is something in an elementary textbook. As a teacher in a college I was doomed to the label “professor” and I knew that “the professor,” to people with half the ability and knowledge of the world that most professors possess, is often a figure of fun and if not, something sinister and, either way, a man who must always be apologizing for existing.
I knew that for most of the people among whom I would be thrown, yes, for the very students in my classes, books would be strange objects to be avoided when possible, abstract ideas, causes of deep suspicion.
I knew, in short, that I was coming back to a callow society whose shortcomings would always hit me in the eye, where consequently I would usually be unpopular and where many doors would be closed to me coming back to a society which, in my blacker moments, I would almost hate.
And yet I came back. I was one of the few who ever get a chance to come back. Perhaps that last sentence puts it all in a nutshell, for there are not many Canadian exiles who do not feel the lash in it.
I remember a conversation with a friend of mine, another Canadian, in my American days. I remember saying to him. “I don’t believe that I could take the final step and become an American citizen. For me, a Protestant, it would be like ‘going over to Rome.’ ” My friend agreed.
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That’s as near, perhaps, as I can get to explaining why I came back.
I came back to the familiar, to my home. I came back to the adventure of building a nation. That’s an exciting job. In an old society so many things have already been done: everything
is formed, all the big decisions taken, the crowded centuries lie behind. Here, where there is little past to get in the way, we are building our world as we go along, things are mobile and flexible.
It was a tough job to make Canada the nation it is today. As an American friend of mine once said to me, “You people must be deeply attached to your own country or you wouldn’t be willing to pay so much to keep it up.”
It seemed to me that there were certain specific avenues along which I might go in my part of the job. I thought of the depth of nrisundei standing, prejudice and even hatred that existed between French and English. If one could do a little to alleviate that, that would be a life work in itself. I thought of the gay abandon with which we conducted our immigration policies —seldom guided by other than material considerations, invariably viewing the immigrant as a mere “hand,” rarely as a human soul, never stopping to ask ourselves what kind of society we, and the immigrant, were building. I thought of the complexities in the relationships between Canada and her mother country, relationships that had in them so much of filial devotion, so much of sincere emotion and yet which, if not carefully shaped, could keep Canadians so long in the role of minor children that they might never grow up. Most of all I thought of the perils to our traditional free way of life that the First World War had revealed and which the second was to make imminent. If a nation was to be built, it must be a free nation with a living faith in freedom and justice, a nation aware of itself, setting its couise by its own nature and not merely seeking to become a pale copy of the republic alongside it.
Its own nature was obvious: a country of two cultures, a country of an incredibly difficult physical setting, one which could give a good life to its citizens but could never attain the size and wealth of the United States, a hard yet moderate country, without American flamboyance but with quiet and dependable qualities of its own, with humility. It seemed to me that those who wished could have a great part in making such a country and that it might be a good country.
Know Canada, Know the West
I hope all this doesn’t sound pretentious, nor as reflecting personal vanity. I really think it was the kind of reasoning that brought me back. It would bring many more back if modest competences were available. The proof: the way for mer Canadians rushed back during the war, either to the armed services or to technical places in the civil government.
It was because I wanted 10 take part in the job of building a new nation that I was glad that chance, when it brought me back to Canada, took me to the prairies. Here was the newest part of Canada; a high malleable society waiting for those who could show the way or put its ambition into words for it, and a part of Canada that was and is Canadian in a sense that the east is not. The eastern provinces have their separate colonial memories, carrying them back to the days before Confederation. The west has next to none of these. The eastern provinces were the parents of the Canadian federation; the western are its children.
No Canadian can know Canada unless he knows the west. I left New England with its comfortable towns and beautiful villages, its sea and its mountains, its dignified and established culture, for the harshness and rawness of the. Canadian prairie. There is no use my pretending that I liked the prairie environment, but the wonder was that, living on that billiard table which is Manitoba, I felt more at home than in beautiful New England, hospitable though it had been to me. On the prairies I was one of the family.
New England was not the only place to impart this dreamlike quality to everyday life, for it had been just the same in old England, where I had spent several years. I am of English parentage» But I am not a part of England. For*me to live in England or the United States is to live in a more or less unreal world, to be only more or less alive.
I know I am not alone in this feeling. When I returned from the war the ship was filled with Canadians who had not seen their native land in several years. As we came up to Quebec the familiar smell of sawn lumber drifted off to us. It brought back expressions of emotion that I had never expected from any of my reserved countrymen, expressions so intense that in a few cases they verged on the theatrical, though they were none the less genuine for that.
And so, after two long intervals abroad, in two different countries and at two different periods of my life, I came to rest for keeps here in Canada. I accepted its disabilities.
Not Far From a Desert
Canada, whatever we Canadians think, is not a country of the first importance. Therefore Canadians are not of the first importance. Americans are. It has been hard for Canadians abroad to get themselves recognized and separately identified. To foreigners they have been eithir English or Americans, depending on their manners. To the English, in spite of two wars, Canadians are still, as a rule, Americans.
I can hear someone saying: “Why, we grow five bundled million bushels of wheat. Loot at our oil, our iron, our copper, our electric power, look at our skyscrapers, our big cities. This is the land of opportunity. What’s this fellow complaining about?” Apart from the fact that a few of our big cities are worth looking at, none of these things in themselves make a society that is worth twenty-five cents. They are just means to an end.
Do Canadians have anything b .des iron, copper, skyscrapers, etceteia, to be proud of? Is there anything in the word “Canadian” that stands for something deep and indestructible? Most people, whatever their oiigin, can grasp what it means for a man to be able to say, “I am a Jew.” That means something indomitable, an immortal spirit that has never been conquered, an inner ferment that has moie than once revolutionized mankind.
If this country be just iron, copper, oil, and so on—merely a collection of material assetsif it has no original creative spirit of its own and cannot rise to one, it can have little future of importance, however many “opportunities” it may afford. And can anyone deny that, occasional cases excepted, Canada is still not far from a cultural and spiritual desert? Can it be denied that its people in the mass are highly Philistine, despising the intellect, able to understand only action, opaque to thought and to imaginative creative emotion?
These are the traits that Canadians usually, in Pharisaical demeanor, reserve for ri lans. No attitude could be more foolish. Those who know the United States at first hand and not merely through the artificial media of Press, radio and movie know that it is in that country, far mote impressively than in Canada, that the greatness of the human spirit has been demonstrated. It is there that are to be found the music, the libraries, the civic and national pride, the fierce puisuit, of liberty, the large-mindedness, the wide-ranging, imaginative spirit only occasionally encountered here.
Canadian, disprove this if you can.
And yet 1 came home, and others have, too. Why? 1 can speak only for myself. It’s great fun, nationbuilding.
Home, that is the word. We Canadians have a strong sense of home. Not a strong sense of nationalitywe are too narrow gauged for that. Our sense of home is out love of our neighborhood.
There may be more people who feel like me than would usually be assumed: we Canadians don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves and most of us would rather die than let others know that we actually can feel, actually have enthusiasms and can be stirred. Yet occasionally, by accident, the cat slips out of the bag. I remember the simple storekeeper of Hawkestone, that cosy little village on the shores of Lake Simcoe, who exclaimed to me, after chatting about less favored regions: “I don’t know how I’d get along without that lake out there.” He recoiled when the words came out and shut up tight, feeling that he had made a fool of himself to a stranger. But for once his inner self had glinted through. It may have been the inner self of many a staid citizen.
There was the equally simple farmer down on the shores of the Baie des Chaleurs. He had once been out west and he couldn’t endure the flat praiiies. He came home to New Brunswick, home to twenty acres of hillside, to hard work and a limited future. But the tall hills of Gaspé stared at him from across the bay “When 1 came back,” he confided to me, “all I could do was to sit and look at them there hills.”
So 1 suppose it was “that lake out there” that really brought me home
And it must have been the lakes and woods of Ontario which brought me back to my native province. It was not the province as such, because I contend that, except in a legal sense, there is no such thing. There is no Ontaiio: there are just lakes, woods,
hills, dales, farmland; and towns and villages with the good luck to be set in beautiful surroundings, and few of them aware of it.
A Parish Pump Rampant
For one wh > wanted the fun of nation - building, the Canadian west provided a more congenial environment than Ontario. The prairies are wide and bracing, Ontario is stuffy and parochial. In Winnipeg a man can look eastward and see Montreal and the Atlantic steamers carrying prairie wheat to Flurope. And he can look the other way, across the mountains, and see Vancouver and the Pacific. But in Toronto he can see only Toronto or perhaps, by reflection, New York. In the Canadian west one gets a sense of the whole country, its whole magnificent expanse. But the east retreats into itself. As an inhabitant of what was, until recently, our farthest east, Nova Scotia, once said to me: “I’m
not really interested in anything west of the Isthmus of Chignecto.” Sometimes it seems as if the coats of arms of our eastern provinces should carry in their fields, as the heralds would put it, a “parish pump rampant.”
But now for me it is Ontario and it’s Lake Ontario.
This eunuch sea
This pastured, fenced nonentity ...
So shouts our poet Fiarle Birney, who from British Columbia once migrated to Ontario and has now again put the miles between the eunuch sea and his mountain vastnesses.
And so here I am now, at last, washed up on the old Ontario strand sitting in an old farmhouse, looking right out over the horizon of the eunuch sea. Sixty miles south, across those unbriny waves, lies New York State and the land that has swallowed so many of my countrymen. Just sixty miles to the big salaries, the big cities, the mild winters! Just sixty miles to the land of big achievements, the land where the world’s destinies fours included) are being decided —and being decided by people less capable, it would often seem, than ourselves! It wouldn’t have been hard to get into that game; many another Canadian has done it.
Running the world (perhaps, I had better say, trying to run itj from Washington must be the biggest, most exciting game on earth. Any young Canadian who has the ability and the training can go down there and take a hand in it, nothing more certainthe funny thing is that all of them do not. Some of them, if not enough, stay here to get on with our own humble tasks.
F’ew people would argue that the great world nations are making times more pleasant for mankind. Great powers never have. They have never had records that impelled the little peoples to “up and join” them. No, the little peoples, the Swedes, the Swiss, the Dutch, the Danes and others, have always had a very good conceit themselves. It has often been amusing to watch the giants in their folly. Dangerous, of course. But danger makes fun, too.
Well, here on Lake Ontario, I have a special reserved seat from which to watch Giant Number One. But I don’t think I want to be part of him, even if he is big and strong. F’or here on the shore of Ontariothe north shore— 1 have found content.