Irrepressible, effervescent, independent state (of mind)
... But there’s more to B. C. than boom. There are people — and their myths. In his continuing report, Alexander Ross, a far-westerner who defected, examines this
THERE IS A SCHOOL of thought, rapidly gaining credence among people who run provincial governments, which holds that Canada is not, and shouldn’t want to be, a single, united nation so much as an amiable federation of more or less independent republics. This anti-centralist trend is evident throughout the nation. But in one section of the country, a province where geographic isolation has become a way of life, the trend is more pronounced than anywhere else in English-speaking Canada.
The province is British Columbia, which happens to be where I've spent most of my life. If you can stand the pace, which is leisurely even in the midst of a boom, and if you can accept the fact that B. C. lives on dreams almost as much as on money, you’ll probably find it one of the world’s most agreeable regions. But you must be prepared to accept the fact that way out there on the left end of the map, B. C. has almost as much in common with San Francisco or Tokyo as with eastern Canada (which means any place beyond Calgary) and that in its isolation it has developed a style and an outlook that are uniquely its own.
Among its distinctions, B. C. can boast that it has Canada's most experimental government; the nation’s first society for the propagation of legalized marijuana; the only politician ever known to have made a pet of a killer whale (and later, sadly, to have performed an autopsy on it); North America’s biggest ranch (more than a million acres); and the world’s richest parrot (it inherited a manservant and a mansion in downtown Victoria which can’t be sold until the parrot dies). British Columbians are proud of these things, much as Ottawa used to be proud of Charlotte Whitton.
But the province’s most distinguishing feature is the extent to which the lives of its inhabitants are governed by public delusions. Vancouverites, for instance, believe that their city is the most beautiful in Canada, and invariably praise what they call its “climate” and its “setting.” This evaluation ignores several obvious facts: ( 1 ) The climate is so wet as to be acutely depressing, if not actually unhealthy; (2) the mountains and harbor are spectacular, all right, but because of an accumulation of railroad tracks, warehouses and tasteless buildings in all the wrong places, it’s almost impossible to see them from downtown; (3) the city’s man-made core — as opposed to its God-given setting — is about as grisly, architecturally speaking, as it’s possible for a North American city to construct.
Nobody in Canada believes more things that aren’t so than British Columbians. For years, they’ve maintained in power a government that claims the province is “debt-free,” although, by the reckoning of the Dominion Bureau of Statistics, B. C. in 1963 had a per capita debt, direct and indirect, of $813 — the highest of any Canadian province. Bemused by the magnificence of Stanley Park, Vancouverites believe their city is a wilderness wonderland, even though the city’s total parkland acreage is below the minimum accepted by most town planners. They also persist in the belief that Vancouver is intensely “cosmopolitan,” despite the fact that no large Canadian city is so obsessed with purely local concerns. (A few years ago, on a day when terrorists tried to assassinate General de Gaulle, the main story in the street edition of the city’s biggest
newspaper was about a dispute over a beauty contest in West Vancouver. De Gaulle was on page two. )
But the most pervasive west-coast myth, and the main reason so many people move there, is the belief that people arc happier in B. C. This is a peculiarly North American notion. The idea seems to be that if you haven’t made it in the industrial jungles of the cast, or can't stand the winters on the prairies, you can always Start Fresh Out West. Because of this western mystique, a disproportionate number of the people who move to B. C. do so for something more than the usual economic reasons. Their move isn't merely a transfer from one branch office to another; it's the start of a new phase in their lives, the last chance to capture the contentment that has eluded them everywhere else.
The phenomenon was best described by a bachelor girl who spent several years in Vancouver before fleeing to Toronto. Most Canadians, she said, look on summer as just another season: an occasion for going without rubbers and perhaps spending the odd day at the beach. "But in Vancouver," she says, “they really anticipate the summer. By February, everybody's talking about how they’re going to fall in love, get a tan, take some courses at summer school and change their jobs as soon as the good weather comes.” The good weather seldom materializes. Last July and August, it rained for twenty-two days in Vancouver.
And so the city is full of people who came there looking for whatever was missing in their lives. When they don't find it in B. C., the myth kingdom where everybody is supposed to be happy, they feel they’ve somehow been cheated of fulfillment.
That is a whopping generalization. But it appears to be supported by available statistics, which indicate that the province contains a larger proportion of troubled, unhappy, hung-up people than anywhere else in the country. B. C. leads the nation in the suicide rate (11.4 per 100,000). It is the junkie capital of Canada (more than half of the country’s narcotics addicts live there). Its divorce rate is more than double the national average. The VD rate is by far the highest in Canada — almost as many cases in 1964 as in Ontario and Quebec combined. With Nova Scotia, B. C. shares Canada's highest illegitimate birthrate. And its alcoholism rate is among Canada’s three highest, roughly on a par with Quebec’s and Ontario’s.
Although there is no statistical evidence to support the claim, 1 believe B. C. also contains a higher proportion of plain nuts than any other region of Canada. Perhaps this is putting it a trifle strongly; but certainly west-coast people manage to arrive at ornate, and sometimes very endearing, solutions to everyday problems. Those who don’t like people, for instance, sometimes carry their antipathy to dramatic extremes. In 1953, Vancouver police discovered a middle-aged English remittance man, elegant in manner and impeccable in accent, who’d set up light housekeeping in a hollowed-out stump in the middle of Stanley Park. And it was less than two years ago that one Larry McNamara was found living in a hole in the middle of a Vancouver municipal works yard. He'd slept there on and off for three years, consistently refused welfare payments, and wished to continue living
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there, largely because he happened to prefer living in a hole in the ground. Civic authorities finally succeeded in evicting him, hut most Vancouverites felt the incident was a defeat for the principles of rugged individualism.
Rugged individualism is still rampant in the churches, however. Although the west coast can muster a normal complement of Anglicans, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics, it is notable for a preponderance of sects that take a decidedly original approach to the problems of salvation. They come and go in Vancouver like barbershops or coffeehouses, and it is difficult to estimate how many souls patronize these spiritual bargain basements. Census figures provide one clue, however. They lump all the smaller, more obscure denominations into a classification labeled “other.” In 1961, ten percent of B. C.’s population fell into this category, a ratio more than double the national average.
Blue plates shook the flavor
Among the “other” churches that have come, gone, or stayed in B. C. in recent years are the Father Divine Peace Mission, Aimee Semple McPherson's Foursquare Church, the 1 Am Sanctuary, the Covenant Tabernacle, the Glad Tidings Temple, the Unity Church of Truth and the Canadian Temple Of The More Abundant Life. (This latter institution, housed in a former Catholic seminary in Burnaby, is run by a man who styles himself His Grace The Most Reverend Monsignor William Franklin Wolsey, CHP, BPD, DD, ScM, PhD, OSM. He is said by some of his followers to have commanded Pacific squalls into silence. Until public pressure forced its closure, his temple ran a school where, according to one disgruntled graduate, seventy children were taught that babies should be kept in darkened rooms for the first six months of their lives, and that food should never be served on blue plates, since the color sets up mystical vibrations that adversely affect the flavor. Last year the Canadian Temple Of The More Abundant Life reported property holdings worth one million dollars.)
This cannot he an exhaustive survey of B. C.’s religious topography. It fails to detail the activities of the Sons of Freedom Doukhobor sect (a story in itself, as more than one writer has concluded), or the work of Lord Martin Cecil, an authentic British peer who runs one of B. C.’s biggest ranches, owns much of the town of Hundred Mile House, and leads a Colorado-based sect known as the Emissaries of Divine Light. The Emissaries believe in applied ontology, but reporters who have questioned the Bishop on what that means have confessed themselves baffled by his replies.
The penchant of British Columbians for odd enthusiasms extends into secular fields as well. Technocracy, an economic fad that swept North America in the 1930s, has all but disappeared elsewhere, but in B. C. the Technocrats have opened a new
Extremism in the defense of anything is no vice in British Columbia
headquarters in east Vancouver and claim several hundred members, who believe in harnessing automation so that everybody can live in affluent semiretirement, instead of on unemployment cheques.
The pro-marijuana league, an even more secular organization, got started in a casual way last February after magistrates began sentencing potsmoking hipsters and university students as though they were common drtig addicts. The league believes, with some plausibility, that marijuana is a less harmful opiate of the people than alcohol or, for that matter, ordinary cigarettes. Its organization is practically nonexistent (pot smokers generally don’t make the best committee men) and its members, understandably, are coy about identifying themselves. But they have issued a manifesto and several press releases, and have been chided by the police for distributing pro-pot pamphlets on downtown street corners.
Most secular of all, B. C'. is the godlessness capital of Canada. According to the most recent DBS figures, nearly half of the country's declared nonbelievers live in B. C. Says
A. C'. Forrest, editor of The United Church Observer, “You could pack Vancouver's football stadium with
B. C. atheists who are proud to tell the census-taker where they don't stand.”
As these statistics indicate, extremism in defense of anything is no vice in British Columbia. The province is still the scene of riotous election rallies, bloody labor disputes and badtempered mass demonstrations. Leftwing groups proliferate like fruit flies, ranging from the tweedy socialism of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition to a Maoist fringe group which apparently feels that Stalin was dangerously soft on capitalism.
On the other side are ranged an assortment of uniquely unreconstructed capitalists. When Aubrey King, owner of one of Vancouver’s larger trucking
firms, was asked to sign an unwelcome Teamsters' contract in 1958. he simply closed down his business. Today he has about a hundred unused trucks stashed away around town ("1 love trucks,” he explains) and spends much of his time playing cribbage in the company office. He describes himself to visitors as “a fat, bald-
headed man who wants to be left alone.”
The class struggle, in short, still means something in B. ('. It is significant that the province's current affluence has not abated the struggle, but only led to some ingenious leftwing adaptations. The Young Communist League sometimes musters a
troupe of nubile girl cheerleaders who wave pompoms at rallies held to protest the latest American outrage in Vietnam. And when L'BC’s students recently protested an increase in bus fares, the occasion was practically indistinguishable from Dr. Martin Luther King's assault on Selma. Alabama. There were speeches, placards, and
mass marches. Some of the demonstrating students even sang We Shall Overcome.
The people who make the laws in B. C. arc scarcely less flamboyant than those who break them. Gordon Gibson, a Liberal MLA and outspoken defender of the underdog, has been known to arrive at legislative sessions in his 122-foot yacht, which he moors in Victoria’s Inner Harbor, in front of the legislature building. Phil Gaglardi, the highways minister, has collected six traffic convictions, three of them for speeding on his own highways. Premier Bennett, as nearly everyone knows by now, is the man who shot a flaming arrow' into a bargeload of gasoline-soaked government bonds to dramatize his contention that B. C. is free of direct debt. Patrick McGecr, another Liberal MLA, is a University of British Columbia neurological researcher; w'hen a Vancouver Aquarium team caught a fifteen-foot killer whale last year, erroneously named him Moby Doll and penned him up at Jericho Beach, McGcer w'as called in as medical consultant. The patient died, however, and some press-gallery observers believe the incident diminished McGcer’s political effectiveness. Premier Bennett now affects to ignore McGcer’s political pronouncements, on the grounds that “he couldn’t even save Molly Doll, or what’s her name” —a statement that is about par for political repartee in British Columbia.
Killer whales, the B.C. Lions, all those Japanese-financed mines, Gaglardi’s new freeways, the traffic jams on Lions Gate Bridge, last January’s big snowstorms, Bennett’s latest budget, snow conditions on Grouse Mountain—-these are the sort of public affairs that people talk about in Vancouver. They are eerily, almost totally, self - absorbed. They really don’t give a damn for the rest of the world.
According to Vancouver Sun publisher Stuart Kcate, B. C. has never produced a major federal politician, and it wasn’t until a recent Vancouver resident, Harry Stonehill, became involved in the Ottawa scandals that B. C. became emotionally involved in
the issue. B. C. painters — and there are some good ones — mostly hold themselves aloof from the eastern gallery circuit. According to poet Earle Birney, B. C.’s young writers make their literary pilgrimages, not to Toronto, Montreal, London or New York, but to San Francisco. Westcoast architecture is different; B. C. supports its own home-and-garden magazine, and Vancouverites take a yokelish pride in the diamond-shaped B.C. Hydro Building that dominates the city’s skyline, and envy the people who have somehow contrived to build forty - thousand - dollar post - and - beam houses on the north shore, where some lots tilt forty-five degrees.
Self-absorption has always been the iron law of life on the west coast. It took the bribe of a transcontinental railway to induce the colony of B. C. to join Confederation, and westerners still don’t seem convinced that the bargain was totally worthwhile. Preserved in the scrapbook of M. A. MacLean, an early mayor of Vancouver. is a yellowing newspaper clipping, written circa 1890 but regrettably unidentified, which talks of the “feeling of expatriation that engulfed the little group of Canadians who formed the nucleus of Vancouver’s citizenship” just after the province joined Confederation.
“British Columbia,” the article continues, “was Canadian soil, but who in B. C. loved Canada? Nobody. Who wished to know anything about Canada's affairs? Nobody. Who. of the old C'rown colony rulers, or their followers—content to live and die complacent colonials—offered a friendly hand or a word of welcome to those who brought the spirit of Canada to Canada's Pacific coast? Nobody. It w'as enough to know England’s story. How could one possibly care about Canada?”
B. C. has changed surprisingly little since those words were written. Even with hundred-dollar air fares to Toronto and a new highway punched through the Rockies to Alberta, B. C. remains a place apart, a crown colony of the mind, the Transylvania of Canada, an island of myths surrounded by mountains. ★