THE NATIONAL SCENE
The Man From St. Urbain discovers the West
A year ago novelist Mordecai Richler ventured out from hometown Montreal for a western Grand Tour. Flere are some pages from his journal of discovery
On my last day in the west, I discover the 5,000 Magic Fingers of the Massaging Assembly, advertised on the unit bolted to my bed. “It quickly car-
ries you into the land of tingling ease and relaxation, 25 cents for 15 minutes.” For small change, the promise of rapture.
Yielding to the magic fingers, which do not caress, alas, but instead grind away beneath me, adrift on a palpitating bed in the Highlander Motor Hotel, Calgary 42 (“A Place Ye Canna’ Forget”), briefly grateful not to be in Sodom where strangers were cut to the bed’s measure, I try to splinter some sense out of the last, decidedly frenetic, 11 days. My western Grand Tour.
Swimming before me there is one triumphant image of prairie loneliness overcome by hubris. In Brandon, Manitoba, a teen-aged girl struggles toward me over towering snowbanks, defiantly wearing a maxicoat. Then I am on the spectacular Banff highway again, spinning toward Jasper through a blizzard, only the road ahead visible, when the snows suddenly recede and the menacing mountains emerge, closing in on me. In Edmonton, I am introduced to students as “a wandering tenderfoot.” Yes, indeed. But to begin at the beginning.
Like many Canadians of my generation, I have only a fragmented sense of country. Home, in my case, is Montreal, the rest, geography. I’m prepared to believe the fault is mine. I’ve never been north or to the Maritimes. To my shame, I have not even been west before. I have flown to Vancouver, that city by the sea with the soul of a remittance man, but never seen the prairies plain. Hitherto, I knew the west only by rumor of its most raucous ritual, the Calgary Stampede, and by its itinerant buffoons and literary sensibilities. The Grey Cup yahoos and Johnny Diefenbaker, perceived once in Ottawa, and the books of Sinclair Ross, Margaret Laurence, Adele Wiseman and Jack Ludwig.
And so, just before flying off to Toronto from England, I spent an evening skimming through these books again, seeking instruction. After a weekend in Toronto, I packed for the west.
Following Sir George Simpson and David Thompson, after the Selkirk Settlers, admittedly more carpetbagger than voyageur, I was setting out without benefit of pemmican or bacon fat or even mukluks, but was armed instead with Remy Martin, a plentiful supply of Havanas, and of course a return ticket. To come clean, my purpose was twofold. I was to speak at several universities, knocking an act into shape on the campus vaudeville circuit, and report on my trip for this magazine.
Above all, I was delighted to be invited to make a journey long overdue, perversely undertaken in March, our country’s most grueling month, when everybody is justifiably fed up because the winter has lasted too long
yet again. This year, like last, and next. The streets churn with slush, the cars are caked with filth, and one day’s promise of spring is mocked by the next morning’s blizzard.
Sunday. Flying off from Toronto on Air Canada flight 857, settling into my seat with yesterday’s Globe and Mail, I was undone by the front-page headline: “Farmers offered millions if they don’t plant wheat
Ottawa—Western wheat farmers were offered up to $140 million yesterday by the federal government in return for growing virtually no wheat or any other crop on their lands this year ...” Instantly, the primordial socialist beast in me was aroused. I was charged with scorn for capitalism and its obscene contradictions.
Though I still count myself a Trudeau supporter, I am increasingly perplexed by some of his government’s policies in office. The most literate government we have ever elected has turned on its own, meanly squeezing the National Film Board and the Canada Council, petty-cash liabilities in the larger scheme. And now millions are to be forked out not to grow food. We are to subvert hardworking, Godfearing farmers, bribing them to become senior citizen hippies. Whatever the responsibilities-of-office, the conundrums of international agreements, the mysteries of high finance, it is unarguably immoral not to grow wheat when 10,000 people die of starvation every day.
And yet — and yet — it is just possible that I have underestimated Ottawa’s subtlety. If, for instance, we accept that overpopulation is the surpassing problem of our time and the ignorant peasants of the deprived
countries will not practise birth control no matter what, well then, by God, let’s starve the bastards. Canada, for once, in the vanguard. After months of agonizing review, we do have a new foreign policy. In a word, famine.
Another possibility is that somebody has spiked Ottawa’s water supply with LSD, and millions not to grow wheat is the harbinger of a groovy new policy in which we may all expect to share. Next year, hopefully, the Canada Council will pay novelists not to write. After all, we have at least as deserving a case as the farmers. Too much is being written, there’s almost no demand for even the best of it, and the silos of Macmillan, McClelland & Stewart, et al, are stacked as high with moldering, unwanted books as the west is with wheat.
My first evening in the west, I ate Winnipeg goldeye, one of very few dishes to more than fulfill its promise. After dinner, determined to explore, I sought out Portage and Main, deservedly reputed to be the chilliest corner in the country. “Hibernation is for bears — not for people,” says Winnipeg Visitors’ Guide. “Anyway it’s the attitude of Winnipeggers. When winter’s withering winds sweep in from the north, the half million non-hibernating inhabitants of this cool metropolis . . . bundle up warmly and get out and enjoy life.”
Sunday night, below zero, the streets abandoned. Briefly, I considered taking a taxi to that club in the north end where, trailblazer Larry Zolf has assured me, Speedy Fogel and Montreal Moe prevail, but the cold shriveled my spirits. I returned to my hotel and settled into bed with Murray Donnelly’s biography, Dafoe Of The Free Press. In 1865, a year before the editor was born, his parents, beguiled by colonization literature, went to settle on an Ontario farm. “The pamphlets they carried with them were full of enthusiasm and glowing descriptions of the new land between the Ottawa River and Georgian Bay, and predicted that the area would eventually have a population of eight million.”
Canada, Canada, for ever tomorrow country.
“. . . They knew little of the true nature of the land their Protestant God had created in the highlands of Ontario. They did not know, although the evidence mounted as they traveled, that the seemingly fertile soil was strewn with stones and was actually little more than a shallow sprinkling of earth on the solid rock of the Precambrian Shield.
They did note as they struggled up the Hastings Road that one in three homesteads had already been abandoned, but concluded that this was due to a lack of stamina on the part of the owner or to a false desire for the ease and sensual delight of the city.” Enjoy, enjoy, I learned on my grandmother’s knee. Life is short, the grave without light. Endure, endure, says Canadian experience. For tomorrow they will flock to the new and golden cities of the North as they now do to California. Tomorrow we will redeem our ore, our oil and our wood from the American pawnshop. Tomorrow Winnipeg will bedazzle like Byzantium. Tomorrow we will hold the world to ransom for our unpolluted water. Tomorrow, for Canada, the world. Meanwhile, it’s cold. We’re getting older. And what if we’re all being conned?
I’m supposed to drive to Brandon today, but the girl who brings my breakfast announces the winds outside are running to 35 miles per hour. Opening the curtains, I espy through the swirling snows a sign across the street. Barker’s Funeral Parlor. Looming above, there is another sign, this one illuminated, The Investors Syndicate. In Winnipeg, something for most of your needs, but not all, as I shortly discover. For the Gateway to £ the Golden West has no morning ¡ newspaper. Most days, it seems, you * can get the Toronto Globe and Mail; ¿ but not this Monday ... Î
My breakfast cools as I desperately £ search for anything but the Gideon to g read. Ah, the Hotel Sonesta has thoughtfully provided me with ExecuS tive Digest: 1
“THRIFT-TIPS FOR TIME-SAVERS Success or failure, every man has exactly the same number of minutes per day to spend. The successful man is usually the one who has learned how to spend his time as wisely as he spends his money. Here are some tips to help you do likewise: 1) At the end of the day, sit down with a pencil and paper and plan your next day’s activities. Or compile a list of the ways you’ve wasted time all day.”
Go to hell.
I send for Tribune, Saturday’s edition, and open it automatically at the want ads page:
“ARTIST WISHES TO MEET LADY (18-35) as helper in studio. Must be able to sell & MODEL occas. Send photo with letter to Box ...”
Big sky. Long winter. Hibernation is for bears.
8.30 a.m. Ensconced on the Greyhound bus to Brandon, sailing through a blizzard, I feel I’ve arrived on the prairies at last. Everywhere I turn, I’m greeted by a swirling white haze. No horizon defined, but here and there islands of black trees that could, for all I know, be floating on lakes or be rooted in snow-buried prairies. Both, as it turns out, for as I should have remembered from sixth grade geography the prairie is the bed of an ancient lake, left flat as a snooker table by the retreating glaciers. And empty. My God, I have never seen such emptiness.
“Canada’s geographical vastness is deceptive,” Hugh MacLennan writes. “At the moment little more than 4% of the whole country is under cultivation; it has been estimated that only 7% ever can be.”
The good-natured bus driver, bound for Calgary, the Rockies, and Vancouver, serves as a latter-day pony-express rider, heaving to at garages that emerge from the snow to hand over a bundle to the man in earflaps and furlined boots who comes barreling out of his office, bent into the wind. Life improving on Maclean’s covers of old.
As the snows let up, we bounce past drifting signs, PREPARE FOR ETERNITY . . . YOU WILL SOON BE THERE FOR EVER. And churches. Onion-heads, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mennonite. You name it, somebody out there believes in it. Seemingly, to put together a settlement on the prairie, all you need are some churches, a garage, a pizza palace, a curling arena, and stacks of hardcore pornography.
Which brings me to Portage la Prairie, where we rocked to a stop at a restaurant. “Ten minutes here,
There were two sets of bookracks. On one side, rows of nurse romances published by Harlequin Books. A Touch Of Starlight, etc., etc. On the other, the hot stuff. Adult reading, paperbacks in cellophane wrappers, three bucks each. New Meat, European Wife Swap Tour, Sex Bum, Modern Spanking. And a complete row of Tarzans. And so, I absorb my first prairie lesson. When they ask for Burroughs out here they want Edgar Rice, not William.
Shouldn’t be so smart.
For I quickly learn the students at Brandon U are bright, diffident, good-looking and well read. “What brings you,” one of them demands, “to a hick university in a hick town?”
“I've never been to one before, that’s what.”
Instinctively, I like the students, but I am saddened by the university, the town, and its dilemma. Brandon, Man. (population 30,000 or so), is a place you come from, not somewhere you go to. Former residents, including an ambassador I met, return here to retire by the familiar fireside. Far from being picayune, they read the London Observer and the New Statesman. They are soft-spoken, kind, and decent companions. But obviously they are educating their children right out of their environment. The young won’t settle for life as an endurance contest, but will quite properly demand more, seeking it in Vancouver or Toronto. The university, to succeed, must also destroy the town.
They are justifiably wary of strangers in Brandon, especially easterners, accustomed as they are to being conned. Traditionally, 1 discover, a
speaker turns up here ill-prepared and charged with condescension, talking off the cuff, for what does Brandon matter, it’s Hicksville, and once back in Toronto, cheque in hand, the trip can be passed off as a lark in the Park Plaza Roof bar or the Celebrity Club. But the people of Brandon, on the other hand, seem to batten perversely on having the city slicker prove himself a phony. It seems to nourish them in the false assurance that, though they are camped in the middle of the sea of nowhere, they are not missing much.
Frequently, we bring out the worst in each other.
It’s a big sky, they say. Again and again I’m asked, have you ever seen such a big sky?
In North America's only socialist province, the sky belongs to the people. The rest, mostly to members of the Manitoba Club. And a Swiss holding company.
On first sight, the city seemed utterly without charm, built two stories high in most places, the streets snagtoothed, with little to delight the eye. Garages, loan companies, Canadian Legion halls. Garish commercial streets. Slab-like, functional houses. Except for the onion-head churches, no color, no fantasy. Life is hard, the winter’s long. Endurance is all.
The west has yet to develop a distinctive style of architecture, and suburban houses in Winnipeg, as well as in Edmonton and Calgary, seem to be anchored against the wind rather than built on foundations, as if the residents are not yet committed to settlement. The University of Manitoba,
however commodious its appointments within, struck me as a particularly depressing opportunity missed. It resembles nothing so much as an industrial complex, a canning factory maybe, and pulling up to it in a car for the first time you expect the luncheon whistle to blow any minute.
Even so, after only a couple of days in town, Winnipeg was to have more appeal for me than any other city I visited in the west. The boom, promised so many times by so many self-serving, lying politicians, will never come. Athens will always lie elsewhere. In tomorrow country, this is yesterday’s city. The Boston of the west, I’d say, only it has never really known years of true grandeur. What it does boast is our richest radical tradition; this is the city of the strike, after all, and even today of our most interesting socialist journal, Dimension, edited by Cy Gonick. As Calgary and Edmonton burgeon, among the fastestgrowing cities in the country, Winnipeg continues to slide into decent poverty, the young packing their bags.
In the afternoon, I drove to Wellington Crescent, a willow swamp and Indian encampment before the grain barons began to build there after the turn of the century, one grand house mock Tudor and the next a touching but misbegotten attempt to recreate Edinburgh on the steppes. Early in the Fifties the grandest homes began to go up for auction, the rich undone
by heating bills and the cost of servants. The largest house on the Crescent, where the Prince of Wales was entertained in 1924, had 37 rooms, nine fireplaces and seven bathrooms, before it was split into apartments and then torn down. Another onceelegant private residence was for a time the abode of the Canadian Mennonite Bible College and a third en-
joyed a brief life as the convent of the Precious Blood before it too was demolished. Yet another is now the home of the Masonic Order. On socalled “Creed Corner,” there stand a modern synagogue, the Shaarey Zedek, a Bible college, a Lutheran Church and St. Mary’s, a Roman Catholic academy. But gone for ever are the days when English governesses took the master out for a turn on the Crescent and there are no more horsedrawn traps. The worst news, however, is that socialism, creeping in with the frost, has come to a province with a hitherto unbroken right-wing history. With the largest, and probably most idle, railway yards in the country. And with a grain exchange that is now mainly of historical interest.
Even so, an obdurate Queen Victoria still sat outside the legislature as I approached it, holding orb and sceptre, wearing her crown. Intact for the ages.
On entering the legislature, one is immediately confronted by two enormous buffalo, guardians of the central staircase, this pair surviving possibly because, being bronze, unlike the millions who once roamed the prairie, they would yield no fresh meat, pemmican, grease or hides. It is worth noting, incidentally, that it is not to commemorate animal genocide, as it were, but to award citizens whose work on behalf of the province merits special recognition, that the government of Manitoba, blessed stranger to irony, has established an Order of the Buffalo Hunt.
Without ever having met Premier Schreyer, I was already on his side. The face in the newspaper photographs was honest, intelligent and
handsome. Seemingly without subterfuge or the bitterness endemic to some old socialists who have wasted too long in the political wilderness. Schreyer had, possibly to his own astonishment, ousted oafs from office. Only 35, he has been an MLA or MP for 12 years. He speaks German, Ukrainian and French. In 1963, he asked the government to stop paying a minister’s membership to the Manitoba Club, because it discriminated against Jews and Ukrainians. But the sad truth is Schreyer lacks presence, he seems to be without style or wit, qualities Trudeau radiates in abundance on very first meeting, and I strongly doubt that this young Mr. Deeds is the socialist for all seasons who will one day lead the party to power in Ottawa. Our dinner together at the Fort Garry foundered on stilted conversation and indifferent food. Schreyer, his eyes soft with appeal, revealed that he always travels economy class by air. (Yes, yes. Golda Meir brews her own tea. Humble Harold Wilson prefers tinned salmon to smoked. Trudeau, overworked for all I know, still finds time to keep physically fit. My God, what have we sinners done to deserve such self-sacrifice?) Anyway, I dutifully made a note, travels economy class, which is to say there will be some social justice but no Camelot coming to the banks of the Assiniboine.
Honesty may very well be the best policy, but in Ed Schreyer’s case I feared it was his only one, which is not enough. Again and again I find our country abounds in men manifestly decent and likable, but too few who can lead you to Water.
Soaring over Winnipeg in the morning, the prairie swiftly obscured by continued on page 57
wads of cloud, I lowered into Edmonton before noon, where publisher Mel Hurtig awaited me. Instantly, we set out across the oppressive flatlands for the Shining Mountains of legend. Once the other side of Calgary, heading into rolling country with the mountains looming darkly ahead, I was hard put to contain my rising good spirits. The mountains are, of course, a spectacular sight and their initial effect is totally exhilarating. One cannot but be grateful to Ottawa for having the foresight to create national parks here. Kootenay, Jasper, Banff and the rest.
Pulling into most fortunate and happily placed Banff, however, I must say that at first glimpse of the Springs Hotel — this absolutely ridiculous palace, this monument to 19th-century pretension — I had to laugh out loud.
We endured an appalling dinner served in an immense, nearly empty, dining room, a dry-docked Cunarder, and this was followed, appropriately enough, by a musical quartet and a singer in a shimmering silver gown. The theme song from Dr. Zhivago, A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody, Tzena, Tzena, Tzena, and other flatulent ditties.
O God! O Alberta!
If I cannot lead you to the fountain of youth or tell you where elephants go to die, if I still lack the secret of the alchemist’s stone, I do now know where old and deserving Protestants, blessed by God and the Investors Growth Fund, loyal to the Royal Bank of Canada, true to Prudential, and with faith in gilt-edged, repair to enjoy themselves. The Banff Springs Hotel is their redoubt. I have discovered Shangri-la. Out here, in hidden valley, Canada’s prosperous WASPs, that unhappy breed who thrive on Thrift-Tips For Time-Savers, will make their last stand. This is the place where ruddy-cheeked can-doers in dinner jackets will for ever sweep their girdled, begowned ladies into the dining room to eat frozen shrimp cocktail followed by steak cooked grey to the core. Lily Pons will sing for them. Nelson Eddy, a vision on a mountain peak, will call out one more time for stout-hearted men. If there’s a movie on Sunday night, it will be Mrs. Miniver. And whatever French Canadians dare intrude will come as saucy chambermaids or colorful guides.
Even so, the rot has begun to set in here, as everywhere. In summer, the clear mountain air is sweet with pot. The waitresses, largely students and very nice to look at, wear miniskirts and read Leonard Cohen in the elevators. Boys with long hair and only one
idea, bastards who have yet to put their shoulder to the Canadian wheel of commerce, loiter in the lobby. Waiting to shake out the plum tree.
To be fair, the Rockies enjoy a rich tradition of plunderers and easy riders, for which information I am indebted to Esther Fraser’s entertaining The Canadian Rockies, Early Travels And Explorations. Among my most cherished precursors there was the avaricious Sir George Simpson, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Little Emperor, who was habitually preceded into the camps of the Cree, Blackfoot, Piegan and Sarcee — where he had come to swindle — by a Scots piper in traditional attire, blowing on his bagpipes; and who, furthermore, was a self-proclaimed rake, acknowledging seven colonial bastards and many more bits of brown, as he put it, scattered over the mountain passes. I was also charmed by the delightful young Earl of Southesk, who ventured into the Shining Mountains, in 1859, in search of sport among the larger animals, accompanied by a valet and armed with Shakespeare to while away rainy afternoons. Snowbound on the prairies once, in a tent hung with icicles, the earl wrote in his journal: “Why am I enduring this? For pleasure —was the only answer, and the idea seemed so absurd that I laughed myself warm. Then as the circulation returned, I remembered that I was taking a lesson in that most valuable of human studies — the art of Endurance; an art the poor learn perforce, and the rich do well to teach themselves . . .”
As one massive, towering peak yielded to another, emerging from the snow on the five-hour run to Jasper, I
was unnerved by how primitive, even prehistoric, these mountains seemed. Assuredly, this wasn’t the Alps, thoroughly domesticated, where almost every peak, closely looked at, reveals a peasant village. “But one misses the dead,” Rupert Brooke said when he visited, and to this I can only add that the living cannot but be intimidated by such a landscape. Human effort would seem more futile here than in most places. The Rockies are conducive to silence.
Jasper Lodge fits more naturally into its setting than the zany Banff Springs Hotel, but I have my doubts about the Indian paintings and artifacts to be seen on display everywhere. After all, there are still some outstanding bills to be settled. Ask Harold Cardinal. On the other hand, it’s possible that 100 years hence the inns along the Rhine will be decorated with children’s drawings from Dachau and Treblinka.
In the end, everything’s usable.
In Edmonton, I ran into trouble in the Faculty Club, coming unstuck in an encounter with one of our lighter arms industries, Can. lit., its western sales force finding some virtue in the writing of Frederick Philip Grove.
If, as Edmund Wilson has written, Morley Callaghan is the most unjustly neglected novelist in the English language, then Grove, surely, is the man who fills the office of most justly neglected. But, in Edmonton, as elsewhere in the west, I was to hear him praised again and again, sometimes for nothing more than his accurate accounts of prairie blizzards and summer thunderstorms, making a case for him as the Percy Saltzman of the
pre-McLuhan Age. I readily grant Grove this station, with the proviso that, unlike Saltzman, he bores me stiff all the same.
Calgary cannot be utterly without hope, if, as I am assured, last year their symphony orchestra was conducted by José Iturbi.
Riding the 5,000 Magic Fingers of the Massaging Assembly, rocking on my bed in the Highlander Motor Hotel, I try to impose order on the last 11 days. My western tour. I remember club sandwiches with curling french fries being proffered in hotels everywhere, by the same girl with the same false eyelashes, smile and microskirt. And the coffee, like rusty tap water. Once more, I ride backward through dinner, tall in the saddle of the Chateau Lacombe restaurant in Edmonton, a turntable 24 stories high, equally distressed to hear an unseen girl organist sing A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody (big tune in the west) and watch airplanes lowering into an airport in the city centre. Rolling into Portage la Prairie, I see again the enormous birthday cake of melting grey ice: 100 years old. We survived. Then I’m in the Black-Bond again, Brandon’s only bookshop, Tarzan paperbacks stacked everywhere. As the lascivious Magic Fingers grind to a halt, I recall sitting in a restaurant on Jasper’s main street. Floating on Scotch, I watch a hockey game, played in Montreal, on color TV. Gordie Howe scores. Blessed be Canada our country for Canada our country is One.
Or look at it this way.
PREPARE FOR ETERNITY . . . YOU WILL SOON BE THERE FOR EVER. □