My Canada’s quiet. I thought you might like to know that. Maybe you don’t. But for some months now you’ve been reading about other people's Canadas. Many of those other people have been well-known actors or writers. I live in Yukon Territory and a quick glance around has shown me the subarctic is definitely on the short side when it comes to wellknown actors or writers. So I thought I’d fill in. I hope you don’t mind.
There is a country up here — in the territories and on the top side of most of the provinces — where sometimes it seems Canada doesn’t exist. When I was young and it was winter I’d lie in bed and listen to the radio. And I got the impression Canada was just a voice outside where it was dark. And the voice would say, “This has been a CBC Toronto production.” I would think of the voice, and sometimes I would wonder what it was like in that other world — the one where the voice lived. And sometimes I would wonder whether the voice was tall or whether it was short and fat.
Sometimes I wondered. But not often. Not for long. Not at first.
Then I grew up. And because hometowns are too small when you’re growing up, I went off to find the voice. I didn’t have to look very hard. I knew it lived in Toronto. But what was a toronto? What did it look like?
Did it smell as gut-good in the spring as the North does?
Did it try to kill you in January? Did people drive pickup trucks in Toronto?
Don’t laugh, I’m not trying to be funny.
I found Toronto. And it didn’t smell good at any time, let alone in the spring. And it tried to kill me all the time, not just in January.
I loved it. I didn’t have to lie in bed and listen to the voice. I could look at it. I could stand up and shout right back at it. I met other voices. I met Montreal — I found her living just up the map a bit from Toronto. Then it was out to Winnipeg and on to Vancouver. Along the length of Vancouver Island; the coast; into the Cariboo country; back to the Prairies — Calgary and Edmonton. It was an orgy of people and cities and big buildings. Tall buildings with noises trapped and hammered into the drafty and winter-grey halls between them. Lots of noise. Roars and bangs. Sirens. A lifetime of quiet country shattered. Insanely, hilariously shattered. Blasted.
It stopped. No dramatics. No sad love affair. No little poor boy caught in the snarl of the big city. I was sitting at the desk of the Calgary Herald, where I was working, and I decided to go home. I left for the Yukon immediately.
It’s two years later now and I at last know why. I came home because my Canada is a private Canada. It's a Canada where I can stop my car, dead, in the highway and enjoy “my country.” And I won’t be in anybody’s way. It's a Canada where my job is secondary. I’m here because I want to be here. That’s a tremendous feeling. If I get fired I won’t go somewhere else looking for work. I’ll stay here. And I’ll survive.
The tallest mountains in Canada are in Yukon Territory. I'll bet you didn’t know that, did you? Mountains are only big when you sit for hours and look at them. Mountains are supposed to be looked at that way. What other possible use do they have? Try sitting in Banff for hours. Some tourist will drive a camper truck right over your toes. Snap — all 10 of them.
And my Canada is a private Canada because in the North we have the smallest population of any area in the country. Yukon Territory has 20,000 humans spread over an area larger than California. That gives everybody lots of room. And most humans are creatures who should be given lots of room.
The clear, knife-sharp silence of Canada’s North often frightens first-time visitors. They come, many of them, from huge cities thousands of miles away in the United States or in Ontario. They say they are looking for a place to get away from it all. To beat the rat race. You’ve heard all the clichés, probably more often than I. They say all this. But nightfall finds them wide-tire-tracking it as quickly as they can toward the security of what few towns we have. And, when by chance they find themselves caught overnight away from town, you can see them locking the doors of their aluminum holiday trailers.
Against what? Against all that nothing. Against that awful quiet. The quiet that can be deafening.
Consider this. We now have an entire generation that has grown up surrounded by a constant din. Washing machines, refrigerators, jet planes overhead and rush-hour traffic outside. Background music to a complete race of people. When it’s removed, they’re confused. Like the canary who stops singing when the vacuum cleaner’s suddenly turned off. I find that sad.
When I started this I said that for northerners Canada often seems not to exist. Can you begin to see what I mean? So much that has come to symbolize Canada has yet to seep this far. The highrises, the ugly concrete freeways, the stench and noise that are the side effects of urban Canada. We don’t have these. And we don’t have the advantages they can bring.
I know that I and people like me can’t hope to keep this north country underpopulated and quiet forever. I know full well we can’t drive in stakes and nail NO TRESPASSING signs on the Alaska Highway or on the Mackenzie Highway. That would be negative and that would be self-defeating. Instead, I very much want Canadians — northerners and southerners — to be aware of what exists up here. I want them to stop and remember that a third of their country lies north of the 60th parallel. Canadians have had over a century to experiment in nation-building. Now they can apply what they’ve learned. They can build a northern nation, avoiding the pitfalls they stumbled on in the south. They’re very lucky. Not many people on Planet Earth have a chance to try again.
For now? For now, I’m not complaining. In the entire Yukon Territory there are only two stoplights. On good days they don’t work. ■
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