Coastscape

People and the land in a state of grace

RODERICK HAIG-BROWN June 1 1973

Coastscape

People and the land in a state of grace

RODERICK HAIG-BROWN June 1 1973

Coastscape

People and the land in a state of grace

RODERICK HAIG-BROWN

All people are regionalists, even in this day of swift though seldom easy travel. Even an island as small as Britain has its northerners, southerners and midlanders, to say nothing of Welsh, Highland Scot and Lowland Scot, Londoner, Mancunian, Glaswegian. France has Bretons and Basques, Parisians, Alsatians and all the others. Hereditary groupings, inbred through countless generations? I think not. I know sophisticated New Yorkers who travel frequently to Europe but even today consider the great plains an infinite wilderness and the Rocky Mountains insurmountable. I know eastern Canadians who think the country stops at the head of the lakes, and westerners who would rather never go east. I am not sure, though, that this makes either party less Canadian.

My own first experience of Canada was a summer afternoon in Vancouver, followed by an overnight steamship journey through the Inside Passage to a logging camp well beyond the reach of roads or public railroads. Since I had come from the state of Washington, the Pacific Coast woods were not new to me; there was less Douglas fir, more hemlock and true fir, much more salai, no vine maple. My companions were preponderantly Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian, Italian, even as they had been in Washington, but with this difference: most were first generation immigrants, even as I was, and many of the engineers

and donkey punchers in those days of steam were Scottish or English.

In spite of the general similarities, the country seemed to me wilder, fresher, more remote and more exciting. It was river and forest and mountain on the grand scale, full of secret possibilities — hidden lakes and swamps, narrow valleys with steep-walled canyons, abundant wildlife except in the deep forest, immense salmon runs, trout in every lake and stream. But what was known about it all seemed little more than rumors and old wives’ tales.

I had my preconceptions of Canada and Canadians. It is difficult to remember now precisely what they were, compounded of childhood impressions in England during World War I, the writings of Charles Roberts and Ernest Thompson Seton, the talk of one’s elders and occasional accounts of school friends who were Canadian or had Canadian connections. A Canadian was a tall, lean man, quiet-spoken, keen-eyed, totally dependable in any crisis or tough undertaking. He was hardy and adaptable, having acquired many of the characteristics of the woods Indians, the plains Indians and the Arctic explorers. Canada was a land of forests and wheatfields and tundra. Canadian woods were the woods of Northern Ontario; Canadian loggers were river drivers; Canadian fishermen were dorymen on the Grand Banks. Canadian woodsmen were the best in the world.

These ideas called for some revision, though not quite along the lines one might have expected. All Canadians were not tall, nor were they calm and laconic; many were small and voluble, most were hard, driving workers through the day and loved to talk in the bunkhouses at night; to be catty — quick and sure on one’s feet — was a virtue far beyond mere strength. To use brains and ingenuity in the moving of bulk and weight — huge logs, whole trees, donkey engines on sleds, crippled locomotives — was the supreme virtue. Few of my companions were woodsmen, though those few were highly skilled. Most considered anything beyond the edge of the logging slash dangerous and mysterious territory; neither bird nor mammal interested them much; few were hunters, even fewer fishermen. But they were kindly and tolerant beyond most men I had known, quickly making a place for the stranger and his peculiarities, always sure and compassionate friends in time of need.

We worked long hours and long weeks, so my Canada took time to expand, but it did so. There was the talk of other Canadians, city newspapers in the mail, three or four days old, occasional copies of Maclean’s and the Family Herald and Star Weekly which gave a firm body to the country, earthy and inland.

Ottawa was dim /

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COASTSCAPE from page 37 at a distance, Toronto was stolid and remote, Montreal gleaming and equally remote. But Mari timers we knew at firsthand because a few of them worked with us, and there were loggers who still went back to harvest prairie wheat.

Gradually I came to know commercial fishermen, trappers, game wardens, coal miners and stump ranchers, and the Canadian image of calm self-dependence renewed itself. The rivers became familiar places and the Pacific Coast forest was more Canadian than the Ontario woods; the bounty of the sea came to salmon purse seiners, gill-netters and trailers and to the splendid white halibut long-liners that passed northward with their nested dories. Even Vancouver, with Woodward’s welcoming beacon flashing over the harbor and the bright lights of Granville and Hastings promising urban adventure, had become familiar. All together, it was less than Canada, no doubt; but it was the Canada I knew, and I loved it.

A year of exile in London,' not altogether of my own choosing, taught me homesickness. It was by no means a dull time as I scratched for an uncertain living with newspapers and magazines, scrambled through love affairs, published my first book and wrote a good part of the second one. But the rivers were tame and tiny, there were no mountains, not even a rock bluff; there were no mauve and purple twilights with trolling lines cutting the tide-rippled water. The people were set in their ways and their places, unchanging, and I, though native-born, was a stranger.

I think I knew then that I was Canadian, that I might go elsewhere but my heart would settle for nowhere else. There was nothing I wanted to write of

except Canada, the part of Canada I knew, and nothing that I wanted to know so much more of. I could not bear not to be a part of it. Most of all, I wanted to be with people who knew what I was talking about and to feel at one with all those I met and dealt with — something I had experienced in Canada and nowhere else.

Exile’s dreams, perhaps, to some extent now recollected in tranquillity. But I have checked them against my cursive diary of the time and found that all the elation was fully realized. I returned instantly to my old concerns, freshwater and salt, canoes and gasboats, woods and wildlife, logs and hand tools. Within a month I had twice almost drowned myself and life was real again, instead of London.

In one sense it was a different Canada I had returned to. The Depression had started, jobs were hard to get and paid only enough to cover board and work clothes. So we made our own jobs, jacking logs off the beaches, setting out traps (fur prices held up well), trolling for salmon, even guiding occasional fishermen and hunters. Upcoast people were fortunate; the Depression hit hard, but the bounty of the land was still with them and they were in large degree equipped to live off the land.

Canada expanded again for me when I moved south to central Vancouver Island and found myself among children of the first settlers, even some of the first settlers themselves. This is living history and should be a part of the consciousness of every Canadian. One felt a share in it, because the business of the first settlers was, and still is, unfinished business. There still is a country to be molded, guided, shaped, brought nearer

to the heart’s desire. And through the early settlers the way into the country’s still earlier history, the time of explorers, travelers, testers and searchers, was opened and brought to life.

A single man is footloose and uncommitted. Marriage is a form of commitment, the birth of children a still firmer one. My wife, Ann, was American bom, American raised and educated, of a Canadian mother. Her adoption of Canada progressed at least as rapidly as my own and we knew from the start that we wanted our children to be Canadians. At that time, marriages between Canadians and Americans were probably more usual than they are today, especially in the Maritimes and the Pacific Northwest. The border was of minor importance and nearly everyone had close relatives and relationships on both sides. Identity was not lessened by this; it was in itself a special identity, another aspect of Canadianism. If we have grown away from it, I believe it is loss rather than gain.

Perhaps a Canadian’s Canada should not be a continuously expanding idea; surely at some stage one accepts, adopts, believes firmly and forever. In a sense this may be so. But even physically, apart from its splendid diversity of people, Canada is a huge country, and for many of us, native-born as well as immigrants, World War II was our first full appreciation of this immensity and diversity. We were whisked from one end of the country to the other at the whim of remote authorities. We were mixed and mingled and understood each other — units from the Coast, the Maritimes, Ontario, Quebec and the Prairies brigaded together, full brothers, Canadians, no longer provincials. It was a proud feeling, not simply because we wore the country’s uniform but because we understood each other, trusted each other and felt we were together. We were mixed and shuffled and changed in training camps and transit camps and reinforcement units, proclaiming our provincial loyalties at every stage but knowing full well how little they meant in the larger loyalty.

My own experience was enriched and deepened by several months’ service on loan to the RCMP. In the course of this I spent time in every province, in the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. I was aboard the St. Roch shortly before she sailed for the Northwest Passage, visited the Caughnawaga Indian people in the south and the Read Island Eskimos in the north, caught Atlantic salmon in Nova Scotia and Arctic grayling by Bloody Falls on the Coppermine. I studied the workings of prairie detachments and the people they served, learned the charm of Fredericton, watched the Bay of Fundy tides, understood that the ways of the Maritimes are not always

the ways of British Columbia, even though both are Canadian. Through the RCMP, its background and performance, I learned one more side of the history of Canada and glimpsed something of the sources of power in Ottawa.

This, then, became my Canada at firsthand. I have reinforced it and filled in further details in the past 25 years and no doubt shall continue to do so.

Canada has left me free to make a life and has provided most of the material for that life. There have been dissensions and disappointments in it and strivings that achieved little or nothing, but these belong in every life. I have been challenged constantly to learn and try to understand a new, unwritten land and I have shared that land with many people also trying to find their way in it, trying to shape it into meaning for themselves and for others. It was a great endeavor; it still goes on and it will go on.

In Canada my children are free to make their lives as they would be nowhere else — less free perhaps than I was, because there are now more people; more free because there are now more ways. They will not become wealthy and I would not wish that for them any more than I have wished it for myself. But they have learned, in the public schools and public universities of the country, how to serve. They have found opportunities for service and they will constantly make or find others. If the world in which they serve is not a secure one, I question that this is new, though the degree of insecurity may be, In Canada they are as well placed as anywhere to work for greater security for themselves and for all mankind.

I love the yield of the Canadian land and water, forest and grain and grass and cattle, fish and wild creatures. It is on this and from this that the people of Canada, directly or indirectly, have their being. It is in searching out the land, learning to live in it, learning to use it, that we have been shaped and tempered. We have made many mistakes, some willful, some founded in ignorance, and we have not always shaped ourselves well. But I love the best of our intentions, hopes and desires, and I love the soul of Canada, the striving for unity and justice that exists in some degree in all of us. I believe in the essential quality of the people of Canada, as I believe in myself and my children; and I wish us all a land fit to live in so long as we are prepared to keep it and build it that way for the sake of others as well as ourselves.

If this sounds like a hymn of love to the land that has made our lives and the people we have lived among, it is exactly that, from my wife Ann and myself — two immigrants of 40 or 50 years ago who expected much, found much and know there is still much more to find. ■