Last tango in Prince George
Ethics drawn from the landscape; the emotional geography of British Columbia
Even looking at an ordinary school-atlas rendition of Canada, one might suspect British Columbia of being different, discrete, peculiar. In relief it doesn’t look blessed, and one imagines it tough going in any direction. The land is heaved up, and one heave is hardly separated from another. The place is essentially mountainous all the way from its eastern border to the Pacific Ocean whether you travel across it from Fort Macleod, Banff or Jasper, or look (because that’s about all you can do) west from Fort St. John or Fort Nelson in the north. Other than that, the lakes tell the tale of the landscape. Kootenay, Arrow, Okanagan, Quesnel, Francois, Stuart, Babine, Takla, they dominate the long narrow valleys between the ranges. Mapped, the coastline looks as if God had begun to recycle it and had stopped. Its islands—Vancouver, the Queen Charlottes and hundreds smaller—are pieces ripped off and set adrift.
Half the people of BC live in this tough going. They are a particular people who are distanced spiritually and geographically from those living in the southwest of the province, and they are still dominated by a landscape that only very recently has begun to succumb and yield to that peculiar logic of our mentors who will cheerfully rape it with technology when sense and sensitivity will not generate profits fast enough. The landscape is partly to blame: it challenges with its abundance and its promise in a way the Prairies don’t and Upper and Lower Canada haven’t for a century or more. And the people of BC who have lived up-country or on the islands and around the inlets have sometimes had quick alternating motives: selfpreservation, escape, cupidity, love and, finally, wanting to have this rich cake and eat it too. Still, for me, these people have been their own kind of heroes living on the final western frontier — people who have had, as heroes should, a passion for anonymity and a talent for being ignored. While all the glory goes to those who live in the lower left-hand corner of the map.
That small rectangle of BC is perhaps the most superb anomaly in the province. As you drive down from the interior it simply appears, an extended lea that begins west of the town of Hope and runs between mountains on the north and the American border on the south until it finally becomes the delta of the Fraser River — cancerously attacked by another anomaly called Greater Vancouver. Into that rectangle is crowded the other half of the people of BC, who live by selling the charms and the resources of its hinterland. This lower val-
ley of the Fraser is protected by sea and mountains from Canada’s chief and best-known export: its weather. It is enclosed. The old Persian word pairidaeza, from which we get our word paradise, meant an enclosed area, a royal enclosure in fact. Hebrew Scripture uses the word to mean the walled-in Garden of Eden. My encyclopedia tells me we should understand paradise to mean “a place of rest and refreshment in which the righteous dead enjoy the glorious presence of God.”
When I was young and being brought up in Prince George (population: 2,000 then) I don’t think I ever heard Vancouver called anything but The Coast. We did not refuse to say Vancouver’s name out of awe — as the orthodox still will not speak the name of the Deity — but because, I think, we felt there was something epicene about the place. Androgynous. Hermaphroditic. There are some who believe this still. Connections between the lower mainland (which should somehow be thought of as including our capital city Victoria) and the rest of the province have always been grotesque. From a mining or pulp town, for instance, the lines of communication go first to New York or London or Tokyo and then to Greater Vancouver. For lumber towns it is best to go through Chicago or even Cedar Rapids, Iowa, or other unlikely places in order to make a solid and meaningful connection that will actually attract the attention of a middle mogul at The Coast. Coal? For action call Kaiser in San Francisco. To ask what happened to the Columbia River, don’t phone Victoria, get hold of Washington, DC, although they may not answer because they’re still laughing too hard. The Coast doesn’t communicate northward very much, but it talks a lot; it also doesn’t invest its money in the rest of BC. It would be hard to raise postage to bring out a ton of diamonds unless word came from Boise or Essen or even Lagos that someone from the real world was sending a bank draft via Switzerland. Then, as the action goes by, we get what pieces we can of it — and do very nicely, thank you, so don’t knock it. Meanwhile, up-country, the people who have to live with this Byzantine setup may be forgiven if they try to bypass the whole thing.
Not long ago I was at a party, and in the context of a casual conversation “growing up in the north” was mentioned and a man from midwest America asked me what, for pity’s sake, people did in my hometown the best part of a couple of generations (It is odd how people from Madison, Wisconsin, or
Tyler, Texas, and Greater Vancouver
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and Toronto too, assume that simply living within the purview of the U.S.A. allows them, by some media-magic, to be piped in to the glories of Washington, New York and Las Vegas, but to have to live in Kuala Lumpur or Kamloops would force them unbearably out of touch with Uncle Sam’s erogenous zones.) The answer, which the noise of the party drowned out, was that my people defied.
There is much in this. British Columbians, by and large, did not go to the hinterlands because they were driven by hunger or politics. They were not Montreal Jews, Toronto Italians or Winnipeg Ukrainians. Nor were they those Englishmen who climbed things because they were there. They came for any number of reasons, but it took retired prospector-trapper Jack Baker, who arrived in 1901, to give me the word. He taught me, in the summer of 1945, how to dig a ditch (it is a very real skill) and told me that when he was 14he hit his Ohio farmer father over the head with a shovel and quite quickly made his way west and north out of the U.S.A. “I defied him,” he said, “and it changed my whole way of going.” His eyes were blue delight as he remembered.
In Prince George and 50 up-country villages like it, people defied latitude, the land, the climate, the odds, all the bloody works of Ottawa and Victoria and the s.o.b.s who controlled the railway, the mills, the resources and the mortgages. To get out of bed on some
mornings was either defiance or cowardice, depending on the weather or your partner. If faith elsewhere moved mountains, there it was defiance that came first to move you to faith. Sometimes this kind of defiance is the innocent side of despair, and sometimes the mischievous aspect of violence. Like art it can wear many faces. Maybe the town actually did have at one time a hotel with a bar 100 yards long and six waiters on roller skates. The importance of that belief cannot be overestimated. It became a defiant and necessary fact. That bar was true, the truth itself which said man could exert some control (not absolute dominion) in that place by putting there in its midst 100 yards of something that anywhere else five yards of it would serve as well. At first this raising of a myth is a kind of divinely inspired mischief, but finally it impinges as an act, an event, and is remembered and emulated.
Contemporary civil disobedience carries with it none of this kind of accolade for any but the leaders, the stars, who more often than not now turn mob lobbying into commercial propositions for themselves. The defiance I’m remembering here is three parts revenge and one part wordlessly saying. It is done by oneself and with one’s humanity at stake. It is not possible to join up to defy. When we defy we become more than ourselves for a moment, or even a lifetime. Dr. Spock reported that he felt
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LAST TANGO continued embarrassed when he sat down for the first time with protesters in New York. And well he might. In one incomprehensible act he gave up his real person, his real clout, his personal ability to defy, for a lifetime license to bubble with discontent. The purpose of remaining free and self-sufficient is to be able to defy at a moment’s notice. For instance:
In the summer of 1941, just before I was 18, I went to Prince Rupert and signed on a federal government ship as third cook, 15 hours a day, seven days a week, $63 a month. The ship was about 2,700 tons, was charting submarine channels and was captained by a chunky round little man who was 77 years old and had, for 45 years, been sailing these waters. He was generally lovable and loved by his crew; but there was a Commander on board from Ottawa who was in charge of the scientific surveys the government was making. He thought he captained the ship. In fact, because it was wartime some boo-boo in Bytown had given him a piece of paper to say so. The ship, which looked like a yacht on the outside and the bottom of a coal mine below (a floating Ottawa metaphor), would have been on the beach in a minute without old J.J., the captain, in charge, but the Commander was hard to reason with.
Finally a compromise was reached. J.J. would take sailing orders during the eight hours the surveys were being made, but for the rest of the time he would be sole captain and, as such, he ordered the Ottawa type to remain below from sunset to sunrise. Confined to quarters. At first the Commander ignored the order. J.J. didn’t really mind that. He had a slingshot and a can of rocks on the bridge and when the hydrographer appeared after hours he would be met by slingshot fire. J.J. was perhaps the best slingshot man around in a time when slingshots were prevalent, and he could dance his adversary back across the deck and through his cabin door as if he were being attacked by a six-shooter.
This picture of BC-Ottawa (read: Canada) relations has become, for me, a prime image that contains both a golden age and the seeds of its decay. The centrepiece is the Commander, cool, middle-aged, dignified, gazetted a gentleman by parliament, knowledgeable in the pursuit of his petty power, doing a sort of Stanfield slope across the deck to lean on the railing for a few well-earned puffs on his pipe in the hope of lightening the burden of having to be here away from the centre of things, and being interrupted — interrupted — by a living hyperbole, a person both mischievous and melodramatic, a man
driven mad (the Commander is sure) by a misunderstanding. Here is someone fighting a rearguard action and spilling real blood in a war that exists only on his own private retina. Good heavens, what does he want? But for the slingshot man it is all real. The ship is real, the necessity of his command is real and this place is real. Tethered here among beautiful fjords, in a bay full of fish, comfortably hemmed in all around with mountains shot through with minerals and topped by growing timber, if he cried and danced and said and acted it out all day every day of his life he might, just might, get it across to the Commander from Ottawa that You Can’t Take This Away From Me.
But it was taken away, of course. Real command is gone and so are most of the defiers. And we seem happy. There is a unity in lack, where once there was a lack of unity. We’re grown up now in BC. Clear-eyed. Civilized. Cooperative. The commanders don’t bother to leave the centre of things anymore; they stay home in other places all over the real world and give sailing orders via Telex and conference calls, and buy us off with promises that they now do really love us for our mind and not just our body.
We keep saying we’re very much in charge, but the transvestite act from old captain J.J. to lovely young thing took place modestly and servilely behind the scenes, while one of the great political acts of our history entertained out front. It was a sad, comic interlude during which some great harms were done, and BC became a puzzle to the rest of the country. For 20 years W. A. C. Bennett led our government and stayed in power largely by buying us with our own money, but also because in him, and especially his close cohort, Phil Gaglardi, there were shreds of the old workable defiance, samples of ancient and profitable mischiefs that echoed from the interior of our remembered history. No people is innocent of the perpetrations of its government. Wacky Bennett was a pretty good slingshot man himself, but suddenly, almost inexplicably, he stopped shooting, and last year the changeover took place without immediate pain. The Socreds are gone for good and no one’s crying. Echoes don’t linger, just fade. The new regime is not an echo, it’s only the pale penumbra of the dark fist of socialism, and most people are pretty relieved about that.
I suppose that it is out of how a people sees and manages experience that its way of addressing the world (its style, if style be the place) comes. I doubt that it is any more than mere structure that follows function, and that content (which with humans is essentially a repetitive component) doesn’t always influence basically that totality which is “us” seen by others from whatever sufficient van-
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LAST TANGO continued tage point in time or space. For instance, to be a logger or a miner or a fisherman or a Greater Vancouverite is to have one’s life structured by the calling, but not given total form. And, on the content side, to grow up, learn the mating dance, perform it, assume mortgages and other responsibilities do not make us collectively who we are nearly so intensely as the way we see and manage together the experience of our own and others’ demands upon us and assumptions about us.
One assumption about BC, for instance, is that it is the most American of Canada’s provinces. Actually it is the most Canadian. It lives in a gilt-edged and guilt-ridden Now by selling itself raw to the world, maintaining a wretchedly abject internationalism which keeps it culturally anonymous and is no cover-up for the sad truth that it has been for a long time a prop-set tart and a jet-set dreamer. The Others from Elsewhere find it easy to make unusual demands on the pretty whore on the West Coast and our acquiescences to them make further assumptions not only logical but profitable. Beyond this, there is a kind of double indemnity at work. The easy demands and assumptions made about us by Japan, Europe and America are also made by central Canada’s commercial, cultural and governmental establishment. Add to this the fact that the people who live in the lower left-hand corner of BC’s map are demanding and assuming in much the same way about the people who live outside of Greater Vancouver. The surface of BC’s problem of identity is chaos, its underlying realities are more often than not hidden, and the solutions people come up with are often only politics or demagoguery.
In the light of our Canadianness, BC’s “ethnic” experience has come simply to this: we have been driven from our natural stance by the imposition of other people’s aims and expectations upon us, and by our own responses to those pressures. And it must be understood that the natural stance of both the land and the people is separateness, a stance those of us who have been adults here for a generation or more — and particularly those of us from outside Greater Vancouver — know to be the basic material from which our emotional fabric is woven.
It would have been better for us if we had not joined Confederation. Canada has always been an Atlantic country whose ties with Europe and the BostonNew York-Washington axis are extreme and compelling. It is obvious that Canada’s level of awareness of the Pacific would be better controlled and more profitable to BC if the Rockies ended her jurisdiction. Our natural stance, unrecognized 100 years ago, was to remain
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LAST TANGO continued a Crown Colony until such time as our strength would let us go it alone. No other part of Canada has had quite this potential. We command a coast, a view of the Orient, and we are many times wealthier (and have a greater variety of wealths) than most countries of comparable size. It is a real force, this hindsight, and it has further helped shape the picture we and others have of us. Others depend on our confusion, our divided energies, our failure to have acted. Our picture of ourselves is a debilitated one: we look for mentors and outside help because we have not always trusted our
abilities, and we have been conned out of much of our heritage. For ourselves, no matter how loyal we may say we are to Crown and Canada and to Canada’s own need to stay independent, there remains the visceral knowledge that we not only should have gone it alone but that we could have. The reasons we didn’t, the hard swings of history that directed Confederation, the enervating effects of Greater Vancouver constantly on the nod, the lack of final unity and strength, these things have not stopped us from feeling the emotional tugs of our natural separateness.
But separation is, perhaps correctly, a wan and distant hope. We are joined, while remaining only peculiar and sometimes not quite understandable to those who don’t live here. The ghost of old J.J. still stands on his bridge, somehow now a fading syndrome instead of real history, but otherwise the province should be familiar to Canadians in every way. We do not absorb immigrants, we are overrun by them. We have no real culture, nor do we honestly want one, to stem the tide of outside influences. And beyond that, Canadians may consider this when they’re contemplating BC. (Here there should be a grim finger pointing into the future.) When your stake in your own profitable economy and your control over the way you think become so small that they cease to shape your motivations or your objectives, the result is that you also stop thinking of your erstwhile home territory as having any challenge or identity for you. Nor do you feel that it will benefit from your own sense of locality or the energy of your personal attention. You begin to see it as something that simply bestows privilege. A bountiful breast you hardly have to suck. And then consciousness, politics, life itself are devoted purely to negotiating with it for more, more, more.
If this be true, then what we have to look forward to is living in a variation of a Middle Eastern Sheikhdom. The distance even now between us and one of the Sheikhs of Araby creaming off his comfort-giving resource royalties is short indeed. There, camels sit around and try to invent committees. And the last spontaneous outburst of culture was a new shape to the begging bowl of a child named I-ben-Had who squats at this very moment in the shade of a wall in which there is a locked door protecting the local representative of the Standard Oil Company.
Where are the defiers?
But why excoriate the paradisiacal myth? It is stronger, perhaps, than anything else in BC. The reams of sentimental monstrosities about the place all have irritating grains of truth in them. Yet no pearl of mature responsibility forms. No matter where you go you will see that we are beautiful, kept and spoiled rotten: it’s easy to think that if all our useful and moral human energy were stored in one battery you couldn’t light your way to nearby oblivion. But hold a swim in English Bay on New Year’s Day, a bathtub derby or a scrimmage by the Grand Prix of football teams, the BC Lions, and watch out.
There are people who believe that all 366,255 square miles of us is a set for an American movie to be shot by, say, John Ford. Actually, it is a set for a Canadian movie, and it’s probably already been shot by, say, us. ■