SPECIAL REPORT

A SENSE OF COUNTRY

July 3 1989
SPECIAL REPORT

A SENSE OF COUNTRY

July 3 1989

A SENSE OF COUNTRY

SPECIAL REPORT

ESSAY

Maclean’s Foreign Editor Bob Levin, who is originally from. Philadelphia, Pa., moved to Toronto in October, 1985. He travelled from coast to coast for this article on an American’s impressions of Canada. His report:

I have not seen any moose. No wolves, no musk-oxen, no cuddly little seals. Even from the cockpit of a small propeller plane, 1,500 feet over the maze-like Mackenzie Delta in the icebound Arctic, I spotted not a single furry polar bear lumbering out of hibernation to complete the picture. “Foxes have been coming right up into the town,” advised Ronald Knoller, who runs a general store in the tiny Arctic settlement of Aklavik. “You see them running around, and they’ve tangled with dog teams.” But not when I was there. I did see an impressive elk in Banff National Park, trotting casually by the roadside, but for me Canada’s wildlife has consisted mostly of squawking seagulls and mischievous raccoons in my Toronto neighborhood. And maybe that is just as well: it has forced an American, newly arrived, to avoid at least the “moose” half of the hated moose-and-Mounties cliché. While trying to discover the real Canada—especially the one beyond Toronto, which, as non-Torontonians are quick to argue, is not really Canada—I have had to focus on its people.

And this is what I have found: most Canadians—regardless of what the media say—are not sitting around worrying about what a Canadian is. Nor do they conform to that other set of stereotypes, the ones Canadians are supposed to hold about themselves. Where are all those

AN AMERICAN NOW IN CANADA FINDS FIERCE PRIDE AND A TRUE PASSION FOR THE LAND

pallid, self-doubting people when so many of the ones I have met are colorful, confident and passionately in love with their land?

All right, I admit it, a few tepid types may reside in Toronto. They certainly show up for baseball games, clapping with the politeness of long-ago tennis fans and mouthing that most insipid of fight songs, “Okay, okay, Blue Jays.” In fact, to my mind there is something curiously passionless about the city as a whole, an urban success story boasting everything but a soul. It is kinder, gentler, cleaner and certainly safer than any U.S. city its size—my visiting American friends invariably find it wonderful and cannot understand its New York-like, loveto-hate-it place in the Canadian national consciousness. My own feelings fall closer to the American view. But “I love Toronto” could never be the city’s slogan—no, I like Toronto sums it up perfectly.

It has been on trips outside the city, to the more far-flung sectors of this most resolutely

regional of nations, that I have found Canada at its more extreme, independent, quirky—even romantic, as un-Canadian a word as that is supposed to be. One snow-swept morning in Pouch Cove, a fishing-village-tumed-suburb north of St. John’s, Nfld., I visited William Noseworthy in his white clapboard house high on Noseworthy’s Hill. Blue-eyed and ruddycheeked, Nose worthy sat in the kitchen by a wood stove, distractedly smoking a cigarette. He was 66 and had just retired the year before after four decades of fishing, but he still stared out the window at the North Atlantic. “There’s something that draws you to it,” he said in the rich accent of “the Rock.”

His son, 31-year-old Barry, sipping a Laba tt’s beer, recalled that once, when he was 13, his father caught him whistling in a boat. “He was going to throw me overboard,” said Barry. “It’s just bad luck.” William explained: “You don’t whistle on the water. You wouldn’t dare. You wouldn’t launch your boat on Friday either. They’re just superstitions, maybe. But several years ago, someone launched a big fishing trawler on a Friday, and she was lost on a Friday, and all the crew members, too.” A minute later, William pulled out a shiny red accordion and played a jig, tapping his foot, but his eyes never left the water.

Newfoundland was also a place to sample Canadian regionalism at its most craggy and entrenched. The province’s inshore fishermen claim that their very way of life is endangered by declining cod catches, which they blame on offshore trawling, often by foreigners. And they blame Ottawa for not looking out for their interests—even 40 years after joining Confed-

eration, the old refrain still comes quickly to some residents’ lips: “A Newfoundlander first, a Canadian second.” But in a Pouch Cove twine store, where four die-hard fishermen repaired their cod traps while country music drawled from a tape player, Frank Noseworthy, a slim, mustachioed cousin of Barry, said that he rejected the Newfoundlanders-first sentiment—and would far rather be Canadian than American. “In the States,” he said, “them

that’s got it, gets more; them that don’t, gets less. The Canadian government’s more generous toward people that don’t have.” Noseworthy has met many American tourists and he has not been impressed. “They come in their flashy cars,” he said, “putting on airs. They seem to think they’re a superior race, but I haven’t seen one that’s superior to me yet.” He poked at the broken twine with his knife. He had one more thing to say, a point of both resentment and pride. “Some of the worst

are Newfoundlanders who moved to the States. They forget their roots. They’re sort of looking down their noses, instead of appreciating that there are people here trying to maintain their heritage.”

Canada has hardly cornered the market on regionalism. A divided United States fought an horrific civil war in the 1860s, and as a northerner who has lived down South, I can attest to

the fact that, to some southerners, the old resentments have not gone with the wind. But the United States also has the Melting Pot, the American Dream, the Pledge of Allegiance, the Hollywood-enhanced legends of Davy Crockett and even Ronald Reagan—an ever-enlarging collection of nationalistic symbols, myths and heroes that bind the country together. Like glue, they may sometimes seem sticky and malodorous, but they do the job.

On the other hand, Canadians, writes Toron-

to author June Callwood, “have never created a myth that would unify them into nationhood”—except for Quebec francophones. The question of Quebec nationalism, heating up again over Premier Robert Bourassa’s decision last December to prohibit English on outdoor commercial signs, has arisen wherever I have gone in Canada. Much of the sentiment seems to reflect that of Pouch Cove’s William Noseworthy, who said, “They’re always looking for special treatment—if they want to get out of Canada, let ’em get out.”

In Montreal, there is no missing the passion behind the sign law. But in the office of Daniel Latouche, a political scientist and a former adviser to René Lévesque, the separatist Quebec premier who died in 1987,1 asked whether Quebecers had a special affinity for Americans—whether, as Callwood implies, the two share a romantic vision of themselves. “There is a belief here,” he replied, “that there are only two kinds of North Americans—Americans and Quebecers. Two kinds of people who tried to build what North America is all about. One is much bigger, the other one lost. But both have a dream.”

That is the kind of language an American can understand. But it may be a sign of American myopia that few people south of the international border, I suspect, would immediately include Quebecers in such a continent-wide club of dreams. In fact, the Quebec issue is quite literally foreign to Americans. The closest U.S. equivalent is the current push by Spanish-speakers in some states for official bilingualism; English-speakers have reacted heatedly, and 17 states have now declared English to be their official language. But the Hispanics are mostly recent immigrants, not a cofounding people like Quebec francophones— and no American can seriously imagine Florida trying to secede from the union.

In a 37th-floor Montreal office looking out toward the frozen St. Lawrence, I asked commercial lawyer Ronald Montcalm whether there was anything binding the English and French together, any mutual myths or heroes. Montcalm thought about it and smiled. “Our

'MOST CANADIANS ARE NOT WORRYING ABOUT WHAT A CANADIAN IS’

hockey teams—boy, that’s Canada’s game.” I would recall that answer on a plane the next day, when the Edmonton Oilers were on board and a steady stream of young autograph-seekers were interrupting their card game, and centre Craig MacTavish talked about how “we’re not the biggest country population-wise but we produce the best hockey players.” But in Montcalm’s office, hockey seemed more than just a sport—it was the great unifier. “At one point,” the lawyer said, “Quebec ultranationalists were talking about having our own team. The argument against that is, ‘Hey, you’ve got to have Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky on the same team or the Russians will beat us.’ ”

No Canadian region has left a more indelible impression on me than the North. The frontier is among the most enduring of American symbols, and while the American West was settled long ago, the Canadian North still lies empty and alluring—a distant dreamscape reachable by Boeing 737. Last March, I visited Inuvik, N.W.T., a government-built town on the east side of the Mackenzie Delta. It is a place of furtrimmed parkas and brightly colored houses, with a church shaped like an igloo and a bar called The Zoo.

But, more traditionally, it also has an RCMP detachment, a CBC office and a Hudson’s Bay Co. store. “Twelve hundred miles from anywhere,” said Mayor John Hill, “and here’s small-town Canada—at least the way the bureaucrats decided it would be.” Which raises the question: how can a country whose government knows exactly what a Canadian town should look like—and can create one from scratch 200 km north of the Arctic Circle— have such a famously chronic identity crisis?

For me, Inuvik aroused feelings of ambivalence as sharp as its -30°C cold. On the one hand, there is the exhilarating remoteness of the place and the upbeat attitudes of many immigrants to the area—prominent business people who came originally from Scotland, Germany, Greece, even Lebanon. “You’ve got to have the balls to come and get started in business here,” noted Hill, a British transplant. “But once you have, the competitiveness isn’t as intense as it would be in, say, Edmonton.”

On the other hand, there is a local native population with profound problems. I am suspicious of snap impressions. I also know that Americans bear their own shame over their appalling treatment of natives, and I know that, for all the historic wrongs native people have suffered in Canada, they have now organized to elect legislators, fight for land claims and combat social ills. But in the North, the despairing side of the picture is as obvious as stray beer cans. Inuvik’s RCMP Cpl. John de Jong explained that at least 80 per cent of local crimes are alcohol-

related. “These are not what you’d call social drinkers,” said de Jong. “They drink until the liquor is gone and then they search for more. Then we end up having to look after them one way or the other.”

The natives’ problems go beyond alcohol— the suicide rate among the Inuit of the Northwest Territories is four times the national average. “There’s a lot of grief,” confirmed Diane Nelson,

a program co-ordinator with the Canadian Mental Health Association office in Inuvik. “This country is hard to live in, just trying to survive. People get drunk and wander off and die of hypothermia. They fall through the ice. There’s a lot of tragedy in their lives.” One Métis woman told me that her brother and sister had both died alcohol-related deaths—and that her father and several relatives had sexually abused her from the age of 6 to 17. “It puts you through hell,” she said. However, she has managed to get on with her life—she is married and a college graduate.

The social workers and educators in town talked of culture shock—of native people thrust abruptly into the space age and paying the price

emotionally; of old amusements like berry-picking and sliding and new ones like watching everpresent videos. In some places the old ways are still evident. One day I travelled the ice road, a slick, winter-only passage on the frozen Mackenzie, more than four feet thick, lined with scrubby bush and spindly black spruce—and speed-limit signs. The Richardson Mountains gleamed in the distance. The buzz of snowmobiles announced the onset of a town. Aklavik, a largely native settlement on the delta’s west side, is a motley collection of wooden houses, prone to erosion and flooding. Inuvik was designed to replace it, but many residents simply refused to leave. “This was supposed to be a ghost town,” recalled Dorothy McLeod, a 59-year-old Métis. “But it’s such a good place for hunting and trapping and fishing—you can almost live off the land. In Inuvik, you live out of the stores.”

Maybe I was just seizing on hopeful signs; or maybe, like many whites, I tend to romanticize natives and their intense ties to the land. But later, when I thought of Aklavik, I thought also of the Newfoundland fishermen, clinging to a dwindling life in the boats, and of the French nationalists, fighting to preserve their language and culture—and I thought how they would have understood Dorothy McLeod, trying to hold on to the old ways.

Canadians share a collective guilt over the plight of the natives, but they take an often-justified pride in their treatment of other minorities. To an American, Canada’s vaunted multiculturalism is, like Quebec nationalism, simply a foreign concept. It is also an attractive one, although the gap between theory and practice is sometimes hard to ignore.

What is happening in Vancouver is a case in point. The trouble in Canada’s Pacific paradise surrounds home-buyers from Hong Kong, which will become of mainland China in 1997. The y newcomers have cash on hand and have helped to drive up housing prices be'S yond the range of many Vancouverites, 2 touching off a frenzied real estate boom. ° Never mind that the overwhelming majority of new British Columbians come not from Hong Kong but from such foreign locales as Alberta and Ontario—public perception has focused on the Asians. “There’s always an element of anxiety about change,” said Mayor Gordon Campbell. “But with a certain percentage there’s clearly an element of racism as well.”

Vancouver is undergoing a kind of tolerance test—one that, to some residents, lies at the very core of what it means to be Canadian. “I think Canada is developing some uniqueness,” said Saintfield Wong, program co-ordinator of the Chinese Cultural Centre in Vancouver’s Chinatown. “We’re more receptive to new ideas— Canada’s culture is multiculturalism.” In his gift shop down the street, however, Harry Con

expressed some doubts. The national president of Chinese Freemasons in Canada, Con maintained that multiculturalism keeps Canadians too tied to their old countries. “Everybody sends money home,” he said. “Italians. Chinese. Whatever happens over there, people volunteer to help. But if the government here wants to raise taxes, we give them hell. So who loves Canada?” Dwight Chan plainly does. Chan emigrated from Hong Kong in 1974 and now, at 39, he is a successful Vancouver real estate broker who understands the city’s attractions to foreigners—the ocean and mountains, the mild climate, the patently laid-back lifestyle.

I asked him, though, whether there is anything to tie newcomers to the country at large; even if current fears dissipate and the latest immigrants end up feeling as welcome as he does, is there, in American terms, such a thing as the Canadian Dream? After a moment’s reflection, Chan said,

“The Canadian Dream is probably a healthy, stable and secure way of living, rather than the American Dream of big money. It’s to have time to enjoy your life, to play, to travel. This country allows me to do all that, and that feels good to me.”

Canada continues to defy easy definition. I have crossed and recrossed time zones, sampled caribou and cod’s tongue and gathered a startling variety of mental images that, like the country

itself, may not add up to a coherent whole but certainly make a pretty picture. Canada is not the United States—that much is abundantly clear, even if Arctic-dwellers can watch Detroit news on television—and its ingrained regionalism is one of its most telling traits. Travel anywhere outside of Ontario, it seems, and over and over people say, as Vancouver’s Mayor Campbell did: “We’re very proud to be Canadians. But there is a strong sense that the central government does not recognize we’re here.” Americans say nasty things about Washington, too, but when their government

launches an invasion of Grenada, they swiftly rally around.

In general, Canadians also strike me as more outward-looking than Americans. They did not, after all, grow up being told that they already live in the greatest country on earth. “Americans are like TV evangelists,” maintained Roger Bill, an Indiana native who is now the Newfoundland-based Atlantic field producer for CBC Radio’s Sunday Morning show. “They really believe theirs is the best way and everyone else should follow. Canadians aren’t nearly so arrogant.” They do, however, take a palpable pride in place, with a decided prejudice toward the small, friendly and relaxed. “I wouldn’t live in the States, or in Toronto or Montreal,” said Richard Harvey, a high-school principal from Upper Gullies, Nfld. “You couldn’t pay me enough.” I have heard Inuvik people say the same about Yellowknife—and Aklavik people say the same about Inuvik.

I only wish Canadians would say it louder, that they would boast—with the kind of cheerful cockiness I saw at the Calgary Olympics last year—of a nation vast, varied, scenic, wealthy, safe, fair-minded and infinitely appealing. I wish they would make an epic movie or two about it, one with endless prairies and dazzling mountains and heroic characters hell-bent on, say, building a railroad clear to the Pacific. I wish they would brag about the CBC and national health insurance, too, and I wish, if they really want to dispel the moose-and-Mounties image, that they would stop making that ubiquitous line of postcards picturing furry seals and polar bears and saying simply, “Canada.” But then, I am afraid I sound very much like an American. Only a Canadian can really sum it all up. As Montreal lawyer Montcalm put it, “Funny country, eh?” □