A quest for the heart, soul and meaning of Canada



A quest for the heart, soul and meaning of Canada



A quest for the heart, soul and meaning of Canada


What if? The phrase hangs over the landscape, ominous, expectant. What if Quebecers really did decide to do it this time around—to vote for separation in such vocal numbers that shaken politicians found themselves obliged to sit down and negotiate the terms of exit?

What if? Only two short years after a bitter and costly constitutional referendum, that unspoken subtext of the decades-old unity debate is back, grittier and more threatening than before. Ever since Bloc Québécois Leader Lucien Bouchard set out on his crosscountry travels announcing that the crack-up of Confederation was at hand, he has shifted the rhetorical axis.

Suddenly, the unthinkable is being debated as astonishingly possible. Overnight, from boardrooms to suburban backyards, the worst-case scenario is being contemplated with dread and occasionally with resignation, but always with a striking new sense of urgency.

Where once the debate turned on why Quebec wanted a divorce, now it turns on how—the nuts and bolts of the division of property. While economists calculate Quebec’s share of the national debt, Bloc MP Suzanne Tremblay has warned Ottawa’s National Gallery, only partly in jest, that the time has come to start thinking about divvying up the canvases. To some analysts, that newfound pragmatism is a symptom of the inevitability of the split. To others, it is merely a sign that the country, exhausted from four years of Constitution fever, is trying out a new, more precise language in the ongoing family feud.

But the question has provoked more questions: If Quebec separated, what would happen to the rest of the map? Would the other provinces and territories totter on in some newly hyphenated federation with a hole where Quebec once was? Or would they be sucked southward by the irresistible force field of the United States, stitched into a continental patchwork of regions that Washington writer Joel Garreau once dubbed in a book of the same name, The Nine Nations of North America?

Paradoxically, the prospect of Canada’s breakup has given the country a perverse kind of trendiness—it is mentioned in the same breath as Bosnia and Rwanda in a new academic growth industry

based on charting the global apocalypse. Expatriate Canadian author Michael Ignatieff included Quebec when he predicted in Blood and Belonging that “the key narrative of the new world order is the disintegration of nation states into ethnic civil war.” But just as the pundits’ predictions for a post-Cold War era of peace and global harmony have so swiftly been proved wrong, so too may the prophecies of a coming age of tribal anarchy turn out to be similarly misguided.

After 17 years of living outside of Canada, I came back to the place I had so long called home only to find its obituary already being penned. It had taken leaving the country to find it—an unsuspected longing for the landscape, for the wilderness of rocks and trees. Now, my assignment was to search out other voices, a counterpoint to the doomsday mantra. It was a quest to find the emotional connective tissue of the Canadian body politic, the ties that might still bind the nation s fractious regions into what French writer André Malraux once characterized as the essential trait of nationhood: “a community of dreams.”

Pink and purple lupines run riot along the dusty road that leads to Port Royal on Nova Scotia’s northwest coast, where the ancient tug of war began. In 1605, Samuel de Champlain sailed into a protected notch of the Bay of Fundy hunting beaver pelts for the hats that were then all the rage in Paris. Others had arrived at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River earlier. But Champlain and his crew mates did what none had done before: they hammered together barracks, where they survived their first winter. “The Habitation,” the guidebooks call their rude wooden shelter: the birthplace of Canada. Prophetically, over the next century, that first Canadian settlement would bounce between French and British hands like some hapless pawn in the chess match of empires.

Now, on a knife-clear summer Saturday, with the bay lapping placidly at the wild grass, Joel Doucet stands outside the stockade in period pantaloons and wooden shoes—sabots—chronicling a history that is compellingly personal. In 1639, his ancestor, Germain Doucet, first arrived as the guardian to the French governor’s children. And three centuries later, long after the brutal British expulsion of the



Acadians from Nova Scotia, dramatized in the poem Evangeline, his father wrote the first textbook on Acadian oral history. Despite that fierce francophone heritage, Doucet was aghast when Lucien Bouchard recently came to call on Acadians in New Brunswick, vowing that an independent Quebec would safeguard their minority language rights. “French is my first language,” he says, “but that guy is a complete stranger to me.”

But what then can unite the quarrelling cultures? Why does Doucet, who has never been out of the Maritimes, feel such a kinship with the rest of Canada that he rooted for the Vancouver Canucks during the Stanley Cup? He pauses only a second before coming up with a certain commentator in a starched collar opining about the national sport. Although Doucet confesses that he watches hockey in French, after the first period he tunes in to Coach’s Corner with Don Cherry. “I don’t know why I like that guy,” he says shaking his head. “He’s a cross between Howard Cosell and Rush Limbaugh. But he’s never boring.”

The irrepressible Don Cherry as a prime ingredient in the national glue? The notion is a novel one considering that the former coach has branded “this cultural mosaic stuff... a bunch of baloney. I’m Scottish ... but I don’t demand that anybody put up with my kilt.” Still, Doucet may be on to something. Last month, McMaster University professor Philip White announced that his sociology team is dissecting Cherry’s appeal. And on the shelves of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum shop, among the art books and native artifacts, sits a tiny volume, Quotations from Chairman Cherry. Inside, the coach offers his thoughts on Quebec: “French-Canadian players have a special pride in their culture. Playing in the Montreal Forum is to them what a pilgrimage to Mecca is to a Muslim.”

Inside the Port Royal Habitation, Ken West puts in a request for a guide who speaks French. He grew up in London, “a hardened southwestern Ontarian,” as he puts it. But he went off to Harvard Medical School to become a nephrologist. He could have stayed in the United States and made his fortune doing kidney transplants, but he knew he didn’t want to practise medicine under that Darwinian system. “This is a more empathetic society,” he says, “a more caring society.” When West returned, it was to the Victoria General in Halifax. But there he realized that, with his halting high-school French, he could barely make himself understood to francophone physicians. Then, he met Victoria Goldring, and discovered she was taking lessons in the country’s other official language. Their romance has been forged over classes at the Alliance Française. “If Quebec wasn’t part of Canada,” he notes, “I’d be learning to speak Spanish. I’d be looking southward to the rest of the continent.”

Outside Province House in the heart of Halifax, where Joseph Howe once raged against the perils of Confederation, his bronzed likeness sits atop a marble plinth that hails him as a journalist, statesman and, most notably, “prophet.” Five minutes away, on a manicured cul-de-sac that slopes down to the sea, another man frequently acclaimed for his foresight waves off speculation about the country’s imminent crack-up. When Eric Kierans first arrived in the Maritimes in 1936 as a travelling salesman for Ogilvie Flour, he found his boss on the veranda of Moncton’s Brunswick Hotel, chewing over the notion of Maritime union. “And they’re still arguing about it today,” he chuckles. “It’ll never happen. Who’s going to give up their fiefdoms?”

Half a century after that first trip to the Maritimes, at the end of his 60-year career as an outspoken economist and cabinet minister in both the Quebec and federal governments, Kierans and his sculptor wife, Terry, came back to Halifax. They built a bungalow on an improbable promontory that drops abruptly into the choppy navy waters of what locals call the Northwest Arm. Beyond, to the south, lies the heaving Atlantic. But Kierans has never been preoccupied with the north-south romance. In a life spent at the heart of virtually every national debate, he has kept his gaze fixed on the east-west axis around which the country was so uneasily cobbled.

For decades, he has argued that the country’s only salvation lies in decentralization, a massive rewrite of the national plot line into a looser, more regional federalism. If Ottawa had given away some of its powers earlier, he says, “I don’t think we would be having this same debate. The nature of this country is that it’s going to exist as a decentralized country or it’s not going to exist at all.” Kierans first saw that drift when he signed up for Jean Lesage’s Quiet Revolution, discovering as Quebec’s revenue minister the extent to which Ottawa was hogging not only the political, but also the spending, power that could ease provincial woes. He once even suggested shifting the capital to Winnipeg. “Ottawa,” he growls, “never sees beyond its own borders.”

Perhaps no other figure of his generation so easily straddles the complexities of the unity debate. But Kierans’ empathy for Quebecers’ nationalist dreams is all the more unexpected from a man who grew up on the anglophone side of novelist Hugh MacLennan’s Two Solitudes—a scrappy Irish working-class neighborhood in Montreal. He never spoke a word of French until he was a teenage hockey player, and only really mastered it years later in Lesage’s government. Now, despite Kierans’ belief that the country still needs redrafting, he dismisses the possibility that Quebecers will stomp out Confederation’s door. “How do you take a province out of a country like Canada when half the people in Quebec don’t want you to?” he demands.

Still, Kierans believes that the latest round of national navel-gazing may not be entirely a waste. ‘This debate is going to promote selfknowledge,” he says. Finally, faced with the prospect of the country’s demise, Canadians may be forced to define themselves. But he shudders at the prospect that the process might hatch breast-beating U.S.-style myths. “Why do we need them?” he demands. ‘We have values. It’s a feeling for Canada. All of a sudden when you realize you’ve got something to lose—that’s when you pull up your socks.”

On the stretch of the Trans-Cánada Highway zigzagging northwest towards the New Brunswick border, the sign beckoning motorists to detour 10 minutes west to Springhill puts on an upbeat face: “You should see us now!” At the bottom of Main Street, a grassy square boasts a memento of the town’s lost livelihood: a gigantic lump of coal. Now, the defunct mines are only open to give tourists a vicarious glimpse of that grim subterranean life that cost so many Springhill lives. And the town has pinned its hopes on an imposing brick building that honors the doctor’s daughter who grew up in a genteel frame house, where her mother still lives: the Anne Murray Centre.

Inside, its exhibits feature Murray’s worn teddy bear and baseball glove, her baby sweaters and first prom dress and even the white satin pantsuit she wore when she was made a Companion of the Order of Canada. Another wall glitters with the 20 Junos, four Grammys and three Country Music Awards she has won since



Snowbird first went gold 24 years ago. At 49, she drops in occasionally when she comes home to her beach compound at nearby Pugwash, now a genuine Canadian icon. In a country that has offered slim pickings in mythology, music has drifted across the airwaves and spun an invisible thread. Canadians may never have come up with an equivalent of the thumping patriotism of America the Beautiful But unintentionally, haphazardly, singers have knit a collective aural memory. A new generation is replacing Murray on the charts: the collective Celtic lilt of the Rankin Family from Cape Breton and the aerial soprano of Rita McNeil. As the rental car slips over the New Brunswick border, Roch Voisine, the Acadian heartthrob who grew up not far away in St. Basile, wafts over the speakers. And as the road climbs north the CBC is broadcasting a mini-concert by Buffy Sainte-Marie. Brought up in Maine before she discovered her roots lay on the Piapot reserve outside Regina, she is singing of that reclaimed Saskatchewan homeland in The Piney Woods Hills. But she might as well be serenading the seamless stands of New Brunswick spruce blurring beyond the car windows.

At the last gasp of the New Brunswick coast in Caraquet, jutting out into the Baie des Chaleurs, Jean-Marie Nadeau, a mellowed onetime Acadian separatist, seizes on those voices to define his freshly minted enthusiasm for the country’s multicultural tapestry. “For me, it’s not a problem to have a multiple identity,” he says. “Leonard Cohen, k.d. lang, Bryan Adams—it all belongs to us Acadians, like I would hope Edith Butler and Roch Voisine belong to westerners.”

Every August 15, Caraquet’s 50,000 francophones let loose on their pots and pans and car horns for an hour, sending up an earsplitting ruckus. It is, as Nadeau puts it, “so the English know we’re here.” As it turns out, that fact has not escaped the attention of some in New Brunswick where the national unity debate has taken its own incendiary form. Only days earlier, Greg Hargrove, a member of the legislature for the Confederation of Regions party—a provincial movement closely tied to the Reform partyhad charged that the Bloc Québécois was nurturing secret cells on the University of Moncton campus.

But Nadeau laughs off Hargrove’s plot theory. Two decades ago, he was one of the leading activists of the Acadian Party, which he admits was blatantly separatist. “We wanted to create an Acadian province,” he says. “We were the white aboriginals.” But the Acadian Party expired more than 10 years ago—killed by the province’s progressive language laws. And now, most of its former leaders, including Nadeau, are federalists of some stripe. “In the 1970s, we had to fight to get our rights,” he says. “But now, we have to relax. Cool off. The discussion right now is fragile.” In fact, should Quebec opt out of the country, Acadians fear their hard-won language protections could be threatened. And in the current constitutional cliffhanger, Nadeau sees a new role for them. We could be ambassadors in Quebec,” he says.

On the Quebec City boardwalk that snakes down the cliffs below the grassy Plains of Abraham, Stéphane Fiset struts in a purple satin waistcoat and plumed chapeau. His

grandmother, a professional curtain-maker, helped him whip up the costume—gold braid glinting from the seams, lace billowing from the collar and cuffs—as a freelance Samuel de Champlain. An anthropology graduate, Fiset couldn’t find a job. Now, trailed by his photographer friend Denis Gingras, who snaps Polaroids of him with tourists for souvenirs, he is saving his tips to fly to Vancouver for the rest of the summer—“to see what they’re saying about Quebec,” he says.

Fiset confesses he is “plutôt séparatiste—I prefer that we separate.” But ever since he heard British Columbia Premier Michael Harcourt warn that, in such a breach, his province and Quebec would become the worst of enemies, he realized “we don’t know anything about how they think. We don’t know each other at all.” Gingras, a Laval undergraduate, agrees. He recoils from the invective being hurled by politicians as “a form of propaganda. It’s not that way that we’re going to create a great national sentiment. We have to talk to each other more.”

The next day, in Montreal at the CKAC radio studios on Peel Street, Jean Lapierre, the host of a noon-hour news and phone-in show called Midi Lapierre, issues a formal invitation to do just that. ‘What message do you have for English Canada?” he asks his 20,000 listeners on 32 stations across Quebec. Within minutes, the buttons on his phone console light up. ‘We need more bilingual anglophones,” Ginette calls to urge. We should tear up both our history books on Canada and remake them into one,” suggests Louis. And Jean from the Eastern Townships calls for “Lucien Bouchard as prime minister of Canada,” while Madame Milo from Laval poses a rival candidate for the job: Ralph Klein.

The responses are all over the map, and most deal in intangibles: attitudes, emotions, the currency of goodwill. But gradually a pattern begins to emerge: a pattern which might give heart to some politico-psychotherapist seeking to heal national wounds. In Brossard, a man who identifies himself only as Monsieur Breton, sums it up: We have one heart, one soul and one pride. All we want is to come in the front door and not the service entrance, like in the past.”

For Lapierre, once the youngest minister in Pierre Trudeau’s cabinet, who later quit the Liberal party to become Bouchard’s founding deputy in the Bloc Québécois, the callers confirm what pollsters also report: a majority of Quebecers would settle for a better deal: more of a feeling that they count. It’s one reason Lapierre went on the air last month cautioning Bouchard to tone down his rhetoric. “It’s much too early for Lucien Bouchard to go across this country announcing the apocalypse,” he said, “because people here haven’t made up their minds yet. Instead of trying to convince the rest of Canada what’s coming, why not try to convince Quebecers?” In fact, by the end of Midi Lapierre, one thing seems increasingly clear: even in Quebec, no matter how raw the emotions or intractable the details, there still glimmers a discernable yearning that things will work out, after all.

A block from The Forks, as Winnipeggers call them, where the muddy curves of the Red River meet the serpentine Assiniboine, the venerable Fort Garry Hotel has thrown open its salons to different sorts of dream weavers. One is a fund-raising reception for the man whose quiet veto, perhaps more than any other, scuttled the Meech Lake accords: Elijah Harper, the native leader who is now the federal MP for Churchill. In trendy blazers with bolo ties and ceremonial buckskin, his well-wishers spill into the hotel lobby. One reason for the crush is that 61 chiefs of Manitoba’s First Nations are in town, trying to wrestle down their own visions for the future. For two days, the native leaders have been groping through the thorny legal and emotional thickets on the way to dismantling the federal department of Indian

affairs and replacing it with true aboriginal selfgovernment. “The process is really about doing honor to the spirit and life of our treaties,” says Manitoba Grand Chief Phil Fontaine.

Fontaine says self-government “would change our sense of what the country is all about.” But he shrinks from any comparisons of this peaceful, even plodding, negotiation for nationhood to Quebec’s lurchings towards independence. ‘We’re not talking secession or independence,” he points out. ‘We’re talking about operating within the existing framework.”

After all, he smiles at the notion of native withdrawal from Canada, “how can we leave it? It’s ours!”

Across the lobby, in another reception, Michael Scott talks of belonging in the language of landscape. Three decades ago, he left Winnipeg for Montreal to make movies at the National Film Board. But when the NFB offered him a chance to set up a Manitoba regional office, he leaped at it. “I wanted a sense of place,” he says. Scott came back to the prairies to shoot Farley Mowat’s Lost in the Barrens, which won an Emmy, and stayed. With co-producer Derek Mazur, he went on to film other Canadian classics, Mowat’s The Curse of the Viking Grave and Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners. “The prairies are a fixation for most of us,” says Scott, “the sky and the horizon, the excitement of what’s beyond that. There’s a sense that anything is possible.”

At the Fort Garry, they are hosting a handful of Hollywood producers scouting Manitoba locations. And the next day, they plan to take the group out into the countryside, through the shimmering yellow fields of sunflowers and canola to the lake at Gimli, where flocks of pelicans nest. One U.S. producer notes approvingly that so far the vistas “would be good for Any City, U.S A” But Scott winces. He has no interest in providing geographical Muzak for the American dream factory. ‘We want to create Canadian myths,” he says.

At a table nearby, Louis Paquin shares a variation on those aspirations: he is drafting a line of merchandise for the North West Company based on the legends of the fur trade and the coureurs de bois. ‘We’re talking about packaging Canadian history,” he says. “The myths, the romance—that’s what’s been missing.” From coast to coast, he sees a common obsession with roughing it in the bush, from the voyageurs to Bay Street stockbrokers scrambling into their canoes each weekend in Muskoka. “Camping!” Paquin marvels. “If you go to Paris, they don’t even know what it is!”

In the summer of 1890, when Lucy Maud Montgomery took the CPR west from her Prince Edward Island home to Regina, she was crushed by her first look at the countryside: “the nearest approach to a desert of anything I have ever seen.” As the caboose carried her north of Saskatoon towards Duck Lake, the writer who would later provide generations of Canadian women with a carrot-topped heroine named Anne of Green Gables was only slightly cheered. “The prairies are jammed with flowers,” she wrote in her diaries, then confided, “I am desperately homesick!” For the thousands of European homesteaders who arrived on those expanses, lured only

by the promise of a safe haven, her sentiments were achingly familiar. Here, where red-winged blackbirds now swoop and dive-bomb the spring wheat crop, the tangled pieces of the country’s cultural mosaic converged.

To the north lay Prince Albert, Diefenbaker country—the symbol of prairie alienation. To the south, on the banks of the South Saskatchewan River, unroll the battlefields of Batoche, where Louis Riel, the Métis maverick who had founded Manitoba, finally met his end. There, on the grounds of the national park, Céline Fiolleau, a guide, fans the embers of history. Her parents moved to Duck Lake from Montreal, where some of her nine siblings later returned. Now, all the others are separatists. “We try not to discuss it,” she says, “because we used to get in absolutely terrible fights.” One of only a handful of the local francophones, known as Fransasquoi— many of whom cultivate pea crops, which are dried and sent to Quebec for soup—she is frightened by the current headlines predicting Quebec’s independence. Her alarm is spurring a special July 1 celebration at Batoche. “Other years, we’ve had cultural themes for Canada Day,” she says. “This year, we said, ‘Let’s go straight for patriotism.’ People care—they really care—and it’s getting scary.”

On the Macleod Trail that stretches south of Calgary to the U.S. border, a cloud the color of charcoal glowers over the wheatfields. Then suddenly a rainbow arcs defiantly across the grey, its hues as crisp as a paint-box sample and as surreal as the Rockies shimmering luminous to the West. As if some celestial set designer hadn’t labored enough on conjuring up that magic, Ian Tyson ambled into view, astride his cutting horse Pin Ears—a vision of the cowboy incarnate.

From the basement of his ranch house outside Longview, Tyson has laid down the tracks of she solo albums. In the process, he has become the voice of the west, both mythic and everyday real—so real that the Reform party asked him to play at its rallies and run as a candidate. He declined the latter invitation. “But I voted Reform in the last election,” he admits. “Enough said.” Still, his incarnation is all the more curious for a singer who was born in Victoria, the son of a British polo-playing remittance man. It was only when he turned 40 that Tyson decided to follow his boyhood fantasy to the foothills of the Rockies.

Ironically, his inspiration was a roustabout from St-Nazaire, Que., named Ernest Dufault—better known as Will James. Dufault had drifted west, spinning tall tales of his exploits, until, Tyson says, “he became what he was lying about. He became the real thing: an outlaw and cattle rustler.” In prison, James began to write and Tyson grew up on his romantic tales of the raw west. “He sold me this bill of goods,” he says. “All of us who read those books became the sons of Will James.”

Tyson insists his music is strictly regional: like that of his friend Gordon Lightfoot. “Gordie’s is Group of Seven,” he says. “It’s paddling his canoe out there with Tom Thomson. I’m those hills out there.” The culture that Tyson celebrates runs north and south. “My American friends and fellow cowboy artists, they don’t think I’m very different from them at all,” he says. “But I know that I am, I’m a Canadian. We wear the same clothes and drive the same trucks, but we’re different.” He rhymes off the idiosyncrasies that come to mind: the Canadian health-care system, the Trans-Canada Highway and the National Hockey League. “It’s Tim Hortons donuts and all the bozos you meet there who say, ‘Eh?’ I want to raise my kids in Canada—that’s the bottom line, just quality of life.”

As for what he calls “our great national parlor game that goes on and on,” Tyson feels like a lot of westerners do about Quebec. He doesn’t mind the French on his cereal box, “but I don’t want to get into some ethereal thing that goes back to the Plains of Abraham. It bums me



out.” Still, he doubts the country will break up, or get sucked up by the United States. “Everybody’s grandpa came from Ontario, or Nova Scotia,” he says. ‘The ties are too strong.”

The Queen of Cumberland eased out of the Schwartz Bay ferry docks outside Victoria and lumbered into a vista of undulating grays as the mist lifted over the Gulf Islands. Brisker vessels might be plying the north-south route of commerce to the fishing canneries that have all decamped to the Seattle coast. But as Tyson said, the ties that bind Canadians still run east and west—the ties of friendship and blood. I was on my way to Mayne Island and a reunion that was as geographically improbable as the country itself: a dozen friends coming together in some latter-day Big Chill weekend to celebrate assorted 50th birthdays. Politically, some of us had nothing in common, but all had family strewn across the provinces. We had been brought together years earlier by an island cottage on Ontario’s Canoe Lake. And now it was another landscape on another wooded island that had lured us to the Pacific—and what one dubbed Canoe Lake West.

Jocelyne Côté-O’Hara, a Franco-Ontarian who now lives in Ottawa, where she beats the drums for the new electronic highway, had just flown in from Moncton, which reminded her of her home town, North Bay. Both cities were struggling to hitch their stars to new technology to replace their dying mines and fishing banks and both were brimming with an enthusiastic new generation of francophones. Yolande Grisé, a Québécois who teaches at the University of Ottawa, blamed the national misunderstanding on short-term memoiy—an ignorance of shared history. “This is a country that is continuing to be born,” she says. “If you don’t know where you’ve been, you can’t understand where you are and why you’re fighting like hell.”

On a deserted fishing dock, Terry Glavin, a B.C. writer, climbed out of his skiff and extolled the richness of the country’s stubborn regionalism. He has spent his career writing about Fraser Valley fisherman and loggers. “Forestry, fishing—that’s what we’re all about out here,” he says. Now, both have become bitterly polarized battlegrounds, as he knows too well. After siding with aboriginal fishermen in the salmon wars, tensions with his gill-netter neighbors grew so thick that two years ago he moved his family off their houseboat to Mayne Island. But he worries that as the complexion of the province changes, many British Columbians are losing touch with those roots. “People have become illiterate about their own cultural heritage,” he says. “Regional identity has built the national identity.”

All the talk about B.C. separatism— withdrawal into the sort of borderless Pacific “Ecotopia” that California novelist Ernest Callenbach proposed 19 years ago—Glavin dismisses as so much political posturing. “We slag the Yankees all the time,” he scoffs. “Certainly, the people I know believe very strongly in this idea of Canada. It’s not cerebral, it’s visceral-more an affair of the heart.” As he points out, the interminable constitutional wrangle may well turn out to be not the nation’s weakness but its strength, a compelling national focus. “The one great thing that has bound us together is trying to make Quebec feel part of the family,” he says. “If we’re not doing that any more, if we don’t have this peculiar and embarrassing obsession, then what are we about?” □