Prominent Canadians contemplate their sense of home
On the eve of the country’s 128th birthday, Victor Dwyer, a Maclean’s editor, asked several prominent Canadians what their country means to them—and where it is they find their own private Canada.
Novelist ( The Wars, Not Wanted on the Voyage, The Piano Man’s Daughter); lives near Cannington, Ont., north of Toronto.
It is one of the great privileges to go out and sit in a field, or as I do, go down and sit in the woods, down below the hill at the back of our farm. There is a great wonder in the things that give cover to the land, to the bones of the land, settling there on top of it. Everything creaking, everything moving, everything speaking. And then in your mind to start filtering in the movement of the native population, the first inhabitants of this land, who used the flow of the land in that magical way: seeing the land as something you walk through, that „ you paddle through, finding youro way through the spirit of the land| scape. Where were the animals?
Where were we going to find them? i Where was the best fishing? How s do you get from there to there? "
And then, we came. I’m not going to apologize for the European influx. Sure, there were a hell of a lot of things done that were appalling. But much of what the Europeans brought with them was wonderful because their way of coming was to search through the land for what it had to offer, for a way of survival. My sense of this place and this country has to do with that dream: the true dreaming of people who really did want something—for themselves, but equally for each other.
And my present sorrow is in watching that element disappear from this society, this countiy, from coast to coast, eroded, eroded, eroded. And the erosion is always justified because politically it is the necessary thing to do—to stop caring for each other. And this is the danger we are in. That is not saying, “The sky is falling.” That is saying, “We’re forgetting the sky is there, that it is all-embracing.” We do live
somewhere where we all depend on one another. And more and more of us are being cut out of that interdependent picture, which was the original dream of so many wonderful people.
It has been a slow erosion, step by step by step: divorcing ourselves from the sky, from those other creatures who live here with us. And then, from other people who live here with us, for whatever reason— color, race—or the unfortunate fact that they live in a world, Newfoundland, where they depend on the fishery. And we don’t fish, so we don’t care. And you can go straight down the line and you end up with people who are going to end up living on the moon. And the moon is going to be here. And the moon is dead. And only those who are leading us in that direction will survive, because they will have the wherewithal to insulate themselves in a livable space. The rest are slowly being excluded. That’s the truth. You cannot possibly deny it.
Author (Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast) and broadcaster; lives in Vancouver.
For me, Canada is the window seat on an Air Canada flight between Winnipeg and Vancouver. These have always been the two compass points of my existence. But that has been especially so over the past year, when I worked in Winnipeg hosting CBC Radio’s RSVP, the classical music show. What I like most of all is being able to look down from that window on the landscape that made me—a Prairie landscape. I’m persuaded there is a Prairie awareness—something having to do with sky and land—that somehow forms the way I think.
I find it fascinating to cruise at 37,000 feet and look down at the evidence of art on the Prairies, which is how I look at that crazy jigsaw of fields. It seems that somehow the Prairie farmers have got it so perfectly right. Who taught the farmers to do this? Do they know how good it looks? What is the dictate that gives shape to that field? I’m always curious whether some consideration is actually given to it being done for the amusement of the people in the air. I spent so much time in that plane in recent months that my sense of country has become, largely, a picture of art at a distance far below.
Because I grew up in Winnipeg, it has been a lot like going home this past year. When I was growing up, downtown was an exciting place: you went there for school supplies, for clothes, for fancy outings. My mother would go downtown on a Saturday to have lunch with my grandmother. Now, it is a place people drive through. But having said that, the city has a lot to recommend it. The neighborhoods are beautiful. You can buy a house for a song and fill it with every geegaw you would like. People who stay in Winnipeg are very devoted to Winnipeg.
But the place that most resonates for me when I say “home” is Vancouver. In Winnipeg, you can have a great private life, squirrelled away in your house, but Vancouver encourages a great public life, because there is so much inducement to be out. The weather is lovely, the scenery is beautiful—it has a real effect on how people choose to live their lives. Vancouver has a little hint of the Mediterranean, with a kind of comforting Canadian froideur. It feels like a different Canada here. It feels like a place apart. And Vancouver is in the midst of shaping itself, whereas Winnipeg has the sense of a place that was shaped a long time ago—a place where a lot of the edges have been rubbed pretty smooth.
DAVID ADAMS RICHARDS
Novelist (Nights Below Station Street, winner of the 1988 Governor General’s Award); lives in Saint John, N.B.
o me, Canada is a kind of understated sense of justice and fair play—and a sense of place. This was brought home to me when I was in Spain with my wife and son, working on my next novel, during the turbot war. We were there when the whole thing blew up, and I felt very strongly Canadian, very proud that Canada had finally done something. Of course, this is an East Coast issue and perhaps the people of Central Canada don’t know how much it had bothered us over the last 20 years: the disappearance of the fish stocks on the
Grand Banks and along the Atlantic seaboard. I was very happy Canada did something. And certainly, for the first time in a long time, Canada was a distinct entity—a distinct place—to Europeans.
That is part of the problem with Canada: you cannot be a distinctive place if you are not a distinctive place to others. If you’re just a blob of pink on a map, then it is hard to define yourself. But it’s a gamble. You need moral courage to assert yourself as a country. And I think we did that with the fisheries for the first time in our lives. In the larger community, we have been too polite. I think that is partly a result of seeing the smacking kind of shallowness
Editor of Voir, an alternative weekly newspaper; !§*£ lives in Montreal.
When I go to other countries and they ask me what I am, I don’t say: “I am a Canadian.” I don’t say: “I am a Quebecer.” I say: “I am from Montreal.” I am attached to the city. When I go to Toronto, I feel at home there too because it’s a big city. My country is, in a sense, a virtual country. When I talk to someone on the Internet in Australia about the film director Quentin Tarantino, and he likes Tarantino as much as I do, I feel much closer to him than to the guy in Val D’Or who doesn’t have the same cultural points of reference.
Still, I do love Canada. George Bush talked about making a kinder, gentler nation. This is the kinder, gentler nation in North America. We are less selfcentred than Americans. Canadians are not sure who they are—they have an identity problem—and I think this is good, because being less confident, we are much more open.
Canada is distinct in other ways, too. Many years ago, Quebecers said: “Canada is nothing without Quebec. Without us, they have no culture.”
Now, nobody thinks that. Canadian culture is very strong.
Canadians don’t need Quebec to be distinct from the rest of North America. And the young artists of Montreal and Quebec are discovering Toronto, Vancouver.
We can make films there, we can translate our books and sell them there. François Girard made ThirtyTwo Short Films About Glenn Gould; Robert Lepage is working in Ottawa and Toronto; Denys Arcand shot Love and Human Remains in English. It’s a new sort of relation to our Canada: we don’t see Canadians as enemies any more. Maybe we have more things in common than we thought.
that comes from parading oneself too much: Americans like to parade themselves, and Canadians smell a rat in that kind of thing.
But just as Canadians have been generally ignored by the outside world for their contribution to that world, Maritimers have been ignored by Canada. That has shaped our feelings towards Canada. Also, there have been a lot of times when people have spoken on television and on the radio about what Canada’s consciousness is, and they have generally been talking about an urban consciousness. They weren’t talking about my consciousness. I come from a very rural sensibility. For instance, I know very well why people want guns, and it’s not to go rob banks. I can understand why people are upset about the gun legislation, because, while there is crime down here, we think of guns as things to use when we’re hunting, or around the farm when we’re trying to get rid of predators. It’s part of the tradition of being a rural Canadian.
JANE ASH POITRAS
Artist of Cree and Chipewyan background; lives in Edmonton.
I live in the centre of the universe, halfway between the north and south, and sort of halfway between the east and west. That is why I have stayed in Edmonton. I finally realized, after going through all the cities, that Edmonton is like the Canadian utopia. The streets are so clean you can eat off them. Even the less fortunate people have a tremendous pride in their city. I can go downtown and talk to anybody. The drunks in the International Hotel know me. I can sit and have a good conversation with them. And I can go and have lunch with the mayor and receive some award and have a great conversation with her, and no one says: “You’re too rich, you’re too famous, you’re too that, you’re too this.” The “snobberidity” is not there.
I travel in both Canada and the United States, and when I hang out in the States the thing I miss most—the reason I couldn’t move there—is that I get homesick for the CBC. You get to love Morningside, you get to love Vicki Gabereau, Michael Enright—especially when I’m home in my studio working all day. And the people are different in Canada. White, yellow, black, red—wherever you go in Canada, the kids do not see color. There is a lot more comradeship here than in the States. Here, the Indians still have a pretty rough time, but it’s getting better. When you go over to Vancouver, Victoria, up and down the Queen Charlotte Islands, the native heritage is there, the artists are there, the potlatches are there, the ocean is there, and everywhere you look there is an Indian. You get out to the airport and you see Bill Reid’s art. You go to the university and you see such rich celebrations, where everyone seems to be an authority on northwest coast tribes. They know the Tlingit from the Shuswap, the Kwakiutl from the Tsimshians from the Haida.
I was invited recently to Prince Edward Island to talk about Indianness. I have always known that you go to the east for rebirth, for blessing, but that was the first time I learned how red the earth was there. So I told them: “This is sacred land.” The west of Canada—where the mountains are, where the northwest coast Indians are—is the breast of mother earth. But I told them that they live in the heart of the vagina where it is always warm, where the soil is red. To me, all of Eastern Canada is a sacred site—a site where people should not come to see Anne of Green Gables, but to touch the earth and pray for it.
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