An award-winning writer discovers new meaning in the word “Canada”
Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw (Knopf Canada, $32.95) is Will Ferguson’s first book in three years. In it the bestselling author, who won the 2002 Stephen Leacock prize, returns to his first great love: travel writing. The following excerpt reveals the moment that triggered the book’s central insight.
IT’S RARE to remember exactly where you were when an idea first occurred to you—or at least, it’s rare for me. I usually wander through life gathering notions and hunches the way trouser pockets gather bits of lint; I’m not really sure how they got there, but there they are.
In this case, though, I can recall vividly where I was when it dawned on me that Canada is not a country but a collection of outposts: it was while I drove through a night of heavy rain, into the realm of a legendary republic, a sleeping child and drowsy spouse beside me. We’d been on the road for hours, heading into northern New Brunswick. The wipers sloshed back and forth, barely able to keep the windshield clear. Bucketthrows of water washed across our view. At midnight, we crossed over into disputed territory. The Republic of Madawaska. A selfproclaimed independent state, Madawaska is wedged among the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick and the American state of Maine. The population is francophone, but the people are neither Québécois nor Acadian; they are les Brayons. And Madawaska is their heartland: La République.
Northrop Frye once noted that what set Canada apart in the western hemisphere was our lack of a distinguishable frontier— a line that advanced purposefully across the map like an isobar separating one world from another, with “settlement” on one side and “vanishing wilderness” on the other. In this, our experiences diverged drastically from those of the United States. The American “frontier thesis”—a heavily symbolic narrative of progress and order steamrolling over the chaos of an untamed land—may be historically suspect, but its psychological impact on American society cannot be underestimated.
By contrast, Canadian historians advanced
for the country a “metropolitan thesis,” in which the flow of ideas and goods fanned outward from various urban centres to small scattered pockets of civilization—to outposts, in effect. In a country as sparsely populated and as vast as Canada, it could hardly have been otherwise, and this reality of who we are is played out before our eyes from the window of any given airplane on any given night. Beyond the luminous glow of the major cities, the metropolis melts away into a yawning darkness, an empty space punctuated only by intermittent clusters of light.
The effect upon the Canadian psyche, Frye argued, was something he famously called the garrison mentality: a sense of
CANADA is the
outports and the outposts, side streets and stubborn enclaves, city cul-de-sacs and far-flung towns
dread and loneliness bred into us from cowering behind palisaded walls, far from “home” in a land as savage as it was indifferent. The existential heebie-jeebies, as it were. (Our obsessive love of enclosed shopping malls can be seen as a continuation of this nervous tic, though personally I blame the weather.)
But garrison is too dark a word. “Garrison” suggests gnawing despair and impending attack. I prefer the term “outpost,” because it includes a wider range of possibilities. Outposts are not only geographic; they can be linguistic, political, cultural—even philosophical. I think of French Quebec and English Victoria, but also of the populist ideals embodied in Calgary’s unflagging optimism; I think of the exiled Acadians
and the outcast Loyalists, of Lirst Nations, once shattered, now regrouping. I think of failed utopias and deluded colonization schemes. Of fortunes lost and fortunes found. I think of mythical kingdoms and gold mountains. I think of the descendants of the Underground Railroad and the Gaelic communities of Cape Breton. Small triumphs of survival. Mini-epics of continuity.
Outposts can become enclaves—the Anglos in Montreal or the Lebanese in Charlottetown—and enclaves can disappear. Such was the case of Vancouver’s black community in Hogan’s Alley, or of Halifax’s Africville. Or of the “13 lost tribes” of Canada’s Jewish Colonization Association that once existed in farming communes and hamlets between Winnipeg and the Rockies.
Communities overlap. Orbits collide. And outposts spin off from one another, as well. In Lort McMurray, Alta., a tar sands town dedicated to wringing wealth from the earth, I once found myself in the colony of a colony, an outpost of an outpost. You’ve heard of Chinatown and Little Italy. In the tar sands of Alberta, a freewheeling “Newfoundland West” has taken hold. Lort McMurray’s lively (read: rowdy) expat community (read: highly paid rig workers) has transformed this remote, landlocked city into one of the largest Newfoundland communities outside of St. John’s. Newfoundland, in turn, can be considered an outpost of Ireland... and on it goes.
Do you remember that old Roger Whittaker song Canada Is, with its rah-rah boosterism and its shopping list of locales? (Canada is the Rocky Mountains, Canada is Prince Edward Island.... ) Well, that song now seems profound. Canada is a sum of its regions. It is the outports and the outposts, the side streets and the stubborn enclaves, the city cul-de-sacs and the far-flung towns.
The presence of outposts is evident in other immigrant nations, but in Canada it has become something of a defining trait. Whereas the United States had a frontier, and countries like Argentina and France
and England have the Capital, one clear, overpowering, political, social and cultural centre—Buenos Aires, Paris and London being the national death stars of their respective countries—Canada has no single central city. It has scattered metropolises of various sizes, regional outposts with their own spheres of influence. There is no London, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Canada’s increasingly eclectic, multicultural urban reality only highlights this patchwork character of ours. Far from being homogenizing agents, Canadian cities have increasingly come to resemble jigsaw puzzles jumbled together from dozens of different boxes, in which the various disparate pieces still somehow, sort of, almost fit.
I have spent the last three years travelling
among the outposts and enclaves of Canada. I began at the Pacific and then slowly worked my way east, from the southern end of Vancouver Island to the northern tip of Newfoundland. When the explorer Samuel Hearne first attempted to walk from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean in 1769, he knew he was about to enter what was for him terra incognita, an unknown country. In preparation for his trek, Hearne sketched out the shoreline on a deerskin parchment, but he left the interior blank; he would fill things in as he went, adding details as he travelled. In a similar fashion, I wanted to fill in the broad outline of my own map of Canada, to add small but telling details to the cartography I carry inside me. True, unlike Hearne, I didn’t have to eat raw caribou
hearts to survive, or cross arctic ice in a raging blizzard, but I was almost mugged by a gang of moose, and I did get a really bad blister on one toe. (When writing travel memoirs, it is always important to stress the hardships one has faced.)
I would have kept travelling if I could have, but that wasn’t possible. At some point you need to stop moving and try to put what you’ve seen into perspective. It is my own incomplete, site-specific version of “Canada Is.” Canada is a Moose Jaw morning, Canada is a Sleeping Giant, Canada is the St. John’s harbour.
Canada is... fifi
Abridged and reprinted by permission of Knopf Canada. Copyright 2004 by Will Ferguson.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.