Let us begin with a man, a gun and a bear.
“I’m still in bed when I hear my wife screaming,” the man is saying, sitting on the front porch of the swamp-side mansion that he built himself from castoff wood and stolen windows—panes through which hard-rock husbands and adaptable wives and ice-borne babies once watched the winter sky.
A vast, half-frozen acreage is spread out behind the storyteller, a chill still tinges the spring air, and there’s a stuffed weasel on the windowsill. We are just south of 60, half an hour of ruts and mud west of Uranium City, Sask., and a long way north of almost everyone else in this blessed, slow-thawing country.
“She’s screaming about her little dog and here comes the dog running into the house and the bear is right behind it,” the man continues. “She lets the dog in and then she bolts the door, but the bear is trying to push the door in. So I jump out of bed, grab my gun and I shoot that bear right through the door, buck naked.”
The assassin, a skinny, beardy 73-year-old who now, thank goodness, is dressed in jeans with a marijuana-leaf belt buckle, points to a hole in the portal. And shortly, over Red Rose tea and his homemade mulberry wine, Daniel Joseph Murphy is passing around an album of photographs and, sure enough, there is that late, pup-stalking beast, stone-cold dead on the veranda, gore pouring from its skull.
“That was nothing,” inserts Pat Murphy, Daniel’s bride since 1962. “I watched 16 wolves come trotting down the road one day. Shot one of them right through the kitchen window.”
“Canada,” sighs her Danny, turning toward the flag that is proudly flapping on the rough-hewn pole that he plunked at the rim of the marsh. “It’s my home, it’s where I live, and I do live free and anyone who tries to take it away from me will have a problem.”
In this way, baptized by well-armed patriotism and snapshots of murdered bruins, commence the diaries of a very fortunate traveller, an explorer meandering across the country by seaplane and sleeping car, ferry boat and foxtrot. The plan, if there is one, is to avoid the well-known urban centres. Uranium City—once a radioactive boom town of 5,000, now a heartbreaking hamlet of 50—is the first destination of dozens, all within a three-week span.
It is large, this birthday land, in its 150th melt. It is so large that no one has seen all of it, few have seen most of it, most have seen little of it and only the Inuit have seen Nunavut. Yet every one of us is clutched in the tentacles of its history, its geography and its many identities—war-winner, peacekeeper, breadbasket, tar-sander, beacon for so many millions. What did Canada represent to those who came here in the past century and a half? And what does it mean to its inhabitants today? There might be one American dream, but there are millions of dreams of Canada. On this trip, the traveller would try to collect as many as possible.
When Danny Murphy—who was born in Windsor, Ont., in 1943—moved north to work as a “timber man” in the Eldorado Mine, building the frames that reinforced the shafts, Uranium City was the largest town between Prince Albert, Sask., and Yellowknife. There were three hotels and a high school here, a hockey arena, a liquor store and a Chinese restaurant. In the early years, some of the fissile metal went into American bombs; later, it would fuel CANDU reactors in India, Romania, South Korea, China, Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick.
“We got married 55 years ago and I brought her up here in a DC-3 and it was so rough, the wings were flappin’,” Murphy brags. “We flew over the mines and we landed and Pat said, ‘You’re crazy to want to live here.’ But she didn’t want to get back on that plane, and we’re still here.”
A decade later came Dec. 3, 1981, when Eldorado, a Crown Corporation, announced without prior warning that the mines of Uranium City were being closed because the ore—at less than one per cent concentration—was too diluted to profitably extract. Within hours, the boom was over.
Some uranium. Some city.
It is unfair to label today’s Uranium City a true ghost town. Beside the Murphys, whose two grown daughters remain here, four or five dozen hardscrabblers and isolationists still proudly call this frigid Herculaneum home. CANDU High School has been abandoned and vandalized, and the RCMP has withdrawn, but there is a modern medical clinic, a tiny post office with the latest Star Trek stamps, a spotless bed and breakfast, an elected mayor, a general store, an auto-body shop, a gas station, CBC Radio by relay and an elementary school complete with a well-stocked library, fitness centre and nutritious breakfasts for every student that include fresh mango and starfruit. (The school has only four pupils this term. Two of them are the teacher’s kids.) Transwest Air flies a Beechcraft 1900 three times a week from Saskatoon via Prince Albert, a staging camp for miners and prospectors called Points North and the Denesuline community at Stony Rapids, Sask.
Like Detroit, scores of dwellings in Uranium sit torn up and abandoned; unlike Detroit, the streetlights still come on at dusk. Danny Murphy built his dream house from the scraps. “I didn’t take enough windows,” he complains.
There’s still uranium ore being scooped from the soil of Saskatchewan, some of it so hot that it will kill a man in hours, rather than in 80 or 90 years. At nearby Cigar Lake Mine, the purity can run as high as 60 per cent. But the world market for yellowcake collapsed after Fukushima, and there is no rebound in sight. In Uranium City, a third of a century after the shutdown, work crews are still being flown in to demolish the old mine buildings and spread the tailings over the pits. As for the fish in Beaverlodge Lake, it is now safe to eat one white sucker twice a month, and lake trout once a week.
Sometimes, the woodland caribou wander between Danny’s big house and some smaller cabins. He mows them down and then has to motor through the slop to find a neighbour to help him drag the carcasses home. Moose are as plentiful as black squirrels at Queen’s Park in Toronto. There are also eagles, ravens, loons, the aurora and the silence at night when the generator is turned off. And all the stars in his and Pat’s personal heaven.
“I think Canada’s gonna be all right,” Danny says. “She’s got thousands and thousands of acres of land. Canada’s got to say, ‘You develop it, it’s yours.’ That’s what kept me here. Because I got a piece of land.
“Money. Fur. Cash. That’s what drives everybody. I came up here to work and found a piece of land and they ain’t never getting rid of me.”
The cable ferry across the North Saskatchewan River at Wingard, above Saskatoon, carries only one car this trip. The commodore of this vessel is named Lindsay Speiser, a cheerful young woman who sometimes waits on the shore for hours for a vehicle to arrive, but what a splendid watchtower she has at which to idle. The channel here is half a mile wide, the current swift and strong. Yet she has seen bears swim it, she says, and moose, deer, wolves, elk.
On the west bank, a few miles inland toward the hamlet of Marcelin, is a Hutterite colony called Green Leaf, one of those close-knit, prosperous, collectivist Bible camps. The Hutterites, German Protestants who were persecuted for centuries in Europe for their pacifism and their belief in adult baptism, found refuge in Canada after four of their brethren were sent to Leavenworth penitentiary—two of them died there—for refusing to fight for the United States in the First World War. At Green Leaf, they maintain themselves by growing vegetables, packing hormone-free meats, and dressing hunters’ game and fowl come autumn.
If Uranium was a city of sudden—then vanished—opportunity, Green Leaf is a village of perennial prayer, shared effort and bounty, and an all-pervading fear of Hell.
A father and son come out to speak cordially with visitors, though they are anxious to answer the women’s call to their communal lunch. One is an elder named Darius, designated, by a random draw of lots, to serve as Second Minister in the strict hierarchy of the tribe. The other, his son, asks that his name not be written.
“I wouldn’t want to live in any other country,” exclaims the son.
“We came here from the States,” says Darius. “We were poor and struggled all our way to make a living.”
“Just because of religion,” the younger man explains. “But here, we can live the way we want to live with nobody bothering us.”
“We’re happy where we are,” says Darius, who never has been across the border. “Americans are different. Here, we have the freedom to praise the Lord. That’s what we pray for every day.”
“We have to be respecting the worldly law as well,” the son asserts.
And at another colony named Hillcrest, one hears the same gratitude from a Second Minister named Mike Wollman, who even will allow a photograph. (Many other Hutterites, including the Green Leaf community, cite the Second Commandment and forbid what they deem to be graven images.)
“I’m proud to be a Canadian, though I don’t consider Canadian citizenship as much as a Christian citizenship,” Minister Wollman says. “The Bible tells us that our kingdom is not of this world, but as far as living in Canada, the way we’ve got it, for freedom to practice our faith, I’m happy to be here.”
“I still have to go back and say God is our protector, but Canada has been good to the Hutterites. We’ve been welcomed here and by the government part we’ve been very well looked after. There have been some disputes in the East with Hutterites moving in too close, they didn’t like it, but eventually we’ve ended up being the best neighbours. "There will be no festivities at Green Leaf or Hillcrest, come the First of July. Here, the plots—and the people—are rich in fertility, not glittery metal treasure. Thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make Thee ruler over many things,” promises the Book of Matthew.
“We’re part of Canada for sure,” says Minister Wollman, “but to me, holidays and big things like that don’t impress me any. But just the fact when I think back and read back where was Canada one hundred fifty years ago, uncivilized, to where it is today where everybody can come and live their faith and live their practices of life that they used to in whichever country they may come from.
“Yes, Canadian is freedom. Canada, it’s wonderful. We were refugees ourselves, so were your people, as long as people follow what it takes to be a Canadian we don’t go and push our way of life onto anybody else and therefore anybody who comes to this country shouldn’t do either.”
“Live it privately by yourself, don’t integrate into the city, changing signs and taking the Lord’s prayers out of school because you’re different. I feel if you’re Canadian, abide by Canadian laws as far as your conscience allows. That’s what our sermons tell us.”
Millie Strueby, née Ediger, is sitting with her back to the wall, figuratively and on a chair in the beneficent sun. She is a farmer’s daughter from Drake, Sask.: “My father was a small farmer—a very small farmer.” Squire Ediger grew grain and kept a few cattle; his wife mustered half a thousand turkeys at a time.
The Edigers were members of the General Conference—what Millie calls “the most liberal of Mennonites.” Still, she never danced until she was in her mid-20s, faithful to her sect over a few things.
“I never had that dream to stray too far,” she says. “Office work was my calling. I worked in Saskatoon one year and then came back. It was too big for me.”
Millie was working in the office at a potash mine when her first husband collapsed and died. Later, she began seeing a professional musician named Arnold Strueby and, eventually, they married. In 2001, Arnold had a dream, and that is why Millie is sunning herself, enjoying a brief break from her many labours, against the whitewashed front of the 85-year-old, Depression-era music hall called Danceland, the famous barn on the shores of Little Manitou Lake, whose dance floor is cushioned with horsehair. She and Arnold, who is 90 and has suffered a stroke, own the place.
Here is the last remnant of a bygone Prairie age; a time, as Millie Strueby puts it, “when boys still danced with girls.”
At Danceland tonight will be the first ball of this spring’s Polkafest, featuring Leon Ochs and “the Boys,” though there will be only one other lad on stage, a crooner/picker named Al Gill who has been yodelling for a living for only 56 years. All Millie has to do is sell the tickets, arrange the dinner, pay the bills and keep the roof from falling in.
“The reason why we bought Danceland in 2001 is that we had thought it was going to be sold and moved to Alberta,” Millie says. “Then, one day Arnold woke up and he said to me, ‘I had a dream—my dream was that we’re going to buy Danceland,’ and so we bought it.”
“Is owning Danceland a dream or a nightmare?” Strueby is asked.
“There are times when I say, ‘I can’t do this anymore—it’s so much work,’ ” she answers. “Four and a half years ago, Arnold had a stroke, and from that point I have had to do it all by myself. It was his dream, but now he’s not here working every day, so he can go dream whatever he wants.”
Six kilometres away, at exactly the same hour, 24 girls and 10 boys are graduating from Winston High School in the little rail-side grain town of Watrous, Sask.
“Why the two-to-one ratio?” one of the moms snapping photos of the ceremony in the curling rink is asked.
“Cold winter,” she jibes, but in fact, the principal says, it was just the way the zygotes tumbled 18 years ago. The principal is a man named Tony Braman, completing his fourth year on the job, originally from a town of 700, which is less than half the size of the bustling conglomeration of Watrous-Manitou.
“We love Saskatchewan,” he avows. “We are born and bred here.” His goal at Winston, he says, “is a matter of always keeping things in perspective. We try to tell them that high school is not the be-all and end-all.” None of the 34 matriculants is off to Harvard or Oxford, but some are headed to university or college within the Land of Living Skies.
“I always used to say that Saskatchewan is nothing special—I want to go someplace far away and cool,” says graduate Brady Fossen, who played in the defensive backfield for Winston’s six-man football team. But this spring, he joined a group of students on a centennial pilgrimage to Vimy Ridge and learned of Canada’s deep heritage of courage and combat and loss.
“I think of how lucky we are to be in this country,” says Millie Strueby, indoors now at Danceland, staring up at the flag above the stage. “We are so lucky to have the freedom of choice of everything. I don’t agree with some of these new ways like the current Prime Minister and the marijuana, but that’s the way of the world.”
“Even if it’s old and ripped and tattered, that flag never looks ugly to me,” says bandleader Leon Ochs, who has arrived to primp for Polkafest.
“I’m glad it’s flying over me,” echoes Al Gill, the singer.
Leon Ochs is another sodbuster’s son, still raising cattle and grain out by the town of Landis, Sask., population 140. “Once you take over the family farm, you’re pretty much stuck with it,” he says, and stuck he is, with two of his children having escaped to British Columbia and the third working as a graphic designer in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico.
Al Gill is a cable-company lineman, searching in the sun for another overload.
“It’s a tough row to hoe if you want life to be better for your kids,” Gill says.
“Kids are just on their phones all the time now,” echoes Ochs. “They don’t have no time for a dream.”
But the Boys have not come here tonight to entertain children. At Danceland, the expert, limber, twirling couples can remember the days when all they had out here were labour, freedom, music and their church—and the sky, and the snow, and the wind, and each other’s love.
“It’s got many disadvantages, but it’s Danceland,” Millie Strueby says. “Every time I see the obituaries, it always seems to say, ‘He loved to dance at Danceland.’ ”
In Room 29 at the Good Will Manor nursing home in the village of Duck Lake, Sask., elder Angus Esperance is wearing his Toronto Blue Jays cap and moaning, but not in pain.
“They got no pitching,” he blurts of his last-place heroes, and a disgusted nation gripes in unison.
Duck Lake is a tidy little town just off the main highway from Saskatoon to Prince Albert, and a nexus of the brief uprising that, in 1885, sealed the demise of the French fact on the Prairies, overthrew an infant mixed-race republic, and—more than a century later—sent Angus Esperance to Ottawa in behest of his still-struggling people.
Perhaps you learned in school of the battles of Duck Lake and Batoche; of Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont and their gallant guerrilla rebellion—or, as others saw it then and still see it today, their treason to the Crown. Dumont, then an older man, remembered its beginnings:
We went back to Duck Lake, and we had scarcely let our horses out to eat, when we heard someone shout again: “Here come the police!” We immediately jumped on horseback, and without delay I had my men occupy a hillock which commanded the plain, and from where the enemy would have been able to level their guns on us…
By the fall of 1885, the rebellion had been defeated by trainloads of federal riflemen, and Dumont had fled to Montana. Riel had surrendered in May, soon to be tried, condemned and hanged. Dumont would live until 1906, first as an exile, then as a humble farmer east of the kisiskaciwani. And Angus Esperance’s people—the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation—would be wrenched to residential schools, left wretched and impoverished on a flat, dusty plat.
“They prayed to their God,” Angus recalls of his purgatory with the Oblate Fathers from 1944 to 1952. “But the way they abused us, did He listen?”
“My Cree name was Spanas,” he goes on, posing for photographs below a mural of Dumont and Riel and Sir John A. that is part of what Duck Lake’s civic boosters label “The World’s Largest Outdoor Art Gallery.” “But they changed it to Esperance. That means ‘hope’ in French.”
What the elders of Beardy’s & Okemasis did leave him was a grievance that was older than the province of Saskatchewan itself—the branding of the community as disloyal to Her Imperial Majesty because a few Cree warriors had joined the Metis in their skirmish with the British in 1885. The result of this was the cutting off of the band’s annuities, which was the ransom for its docility.
In 1996, Angus Esperance set out to redress this open wound, and—no less important—to collect the money.
“In 1998,” Angus says, “they finally recognized our elders’ oral testimony. The truth comes from their stories—our tradition, the oral tradition. My grandparents, I used to hear them talk. My grandmother, she was very familiar with the uprising. First of all, it was the fault of the federal government. There was a mix-up of politics, and there was shooting going on. According to oral testimony, our chief, Chief Beardy, got caught off guard.
“Louis Riel, he was the one fighting against the federal government, and some of our warriors joined him, and Chief Beardy said he couldn’t have held them back. So the Indian agent made arrangements with the federal government. He made 15 recommendations, and one of them was to withhold the payments, and another one was that any band member needed a pass to leave the reserve.”
In March of 2017, they got their cheque.
“I been waiting for 20 years,” says elder Angus Esperance.
“Getting the annuities was good—it was fantastic,” says Rick Gamble, a former chief of the band, a muscular and deep-voiced man with an eagle tattooed on his forearm. “But what happened here in 1885, it still affects our lives. We’re still dependent on government. Basically now we’re living on moral persuasion.
“The treaties were never honoured. They were broken almost immediately. There has never been a nation-to-nation relationship with the Crown, even today. There are 634 First Nations. Does Justin Trudeau want to deal with them individually?”
(It was Gamble who helped collect 13 other bands to join the Beardy’s claim. The monies, more than $4 million, finally arrived last spring.)
“I can understand where Riel was coming from,” Chief Gamble says now, dropping in to visit Angus at Good Will Manor. “He was elected by those people to represent them. If he had won, we probably would have a First Nations province today, and a Metis province. The issues he was fighting for are the same issues we are fighting for today.”
It is no small irony that elder Angus Esperance now lives on Victoria Street. Rick Gamble went to work for the Crown as an RCMP constable and an immigration officer. But now, he says, when he looks at the flag, “I see Canada, but I don’t see our people there. After 150 years, what do we have to celebrate? Starvation? Famine? Mistreatment? Third-generation welfare recipients. It’s a big hole to walk out of.
“I don’t feel that we’re part of Canada—that’s just the feeling we have. The frustration level is getting higher and higher. Our young people are saying, ‘No more.’
“When I see the Canadian flag, to me, they’ve been disloyal at times, too,” says Angus Esperance, né Spanas. “The respect for First Nations people. I’d like to see a better relationship. Before the treaties, our ancestors were sovereign people. They made a living off the land by hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering.”
Two blocks from Good Will Manor is the home of the night-shift supervisor of the cleaning staff of the Prince Albert public schools, a man whose father’s uncle was Gabriel Dumont.
“He was just a leader who tried to do well for his people,” Brian Dumont observes in his kitchen. “We are trying to keep our Metis culture going. We are thinking of the struggles back in their time.”
History is here—it is always here—throwing its shadow on us all.
“My dad used to have Gabriel Dumont’s watch till he gave it to the museum,” Brian Dumont says.
“We’re always invited to attend something, or unveil something,” says Donna Dumont, Brian’s wife, “but we never got any fame or fortune.”
Parked outside the Saskatoon railway station late on a Saturday evening is a minivan driven by an immigrant from the Axis of Evil whom we will call Mohammad Motahari, which is as good a name as any for a man who’d prefer his real one be left out of print.
Motahari has been living and driving in Saskatchewan for six years. “I like the minus-40. I like the shovelling. I like the winter,” he says. Otherwise, he seems sane.
In Iran, he says, condemned for free thinking, he spent four and a half years in prison, and his sister was executed for alleged “counter-revolutionary activities” at the age of 15. In Saskatchewan, he opened a business dealing in what he calls “medical ceramics,” and it failed and cost him more than $200,000.
“Are you bitter?” he is asked.
“No,” he says, “but my wife is.”
Motahari was quite well off in Iran, rich enough to own a patch of farmland on which to grow grain and forget the revolutionary politics that have bisected his life like a cleaver; a golden youth under the Shah; a living hell under the ayatollahs. Now he drives a minivan to the airport and the railway station, and his wife has to hold a job as well.
“It’s hard for her because she never worked in her life,” he says. “In Iran, she was a housewife, but here she worked at a pizza place for the first two years, and for the past four years at a daycare as a cook. This type of work, as a cook or a cab driver, in my home country it would be shameful for us. But here, it is different.”
Here, says Mohammad Motahari, one new Canadian among the millions, “I am ready to go to new places and I like challenges in life, but my family, they don’t think like me.”
“What is Canada to you?” he is asked.
“Freedom,” he replies, though it is too late for his sister. “Freedom. That’s all.”
The VIA station that serves Saskatoon is like an indoor version of Uranium City—a fluorescent ghost town with seats for scores of voyageurs who have chosen to fly, bus, or walk instead. Only four people are going westward from here tonight on Train #1—“The Canadian”—toward Edmonton, Jasper, Kamloops, Hope, and Vancouver.
VIA Rail’s flagship, which began its journey in Toronto two days previous, is scheduled to depart Saskatoon at 10:20 on this Sunday eve and to arrive in Vancouver at 9:40 on Monday morning. The explorer has booked a ticket on the ferry from Horseshoe Bay to Nanaimo for early afternoon.
“It can’t be eight hours late getting into Vancouver, can it?” he asks the station manager, who is a humourist named Lorne.
“You’d be surprised,” Lorne beams. “It can be eight hours late between here and Biggar!”
(Biggar, Sask. is an hour’s drive away, or 160 scheduled minutes by VIA Rail.)
A brace of local train buffs have come to the terminal to witness the arrival and departure of the pride of this nation’s castrated passenger rail network.
“We showed up because we heard the train is actually on time tonight,” says one, a fellow named Ray Reinhardt.
“Is there any way in your magazine that you can say that it is a national disgrace the way VIA treats this train?” begs the other, whose name is Frank Masich. But neither of them actually is getting on board. They know better.
“Times are gonna get tough and our aging population is going to need public transportation again,” Masich predicts.
“Without the transcontinental railroad, we’d be Americans,” asserts Reinhardt. “It was the Canadian Pacific that held them off at the 49th parallel.”
Frank Masich used to work as a ticket-seller in Prince Albert, back when there was a train to Prince Albert. Ray Reinhardt worked on a signal gang. The railway is in their blood. It used to be in everyone’s.
“The Americans are still smarting over the War of 1812,” Reinhardt declares. “That’s why they’re trying to nail us over softwood lumber and everything else.”
At a little past ten-thirty, Lorne-the-station-manager’s radio crackles with the news that The Canadian is verily within the Saskatoon city limits. However—there is always a “however”—its route is blocked by a freight train and in 2017, the freight train is king.
An hour later, the great steel serpent slides into the station—20 cars long, with two diners, four observation domes, two day coaches, and a dozen spotless Budd sleepers—built in Philadelphia in 1954, according to buffs Reinhardt and Masich—yet maintained with the care that this luxurious linchpin of Confederation well deserves.
The stewardess in sleeping car 017 on “The Canadian,” is a pleasant Franco-Maintobaine whose first words of greeting to a customer are: “Welcome aboard. The WiFi password is ‘there is no WiFi.’ ” But the bed is wide and soft, the pillows and duvet are fluffy, the window is clean, the compartment is spotless, and there is a hot shower mid-carriage that works. It might well be 1960.
It is not stretching the truth too thinly to report that a determined four-year-old on a tricycle could beat The Canadian from Saskatoon to Edmonton. This laggardly pace induces a somnolence in the traveller that matches the laconic efforts of the locomotive. Often, both doze off at the same time, and a passenger awakens to find the scenery unchanged: brown fields, barren trees and the same gallery of stolid, incurious cattle.
“As one cow said to the other cow,” groans the service manager on the crew radio during one of these infuriating hiatuses, “when are we gonna mooooooooove?”
After a restful night in a rocking cradle, one awakens on The Canadian as it sidles through Alberta at its maddeningly dilatory pace. But in the dining car—on crisp white linen—there are buckwheat pancakes and lobster ravioli for brunch, and at dinner—well!—rack of lamb in juniper-berry sauce, baked salmon with dill, and Maple Dijon Chicken.
(All meals are included in the cost of a sleeping-car ticket, which, one fellow traveler reports, costs about two thousand, three hundred dollars from Toronto to the Left Coast in a shared compartment, or double the price of a round-trip flight to Hong Kong.)
And outside the windows of the curving dome—in all its wide-sky majesty, its farmyards and canyons and wastelands, its uncountable sudden spring waterfalls—is Western Canada, rising to the Rockies, the savage peaks and wild chasms tamed, in the 19th century, by the callused hands of men.
“All I can say is that the work has been well done in every way,” understated William Cornelius Van Horne, president of the CPR, when the last spike had been driven on November 7, 1885, nine days before Louis Riel was hanged at Regina. Yet this terse commentary was puffery compared to the telegram that had been sent from Promontory, Utah when the U.S. completed its own transcontinental railroad, sixteen years before. That message said, succinctly, “Done.”
Railroads, oceans, languages, mines, wheat stalks, myths, Olympians, martyrs, a prime minister’s socks—of what is a country made? From the train, this country is made of immensity, emptiness, and frost; yet from the train, the expectancy never lessens—to see around the next curve, beyond the next canyon, toward the next dream.
Late on Sunday afternoon, The Canadian comes—finally—to Jasper, in a sun and snowscape of such travel-poster perfection that the maddening pace of the voyage seems to have been a necessary prologue, building dramatic tension toward the heavenly dénouement.
Displayed inside the resort’s historic little depot are a series of advertisements that Canadian National once used to lure Britons to the Canadian Prairies.
“CANADA—The Right Land for the Right Man,” crows one, listing the addresses of colonization bureaux in London, Liverpool, Belfast, and Glasgow. “It’s Mine!” an immigrant planter beams.
“A Farm in Canada—opportunities for your children . . . life in the open country . . . a home and success,” boasts another.
Then, just across the Continental Divide and the British Columbia boundary, comes the highlight of the expedition—first, a lodge of elk grazing placidly along the right of way, and then, a solitary cub on a tilted hillside, watching the leisurely proceeding of the train.
Imagine the fundamental Canadian chaos in the dining car: a woman—actually many women and men—a camera, and a bear.
But not everyone is savouring rack of lamb as the westward trek proceeds. In one of the two economy-class coaches just behind the baggage car, shovelling in a repast from a Jasper snack bar and splayed across four seats in the half-empty carriage, is the family of a man named, in the splendiferous manner of the Sinhalese—Magurudeniye Walauwe Thrivanka Charith Senanayake. (Up front, the chairs are cheaper, but the scenery is the same.)
“I have five names,” the man smiles.
“I have six!” exclaims one of his sons.
Of all our new Canadians, the five Senanayakes—husband, wife, two sons and a baby daughter—may be the newest. They are taking the train across Canada to try to ascertain where in this vastness to make their home, having just been granted landed status. (They also applied to emigrate to Australia, and were accepted, but decided that Oz is too remote.) They have already dismissed Toronto and Edmonton.
“We believe that life in Canada will be easier and cheaper than in Sri Lanka,” says the dad, who is a lawyer from Colombo.
(“You’d be surprised!” comes the reply from Lorne, the Saskatoon station manager.)
“The process was not very hard,” he avers. “We got all our things done within one year’s time.”
“What do you know of Canada?” one wonders.
“We studied a lot,” replies Mom, a hairdresser by profession. “We googled.”
Back to the refreshment car for a Fort Garry Dark Ale out of the ’Peg.
“When you look out the window, what do you see?” one queries an older woman who says she came to Canada from Germany in 1960.
“Empty,” she says. “Empty.”
“Does it need to be filled up?” a woman from the Niagara Peninsula of Ontario is asked.
“It definitely does not need to be filled up,” she snaps. “It’s not that I’m not compassionate, and I’m not saying to close the gates completely. Just don’t open the floodgates. We’re struggling enough in Canada as it is with the medical and all the other stuff.”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?” muses one of the railway staff in a deserted lounge where colleagues cannot hear. “Whom do we let in? And who decides?”
Death Row for the Dungeness crab is a dock next to the seaplane base in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, where the Canada that you can drive west to, or east from, begins and ends. Beneath each vessel, just below the waterline, baskets of condemned crustaceans are kept fresh for the cauldron. Voiceless, their warrior pincers useless now, the inmates have as little chance of seeing another sunrise as a hungry bear on Danny Murphy’s porch.
At the next cleat, a claptrap little metal motorboat with a four-horsepower Yamaha engine is tied up. Its commodore is one Roger Bingham: native Haligonian from the opposite ocean, third-generation Canadian Forces veteran, former guest of the Rideau Correctional and Treatment Facility (possession of opiated hash), and, in his words, “one of the most patriotic Canadians you’ll ever meet.”
Bingham, who resides permanently with Wife Number Three across the bay on a sailboat, is, like Murphy, a lushly bearded individual who boasts that he has not seen his own face in more than 50 years. (Murphy also served a brief sentence in Hay River, N.W.T., for peddling his homegrown herb.) He is sitting in a folding Tommy Bahama beach chair, wearing a toque and yellow rubber boots and coughing from a lingering bout with the walking pneumonia. He has come landward only long enough to cadge some half-price cigarettes that a friend has obtained through Indian smugglers back east.
“I love this free country,” Roger says, reprising Uranium City, and Danceland, and that cab driver from Saskatoon. “Whatever other country can you do what we do and get away with it?”
It has been 28 years since Roger Bingham ran out on Wife Number Two in Ontario and drove toward the horizon until the highway ran out on him. Here was another Canadian dream fulfilled—the liberty to pack up, ship out, start over. All Canadians enjoy this gift, save the poor Dungeness crabs.
“This country isn’t going downhill,” Bingham muses, “it’s the rest of the world around us.”
Westward leading, still proceeding, as in the words of the Christmas carol, the next safe harbour one arrives at is Port Alberni, where a tongue of the Pacific comes licking in for logs and lumber, or at least it used to.
On Harbour Quay in this once-reigning, now-reduced forest-products town is a candy store and a donut shop and, parked in front of them, an immaculate, Canada-red 1968 Dodge Charger R/T and its owner, a retired log-truck driver named—yes, really—Don Deforest.
“Yeah, I’ve heard ‘em all,” Deforest sighs, adding that he once entered a fishing derby that was won by a man named Salmon.
To Don Deforest, and to the other de-natured woodmen who come down to Harbour Quay of an evening to eat sour-grapes-flavoured ice cream, yesterday was the last best place, a time when, Deforest says, “this bay was full of logs and people were proud to be loggers. Now, it’s a sin. This country’s full of resources. What are they gonna do—leave it all in the ground?”
“Poor old Canada,” sighs a man named David Tereposki, who returned home to Alberni after a quarter-century in Georgia, U.S.A. “It’s got a lot of land and it’s not doing anything with it.”
“They say ‘You can’t cut that tree down because it’s 300 years old,’” Deforest grumbles. “Well, how old’s the Earth? In the world’s lifetime, that’s a minute in time. The truth is, trees are just big weeds.”
“Used to be, you were eighteen years old and boom! You had a grown man’s wage and you ran down and bought a ’68 Charger and then you were in debt and you stayed in debt for the rest of your life.”
He makes this sound like a good thing. “This town had a chance at an aluminum smelter about ten years ago,” he says. “But they shot that down. Same with the coal port and the new prison. What’s wrong with having a prison in town? It would have been back in the woods and nobody would have seen it.”
An hour and a half away, across Vancouver Island’s jagged jade spine, are the new-wave villages of Tofino and Ucluelet and the beaches of Pacific Rim National Preserve, keystones in Canada’s attempt to re-brand itself as a country where nature’s pre-contact primacy is a treasure to be restored and respected. In place of aluminum smelters and pulp mills and prisons, in this view, there are to be beach walks, surfer girls, and whale watching.
“To me,” says Don Deforest, “that’s harassing the whales.”
Just before British Columbia Highway 4 reaches a T-junction within earshot of the Pacific Ocean, it crosses a culvert over a ditch called Lost Shoe Creek. Down in the stream, three young women from the Central Westcoast Forest Society and a colleague named Tom—who used to work as a prospector in Uranium City—are installing screens and sluices to help baby coho salmon make it home to the sea. In the late afternoons, they go surfing. You can’t get more Tofino than that.
One of the salmon-savers from Central Westcoast is a woman named Megan Francis. Fifteen years ago, Megan and a companion bicycled the breadth of Canada all the way to Newfoundland—8,300 kilometres, which is one-fifth of the circumference of the Earth.
“We met a guy who was pushing a shopping cart across Canada,” she says. “We met a group of nurses who were biking across Canada. We met a guy in a full suit of medieval armour who was walking across Canada.
“But what blew me away was the kindness of strangers. Everywhere I went, people sent me on my way with care packages.”
Just above the creek where the young Canadians were collecting and measuring salmon smolt, a gigantic truck full of fresh-cut cedar came barrelling down a gravel road in the name of a native-owned company called Iisaak Forest Resources Ltd.
A man named Ralph Spencer, a radio dispatcher for Iisaak, is standing where the side road meets Highway 4. Spencer remembers 1993, when protesters were chaining themselves to trees in Clayoquot Sound and the Australian activist-rock band Midnight Oil came to perform Beds Are Burning in a logged-out, burned-out clear-cut called “the black hole” near Lost Shoe Creek.
“I defy you to try to find it now,” Ralph Spencer says. “There’s nothing there now but a beautiful second-growth forest.” Next to the road at Lost Shoe is an interpretive sign that elucidates the life cycle of the Vancouver Island salmon. Beneath it is a fallen log into which someone has carved—long enough ago that the letters have grown smooth and mossy—an epitaph and axiom for Canada as it searches, halfway through its second century, for a pathway forward:
NO FATE BUT WHAT YOU MAKE.
“Everyone is so extreme,” a man with a baby in his arms is saying. “There has to be a middle way that everyone can agree on. Maybe it’s Canada’s role in the world to find that middle way.”
Tamas Painter, a new dad, avid surfer and journeyman carpenter in precious little Ucluelet, B.C., has brought his six-month-old son Huxley for a morning walk to the 100-year-old lighthouse at Amphitrite Point. Below us, waves slap a blackrock shore. Behind us is a sign that says WOLVES VERY ACTIVE IN AREA.
“If you encounter a wolf,” the sign advises, “do not run, stand tall, and pick up small dogs or children.” But little Huxley is already safe in his father’s arms.
“Last year,” Tamas says, “two wolves took down a deer on the high school athletic field while all the kids watched through the windows. Sometimes, we’ll hear something rustling in the backyard: ‘Oh, it’s just a cougar.’ ”
We are back in primeval Canada, a Canada that few Canadians have ever seen.
“Log, but use what you log,” the young father says. “Shoot a deer, but don’t shoot four of them and throw away the meat. The way things are going, eventually we’ll all be owned by the Chinese or Nestlé or something. We have to get past this idea that whatever company is biggest wins.”
A gentle rain falls on Long Beach; grey mist on the plangent sea. Half a kilometre off, a whale spouts—humpback?
Just to stand and look, just to sit in awe, just to pause and listen.
Nearby, doing the same, is Tony Miao. In Mandarin, Miao means “seedling.” Tony’s given names—Kam Yu—mean “pleasant rain.”
“My father thought that was a very nice image—rain falling on the young plants,” he says, looking out at the water, through the British Columbian kamyu.
Miao Kam Yu, a native of Hong Kong, has been in Canada since 1973 and has spent most of that stretch driving a desk for the public-transit system in Toronto.
“If I had stayed in Hong Kong,” he laughs, “I’d be richer now.”
In 2017, he watches wealthy young Chinese swarm ashore in Toronto and Vancouver, vaulting in business-class flat-beds the ocean that surges at our feet, bound for million-dollar condos in their rickety old Lamborghinis.
“So rich, they don’t have to work,” Tony says. “I feel sorry for them.”
At his own job, Tony Miao, like almost everyone who has explored this country end to end, has been blown away by the kindness of strangers. “Only one guy at work hates me because I’m Chinese,” he says. “But that’s okay because he’s a real redneck. He hates everybody.”
How can it be that one country can enfold so many nations and still effuse charity and compassion? How can there be so many people, in George Vancouver’s words, whose particular office seemed to be that of making us welcome to their country? To this, the ocean has no answer.
“My children grew up here,” Tony Miao is saying at world’s end. “They think there are no bad people in the whole world.
“They think the whole world is like Canada.”
Travelling eastward from Vancouver Island to Bonavista, N.L., reverses the lyrics of This Land is Your Land, but it doesn’t lessen the thrill—who else has seen more Canada, more quickly, beside maybe Chris Hadfield and Santa Claus?
It is barely seven in the morning at the brave, squat lighthouse at the end of Newfoundland. No one else is here—only the red-white-red-white-red-white-striped beacon built to blink “Beware” at the Atlantic. At the limit of vision, a white rim of rime cloaks the ocean; closer to shore, oddments of bobbing blue-white icebergs swim to the inlets to die.
Just below road’s end is a pockmarked, unpaved trail that leads to a treachery of rock and foam called the Dungeon, where black rock spat up by volcanoes six hundred million years ago wakes each day to a thrashing by the sea. This is the breadth of birthday Canada—a favoured, feral land breaching toward its horizons, with wheat in the middle and whales at either end.
Now a pickup truck comes grinding up the gravel. The driver is a man named Walt Phillips, a son of these severe shores.
“We never seen the ice late like this,” he utters. “ ‘Worst winter I’ve ever seen,’ I said to the wife. We need a southwest wind to push the ice out, but it’s still blowin’ from the north. Shockin’ ridiculous, this is.”
“Why’d you come up here so early?” he is asked. The souvenir shop is closed, the temperature is just above or below zero and the wind is looking for someone’s hat to steal.
“Just for a ride, look around,” he replies.
“Is Newfoundland your home?”
“Right to the backbone.”
Walt Phillips is a living brainteaser: born on the Bonavista Peninsula, he will turn 80 in July. He has never been off the island; never more than 250 km from his birthplace—they took him to St. John’s when he needed prostate surgery and when he had his heart attacks. Yet he has spent only 68 years in Canada.
“There’s lots of places I wanted to go,” he says. “The money, I guess.”
What money Walt Phillips ever earned came directly from the ocean—aboard a longliner, as a fish-plant worker and as a sealer.
“I did it for a living,” he says of the seal hunt. “I suppose I didn’t like it, but I had to do it for a living.”
When Joey Smallwood convinced or connived Newfoundland into Confederation, Walt Phillips, born a subject of the newly crowned George VI, was 12 years old. “We joined Canada, eh?” he ponders. “Newfoundland wasn’t rich at the time, so that’s why we joined Canada.”
“Is Newfoundland rich now?”
“They’s takin’ over Bonavista, buyin’ houses and sellin’ ’em. Rich people comin’ in. There’s not a house you can buy in Bonavista now.”
“Maybe you should sell yours.”
“Then I wouldn’t have no place to live.”
“If they had another referendum today, how would you vote?” the sealer is polled. (In 1948, the final tally was 52 per cent in favour, with 48 per cent opposed. The nays scorned the merger as “British Union With French Canada.” Bonavista was the only location outside St. John’s and the Avalon to favour mating with Canada.)
“I dare say I’d vote Yes,” Walt Phillips affirms.
“If you had the money, where would you go?”
“The mainland, probably. Toronto. They say Toronto’s a nice spot.”
Cape Bonavista is reputed to be the place where the Venetian/Englishman Zuan Chabotto/John Cabot made landfall in 1497, possibly becoming the first European since the Vikings to have moonwalked on this extraterrestrial shore. According to a contemporaneous document, Chabotto and his crew “disembarked there with a crucifix and raised banners with the arms of the Holy Father and those of the King of England, my master; and they found tall trees of the kind masts are made, and other smaller trees, and the country is very rich in grass . . .
“They found a trail that went inland, they saw a site where a fire had been made, they saw manure of animals which they thought to be farm animals, and they saw a stick half a yard long pierced at both ends, carved and painted with brazil, and by such signs they believe the land to be inhabited. Since he was with just a few people, he did not dare advance inland beyond the shooting distance of a crossbow, and after taking in fresh water he returned to his ship.”
(Better safe than sorry would not be a tactic that Europeans would use on this continent for much longer.)
There’s a warm cove in downtown Bonavista called the Walkham’s Gate Pub & Coffee Shop, where the women behind the counter call you “darlin’ ” when you walk in, “sweetheart” when you place your order and “dear” when your eggs arrive.
A tourist could fall for that sort of thing, at least until a local explains that “if they really loved you, they’d be calling you ‘my little trout.’ ”
Sheila Ryan, one of the sweet-talkers, 39, dreams of Italy and once got as far as Fort St. John, B.C.—which is in the wrong direction if you are heart-bound for Rome.
Marina Joyce Strickland, the other honey-dripper, 61, one of 14 kids, remembers growing up on this peninsula “poor as a church mouse, but we were always happy. Lived on second-hand clothing, but we always had a lot to eat. We never had nothin’ back then.”
“What did joining Canada gain you?” wonders their little trout.
“Freedom. Safety,” Sheila says.
“Safety from what?”
“The safety of caring, loving people.”
On the busy wharf, alongside Indian Lady, Labrador Hawk, and Roxana Request, is a seagoing vessel called My Lady Lisa. The dock is littered with shells and claws—from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, no puddle in this country offers safe abode for the poor, meaty crab. A man named Darrin Cooper is the Zuan Chabotto of My Lady Lisa, except that, he shrugs and smiles, “Lisa’s not my lady anymore.”
Cooper drove a Toyota truck across the country in ’92, fished for a time off Ucluelet and Long Beach and the Queen Charlotte Islands—though you can’t call them that anymore—for ling cod, sockeye, snapper, halibut.
“The water is a different colour there,” he says. “It’s green and ours is blue. But our fish taste better.”
“What keeps me here?” Cooper muses. “It’s too expensive to live out there. There is so much to do here in the summer. You can fish. You can sea-kayak. Of course, summer only lasts about ten days.”
This winter, when the pack ice was solid, Darrin and his mates went out sealing for twenty days and shot 2,300 fur-bearers. But none of those big-eyed babies.
“You from Greenpeace?” Darrin Cooper jabs, not un-seriously.
“When you look at the Canadian flag, what do you see?” he is asked, changing the subject.
“We’re gettin’ robbed out here, it’s unbelievable. There’s too many fish out there to not be allowed to go fishing. They’re not interested in what’s on the bottom of the ocean, only what’s under the bottom, and that’s oil.
“If we had voted No in 1948, we wouldn’t be no worse off than we are today. People was f—-in’ POOR then. Cod was 25 cents a pound, and you owed everything you earned to the stores to get you through the winter.”
The grumbler looks forward to putting out his crab pots and seining for capelin, should that southwester manage to push the ice out before Dominion Day.
“I owns what I gots,” says Darrin Cooper, speaking in the Newfoundland first person.
“Is there such as thing as poor but happy?” Lisa’s ex is asked.
“I don’t thinks,” he says.
That same evening, in a corner booth at Tim Hortons in Clarenville, N.L., sits a one-legged man. Outside, in the rain, a campervan and chauffeur wait for the amputee to finish his coffee. The side of the van announces its purpose: La Traversée de l’Espoir. The journey of hope. A marathon a day. One hundred and seventy-seven days.
The one-legged runner is Guy Amalfitano, age 52, from the Pyrenees of southern France.
“I’m not trying to copy Terry Fox,” he says. “I want to thank him for the inspiration.”
In 1980, Terry Fox, who had lost his right leg to a cancer called osteosarcoma, made it as far as Thunder Bay, Ont.
Guy Amalfitano, who lost his right leg to precisely the same disease, has already run all 4,000 km of the course of the Tour de France—twice—and has raced the 1,665 steps to the top of the Eiffel Tower. In 1988, l’athlète unijambiste skied in the Paralympic Games. In 2017, his stated aim is to solicit donations for medical research, but there is always another goal—the quest to shed the medieval armour of our imagined inabilities. This is Terry Fox’s bequest—a Canadian export far more valuable than uranium or potash or softwood lumber.
“Good luck,” the Frenchman is wished in the booth at Tim Hortons, on day four of a seven-month quest, bound for the opposite sea via the Newfoundland towns of Heart’s Content, Heart’s Desire, Heart’s Delight and Little Heart’s Ease.
“It is not a question of luck,” he responds. “It is a question of effort.”
The Conservative politician eating nothing but fruit for breakfast believes to the depths of his soul in Confederation.
“Let’s face it,” he says. “You can’t do it all on your own.”
“What binds us?” he ponders. “Is the Canadian flag enough to hold us together? So far, it seems to be holding us together, even though we are really two countries with Quebec and its distinct society. Still, today you can have a healthy debate in this country without coming to fists—unless everybody is drinking—and I believe that is true from one end of the country to the other.”
John Alexander MacDonald rides the hustings, 150 years after his namesake stitched four disparate colonies together. He is a trucking-company owner from Lantz, N.S., and a candidate for the provincial House of Assembly in 2017. (The election was held on May 30, after the original version of this story was published. MacDonald was defeated.) Three facts separate this John A. MacDonald from the first prime minister of this Dominion: he has not been dubbed a nobleman, his surname contains a capital D in Donald rather than Sir John A.’s lower case, and the man on the front of the $10 bill will be 126 years dead come June 6.
In the weeks before the votes are cast in Canada’s Ocean Playground, John A. MacDonald’s blue campaign signs are prominent along the rural routes of East Hants, north of the Halifax airport—picturesque farming towns such as Kennetcook, Noel and Gore that range up toward the Bay of Fundy, whose tides, though phenomenal, may not be enough to sweep a Tory into office in a heavily Liberal riding. The 21st-century MacDonald, who served three terms as a local councillor in Lantz, approaches his probable defeat with equanimity, promising, “If I lose, I’ll be what I’ve always been—a thorn in everyone’s side.”
He says he was named not for the Father of Confederation, but for his own grandfather. His earliest memory of being teased as “Sir John A.” dates back to high school. His father is a Hugh John MacDonald, which was also the name of the Father of Confederation’s son.
“I’ve always thought that it’s rather cool,” he smiles. “But depending what I do in politics, it might be a curse.”
A knighthood is even less likely than a seat in the Legislative Assembly, but John A. MacDonald seems at peace with that. He has seen more of his country than most Canadians have—though less than Messrs. Hadfield and Claus, of course—including a trip to Prince George, B.C., when his daughter competed in target shooting at the Canada Summer Games.
“I like politics,” says John Alexander MacDonald. “Until it starts getting political.”
A question that just has to be asked of the latter John A.: “Are you a drunk?”
He is a round man, trying to become less rotund by devouring nothing but melon balls and berries at the grand old Nova Scotian hotel in Halifax.
“No,” he replies, “but when I do drink, my drink of choice is dark rum. Keeping the tradition alive.”
Back on Via Rail, another night in a sleeping car. This is “The Ocean” from Halifax to Moncton, N.B., to Miramichi, N.B., to Sainte-Foy, Que., to Montreal.
Lowering skies at the New Brunswick border, forests, backyards, seagulls pecking at the mudflats, clothes blown horizontal on the lines. Again, just as on The Canadian out West, the dining car is spotless, the food first-rate, the company convivial. We are conspirators guarding the secret of this delicious luxury, all of us fearing that the plug could be pulled on low-speed, long-distance rail at any moment by bottom-line bureaucrats who never have sat alone in a dome car, rolling down the steel that their great-grandfathers laid, farewelling a golden sun.
Dusk finds us at Bathurst, N.B. On the platform, a father embraces his teenaged son—the boy climbs aboard; the father stands waving in the gloaming as The Ocean glides away. At how many stations has this scene been played over Canada’s centuries—the seeker of fortune, gone on the train—the militiaman, the rebel, the student, the miner, the inlander thrilling for the sea.
One of the servers in the diner, a big man hobbling on worn knees, is named G. Gary Gray, a sixth-generation African-Canadian in his 38th year on iron wheels. Born in Halifax in 1955, Gary Gray is the son of a sleeping-car porter and the grandson of a sleeping-car porter, and the descendant of Virginia slaves. His cousin Clyde was the welterweight boxing champion of Canada and the Commonwealth, back in the day. Through them runs the night train of black Canadian history, its chronicles of liberation and subservience, denigration and resistance, opportunity and unquenchable hope.
G. Gary Gray trained, at first, to be a professional chef. But when he graduated from cooking school in 1976, “I could only go as far as entry level. It was just how it was at that time.”
Today, he says, “I think that things are on the upswing. It’s just a question of people taking advantage of the opportunities that are out there. The racism is still there if you want to look for it, but it’s more blanketed now. You don’t hear it out loud. The opportunity is there, but you’ve got to take it.”
He says he often hears from African-Americans that “ ‘up in Canada, black folks got it made.’ But then I go to Chicago and they’ve got black mayors, black fire chiefs, black doctors, black legislators—and they think we got it made?”
Gary Gray has spent at least 4,000 nights on a Via Rail sleeper, yet he has never been to Vancouver. In 2001, he was working aboard The Ocean when it went off the rails at Stewiacke, N.S.; a 14-year-old boy was charged with tampering with a switch. Twenty-five people on board the train were injured, none more seriously than Gary Gray.
“Up to that point, I had perfect attendance,” he says. “I was off work for 68 days. I got PTSD, I fell into a depression.” His knees and back haven’t been right since; maybe, in a year or two, he will disembark for good.
By now, the dining car is empty. The big man in white goes off to his cabin. Next morning, at Sainte-Foy, The Ocean arrives 10 minutes early.
L’Ancienne-Lorette, Que., according to Census Canada, is 1.5 per cent anglophone and 97.4 per cent francophone. Just off Boulevard Wilfrid-Hamel is an unusual sight for these parts—a Canadian flag, flying above a small memorial behind Branch 265 of the Royal Canadian Legion. Beneath the sacred national banner, two plaster statues of soldiers kneel at the cross that marks a comrade’s grave.
The little warriors, knee-high to an adult visitor and fairly hidden between a rental car lot and a budget motel, are helmeted and armed for desert combat. They bookend a marble plinth that is inscribed with the names of Canadians who perished in Afghanistan.
“In memory of our fallen heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice,” the inscription reads. “Á la mémoire de nos héros disparus qui ont fait le sacrifice ultime.” These 127 men and two women were Péloquin and Goddard, Michaud and Turner, Blais and Graham, Joannette and Hayes.
But an hour south, in the fecund farming region named the Beauce for its French counterpart, the drums of war—and the apolitical parity of martial martyrdom—are left far behind. Here, in the village of Saint-Damien-de-Buckland, Que., is a towering castle of Roman Catholic power overseeing a campus of the piously sworn: the congregation of nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Comfort—Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours.
The nunnery was founded in 1892 and thus is exactly a quarter-century younger than the Confederation of the Canadas. A delightfully eclectic centre historique on the Saint-Damien campus elucidates the industry, fervency and worldview of Notre-Dame’s sisterhood. It includes everything from antique, torture-chamber dental equipment to trinkets from the countries to which her missionaries have been assigned—Bolivia, Peru, Burkina Faso, Niger, etc.—to a rather creepy Crèche de Noël, whose tiny baby Jesus is crowned with actual human hair that was shorn from the wards of the Orphanage of Sainte-Emilienne.
“When I die,” giggles the elderly nun who leads a tour, “just stuff me with straw and put me in here.”
Soeur Julienne Gosselin is in her 80s, one of more than 20 Gosselins listed on a posted roster—all of them related—who have taken the veil here since 1892.
“I caught the germ when I was very small,” says sister Julienne. “I felt a communication with my heart. At that time, I was studying to become a teacher, thinking to get a few sous, to start a family. I was the only daughter of my parents—it was very hard for them.”
She leads her visitors to a display case that contains the bonnet of pure white that novitiates once wore as a symbol of their betrothal to the living Christ.
“I came in as a bride,” the nun says. “It was in 1950. My parents were crying.”
“Were you crying?” she is asked.
“Not me, no. I was happy. I was getting married to Jesus.”
According to Census Canada, about four out of every ten first marriages in this country end in divorce, but Sister Julienne avows that this was not the case with her: “I went in at seventeen and never changed my mind,” she avers, though there were times during her decade-long service in West Africa when, she says, she “threw open the windows and cried to God, ‘If you are looking out for me, show me now.’” In a quiet corner beneath a stairway, sister Julienne sits and muses on her people’s history, expressing opinions that are hers alone, not those of her husband, who, quoting his own Father, said in Acts 3:25 that “in thy seed shall all the peoples of the earth be blessed.”
“France came and colonized Quebec,” she reflects. “The French, their power was very intellectual. The English force was very industrial. The two collided, and when the British won this combat, they became the masters. The English developed the Western provinces more than Quebec, and with the low birth rate, it is possible that, in time, we will be submerged and overrun.”
In 1980, sister Julienne voted Yes in the first sovereignty referendum. But now, she says, “I am not a separatist because I have seen more and more a global vision. Canada is a beautiful country from one ocean to the other. Why make a country out of Quebec? Why can’t we live together despite our different languages?”
Downslope a couple of kilometres from the main campus of Notre-Dame-du-Perpétuel-Secours is a satellite facility of dormitories, classrooms and a working dairy farm called Lac Vert. Here, the travelling snoop reaches a cul-de-sac: there are several Quebecers he would like to interview, but all of them have taken a vow not to say a single word until after Victoria Day.
It is a fin de semaine de silence at Green Lake, an organized retreat for city people, mostly, who yearn for the godly thunder of quietness. The lake shimmers. Verdant trails beckon in every direction. It really would be quite peaceful, if only all those lemony goldfinches would just shut up.
Unbound by the requirement of silence is a lay volunteer named Lorraine Cusson. Cusson, who operates a pet-food business, was in her 50s when she experienced what she calls “a sudden conversion. It really did happen in one minute. But afterward you realize that you were always on that path.”
Lorraine Cusson looks at her people and at herself and says, “I now believe in Canada, in a different idea.” She, too, once voted Yes. But now, she says, “There are many ways to achieve independence.”
“For me, it is over,” Cusson declares. “I think that Quebec has matured, and has become more reflective. When I hear the young people speak, they do not have this blanket thrown over them. I’m not saying that they are not committed and passionate about Quebec, but they will never express it the way we did.
“I believe we are getting closer and closer to one another, and not further apart.”
Not far from Vallée-Jonction, Que., up an unpaved road announced by handmade signs, reside Buddy the three-legged black bear, a pacing puma, a vegan moose, a brace of midget donkeys, one emu, a lynx that Danny Murphy somehow missed, many chickens, a pride-less lioness and a chattering of squirrel monkeys that—or is it “who” when writing of our fellow primates?—were born in Ontario.
This is the Miller Zoo, a family-run enterprise that began as a rescue and rehabilitation facility for abandoned pets, then grew into a weekend attraction for cubs and fawns of the human kind from Quebec City and environs.
Among the clans with an animalistic bent on this sunny day are the Robledos, recent immigrants from the city of Córdoba in Argentina: wife Marina, husband Christian and sons Benjamin, Canadian-born, and Simon, who was two when, tempted by the immigration recruiters of the government of La Belle Province, they left South America. Simon is autistic. In Argentina, his parents say, he received no help whatsoever, and remained non-verbal well past the age when most children begin to speak.
Imagine the parents’ feelings when their child’s fin de semaine de silence doesn’t end on Monday.
“But when we got to Quebec,” says Christian, “he was provided with a big number of intensive services,” so effective that, when Simon was five, “in one instant, he began to speak both languages, Spanish and French.”
Marina Robledo is an architect. Christian does IT work for a chain of pharmacies. Thanks to intensive instruction on arrival in Quebec, his French is excellent. He reads English and passed six levels of Oracle qualifications in English, but does not speak it confidently enough to not be embarrassed. “All of us immigrants who are not francophones undergo a franco-ization,” he says. “We learn the language and we study history in a way that is not found in books. It is not anti-English, but it is pro-independence.”
From this, the allophone says, he has gained a personal perspective on Canada and the Lac Vert solitudes that still shape and haunt its peoples.
“In South America,” he says, “all of the countries that were Spanish colonies had wars of independence and won them, just like the U.S. But Quebec was abandoned by France, they lost on the Plains of Abraham and they left, they left, and they never came back. France lost the war, not Quebec.”
“In Quebec, every family had 14 or 15 kids. Their pride was a form of resistance against the English. Yesterday, in history, there were two countries here—Canada and Quebec. I, as an immigrant, I can see those countries. I come from a country that had heroes of independence—San Martín and Belgrano and the others. In Quebec, they are proud of being Quebecers, but they don’t know why.”
A few minutes away, at the Autodrome Chaudière Speedway near the town of Vallée-Jonction, it is definitely not a Fin de Semaine de Silence. The noise, in fact, is apocalyptic, not to mention the dust, the music, the crowd, the announcer, the sheer backwoods fun. Hundreds of cars are checkerboarded into a pitted gravel pasture that serves as the parking lot. From the grandstand echo screams of wild excitement. Down below, race cars are slipping and spiraling, throwing up thunderheads of dust, all of them seemingly out of control, which is the whole idea.
The game is called drifting and it is, in a way, figure skating for stock cars without the bouquets and the bribery. Axles replace axels, but the goal is the same—to put a machine through an Olympian short-program of screeches, smoke, and spins for the consideration of a panel of judges and the delectation of the boisterous, beered-up fans. Drivers qualify individually and then the top sixteen go hood-to-hood in matched pairs. It may be the only motor sport without a finish line.
On this Saturday afternoon, the top prize at Autodrome Chaudière Speedway is $5,000, but it will not be won by car number 22, which is piloted by a driver named Carl Harvey from far up in the Saguenay. Mr. Harvey, who owns a garage in Chicoutimi where the hottest rods north of Saint-Tite come for repairs, is, like the half-dozen of his friends who serve as his pit crew, a unilingual francophone. The only word of English with which he seems to be equipped is “le drifting.” But this is not to condemn him, only to illustrate the Quebec that Carl Harvey’s parents’ generation made.
“When you look at the Canadian flag, what do you feel?” Harvey is asked, as dozens of Canadians from Ucluelet to Come-By-Chance have been asked on this expedition.
“I’m a Quebecker,” he replies. “I don’t feel anything.”
On this crisp afternoon, neither does car number 22—first the power steering fails, then the water pump gives out. It has cost Carl Harvey about seven thousand bucks to compete for less than one minute—the entry fee, the gas, the motel rooms, the Budweiser for the guys.
“We are Quebecois,” Harvey says. “Speaking French is part of our culture. Sometimes it is frustrating, but when people come here, they don’t try to speak French. Why should we speak anglais?”
“Because the rest of the world does, or yearns to,” it is suggested.
“Our parents educated us poorly,” he remarks, soft-pedalling. “They should have taught us English, but they didn’t. It IS a problem—everywhere you go in the world, everybody speaks English. In school we got like one hour a week.”
Carl Harvey is lucky, off the track, at least—his wife’s mother lives in Boston, Massachusetts. Every summer, he sends his children, ages 13 and 11, down to Grandma to master the 21st century’s planetary tongue.
“Everything went wrong today,” he sighs. Behind him, wrenching away at the rack-and-pinion and pushing baby strollers, the mechanics and their WAGs are wearing matching black T-shirts that holler, not in French, DRIFT OR DIE.
Carrie Dunakin lives in Quebec, except when she has to go to the bathroom. When nature calls, she must shuffle to the far side of her house to a toilet in another country.
Dunakin is standing on the second-floor porch of the home she rents with her husband and their children for $600 (U.S.) a month. Their postal address is both 8 Ruelle Cordeau in Stanstead, Que., and 63 Caswell Ave. in Derby Line, Vt. They have been living here on the 45th parallel, halfway between the equator and the North Pole, for about a year and a half. They sleep in distinct societies, under one roof.
Carrie Dunakin, an American citizen and professional car-detailer, speaks no French, doesn’t have a passport and, previous to her current domicile, had never even entered Canada in her entire life, “except for twice to a bar and once to visit my ex’s family. I don’t know where we were, except they said ‘eh’ a lot.” The kids go to school in Trumpland. The dog’s name is Beavis. You can guess what she calls her spouse.
Her family uses the front door to exit into Vermont. The back door has been sealed. To enter Canada, they would need to go out the front door, walk one block west and enter Canadian customs. But not having passports, they cannot do this. If Beavis got off leash and bolted into Quebec, Carrie would need to call someone in Canada to catch him.
“I get a $5,000 fine if I cross the street,” she hollers down. And this is no joke—we are straddling what used to be hailed as “the world’s longest undefended border,” which is now equipped with enough sensors, detectors, barricades, warning signs, personnel and firepower to wage a do-over of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm.
Language laws, referendums, flags, legislatures, solitudes drifting apart—all of these issues must seem remote and rather silly from the American side of Carrie’s second-floor veranda. (Hers is not the only house that is bisected by the border; another, just down Canusa Street in Beebe Plain, is for sale.) Nor are they matters that agonize the stragglers of Uranium City, the smolt-savers of Lost Shoe Creek or the sealers of Bonavista. But you cannot meander Canada in its 150th year without dancing around the polkafest of provincial politics, or without halting at the stripe that marks the southern border.
That stripe is more than 8,000 km long, but nowhere is it more infuriating than at Stanstead/Derby Line—a single, conjoined-twin town latterly separated by a Ben Carson of bureaucracy—customs and immigration posts staffed 24 hours a day but almost never travelled after business hours; squadrons of uniformed and plainclothes enforcers; and tomes of regulations and restrictions that seem to have been written for no purpose other than the irritation of the law-abiding sap. Multiply this 8,000 times and you have Canada’s long and only frontier in 2017.
It was simpler once. A man named John Wilson, who was born in Stanstead about one block into Canada, can recall being harassed at church by a lad from across a then-unfortified laneway in the Green Mountain State.
“He breathed on me!” Wilson, now a councillor on the Vermont side and a Canadian veteran of the U.S. Army, remembers complaining to the prelate. “So he picked me and the other boy up by the collar, dragged us to the border and told us to fight it out, right on the line.”
This had happened before.
“Sir,” began Lt.-Col. “Red George” MacDonnell of the Glengarry Light Infantry in a missive to his chief in Montreal on Feb. 22, 1813. MacDonnell had just completed a daring sortie across the frozen St. Lawrence River to the American fort at Ogdensburg, N.Y. “I have the honour to acquaint you for the information of his excellence the commander of the forces.
“Moving on as rapidly to the charge as the depth of snow would avail,” he continued, “I succeeded effectually in turning his right flank and got possession of three field guns and his Eastern Battery.
“In the interim, my right column was gallantly led on by Col. Jenkins . . . in their eagerness to reach the enemy, they also lost breath, but notwithstanding pushed on bravely in the face of a very heavy fire of five guns, and when he had gallantly led them on within firing distance, he fixed bayonets and pushed forward but had not proceeded many paces when his left arm (which he has since lost) was smashed to pieces with a grape shot and his right immediately after severely lacerated by cannister, but he still ran on cheering his men to the attack, till his arms dangling useless before him and being faint with the loss of blood he was compelled to stop.”
It was, for the British, a stirring victory: only seven men killed, only Jenkins and one other officer requiring amputations without the benefit of anaesthetic, the American fort ransacked and emptied, and the Yankees forced to retreat toward Lake Placid without their heavy guns. The whole thing lasted about 90 minutes. The War of 1812 lasted into 1815.
In year 150, it is even harder to get from Canada to Ogdensburg than it was in 1813. There the town remains, directly across the broad, dark river from Prescott, Ont., but anyone who would try to dash across the ice with a fixed bayonet in winter—or swim the channel for charity in summer without first informing the CIA, the FBI, the NSA and Jared Kushner—would lose more blood than poor Col. Jenkins.
On this day, John Lawless, a Parks Canada re-enactor, costumed for the mid-19th century, is looking yonder at Ogdensburg from Prescott’s handsomely restored Fort Wellington, which was built just in time for the War of 1812 to be over. With him is Caitlyn Quade, interpretation coordinator for the site. Their visitor is nearing the end of the trail, rambling coast to coast to the crashing oceans and then finishing along the bottom line.
“Would you fight the Americans again?” the young Canadians are asked.
“With a real heavy heart,” says Caitlyn Quade. “But only if they invaded us first.”
“If we ever went to war,” says John Lawless, “it would be with them, not against them. We’d be in it together.”
We are in a crêperie in Kingston, Ont., the Limestone City, once a French fur-trading post touched by Champlain, Frontenac and La Salle, once the home harbour of a British flotilla during the War of 1812, once a beacon for those men who chose to remain loyal to the Crown when their native Carolina, their Connecticut, their New York, their Virginia, fell to republican, rebel arms. Once the birthplace of Donald S. Cherry, a man whose loyalty to this Confederation is a public badge, worn much more loudly than most.
In Kingston, and to the west toward Bath and Adolphustown, Ont., and the Bay of Quinte, loyalty is an inheritance of defeat and banishment that has been transformed into, perhaps, the most fervent sort of belonging this quiet country can command. Hence “Loyalist Country,” “Loyalist Parkway,” the “United Empire Loyalist Heritage Centre and Park.” Though there are millions of others just as loyal, without shouting, simply by planting a flag on a rough-hewn pole at the edge of a swamp.
“Those Loyalists,” announced Lord Dorchester, the governor general of what was left of British North America after Washington and Hamilton and Jefferson and their ragamuffin army had turned the imperial world upside down, “who have adhered to the Unity of the Empire, and joined the Royal Standard before the Treaty of Separation in the year 1783, and all their children and their descendants by either sex, are to be distinguished by the following capitals, affixed to their names: U.E. Alluding to their great principle the Unity of the Empire.”
And indeed, Anne Redish, vice-president and genealogist of the Kingston branch of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Canada, is sitting in the crêperie wearing a lapel pin with the letters U.E. Redish, a theatrical set and costume designer, can trace her U.E. roots with admirable punctiliousness to more than a dozen 18th-century Loyalists. Her mission now is to imbue this same fealty in the Robledos and Senanayakes who have barely been here for a minute.
“Almost everyone in this country has ancestors who experienced upheaval, uprooting, dislocation from their original communities,” she says. “It doesn’t matter if it was the 1500s, the 1700s or 2016—they all had some kind of upset. Some sort of indignities. The United Empire Loyalists lost their houses, their neighbours, their businesses and their best friends, just because they were on the other side of a great question.
“It doesn’t really matter who your ancestors are. It matters that you know who your ancestors are, and that you know who the ancestors are. People are at their best when they have a true sense of belonging, whether it is through family ties or through history. This is what we try to instill in our new immigrants—that they now are joined with us in a bond of common experience. This is the only way to make the Canadian project succeed.”
Let us end just as this journey began: in a ghost town.
In 1848, a 33-year-old barrister and member of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada named John Alexander Macdonald, equipped with a Q.C. but without a capital D or much income, moved with his wife into an ostentatious Italianate mansion named Bellevue House in Kingston. The wife, Isabella, took to her bed and stayed there for the next year, when the Macdonalds moved on to cheaper lodgings and John A. to greater things.
Linda Joy Abel, U.E., hailed from here. Every street of her Kingston—our Kingston, for the more than two decades of my marriage to her—now throws spectres at a solitary traveller, just as the empty houses of Uranium City remain so eerily alive to those few who stayed. Nelson Street. Princess Street. Sunny Acres Road.
In 1891, Sir John A. was buried in a humble family plot in the Cataraqui Cemetery. In 2010, Linda was laid beside her parents and younger sister at Edenvale, a few miles to the north. Visiting both graves in one morning enfolds histories national and personal, historical and private, a union of provinces and memory.
No one else is near us. Of course, it rains.
And so a journey ends, as do lifetimes, one man’s hasty progress across land and loyalty, history and heritage.
But what about you?
Have you driven from St. John’s and watched a rainbow dive into the rough-cubed ice in Conception Bay?
Have you watched from the window of a midnight train the pickup trucks waiting at the clanging signal, their tailpipes respiring red-lit steam?
Have you raced a sunset to Saskatoon with a ballgame on the radio, bought a postcard at a general store and mailed it to your daughter, parked in awe beside a prairie slough, fluttering white with snow geese?
Have you watched winter’s frappuccino meltdown surge between towering walls of stone, urging the Fraser to the sea?
Have you turned your back to a sea-swept beach with all of Canada before you, waiting?
It is waiting still.