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LOEWEN: From 'Two Solitudes' to a new Canada

Image Credit: Compilation/Jennifer Stahn
July 01, 2015 - 8:06 AM

Happy Canada Day from the searing shores of the Okanagan!

Perhaps yesterday’s brain-fryin’ at Kickinee Provincial Park under the relentless sun has me thinking goofy today, but I have decided Canada is a state-of-mind, a feeling as much spiritual as it is geo-political.

I’ve never been a huge lover of outlandishly-proportioned displays of national “pride.” The triumphalist narratives that tart up some nation’s brands leave me cold and unengaged. If you rip up a flag, I’m not gonna reach for my .9 mm. It’s cool, baby. Cool.

Call it a lack of national pride if you must, but I find the official chest-thumpings displayed archaic and so 19th century. So European and aspirational in a way that is off-putting and misdirected from a contemporary standpoint. From the standpoint of a colonial nationstate embroiled in the myriad crises before us.

But I do find it remarkable that Canada has managed to conjoin what were once deemed the “two solitudes” into a country that seems to work, more or less, and has managed to create a living space for so many other diverse cultures to boot.

The two solitudes, for you younger folks, refers of course to the French and the English of Canada. And for decades, the people of Quebec have been insisting that their culture is unique and worth preserving. At various points in our history the country has threatened to cleave into unequal halves over notions of identity.

But in the last few decades the rest of the country has come to accept Quebec’s reasonable position. In response, billions of dollars have been spent over the years to promote the study of French across the country as an official language. And we more or less appreciate the contributions from two distinct societies under the umbrella of a constitutional democracy.

My partner Wendy and I had a chance to visit Quebec City on business and pleasure a couple weeks ago. And we were charmed by the place even before we hit the runway.

Lying below us as our plane coursed over the St. Lawrence were slim sections of sensible seigneurial farms crowding the tree-lined shores of that great river. In the distance one could see four, five, six tin-roofed spires jutting out of clusters of stony villages and gently undulating hills rising to the north in the beyond. Quebec was lying luxuriantly beneath us, but our jaws dropped as our taxi entered “Vieux Quebec,” the historic old city.

For five days we trod the hilly streets hiking from upper Old Quebec to Lower Town by the harbour. Stopping to shop in accommodating independent businesses, sipping coffees in the crowded cafes of Vieux Quebec in Spring, music reaching us as roving pianists played Debussy or aging minstrels in period costume held forth with aged melodies for guitar and voice.

Architecturally the neo-classical buildings, some dating back to the early seventeenth century, lent a natural gravitas to the place. And the bustling trade taking place everywhere reminded one that this wasn’t just a Disneyfied theme park, but a living, breathing remnant of a culture that was over four hundred years in the making.

Absent from our experience in Quebec City was any sense that we were unwelcome. The old canard too-oft heard in these parts about snooty Francophone folk unwilling to engage with non-Quebeckers rang false. Everywhere we went — cafes, hotels, shops, museums, restaurants, in the streets at festivals taking place outside the Parliament Building and the Plains of Abraham — everywhere folks were regaling us with good cheer and suggestions to enrich our stay in their fabulous city.

It’s a feeling of welcome that we will not soon forget.

And it reminded me of what it is about this country, Canada, that I love best of all. No matter where you go — an after-hours booze can in Winnipeg after a concert, ambling the streets of Gas Town or Vancouver’s West End, attending a summer music festival in Salmon Arm or Kitchener, watching the salmon spawn in Adams River, checking out a farmers’ market in the Annapolis Valley, yukking it up at the Montreal Comedy Festival — there’s the feeling that you’re welcome, that you belong, no matter where you’re from.

We like that feeling of home, of belonging.

This Canada Day, I want to focus on that feeling of home, of belonging.

But I also want to be mindful that, even before European expansion created the existence of the two solitudes from whose shadows Canada is only now emerging, there were Indigenous Ur-Canadians first. And they are very much with us still.

Ironically, the billions of dollars that have been spent on creating a country from two distinct foreign European cultures and enshrining their special identities into a Canadian meta-narrative of sorts, these billions have not been seen by the original peoples peopling Canada. Without the First Nations, the New World conquerers couldn’t have made a proper foothold in even navigating this massive place called Canada.

As we celebrate Canada Day it is my hope that we remember those whose lands we occupy, Indigenous people whose voices we simply do not hear with anything more than sympathy from afar.

Because this century will be in large measure shaped by Indigenous Canadians who have managed to exist alongside dominant colonial cultures, folks who are now able to navigate the levers of power as effectively as any Pur Laine parliamentarian. Non-Indigenous Canadians can attempt to continue ignoring the mounting challenges from dispossessed First Nations; but they will be delusional. Their demands will be heard and eventually met. And we’d be well-advised to start partnering up in good faith to re-shape the narrative pretty damned quick. Before it’s too late and there’s more than just demonstrations in the streets.

So today I anticipate national celebrations to come in which all are truly included in the warp and weft that makes up this stunning tapestry of world cultures. The day we welcome all into our midst, guided by justice and concern for the least among us, is the day when a new Canada will be a home and native land for those lucky enough to be here. And that day will be a Happy Canada Day indeed.

— Jeffrey Loewen is a Kelowna-based writer to plays music by day and politics by night

News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015
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