Last year

Last year we were in Ottawa for Canada Day. Oldest son worked at the Canadian Museum of History and we went to see the exhibits he’d developed in his 4 years there. It was wonderful week, with a few days in the Eastern Townships exploring on our own, and spending time with Forrest, Manon, and Arthur in Ottawa. On July 1st, we went over to the Museum to watch the huge screens showing what was going on across the river. It rained. We got soaked. But the crowds—huge and peaceful—made the whole evening so festive and lively. The fireworks were extraordinary. Manon took this photograph of starbursts and light above the Alexandra Bridge. We had to cross the bridge later on our walk back, though I confess we stopped at one point and called for an Uber ride for the last few kilometers home. (It was long after midnight and we’d had to walk miles already that day, as the buses in Ottawa couldn’t negotiate the huge crowds in front of the Parliament buildings.)


This year, we’re home. Just us. And it was a day of chores. John made the most ingenious door in a window of our utility room so that the cat Winter can let himself in and out because we are weary of his nocturnal habits. He goes outside after his dinner but then he wants in around, oh, 3 or 4 a.m. He comes to the window right above my pillows and either cries in the most piteous way or else he pummels the French door leading from the sun-room off our bedroom to the deck. You are dreaming, dreaming of something wonderful, and then you wake to the strangest sound that you realize is cat feet on glass. Thus the door in the window, the place where the small screen was. There’s a pine shelf he can easily jump up to and then a chair in the utility room so that he can hop down. After the door was finished, John returned to the current project, which is deconstructing the little deck off our printshop, so that he can salvage any usable lumber and rebuild to ensure another 25 years of safe entry and exit into the place where we print our High Ground Press broadsheets.

I took manure around various areas—cabbage patch, salad boxes, potted tomatoes and tomatillos, the beans that are climbing up their arrangements of poles to the sky. Because it’s been so wet, I was thinking that everything needed a good feed and the compost box is pretty much empty.

Last year we were in Ottawa and this year, home. But home, in a way, is the whole country. I’ve lived on both coasts and have been in the north, though not yet to Nunavut. The landscapes change, the accents (and even the languages) change, but somehow it does feel like it’s all home. We have our difficult history to come to terms with but we also value things that sound so small when you use words for them. Civility. Reasonable manners. Care and kindness for the most part. An extraordinary diversity.

This morning I was lying in my bed, drinking my coffee, and I could hear the radio downstairs. I wasn’t really listening, but then I was. Because it was Joni Mitchell, singing one of my favourite songs, the one I used to hear when I lived on Crete and the tavernas played Blue over and over again. I loved it then and I love it still.

On the back of a cartoon coaster
In the blue TV screen light
I drew a map of Canada
Oh Canada
With your face sketched on it twice
Oh you’re in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet

Oh I could drink a case of you darling
Still I’d be on my feet
oh I would still be on my feet

In those years, I thought I might live elsewhere, I couldn’t imagine a future in which I lived on a piece of land for nearly 40 years, but I live here, with great joy. Is it the country that’s in my blood like holy wine? In a way it is. There’s lots of hand-wringing about our place in the world, our history with its difficult chapters. Last year I wrote this after our Canada Day in Ottawa and it still rings true for me:

From where we were, we couldn’t see the tipis by the main stage in front of Parliament. There’s a lot wrong with our country and it’s a good time to remember those things. It’s too late in our history for the injustices to go unchecked and unacknowledged. Economic and educational disparity, poor water: all of it, any of it, is unacceptable. But we also have a country in which great things are possible and we need to insist on fairness and equality. Looking at all the faces around me, listening to them sing, watching the fathers hold their children up to see the beautiful lights in the sky, and the mothers consoling babies for whom the noise was too much, the teenagers waving wands decorated with maple leaves and carrying little flags, I felt I was part of something big and beautiful. Not perfect. But it’s up to us to try harder, to insist that those we elect work towards a better system that serves us all well, not just some of us. Or maybe even most of us.

“it is understood that we are at liberty”

an Anishinaabe basket, a calcite ps ikaite rock from Ellesmere Island

The day after the day after Canada Day (or Dominion Day as it was called during my childhood). Ours was quiet. We walked up along the Malaspina trail where the northern flickers (ours are red-shafted) rose  as we approached, reminding me of the wonderful play we saw in May. When their wings are spread, you can imagine them in firelight or starlight; you can see how their movements inspired the Dancers of Damelahamid. They fly from the meadow to the fringe of trees where the deep woods begin, from light to shadow. Everywhere up the mountain, the berries are ripening — trailing bramble, huckleberries, black-caps, salmonberries — and the ground is strewn with bear scats, reminding us that others walk the same trails. At one point I could smell elk — grassy and pungent, like horses.

In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, I’ve been reading as much as I can about what the success of the leave vote means to Europe and to the rest of the the world. We often go to England. John is Yorkshire-born — his family came to Canada when he was five years old — and we both did our first degrees in English Literature. I know that this doesn’t mean what it once did,  and that the canon has expanded, as it should have decades before it did, and that universities protected a certain kind of perspective for too long. But that doesn’t mean that the perspective, the literature, the matrix of that culture, is negligible. Not at all. Everything has had to adjust to the understanding that many stories, histories, narratives of time and place need to be known, heard, nourished, and most certainly taught in a formal and informal way. Our museums need to expand. Our critical vocabularies — for visual art, for music, for story-telling of all sorts — need to grow. Our media outlets need to develop ways for all the stories to find new ways to tell themselves to us — and to each other. All the words we hear now — reconciliation, redress, apology: yes, yes; of course. But they don’t replace what we’ve heard for decades. They provide context and a lexicon for understanding. And it works both ways. If voices have been silent or silenced, let’s hear them now. But I want to hear them all. I want Shakespeare and the dream tales of the Dane-zaa. I want Mozart and Tanya Tagaq.

And I want to know the older histories and prehistories too with their own astonishing stories. It’s part of where we are and who we are and how we came to be here. My family roots in Canadian soil stretch back only a hundred years. But this is my home and I love every inch of it. I’m proud to stand on Wellington Street by the Houses of Parliament and remember the dates and names we were taught in school. There was a lot missing and I want to know that too, like the history that took place on the islands in the river below the buildings. And who paddled the canoes on that river, what they carried, where they came from, where they were going. And if the noisy ones among us can be quiet for a bit and listen, we can find out some of that other story. But it’s not other, not really. It’s original and important. That we ignored and tricked and silenced and cheated our way — or at least the we who were those who preceded us — into this country is not something to take pride in. But there was also courage and resilience. Samuel Champlain on the Big River. Alex MacKenzie from Canada by land July 22 1793. On that journey to Bella Coola, Alexander MacKenzie also recorded a vocabulary of the Carrier language, collected at what is now Alexandria on the Fraser River; his list included dekin (wood), lah (hand), yezey (elk), igan (arrow), and coun (fire). A practical guide to the country.

I’m reading the text of the Fort Victoria and other Vancouver Island Treaties, 1850-1854 right now; it should be required reading for residents of the Island, and elsewhere.

The condition of the or understanding of this sale is this, that our village sites and enclosed fields are to be kept for our own use, for the use of our children, and for those who may follow after us; and the land shall be properly surveyed hereafter. It is understood, however, that the land itself, with these small exceptions, becomes the entire property of the white people forever; it is understood that we are at liberty to hunt over the unoccupied lands, and to carry on our fisheries as formerly.

We have received, as payment, Twenty-seven pounds ten shillings sterling.

Our family is, well, a Canadian family. We have a rich mixture of heritage. In my generation: Czech, the province of Bukovina, Polish, and although my mother was given up at birth, she knew her parents’ names: MacDonald and McDougal and these surely suggest Scottish. In John’s: English and Scottish. Our children’s partners bring Irish, English, French and Franco-Ontarian and Anishinaabe. There are dark-haired people at our table, blonds, red-heads, light brown; there are blue eyes and dark brown and hazel and grey. (My father’s eyes were green.) Long-legged, sturdy, small noses and large. There are scientists and poets, historians and classicists, and I hope there will be musicians and botanists one day too. And those who love gardens, maps, the sound of water, birdsong, who know where the deer lie down, when the fish return each autumn, how to read the stars, follow a game trail, know how to replicate the inks used to embellish the Book of Kells, and any number of other essential skills.

I tried to think my way through all of this on Canada Day and found it was better to just take in the weather, the sound of fireworks down on the lakes (the summer people bring their noise!), to hope that my pleasure in the world doesn’t mean someone else’s sorrow, and that we all find a way to live on the earth without destroying it.

“the trout are true”

across the Fraser River

Canada Day. I never knew I was a nationalist until I spent time out of the country when I was a young woman. In those years we had a prime minister to be proud of. Of course I’m thinking of Pierre Trudeau. I never voted Liberal but apart from some fairly draconian moves (the War Measures Act comes to mind), he was a pretty good reflection of my values or at least a compromised version of them. Maybe I mean a consensual version of them. When I was in France in March, I had a brief conversation with a young couple in a bakery. They confessed they were hoping to emigrate to Canada because they felt that the French (and I think they also meant the EU) leadership had betrayed them. But Canada! John and I told them that our country certainly had the potential to be so much better than it currently is but it will take work. And new leadership. Reading the Tyee this morning (my favourite online news source), I felt a kind of despair at the portrait Ian Gill paints of Canada in 15 years.

It will take some effort to get rid of this terrible government and I’m willing to contribute.

In the meantime, another beautiful hot day has dawned. When I went out to water the vegetable garden, the robins were waiting in the trees nearby. And when I fill their bath, they settle in to duck their heads and flutter their wings. I watched one of them raise its head, beak open, and then it sang. So late in the season but still the urgency to sing.

I wish you Happy Canada Day. May we recover our beautiful country before it’s too late. Here’s a short section from Patrin, in which the fictional character travels with her parents to Edmonton to visit her paternal grandmother. Of course it’s based on a childhood memory, though we never had anything so fancy as a trailer. The trout are true, though. And ice-cream at Edson.


From Patrin:

When I was very young, we went to Edmonton every summer to visit my grandmother. We never questioned that this was the way we’d spend the two weeks of holiday time my father received from his employer, a marine communications firm. My parents owned a small trailer, which my mother spent the week before our departure readying for the journey. Bedding was aired and packed away in the storage cupboards under the seats. She made food—meatloaves, spaghetti sauce, macaroni casserole—which she froze and then put into the trailer’s icebox the night before we left. This meant we didn’t need to buy ice until two or three days into the trip. We meandered a bit, took our time. My father liked to fish so we spent an extra night or two at various lakes and rivers along the Yellowhead Highway where he’d get up early and try to catch our breakfast, and my mother read magazines—I remember Redbook and Good Housekeeping—in a folding lawn chair by the side of the lake, her legs turning golden brown in the sun. As advised by the magazines, she wore a hat to protect her face and prevent premature aging.

I swam. I didn’t like to fish because it always seemed that the fish looked straight into my eyes as they came up on the line, panicking and thrashing to free themselves. The one time I deftly removed the hook from the throat of a fine rainbow trout and released it back into the river, my father had such a fit I thought he’d burst.

Swimming, I could forget that I was taller than most other girls my age, that I was dark and about as unlike Hayley Mills as someone could be, and just push myself away from the shore into green water. I’d float face down as long as I could, looking at weeds and tiny bullheads, then turn to face the sun, my eyes washed clean. I had my father’s skin and never burned.

I asked him questions. Did you travel here with your parents? No, he said. We had no holidays. We worked. Ever, I asked. Not ever. And were there cousins? None that I knew, though my mother came to Canada with sisters and brothers, but they had no contact. What about your father’s side of the family? That’s enough questions, he said, with such finality that I didn’t try again.

We stopped, always, at Maligne Canyon where we looked down so far to water that I felt dizzy, felt like the planet had tilted and I had lost my gravity. After that, it was a morning’s drive to Edmonton, with one stop at Edson for ice cream and somewhere else to eat meatloaf sandwiches before we arrived. My mother poured coffee from the dented silver thermos for my father and for herself, and I had lemonade from the jar she kept in the icebox.

Once we’d arrived, my father backed the trailer into the weedy driveway next to the small house he’d grown up in, and my mother took her gift of apples and peaches into my grandmother’s kitchen, which smelled of her—wool and smoke and something she rubbed into her knees when they ached.