|Ken Faught, Toronto Star Photo|
|Diebel and Faught in Montreal during cross-country tour.|
Our online editors sought Canada Day photos and, with best wishes on our 141st birthday since Confederation, I present mine.
It's not my photo, but let me explain: It's of Star photographer Ken Faught and me on a cross-Canada trip at the end of 2004, my first since being back in the country after long stints as a foreign correspondent and Ken's last before going into management. How much more Canadian can you get than to do your travelling in December?
I was almost kissing the ground. There's nothing like being posted for years outside of Canada to make a person think about the essence of the nation — and my defining moment came during one of those seemingly mundane little episodes that turn out to branded forever in memory. We were five, friends having dinner in Mexico City, and the Mexicans began teasing the Swede and me about the strange, cold, northern places we call home. To them, we were the same; to us, we were completely different.
"Oh, you northerners are so cold," said a woman, laughing. She was being somewhat tactful because the Swede was her husband, but they still cut loose with all the clichés about Canada they'd ever heard. To be fair, she wasn't really talking so much about temperature, although she'd been to Canada in the winter, but about the silence of northerners compared to the constant clatter, conversation and intensity of life in a hot, crowded place. We all had another margarita before going our separate ways but that evening, I brooded for a long time on my balcony. It was that night, I think, I realized how homesick I was.
She's right about the silences. They are there, with our families, with our friends and with some of our greatest writers. In my view, it's there in the work of the two great Margaret's, Robertson Davies or Gilles Vigneault, all who convey great meaning with painful silence, metaphor and gesture. It's there in the beauty of Michael Ondaatje's prose, with its lonely yearning and misunderstandings.
I love the exuberance and colour of life in Latin America. But the silences between people can give us our sweet neuroses — and from away, we yearn for them, as well as the offbeat perspective of comedians who see the obvious between the lines. There is Canadian humour. I've always liked the answer to the contest to complete the phrase, "as Canada as," and the winner was "as Canadian as possible under the circumstances."
The silence also comes from the land. In my experience, it's the morning stillness of a northern lake, with the mist just rising and the occasional slap of a fish on the water, or the sound of my paddle. It's that same lake in the early summer twilight, with the haunting call of the loon coming across the water. It's because of the general feeling of silence we hear so sharply. Never, during all my time away, did I forget the sound of the loon, the whippoorwill, the summer grasshopper, the howl of the wolf or the call of migrating geese. I know, too, the sound of the mosquito. At home, they're a pain; away, they're like our fish stories. They were sooooo-ooooo big.
Silence and solitude. I've swum alone to a raft a few hundred metres out on a lake and stayed there of an afternoon, reading, swimming and watching cloud patterns across the sky. I've set out on a summer road by bicycle, destination unknown, opportunities boundless. Or skated for hours on a northern rink, round and round to music as if in a trance. The first zen moments of a northern child.
In many ways, the apartness of Canadians is well-suited to the business of being a foreign correspondent, or a journalist even.
I missed the seasons. You'd never think it, would you? But in Washington and, especially, Mexico City, where I slowly grew to recognize the different seasons and see their beauty, I enjoyed them, but they weren't mine. I don't think we necessarily need suffering to be true Canadians, but I ask you: can you really experience that wonderful, throw-up-your-arms, shout-and-dance feeling of spring, without having gone through winter?
The more I was away, the more I grew to recognize the inflections and tones of the many accents of Canada when I came home. I write in English and so I missed the sound of my own language. A writer needs that, even if only from time to time. Other Canadians miss the sound of other languages. Others thought I had the accent. Whenever he came by, the FEDEX guy in D.C. — who talked like Norm on Cheers — never failed to get a kick out of asking me to say, "out." Sometimes I would oblige him, although I never really got it.
And I grew nostalgic for the politeness. It's not merely a myth. Once, arriving in Vancouver straight from D.C. on a White House press charter, I remember being struck by the sudden politeness. At the airport, I heard the first person apologize for bumping into a pillar.
We have problems and injustices. No doubt. I'd like to wave a wand and fix everything. I wish we demanded more of our governments as citizens, especially in ending horrible inequality and getting rid of the indifference of politicians and ministries who sometimes forget who pays their salaries. I yearn for an election with the enduring message for whomever wins being: "Hey, you're not the boss of us!"
Still, when I came home, I was delighted. When I asked a Canadian border official if she wanted to see the documentation for my animals, she said; "Yeah sure, if they are foaming at the mouth." I thought that was the funniest thing I'd ever heard, which tells you how emotional I was.
I've talked about some of my favorite Canadians things, obviously shaped by my background and perspective. Yours is undoubtedly different. The Dominion Institute, an organization that tries to preserve and honour this country's history, has a survey out to determine the top 101 things on this Canada Day. Readers can share their views with this blog, or with the Institute's own site. (There's some bad new on the site too. According to a survey for the Institute by Ipsos Reid, Canadians know more about U.S. history — 47 per cent — than they do about their own — only 42 per cent.)
I wish you a final Happy Canada Day, and leave you with an anecdote about attitude. I know there are many unfavourable attitudes towards Canadians these days. However, I have experienced so many good ones. In the United States, I often used to often interview an African-American teacher working with students in inner-city D.C. Pretty rough. We used to have long conversations about race and he once asked me: "Do all Canadians think like you? ... I want to live there."
"Yes," I said.
We knew it wasn't true, strictly speaking. But he knew what I meant. Canada seems to me to be a C.S. Lewis kind of country, in the long run, more good than evil.