O Canada

A celebration of our cousins to the north

By Brian Doyle | July 31, 2015
Alex Indigo/Flickr
Alex Indigo/Flickr


Of the nearly four million square miles of the Dominion of Canada, I have strolled but a handful; but I have savored those few, and wish to celebrate them here, starting with old cold massive granitic Montréal, one of those world-cities of a character independent of their host countries, but somehow also incarnations and exemplars and distillations of their national energies at the same time; so that in the winding streets and narrow alleys of that ancient citadel on a hill (or more accurately three hills, Royal, Murray, and West), you can hear the various languages of conquest and commerce, and see hints and intimations of the Abenaki and Micmac and Huron people, who lived there for thousands of years, and sense the burl and prim and pride of the citizens today, their sports and literature, their fads and furies, their deep conviction that there is Mother Montréal, and then there are some other cities in Canada, collectively gazing up at Montréal covetously, or angrily, or worshipfully, or bitterly, or all of the above at once, each pretender mouthing tinny civic trumpery, but secretly in its dark urban heart wishing it could be the ancient city of stone on Colline de la Croix, the mountain of the cross.

And I sing Vancouver, sprawling and moist and salty and alive with the myriad languages of the Pacific, seaport to the Far East, capital of a tremendous wilderness of rock and rain stretching from the densest wettest forests on earth to the Kingdom of the Ice, ruled by pale bears and the weak and fitful sun. And bustling Victoria, once the last outpost of imperial England and now happily capital of its own huge island. And Jasper and Banff, brisk and bracing and icy and grinning and filled with laughter and money. And Calgary the king of wheat, and Toronto the queen of music, and Ottawa and Québec shrill with politics, and the thrumming cities of the plains, Winnipeg and Edmonton and Regina and Saskatoon, and the cities of the sea, Saint John and Halifax and Nainamo, and the villages of the furthest north, with names that mean the place that never thaws, and the place of two startled people, and the place where people find things, and the place with no dawn, and the place where gulls come to rest.

As can be said of any vast country, there are so many Canadas, each arisen from geology and weather, wind and war, story and savagery, and no one place encompasses or explains them all; but each of its thousand stories of place and people is a crucial thread in the national fabric. Like many other countries, it began as a story filled with uncountable millions of beings, none of them human, until the arrival finally of people with spears and boats, flooding in behind retreating seas of ice; and then more people with their new languages and gods and weapons, and wars over which power far away would control the virginal market, and finally a quiet national independence, achieved with patience and guile rather than bullets and beheadings; and now there is the Dominion of Canada, a tremendous story rimmed by ice and salt water, shoulder-to shoulder with an enormous muscular disputatious cousin, so often a friend and as often a disgruntled and testy and impetuous and violent neighbor.

Two immense nations share the continent once called Turtle Island by its first peoples, and for all the seethe of competition and screech of disparate opinion about this and that, they share it with general respect and affection, and a sort of clannish pleasure. Not once have we been to war; many times we have gone to war together; many millions of our citizens have peaceably wandered back and forth over the imaginary line between us; and not even the most fervid mania can imagine a time when we will not be teammates on our fifth of the blessed earth. Rarely do we salute and celebrate each other as cousins, friends, partners; let us do so today, with gratitude, with a song in our hearts, with a smile.

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