Beauty Tips from Moose JawTravels in Search of Canada
Grove PressCopyright © 2005 Will Ferguson
All right reserved.ISBN: 9781841956527
It’s rare to remember exactly where you were when an idea first occurred to you–or at least, it’s rare for me. I usually wander through life gathering notions and hunches the way trouser pockets gather bits of lint; I’m not really sure how they got there, but there they are. In this case, though, I can recall vividly where I was when it dawned on me that Canada is not a country but a collection of outposts: it was while I drove through a night of heavy rain, into the realm of a legendary republic, a sleeping child and drowsy spouse beside me.
We’d been on the road for hours, heading into northern New Brunswick. The wipers sloshed back and forth, barely able to keep the windshield clear. Bucket-throws of water washed across our view. At midnight, we crossed over into dangerous territory. The Republic of Madawaska. A self-proclaimed independent state, Madawaska is wedged between the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick and the state of Maine. The population is francophone, but the people are neither Québécois nor Acadian; they are les Brayons. And Madawaska is their heartland: La République.
Northrop Frye, scholar and soul-searcher, noted that what set Canada apart in the western hemisphere was our lack of a distinguishable frontier – a line that advanced purposefully across the map like an isobar separating one world from another, with “settlement” on one side and “vanishing wilderness” on the other. In this, our experiences diverged drastically from those of the United States. The American “frontier thesis” – a heavily symbolic narrative of progress and order steamrolling over the chaos of an untamed land–may be historically suspect, but its psychological impact on American society cannot be underestimated. By contrast, historian Donald Creighton advanced for Canada a “metropolitan thesis,” in which the flow of ideas and goods fanned outward from various urban centres to small scattered pockets of civilization–to outposts, in effect. In a country as sparsely populated and as vast as Canada, it could hardly have been otherwise, and this reality of who we are is played out before our eyes from the window of any given airplane on any given night. Beyond the luminous glow of the major cities, the metropolis melts away into a yawning darkness, an empty space punctuated only by intermittent clusters of light.
The effect upon the Canadian psyche, Frye argued, was something he called the “garrison mentality”: a sense of dread and loneliness bred into us from cowering behind palisaded walls, far from “home” in a land as savage as it was indifferent. The existential heebie-jeebies, as it were. (Our obsessive love of enclosed shopping malls can be seen as a continuation of this nervous tic, though personally I blame the weather.)
But garrison is too dark a word. “Garrison” suggests gnawing despair and impending attack. I prefer the term “outpost,” because it includes a wider range of possibilities. Outposts are not only geographic; they can be linguistic, political, cultural – even philosophical. I think of French Quebec and English Victoria, but also of the populist ideals embodied in Calgary’s unflagging optimism; I think of the exiled Acadians and the outcast Loyalists, of First Nations, once shattered, now regrouping. I think of failed utopias and deluded colonization schemes. Of fortunes lost and fortunes found. I think of mythical kingdoms and gold mountains. I think of the descendants of the Underground Railroad and the Gaelic communities of Cape Breton, and of the Cree in my hometown and the Mennonite colony nearby.
Outposts can become enclaves–the Anglos in Montreal or the Lebanese in Charlottetown–and enclaves can disappear. Such was the case of Vancouver’s black community in Hogan’s Alley, or of Halifax’s Africville. Or of the “thirteen lost tribes” of Canada’s Jewish Colonization Society that once existed in farming communes and hamlets between Winnipeg and the Rockies. Where are the remittance men of Windermere, British Columbia? Where are the French counts of Whitewood, Saskatchewan? The Acadians of Grand Pré? But beyond these tales of the defeated and the dispossessed, Canada’s outposts represent small triumphs of survival. Mini-epics of continuity. The French fact is a compelling example of this.
Communities overlap. Orbits collide. And outposts spin off from one another, as well. In Fort McMurray, Alberta, a tar sands town dedicated to wringing wealth from the earth, I once found myself in the colony of a colony, an outpost of an outpost. You’ve heard of Chinatown and Little Italy. In the tar sands of Alberta, a freewheeling “Newfoundland West” has taken hold. Fort McMurray’s lively (read: rowdy) ex-pat community (read: highly paid rig workers) has transformed this remote, landlocked city into one of the largest Newfoundland communities outside of St. John’s. Newfoundland, in turn, can be considered an outpost of Ireland . . . and on it goes.
Do you remember that old Roger Whittaker song “Canada Is,” with its rah-rah boosterism and its shopping list of locales? (Canada is the Rocky Mountains, Canada is Prince Edward Island. . . . ) Well, that song now seems profound. Canada is a sum of its regions. It is the outports and the outposts, the side streets and the stubborn enclaves, the city cul-de-sacs and the far-flung towns. That’s what Canada is.
The presence of outposts is evident in other immigrant nations, but in Canada it has become something of a defining trait. Whereas the United States had a frontier, and countries like Argentina and France and England have the Capital, one clear, overpowering, political, social and cultural center – Buenos Aires, Paris and London being the national Death Stars of their respective countries – Canada has no single central city. It has scattered metropolises of various sizes, regional outposts with their own spheres of influence. There is no London, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Canada’s increasingly eclectic, multicultural urban reality only highlights this patchwork character of ours. Far from being homogenizing agents, Canadian cities have increasingly come to resemble jigsaw puzzles jumbled together from dozens of different boxes, in which the various disparate pieces still somehow, sort of, almost fit.
I have spent the last three years travelling among the outposts and enclaves of Canada. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw recounts some of these travels. It is, I freely admit, a highly subjective, site-specific look at our country. I begin at the Pacific and then work my way east, from the southern end of Vancouver Island to the northern tip of Newfoundland. A more typical approach would have been to start in the east and proceed westward, following the route of European expansion. But that would give the impression of purpose, of events unfolding according to some grand master plan. Going against the sun creates a very different effect. Moving from west to east, you peel back the layers of history as you go. The trips I took are not presented here in strict chronological order, which is why my son Alex is three years old in one chapter and an infant in the next. I apologize if you find this confusing. And yes, this is one of those fake “Canadian apologies,” where you say it but don’t really mean it.
When the explorer Samuel Hearne first attempted to walk from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean in 1769, he knew he was about to enter what was for him, terra incognita, an “unknown country.” In preparation for his trek, Hearne sketched out the shoreline on a deerskin parchment, but he left the interior blank; he would fill things in as he went, adding details as he travelled. In a similar fashion, I wanted to fill in the broad outline of my own map of Canada, to add small but telling details to the cartography I carry inside me. True, unlike Hearne, I didn’t have to eat raw caribou hearts to survive, or cross arctic ice in a raging blizzard – but I was almost mugged by a gang of moose, and I did get a really bad blister on one toe. (When writing a travel memoir, it is always important to stress the hardships one has faced.)
I would have kept travelling if I could have, but that wasn’t possible. At some point you need to stop moving and try to put what you’ve seen into perspective. This book, then, is an attempt at coming to terms with this country, my own incomplete version of “Canada Is.” Canada is a Moose Jaw morning, Canada is a Sleeping Giant, Canada is the St. John’s harbour. . . .
I hope you enjoy it. And if you don’t, I apologize.