Red Maple Leaf by A.Y. Jackson: The National Gallery of Canada writes: “Painted in A.Y. Jackson's Toronto studio in November 1914, this landscape is based on a sketch from nature produced along the Oxtongue River in Algonquin Park. With its foreground screen of fragile young branches and fluttering red leaves set against a background of churning rapids, this composition captures a distinctive natural phenomenon in Canada, and one symbolic of budding nationalist sentiments, which the outbreak of war a few months earlier had made more acute.”
Photo Credit: National Gallery of Canada; November 1914
Source: National Gallery
When I was in high school, in the 1970s, we learned a lot about Canadian geography; I do not know if this is the case today. One of the parameters that define a nation is its geography, and Canada has much of it, the second largest country in the world after Russia. And most of it is found in what would be described as the frozen north, north of the 60, that is, north of latitude 60 as such things are measured on global maps.
And, yet, like most Canadians, I reside in a thin strip of geography close to the border we share with the United States. Like most Canadians, I reside in an urban area. I now reside in Toronto, and before that in Montreal, where I was born. Unlike any other nation, except for Russia, a great majority of people do not reside outside this thin ribbon. Yet, the major part of Canada, unseen and hidden from our everyday view, reminds us about the importance of Canada's geography. This is what in many ways defines us Canadians; Canada is about geography, the land, its hugeness, vastness and its natural diversity and how we survive within it.
Many years ago, I was driving an Israeli businessman west outside of Montreal; after driving for about an hour, he remarked how large, how vast and how much green forest defined Canada (this was during the summer). All this is true and expected for the world's second-largest nation that has vast riches in natural resources, including its rich and diverse forests and fauna.
How important is geography? More important than I had originally thought sitting in that high-school classroom taught by Mr. Davies. During this time, there was much written and discussed about Canadian identity; one of the prevailing views was that we Canadians defined ourselves as not Americans, and some took this as a negative, in that we didn't have our own identity, that we did not have a definition of who we were, or are.
But we do; but it it not as precise or particular as some would like. For example, if you place an American and a Canadian in the same room with a Brit and a German, the non-Americans will immediately know who the Canadian is, and it has nothing to do with politeness or niceness or aloofness. Or some other sentiment that many Americans hold about Canadians. If you look at films, for example; Canadian films differ than American ones. (e.g., one is about conquering and owning the land; the other is about understanding and accommodating the land. Lately, as an aside, I haven’t seen too many well-made or thoughtful American films, now preferring Canadian documentaries and foreign-produced films.)
For reasons that everything to do with whom I have become, I now have a hard time viewing American news or American-made films and TV shows (although I enjoy Charlie Rose and many PBS cultural shows). I find many overly strident, noisy and, of course, U-S.-centric without a concerned international understanding of the world and of other peoples; the combined effect is that I am reminded that I am neither American nor could never be, despite previous desires to become. (My favourite Canadian-produced shows are Murdoch Mysteries, The Nature of Things and Doc Zone.) This is not American bashing or a bout of envy, but a sentiment of mature preferences, and nothing more. Yet, I have respect for many things and ideas American, even if many Americans do not. Again, this has to do with the intersection of geography and the culture it generates.
There is a reason for this view or change of heart. I am a Canadian at heart, but like most Canadians I neither wear this on my sleeve, nor see a rational reason why I ought to, chiefly because I am a Canadian. The question then is asked, So, what is Canada? a Canadian? The answer, if it can be found, returns to geography, and our history of survival in a cold, harsh climate and carving a civilization from it. Unlike the American idea of conquering the land and of manifest destiny, Canadians view it as an accommodation, a co-existence with the land. You can’t really conquer Canada; you can only live within its boundaries in a way that gives beauty and pleasure. And a feeling of survival from the elements. This is starkly different from living in a warmer climate; Russians understand this, and their novels reflect this understanding, as do Canadian novels.
Consider Margaret Atwood’s Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature, which was published in 1972:
The central symbol for Canada -- and this is based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature - is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance. Like the Frontier and The Island, it is a multi-faceted and adaptable idea. For early explorers and settlers, it meant bare survival in the face of "hostile" elements and/or natives: carving out a place and a way of keeping alive. But the word can also suggest survival of a crisis or disaster, like a hurricane or a wreck, and many Canadian poems have this kind of survival as a theme; what you might call 'grim' survival as opposed to 'bare' survival. For French Canada after the English took over it became cultural survival, hanging on as a people, retaining a religion and a language under an alien government. And in English Canada now while the Americans are taking over it is acquiring a similar meaning. There is another use of the word as well: a survival can be a vestige of a vanished order which has managed to persist after its time is past, like a primitive reptile This version crops up in Canadian thinking too, usually among those who believe that Canada is obsolete.You can also read a New York Times piece (“Canadians Writers Debate Nationalism”: April 24, 1973), by Jay Waltz. Canadian nationalism or patriotism is not something that receives much attention today, the discussion diminishing, notably after the signing of two free trade agreements with the United States, first in 1989, then in 1994.
But the main idea is the first one: hanging on,staying alive. Canadians are forever taking the national pulse like doctors at a sickbed: the aim is not to see whether the patient will live well but simply whether he will live at all. Our central idea is one which generates, not the excitement and sense of adventure or danger which the Frontier holds out, not the smugness and/or sense of security, of everything in its place, which The Island can offer, but an almost intolerable anxiety. Our stories are likely to be tales not of those who made it but of those who made it back, from the awful experience -- the North, the snowstorm, the sinking ship -- that killed everyone else. The survivor has no triumph or victory but the fact of his survival; he has little after his ordeal that he did not have before, except gratitude for having escaped with his life.
As for our national identity, I am not sure what Ms. Atwood now thinks about it; what I can say is that she has become a fine writer and a national treasure, holding an international reputation that extends far beyond our borders. Canada has established itself as a place where one can “survive nicely,” without the fanfare or fuss of other places, including Britain or the U.S. We celebrate life in our way, which to some might be understated, but so be it. Too much noise and dissonance is distracting and unpleasant, causing unbalance and disharmony, which is less than enjoyable.
There we have it. Despite its geography, its climate, its peculiarities (or because of it), there is no other place I would like to live. Only a Canadian would understand this. Understandably so.