By Russell Wangersky
Perched high on Alberta’s Tunnel Mountain, I could look down and see the cloudy green melt-water of the Bow River in summer, see why it was called the Bow, and, climbing down the fossil-filled and up-thrust slabs of what had once been ocean floor, walk up to my ankles in June water so cold that it made the bones of my feet hurt.
It’s a feeling my bones are more than familiar with. Most of the time, I live in Newfoundland, where walking in the ocean at almost any time — along the sandy beach below Cape Pine, or almost anywhere else — makes you feel as if your marrow is fleeing the cold, and pulling painful away from the insides of your bones in the process.
It is a pain so intense that I can almost gather it up in memory, anticipate it, dread it.
Much like the feeling I get whenever anyone starts talking constitution, because, as soon as the words start, I can feel the dark pit opening up.
In late November, 2006, the House of Commons passed a motion proposed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to recognize the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada. It was one of those uniquely parliamentary parlour tricks. Harper was answering a motion by the Bloc Quebecois to recognize the Quebecois as a nation, the Bloc’s move itself a sort of follow-on to proposals within the federal Liberal leadership race.
Since that vote, Harper has gone out of his way to explain that the motion doesn’t confer any sort of additional powers to Quebecers. Fine — but it’s now just the kind of half-measure that has served to rile up everyone in both of Canada’s solitudes.
Those in Quebec felt pandered to, while those outside Quebec felt hard-done-by. And everyone will find a way to be engaged in picking away at old wounds.
I’ve been in the news business for 20 years, and I’ve watched what happens when someone decides we have to have to put old constitutional grievances back on the table. It quickly becomes an exercise in frustration, and the national equivalent of taking a shortcut across the train tracks without ever looking for the train.
I’ve lived for periods of time in five of Canada’s provinces – I know Nova Scotia and New Brunswick more than well, from the high grey maple stands behind Sussex, N.B. to the deep red flats of the Bay of Fundy. I’ve lived in the very heart of the manmade mountain terrain of downtown Toronto — the hard, three-dimensional concrete environment of King and Adelaide — and spent months in the snowy heights of the Rockies on Alberta’s side.
I’ve passed through or stayed briefly in every other province — from urbane downtown Montreal to wintery Winnipeg to the almost-empty flat prairie town of Chaplin, Sask., in the high simmering heat of summer — and there is no part of this country that I would view as anything but part of Canada.
I know we don’t understand each other and often have simplistic views about how others live — I also know that we can turn those views into hardened positions where no one thinks they can afford to back down safely, regardless of the damage we’re doing to our nation and our economy.
One day, I hope to get to Canada’s Territories. One day, as long as there are territories and a country left.
Standing on the barrens looking towards Newfoundland’s Hawke Hills, smelling the complicated mix of ground juniper and peat and Labrador tea, I don’t think of Canada as a bunch of separate nations. I don’t even see the need for declarations about nationhood from the House of Commons. This is a bad place to be. I feel it in my bones.
*** First published in Nov. 2006