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O Canada

During September 2019 we were in many places and that included Jerusalem at the start of the month and Ottawa at the end. It would have been difficult to avoid the thought that these were opposite cities. From the Mount of Olives you can look down and across at Old Jerusalem, its walls and surroundings. It is beige and hot and ancient and, when you get there, tense and edgy. If you have read, as you should have, Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “biography” of the city you know you are looking at the site of three millennia of rape, slaughter, occupation and enforced exile from the Assyrians and Babylonians to the “Young Turks” and Allenby’s (relatively well behaved) British army.

When you look at Ottawa from Gatineau, across the river in Quebec, there is also a kind of citadel consisting of the very British looking government buildings standing on a cliff above the river. All is grey and green, cool and tediously dignified. And whereas Jerusalem is one of those places which defines historic time the site of Ottawa was only chosen (by the youthful Queen Victoria on the advice of a committee) in 1841. Americans joked that British North America now had a capital, but that nobody could find it in the woods. On the other hand, both Jerusalem and Ottawa are multi-ethnic cities, but so are most places in the twenty first century.

There was an election on in Canada when we were there and it was (sort of) won by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals who achieved the status of largest party without having an overall majority, a situation Canadians regard as being well within the range of normality. The leader of the National Democratic Party, generally regarded as being to the “left” of the Liberals, was Jagmeet Singh. He was out pressing the flesh when he was accosted by a man who advised him to get rid of his Sikh beard and turban in order to “look more Canadian”. Singh replied that he already looked Canadian, the point being that Canadians could look like any damn thing they liked (my summary rather than his words). In doing so he echoed a cartoon in the Museum of History which shows a caricature Englishman, Scotsman, Frenchman, Irishman, Inuit and “first nation” chieftain all paddling a canoe as a symbolic version of Canadian unity in wartime. It would be very un-Canadian to persecute anybody for being un-Canadian. For the record Singh and his would-be advisor parted on good terms and the NDP increased its share of the vote more than any other anglophone party.

Canada’s identity is elusive. Superficially, to the visitor from outside North America, it looks much like the USA because the suburbs, the houses, the road lay-outs, the stores, the cheeseburgers and so on look the same. It is often remarked that 90% of Canadians live within a hundred miles of the US border, leaving the rest of the vast country all but unpopulated. The current prime minister’s father, Pierre Trudeau, famously said that the country’s geographical position was like having an elephant in your bedroom: it may be a well-behaved elephant, but it was still an elephant. But for all the superficial similarities, the differences are more profound.

The USA represents, surely, the greatest feat of nation-building in history. This has been partly achieved by the charm and intellectual brilliance of the arrangements established by the Founding Fathers, but it has also required sustained and immense violence. By comparison Canada’s nation-building efforts look rather feeble: Quebec nearly seceded as recently as the 1990s and the secessionists made gains in the election we witnessed. There are also currently distinct mutterings of secession from Alberta. The main issue here is a pipeline which would allow the oil from the province to be sold at much higher prices in Asia rather than locally: it is opposed by British Columbia, but also by several other states. Canada’s unity constantly seems more endangered than that of the USA. But a fragile and contested sense of nationality is still a sense of nationality and can have considerable advantages. One of these is the question of free speech: compare a country where nationality and patriotism can be contested with one, south of the border, where severe sanctions can be imposed on any doubters.

English visitors to Canada should note a widespread anglophilia and remember that our two countries have consistently fought on the same side in wars for more than two centuries. The anglophilia exists despite – or perhaps because of – a “repatriated” constitution in which the Governor-General, now always a Canadian, is effectively a non-executive president and the Queen a very distant figure. In our guest house in Fredricton and at the party we attended in small-town Ontario there were pictures of the Queen, as there are on the currency, and it all felt very Anglo-colonial. Of course it doesn’t feel like that on an urban bus where there is an atmosphere indistinguishable from areas of the US with high recent immigration.

There are several related and striking contrasts with visiting Australia where monarchy is contentious and where the English are subject to forms of banter which the polite Canadians would not consider. Of course with the Australians there are intense sporting rivalries to unite and divide us which are entirely absent from the Anglo-Canadian relationship. I always feel that Australians know English culture such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Fawlty Towers as well as the English do whereas Canadians like us more but know us less.

If Canada were a person he or she would be big, friendly, but slightly shy, impressively bilingual, often ignored – and impossible to dislike.

Lincoln Allison November 2019