Archive for the ‘Canada’ Category

Justin Trudeau’s announcement that half his cabinet will be women has misogynists creeping out of their closets all across Canada. Their concerns are as predictable as their intent is obvious as they mask their sexism with a facade of concern and pseudo-logic.

Some of the point they studiously avoid include:

  • Their assumption is that most men become cabinet ministers based on merit. While they will acknowledge that nepotism and politics play major roles in cabinet, they immediately go on to talk as though merit was the only criteria.
  • Their assumption is that most women will be hired because of a quota, not because of merit. This is a common complaint against affirmative action, but it ignores the fact that Trudeau , like any other boss would be rash to hire someone who lacked any qualities that made them fit for their job.
  • The only people who could unreservedly be said to be qualified to be a cabinet minister is someone who has held the position before. Obviously, though, there has to be a first time for all cabinet ministers.
  • No one complains seriously about nepotism, political favors, regional representation, or any of the other considerations that go into putting a cabinet together. Even the tainted considerations are simply accepted as the way things are done. How is affirmative action is supposed to be any worse?
  • Cabinet ministers, no matter how qualified, depend on staff and deputies, especially when they are first sworn in. So long as they listen to to all this experience, cabinet ministers have trouble being completely incompetent.
  • If cabinet minsters prove unsuitable for their position, they can be asked to resign, or cabinet positions can be canceled. It’s not as though there is no precedence for dealing with incompetence in cabinet.
  • No concrete set of criteria exists for being a cabinet minister except that the prime minister is willing to work with someone. Therefore, it is nonsense to talk about whether anyone is qualified for the position or not.

Anyone who is really concerned about fairness should be advocating ways to guarantee fairness, not sniping at the idea of more women in cabinet. As things are, their choice tells us all we need to know about their motives, and why we shouldn’t take them seriously.

Read Full Post »

Around Remembrance Day, I always make a point of listening to the orginal cast recording of Billy Bishop Goes to War. It’s a suitable observance, because I know of no other piece of writing that covers so many different reactions to combat.

If you’re not Canadian, you’ve probably never heard of Billy Bishop Goes to War, but it’s one of the most-performed Canadian plays of the last forty years. Originally written and performed in 1978 by John Gray and Eric Peterson, it’s a one man show (or one plus a piano player) about how William Avery Bishop from the small town of Owen Sound, Ontario went from being a perennial screwup to one of the leading flying aces in World War One. Revised several times since its first performance, the play draws heavily on Bishop’s own autobiography, as well as many of the jokes and traditions of the war. During the course of the play, the actor playing Bishop also plays over a dozen other characters, ranging from a female torch singer and a drunken cavalry officer in a bar to Alderman Lady St. Helier and George V, usually with a minimum of props, making the role unusually demanding.

The main character and setting are especially suitable for an exploration of Canadian nationalism. To several generations of Canadians, World War One was the moment when Canada established its own identity, as its recruits on the ground soon proved among the most effective of the Commonwealth troops, rivaled only by the Australians. Its fighter pilots were equally effective, with more Allied aces coming from Canada than any other country. In some places, the play celebrates this fact, with the peak of Bishop’s success being that “nobody asks me where I’m from / They’re happy for the men I’ve killed.”

However, what makes the play so effective is that, while it sets off to explore the subject of war, it never takes sides. Instead, it sets out to express all the various emotions with which soldiers face combat, beginning with the naivety of the new recruits suggested by the title, and moving quickly through disillusionment to the mixed pride and misgivings about becoming a survivor and a hero, and, finally, a has-been not much different from the clueless superior officers that the main character once despised.

Even the glory is qualified. True, at the height of his success, Bishop may crow, “Number One is a hero / Number One’s the hottest thing in town” as he is feted by London society. But the play undercuts such celebrations with other moments in which Bishop admits that he is “scared shitless.” Similarly, while Bishop sings about aerial combat being like a meeting of chivalric knights, he also mentions chilling moments when the death of an enemy unnerves him.

Nor, as he becomes famous, is he ever far away from the knowledge that the reward of winning a dogfight is only to “get a little older” – to push aside the inevitability of death for a short time before he faces it again. He is always facing the paradoxes that “the only way to learn survival is to survive” and that most of the emotions with which soldiers face war – religion, cowardice, hate – do nothing to help survival and may, in fact, prevent it. Instead, the key is a dehumanizing detachment, a cold determination to take whatever advantage available that Bishop is proud of at the same time as realizes that his fiancée at home would hardly understand it.

As with the individual, so with the big picture. The celebration of the king awarding him three medals on the same day is undercut by “The Empire Soirée,” which hints at the coming collapse of the British Empire. “The birth and death of nations, of civilizations / Can be viewed down the barrel of the gun,” the song suggests, and everyone is helpless to break the pattern: “All you and I can do is put on our dancing shoes / And wait for the next one to begin.”

In the play’s last moments, the story leaps forward twenty years to Bishop as a recruiter in World War Two, faintly surprised that the War to End Wars has been followed by another one. “But I guess we’re none of us in control of all of this,” he mutters into his drink, and the only summary he can muster is, “looking back, all I can say is that it was one hell of a time.”

In the introduction to the published version of the play, Gray suggests that this ambiguity is, in itself, typically Canadian. He talks about the bemusement of American audiences who expected the play to be either definitely pro or anti war, adding that as a Canadian who tends to gets lost in the complexities, such attitudes confound him.

That may be so, and as a Canadian, maybe I share Gray’s attitude. But what American audiences might find puzzling, I find a virtue. I am far more likely to fall into the anti-war camp than the pro one, but what I appreciate is that Billy Bishop cheats neither. Sentiments on both sides are taken into account, and, although no conclusions are reached, the result seems to me the kind of truth that is rarely expressed. It may not be a conclusion that is intellectually satisfying, but it seems accurate in a way that most literature about war fails to manage. The fact that it manages to do so with broad swipes of humor while being perennially popular only makes the play that much more of an accomplishment.

At a time when Remembrance Day is used by some to drum up support for military adventures on the one hand and for demands for peace on the other hand, I can appreciate a piece that does justice to all perspectives on war. If Remembrance Day is supposed to be a time for looking back at what soldiers have done and acknowledging what they still do, I find it only fitting that I try to do so with some accuracy – and Billy Bishop Goes to War helps me to do that.

Read Full Post »

O Canada!
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command.
With glowing hearts we see thee rise,
The True North strong and free!
From far and wide,
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee

-Robert Stanley Weir and others

Some of my favorite pieces of literary criticism are Robert Graves’ line by line readings of famous poems. Often, Graves proves to his satisfaction, as well as mine, that the poem under scrutiny is not a masterpiece, but poorly thought out and incompetently rendered. The same can be said of Canada’s national anthem, “O Canada!” – which is hardly a surprise, because few if any national anthems are meant to do anything more than rouse a moment or two of cheap sentiment in those who happen to live in the country.

You know right from the start that Canada’s anthem is in trouble, because it starts with a vocative sentence. This is trouble because the vocative is so rarely used today that few people except Latin scholars understand that the first sentence is addressed directly towards Canada. So far as most people understand the sentence, they usually think it starts with a sigh, as though the speaker’s emotions about Canada are so strong that they can’t resist a wordless exclamation — an interpretation that hardly seems justified by what follows.

Not that there is much meaning to destroy. The song is addressing the country in the abstract – a mawkish approach, but one that, in a spirit of generosity, I have to admit is too common a poetic convention to reject. But what do the singers say to this great abstraction? It tells Canada to command loyalty from all those who are born there – and I think I have to be forgiven for wondering just how the singers’ pious wish will affect the matter in any way whatsoever. You might as well tell the waves that it’s fine with you that they continue hitting the beaches.

Then there’s the exclamation point at the end of the line – the first of four in ten lines. This is another unpromising sign, since the over-use of exclamation points is always a sure of sign that the speaker is trying to whip up some excitement while saying something unoriginal or dull.

And sure enough, the next line is a redundancy with another exclamation mark added in the hopes of adding some dignity to the sentiment. The only reason, of course, for the redundancy of “home and native” is that the writer of the words didn’t know what else to add that fitted the music.

But it gets worse as the song continues. What, I wonder, is “true patriot love?” How is it different from false patriot love (perhaps that of those who come “from far and wide” below)? More filler, followed by the unnecessary sexism of “in all thy sons command.” At least twice in my life time, feminists have tried to change the line to something like “in every child command,” only to be met by outrage, as though the English words had not been changed several times, and several different unofficial versions exist.

Struggling on, I suppose we have to bear “with glowing hearts.” After all, we are in the realm of patriotic doggerel, where the participles fly thick and fast, streaming and gleaming and beaming. For some reason, “ing” at the end of enough words lulls us into a sort of drowsy acceptance of whatever else follows. And I have to say that, after “glowing,” I am not surprised to see the line end with “thee,” an archaicism completely out of keeping with the rest of the poem and useful only in efforts to elevate a trite idea. Basically, the line is saying, “We’re proud to see you develop as a nation,” only much less clearly.

As for “True North,” I suppose that is supposed to mean “faithful,” and to refer to Canada’s position as a former colony that is still on good terms with the mother country (It almost assuredly doesn’t mean that Canada is the location of True North for navigators). But “North,” alone, leaves Canada defined entirely by geography – an all too common occurrence that makes the place sound about as exciting as a mound of three month old snow on the curb.

And don’t get me started on “strong and free.” The last time that Canada could defend its own borders was in World War Two. Very likely, that was the only time. The history of the country can be neatly summarized as, “Era of French Domination, Era of English Domination, Era of American Domination.” To say the least, it’s incongruous for a satellite country to be describing itself as either “strong” or “free.”

Next up is one of the more recent bits of editing, “from far and wide.” Most likely, it was added to acknowledge the number of immigrants in the last few decades. But how do you reconcile this line with “home and native land?” If you’re born in the place, you don’t come from “far and wide,” and if you do come “from far and wide,” then Canada isn’t your “native” land.

Even more importantly, how do you “stand on guard” “from far and wide?” It sounds as physically impossible as some of the awkward poses of female super heroes on the covers of comic books. Anyway, as I said, Canada has rarely been able to defend itself, never mind against whom (perhaps the Americans buying up our corporations?).

Even to the composer, the jumble of thought is too much. Another vocative and another “thee” are thrown in, with God and another mention of freedom added to the mix as well, all in the impossible hope that an elevated mess can be mistaken for something meaningful.

Unfortunately, this mishmash and all the efforts to play on listeners’ emotions don’t lead anywhere, so the ending is problematic, All that can be done is to repeat what has already been said. That’s not a bad trick if you have something rousing to say, but here it falls flat. That’s probably why, any time you ever hear “O Canada” there is always an uneasy silence and an almost audible shuffling of feet: there’s nothing is nothing to indicate that the mercifully brief ordeal is over.

Someone – I forget who – once said that more Canadians of my age knew the words to the opening of The Bugs Bunny / Roadrunner Hour than knew the words to “O Canada.” That was mainly a reference to the number of changes that have been made to the anthem in our lifetimes. It may have referred, too, to the fact that, to many Canadians, overt displays of patriotism are embarrassing.

But I think that it also has something to do with the fact that the national anthem is rarely comprehensible for more than two or three words at a time. It is difficult to remember words you don’t understand – just try memorizing a dozen lines in a language you don’t understand if you don’t believe me.

You don’t expect original or deep thought in an anthem. But is basic literacy too much to ask? At least “The Maple Leaf Forever,” for all that it ignores the Quebecois and First Nations, makes literal sense. But Canada’s anthem, I’m ashamed to say, is almost entirely nonsensical and border-line illiterate. It only really serves its purpose when the music is played without the words. With the words, it’s either confusing or embarrassing.

Read Full Post »

Remembrance Day is a holiday that always leaves me feeling ambiguous – to say nothing of slightly guilty about my ambiguity.

On the one hand, I have no trouble extending my respect to soldiers. They do a dirty and dangerous job that is often essential. The fact that, in Canada, they do it with inadequate equipment and wages that hover around the poverty line only makes them more worthy of recognition. For some, desperation might play a part in enlistment, but considering the conditions, I figure that a sense of obligation and loyalty must frequently play a large part in their career choices.

Nor do I have any trouble remembering history. If alternate worlds exist, there are a good many in which I am a historian, and, in this world, history forms a large chunk of my reading. I am constantly exasperated at how little sense of history the average person has, so an event that encourage people look back at the last ninety years seems worthwhile to me. I only wish more holidays encouraged such backward gazes.

On the other hand, the emphasis of Remembrance Day has changed greatly since I was a child. When I was growing up, the point of the holiday could have been summarized as “Never again!” I’m not sure of the intention of that message, but I took that to mean that we should do everything possible not only to avoid global conflicts like the one that originally inspired the holiday, but also to avoid wars altogether. I was proud that I lived in a country that focused on peace-keeping, because that seemed to be the enlightened, modern view.

However, in the last couple of decades, respect for soldiers seems too frequently to have become respect for the policies that send them abroad. The message I hear is that if you support the troops, you must also support the Canadian presence in Afghanistan, and that, if you don’t, you are some sort of hypocrite. That seems a false dichotomy to me, and I regret that the day has stopped being a reminder of what we want to avoid and has become instead an extension of government policy.

Along with this new propaganda has come the sort of rhetoric that I have always despised. The rhetoric uses words like “sacrifice” and “honor.” Soldiers do not die; they “fall.” To hear this new propaganda, you would think that soldiers did not simply accept the risk of death, but rush to it with the eagerness of Monty Python’s Kamikaze Scotsmen, eager to show their patriotism by making the supreme sacrifice. Personally, I suspect that they are just unlucky, and no matter how great their idealism, would probably prefer to still be alive.

Such rhetoric seems false at the best of times. Far from being a way to express respect, it seems a way to avoid really thinking about the gory details to which you are alluding. However, it seems even more false when applied to the subject of war

.Read the war poetry of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, or Wilfred Owen – people who had fought in the front lines, and knew what they were talking about – and you quickly find that this is exactly the sort of rhetoric that they railed against. It is the rhetoric that lured the generation of men who were young during World War One to be butchered by the incompetence of their generals. Now, though, “Lest We Forget” no longer seems to include remembering the danger of such rhetoric. But I do not forget, and I greatly resent the fact that it is creeping back into fashion.

I am sure that some readers will damn me for these sentiments, and doubt my sincerity. But, despite the tendency of mainstream media to reduce everything to an either-or question, I’d like to think that a mixed perception is still possible.

Respect for the average soldier is not synonymous with jingoism, and the sooner we separate them, the better. Until we do, Remembrance Day remains a holiday that I can only partly support.

Read Full Post »

If you believe the media, Canada is the model of a modern multicultural society. The official story is that Canada is a place where people of different cultures meet and interact without much friction. You sometimes hear about people being stopped by the police for “driving while black” or the recent allegations that the niqab is a security risk, but these are generally seen as exceptions caused by a dwindling minority of bigots. Most of us, the official message reassures us, are not like that.

Recently, however, I’ve become increasingly aware that at least one group (or, more properly, one set of groups) for whom face to face racism is a daily given – the First Nations.

In some ways, this realization doesn’t come as a surprise. The media is quick to depict First Nations people as uneducated, rural hicks, and victims. You rarely hear about the small but growing professional classes among the First Nations, people who balance urban life and upper middle class expectations against a wish to remain rooted in their own cultures. For the most part, First Nations cultures are barely acknowledged, except when they can add quaint experiences to tourism. You have to search long and hard to find any media depictions of the First Nations as people rather than stereotypes, so in one sense it seems understandable that non-First Nations people should respond to the stereotypes while ignoring the realities.

However, as I explore Northwest Coast art and become friendly with some of the artists, I’ve come to understand that casual racism is part of many First Nations people’s daily lives. Even the artists – gifted people who deserve respect for their accomplishments – have to endure it. Almost every First Nations person I get to know has a story or two about racism, and some people bring them out as a sort of test, to see how strangers will react and to judge their trustworthiness.

For instance, one First Nations instructor says that people regularly compliment him on how well he speaks English. What do they expect? That in 2010 he speaks broken English, or maybe Chinook? Since he teaches, he must have at least a master’s degree, if not a doctorate. What would be surprising is if he didn’t speak well.

Similarly, an up and coming artist tells me that a client who commissioned a carving by him told him at length how “his people” were so spiritual and connected to nature compared to the rest of industrial society. The client had never met him, and did not even know what nation he was from – let alone his clan – yet she was convinced that she could tell him all about his culture. Probably, she thought she was complimenting him. Still, at least she was paying for the privilege (personally, I would have added another few hundred dollars to the price).

Still another artist who is scheduled to inherit a chieftainship, told me that during the Olympics torch relay, an official asked him if “you could get your people to line up on the side of the road to hoot and holler.” A big man, he looked down and said calmly, “We do not hoot and holler.”

Another First Nations man says that he doesn’t receive much open racism because he is tall and stocky, and was raised in an upper middle class family. But he does receive all sorts of covert racism – things like bank clerks lingering just a little longer than necessary when checking his I.D. or cashiers treating him as though he was brain-damaged. Similarly, one artist tells me that when he tried to deposit a large cheque, the teller asked if he was a drug dealer. And, because of similar experiences, another artist has a note on his bank account, explaining what he does for a living in the hopes of keeping bank officials from jumping to conclusions.

I could go on and on, but the point should be clear enough. First Nations men and women regularly endure treatment and comments that are sometimes lacking in epithets but is hardly less vicious for that lack. Often, the remarks are made with a false heartiness that means that taking offense will put their recipients socially in the wrong.

I suppose that to some extent, they get used to the casual abuse, and perhaps they feel they have no choice except to endure, because they will be blamed if an argument or a fight breaks out — the law, quite clearly, is not on their side.

All the same, I wonder how they do endure such comments. I sometimes think that, in similar situations, I would show considerably less restraint. But then, as the descendant of English people, I am used to being treated more politely.

Still, I no longer wonder, as I used to, about a Metis classmate of mine who never mentions her ancestry and dyed her hair blonde. If you can escape from such situations, why wouldn’t you be tempted to try? Even pride and determination must become awfully thin defences after a while.

On some level, I am not surprised by this realization. I know all too well that there are official versions of reality created by the government and the media that have little to do with what has actually happens.

All the same, I can’t help feeling some righteousness anger over this realization. I shouldn’t be surprised or upset to discover yet again that the official version is a lie – but, all the same, I am. And I realize, too, that experience of other groups is undoubtedly as ugly as that of the First Nations. In some ways, this official story is as offensive as the racism itself.

Read Full Post »

So what impressions does a life-long Vancouverite have of Calgary after a two day visit? Necessarily, a fragmented one. Two days is far too short a time to know any region well, and I spent much of my time in a conference hotel. I did venture out a few times, but karaoke bars and mid-level restaurants are much the same anywhere in the industrialized world. Still, I can no more stop myself gathering impressions than I can from breathing.

The first thing that struck me as I left the airport were the horizons. Unless you are in some place in the Fraser River delta like Richmond, the Vancouver area is bounded by mountains. Calgary, though, is not like that. The horizons seem impossibly long, the numerous hills never seeming tall enough to tailor them to a decent length. Off to the west, you can the jagged profile of the Rockies from many perspectives, but, otherwise, the horizons stretch in all directions, producing a stirring of agoraphobia in me.

The next impression was the air. It’s drier than on the coast, so that my mouth always felt dry, and perhaps a little dusty as well. It felt thinner than the air I’m used to as well – and, after all, I was several thousand feet higher than at home, a fact that made running harder for me than it would be at home. Over the couple of days of my stay, the wind always seemed to blowing, gusting much more regularly than I was used to. Once or twice, when the sun came out, I could feel an unaccustomed amount of ultra-violet on my skin, and the light seemed pale.

Since I’ve grown up in a rain forest (or, at least, where one used to be), the land looked dry and barren. Where I am used to infinite shades of green, Calgary had only one or two dark greens in the form of some evergreens. Everywhere else, the grass and weeds were a wan and tired brown, even though spring could hardly have been said to arrive, and the result was that the whole landscape seem washed out and barren to me. If I focused, I could see that the varieties of brown were just as numerous as the greens I knew, but they seemed faintly depressing to me. The birds were species that I largely couldn’t identify, includng a black and white species with a long tail that seemed to prefer huddling at the bottom of bushs and shrubs.

I did, however, see some seagulls, much to my surprise. They seemed as alien to the land as I was feeling.

I was in the northeast section of Calgary, which I am told is the rougher section of town, and has a larger proportion of immigrants than the rest of the city. And it’s true that when I went to a pho palace, most of the other diners were Vietnamese. Even so, the crowds seem strangely European to my Vancouver eye, making them seem not quite right in a way that puzzled me until I figured it out. I did see a few people of Chinese descent, but almost none of Indian. The majority were European, which is something I haven’t lived with since I was a child. I heard more French that I’m used to hearing (and saw more poutine being sold in restaurants and bars), and Russian and Polish once or twice, but the dominant voices were English Canadian, with an accent subtly different from Vancouver’s, whose characteristics I can’t quite articulate.

(I’m not suggesting that there is anything wrong with Calgary’s population mix – just that it was different from what I’m used to.)

I can’t speak about the rest of Calgary, but the northeast is one of those places that have sprung up on the edges of far too many cities in the last few decades: strip development which has been built in haste, only to decay in leisure, without a hint of urban planning or zoning. I saw chiropractor’s offices next to auto dealers, and light industry next to shopping malls. Here and there, a few large buildings were empty, no doubt victims of the recession. It’s not a place where people walk, although the C-Train rapid transit system ran through the middle of the small area that I spent my time in. It reminded me of parts of Richmond, or possibly Maple Ridge at home.

However, one thing made the strip development even uglier than that around Vancouver. Around Vancouver, space is at a premium, because the city is jammed up against the coast mountains, and starting to fill up. Under these conditions, even strip development around Vancouver is starting to go up. By contrast, in Calgary’s northeast, space is not an issue, and the sprawl is mostly low-rise and less orderly. It seems a wasteful and careless use of space, to someone used to Vancouver.

What else? Some random impressions: Most of the chain stores and brand names were the same as in Vancouver, although I saw one or two unfamiliar ones. Highways are called “trails,” in tribute to the old settler roads, and the airport has several sculptures with cowboy themes. Boots and cowboy hats suggest that the stereotypes of Calgary still have some basis in fact, but tend to be worn regularly only by men over sixty. People’s complexions seemed drier than they would be in Vancouver. The water, while it had a slight mineral tang, was generally drinkable from the tap, although I took care not to drink to much of it, just in case my intestinal fauna might revolt against it. There were more smokers, with the smell of their habit lingering around them, although the no-smoking laws seem as strict as in Vancouver.

I wish I could have fleshed out these impressions with visits to the rest of Calgary. Since I’ve already been invited back to COSSFest next year, maybe I’ll take an extra day or so and learn more. For now, I can say that Calgary is neither a city I warm to, like San Francisco or San Diego, nor a city that repels, like Indianapolis. As for whether I could learn to appreciate the prairie after living so many years in the rain forest, who knows? Maybe my impressions will tip one way or the other whenever I get a chance to see more.

Read Full Post »

Northwest coast art is one of the healthiest schools of modern art, because it starts from a tradition yet still welcomes innovation. A juxtaposition of local First Nations mythology and the rain forest environment on one hand and advanced industrial techniques on the other, it also seems to reflect the experience of anyone who lives in the area where the artists work. For these reasons, yesterday I fought down the ‘flu that had taken root in my stomach to attend the public opening of the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver.

Bill Reid was one of the founders of modern Northwest coast art, and his work from the late 1940s to his death in 1998 is broadly reflexive of the school’s history, starting with imitations of the past and gradually gaining originality as his confidence and knowledge of technique increased. With copies of his monumental Spirit of Haida Gwaii at the Canadian embassy in Washington D.C. and the Vancouver airport – as well as on the Canadian $20 bill – he is perhaps the best-known Canadian artist of the last forty years.

The gallery that carries his name features Reid, but, in recognition of his influence, does not confine itself to his work alone. A tribute pole by Jim Hart dominates the main gallery, and the gift shop has a large room where other Northwest artists are highlighted. Right now, the gift shop features April White, but I understand that the plan is to change the exhibit regularly.

The gallery windows are covered in semi-transparent blowups of Reid’s design, but still let in the natural light. With its high ceiling and dais for speakers, the main gallery suggests a modern version of a Northwest longhouse, the only jarring touches being the carvings around the archway and the computer screens and holograms that stand-in for pieces of Reid’s work that are not in the gallery A mezzanine allows visitors a chance to see close up the top of Hart’s pole, as well as “Mythic Messengers,” a bronze sculpture that is one of Reid’s best-known works.

Although today was the official opening, finishing touches at the gallery are still lacking. Several display cases are empty, and many are unlabeled. Nor does a guidebook or recorded tour exist. For yesterday, little of that mattered, because one or two people were giving tours, but I worry a little that the context may be lost on casual visitors.

Knowing that context is important, because otherwise the gallery might be mildly disappointing. Several of the pieces are smaller versions of Reid’s monumental works, and the change of scale makes it easy to under-estimate them. In particular, a palm-sized version of “Raven and the First Men” looks cramped and intricate where the original at the University of British Columbia’s Anthropology Museum looks spacious and simple.

Still, that is a quibble that seems ungracious when such a gift has been given to the area. With Reid’s preference for deep-carving and, in the last stages of his development, his trust of blank spaces – to say nothing of his consummate knowledge of technique and his frequent experimentation – his work consistently breathtaking. And to see so much of it in one space remains an overwhelming experience, even if his best work is not always represented. I found that I had to wander in and out of the gallery several times, just so I could appreciate all the exhibits properly. Otherwise, I would tend to wander in a sort of daze of admiration.

While I was there, I was also lucky enough to catch Martine Reid, the artist’s widow, talking about the jewelry displays. Although her French-accented English was easy to lose in the crowd, her reminisces helped to bring her husband’s development as an artist into perspective while also revealing something of his human side.

I particularly remember her story of how she bought a silver box he had made several decades previously and gave it to him as a birthday gift; he stared at it, she says, like a parent who had not seen his child for decades – then took a napkin and started polishing it.

Martine Reid also recalled that her husband used to carry a coil of wire and a pair of pliers in his pocket, and would twist the wire into shapes as he sat and talked. His “knitting,” he called it. Apparently, the habit was so ingrained that, even in his final illness, he was moving his hands as though twisting wire.

The Bill Reid Gallery is small — at least, to display an artist with such a long and varied career — but, if yesterday is any indication, I expect it will become an important center in Vancouver, not just for tourists, but for the First Nations community and art-lovers. Lingering for several hours, I completely forgot my ‘flu, swept away by the convictin that a species that can create such an artist obviously has redeeming qualities despite what you read in the newspapers.

Read Full Post »

“You’re a typical Canadian
You’re modesty itself.”

– John McLaughlan Gray and Eric Peterson, “Billy Bishop Goes to War”

Canada Day has me thinking about the national personality. Obviously, any time that you generalize about millions of people, you’re going to find exceptions, but I can think of several major traits that could be called typically Canadian.

First, as the holiday itself proves, Canadians are not openly nationalistic. As I went for my morning run today, what struck me was that, despite the best efforts of government officials, most of my fellow citizens celebrate the national holiday by enjoying the day off. You don’t catch many Canadians waving flags or setting off fireworks, even today. Nobody will ever say very much, but the majority of Canadians find such demonstrativeness faintly embarrassing, or maybe in poor taste. It’s not that Canadians lack nationalism so much as they prefer not to be gung-ho about it. Nor do most Canadians confuse an attachment to the culture with support for any government, which is why claims that opposing the use of Canadian troops in Afghanistan is being disloyal to Canada keep falling flat.

A second typical Canadian trait is politeness. Or, as an old joke puts it: How do you get twenty drunken Canadians out of your swimming pool? Answer: You say, “Please get out of the pool.” This politeness manifests itself in a widespread dislike for attack ads in politics, which are more apt to backfire on their sponsor than to successfully discredit anyone.

Our politeness also explains our alleged liberalism. Unfortunately, I don’t think that Canadians as a whole are strongly pro-choice on abortion or greatly favor same sex marriage, even though we have liberal policies on both. Rather, I suspect most Canadians think it rude to interfere in such intensely personal matters, and dislike the strident authoritarianism of those opposed to such issues. Our politeness also explains our greater tendency to unionism than the United States (Why should anyone interfere with someone looking out for their own interest?) and the official policy of multiculturalism (What someone does in their spare time is their concern).

However, this politeness isn’t all good. It also makes Canadians nearly impossible to rally on political issues, or to oppose those in authority without considerable provocation. An exception is environmentalism – again, not because Canadians are especially enlightened, I suspect, but because we see pollution as imposing on others.

Another thing about Canadians that often puzzles other nationalities is that we’re complainers. Not march-in-the-street, where’s-tonight’s-riot kind of complainers, but low-key grumblers. For some reason, a little out-of-the-mouth, I’m-so-hard-done-by grumbling is simply a normal part of functioning for most Canadians. The weather will do as a subject, if nothing else is available, but the general perversity of the universe or authority figures are even better.

There’s a joke that has been circulating at least since the Boer War, the first time that large groups of other nationals met any large groups of Canadians. Troops are passing a check point. As each company approached the sentry, they are challenged, give the password, and are allowed to proceed. Finally, another company is challenged. “Bloody typical of this army,” a voice calls out from the company. “And who the hell are you, anyway?”

“Pass, Canadians,” the sentry replies.

Apparently, not much has changed in the last century.

A final trait is that all Canadians are hyper-aware of the United States. Those on the right think that Canada would be a better place if it were more like the United States, even if that means adapting failed policies. Those on the left think the United States is taking over the country one piece at at a time and that we should be constantly vigilant against this conspiracy. But, no matter what their position on our southern neighbors, all Canadians have one. That’s inevitable, given that we speak the same language, do most of our trade with Americans, and share much of the same popular culture.

Hugh MacLennan, the novelist and journalist neatly summed up the Canadian relation to the United States a couple of generations ago. Canada, he wrote, is in the same relation to the United States as Scotland is to England: We’re a sparsely populated land to the north, we like to think of ourselves as morally superior to our neighbors, and we head south to become successful. And it’s true: We do like to think that the scandals and policy failures in the United States could never happen here, and almost no Canadian ever hits the big time without spending considerable time in the United States. In fact, a healthy sprinkling of supposed American stars are always Canadians — including Kiefer Sutherland, the grandson of Tommy Douglas, the father of socialized medicine who was recently voted the greatest Canadian ever.

These traits are not always admirable, even for Canadians. At times, I wonder if the country would be better off if we were all more openly nationalistic. At other times, my own politeness seems spinelessness, my complaining ungracious, and my belief in our moral superiority to the Americans unwarranted smugness. Moreover, our national traits are those of a small country, not a great one. But, for better or worse, they’re a part of me, if only a part that I sometimes want to react against.

Read Full Post »