You’re likely reading this on Sunday, but I’m writing it on the eve of this country’s 132nd birthday. Young, young, young country we are, when we compare our history with those of Europe and Asia. And I’m tempted to write about Canada Day, about the wonderful celebrations setting up downtown as people get ready with song, dance, fireworks, and a carnival atmosphere.
But, I do want to write about Canada this week, but from a different perspective and with a humbled voice.
When we are born to this country and all its privilege, we have some appreciation for our space, our potential, our appreciation of diverse cultures and our unconditional acceptance of people. We enjoy a certain “attitude” that we are lucky we weren’t born somewhere else. We know people have fought wars in the name of democracy, and we have a sense of our good fortune in the world’s scheme of things.
Thirty years ago I was given the opportunity to see Canada from a different point of view… that of the new Canadian, here not by choice but by political disaster. There had been this fellow in my grade 11 typing class, one of the kids from one of the farms near the town that was my home. And then we were in French class together. And then I went on to take Journalism at a downtown Toronto school; he followed shortly after to make his way in Television Arts studies.
As we planned our wedding in 1970, the full impact of the incredible difference in our cultural attitudes hit me like a ton of bricks. And throughout our time together, the difference has continued to impact on our lives.
You see, I’m a Canadian by birth. He’s a Canadian by choice. His parents, my in-laws, loved their own country, enjoyed university educations and in fact were earning tenure at universities in their own country, with a small son and another on the way. Theirs was a beautiful country, with rolling hills, seashores, farmlands and flowers, and cities older than we can ever imagine.
The incredible political upheaval that followed World War Two occurred when Communism changed Russia into a multi-facetted Soviet Union. And in the wake of invasion, people’s lives were shattered, their homes destroyed, their futures annihilated. Targetted especially were “intelligensia” those with educations and positions of power.
Imagine, if you can, sitting peacefully at dinner with your young child, chattering excitedly about the new baby coming along, anticipating a life of useful work, vacations, friends, and faith. And then a knock on your door, and the one-time opportunity to flee now, the invasion is here, we must go. Hiding amidst bombs at the seashore where you played as a child, sheltering your child in your arms as you crept under cover of darkness and foliage, out to a fishing boat loaded to its gunnels with desperate people who just want to live their lives.
Imagine sitting with your legs hanging over a boat whose gunnels are now even with the surface of the water, throwing overboard the few treasures you brought with you so that the boat lightened enough to stay afloat. Bombs still hitting targets in waters quite near, travelling in darkness for days until you reach a tiny island. Imagine rescue where a peaceful nation takes you in, adding your little family to thousands of others in refugee camps. And there you begin again in a scandinavian country, perilously close to your own; not far awsay from the Communist threat. Your next little son is born in a quickly converted hospital, with medical staff whose language is not your own. New language. New jobs, menial jobs, many of you living in small spaces to save money to move to a safe place.
A safe place.
And so these New Canadians come to this safe place where they and their children must begin again. Often their children are ridiculed because their clothes are home-made, their haircuts odd, their language accented with new English phrases. But they begin again.
This is the family that blended with my own United Empire Loyalist stock, the uprisers who left the United States of America because it wanted to break away from the British Commonwealth.
My father- and mother-in-law have taught me more about being Canadian than I ever have learned from just being here.
When, after my first year in my first job, I moaned about paying income tax, my father-in-law lowered his glasses, and brought his weathered fist to the table, and with a firm but gentle voice admonished: Such cheap rent for such good country!
When, after a few years of each of us working full time and extra part time jobs, we were able to make a downpayment on our first house, on Penetang Street, in our chosen home of Barrie, we were thrilled to be becoming homeowners. We were busy painting, sewing curtains, planning mortgage payments, and thinking about putting up a clothes line. My mother-in-law, scissors poised over a roll of wallpaper, looked at me, tears filling her eyes, and with her simple English said: Donna, think. You have bought a piece of Canada.
Could it be said more eloquently?
I think not.
Thanks, Emmy. Thanks, Nick. Thanks, Canada.