Canadian Conversations

Over the course of the past few weeks, I have had a number of conversations with Unplugd participants Tom Fullerton, Andy Forgrave and Stephen Hurley, as well as #ds106radio folks like @drgarcia and @easegill about the nature of the Canadian experience or identity. Spurred on by the inspiration of attending the first “uniquely Canadian educational summit,” the discussion of just what it means to live in Canada, how the landscape influences our national character, and how the immensity of our country factors into the dreaming and expression of its artists, thinkers, and politicians, has continued to fill my thinking. In advance of our author panel coming up this Thursday evening, I thought I would attempt to synthesize some of this thinking and delve into some of my own piece of the Canadian narrative.

Let me debunk an American myth: I take my life in my hands.

Gord Downie

Canada is a big place. And the creation of that mythological Canadian character, that supreme individual in whom resides the imagination of the country is as immense as the space between our scattered cities.

Margaret Atwood has characterized the chief concern of Canadian literature as Survival, and the breadth of citizens living out this central theme in our national life has ranged from the colonists of Susanna Moodie, to artists such as Tom Thompson, and athletes like Sidney Crosby.

Terry Fox.

Gordon Downie.

Iceage Leftover
Erratic Behaviour

These are people with a vision expansive enough to see the whole country, and channel the exaltation of a people bound to one another and their local communities by distance, weather, mountains, plains, and the scattered tribes of NHL franchises, hometown heroes, and brief flirtations with international notoriety. But for the fringes of ‘civilization’ freckled across the 49th parallel, the True North of long nights and longer winters, of hockey played on backyard ponds, and of an intimate awareness of our cohabitation with a visceral wilderness are the everyday experience in the great wide open that separates us all, in our cities or outside of them. And it is against this sparsely populated landscape that the characters and authors of our national narratives lived and recorded their lives in monuments of necessity and invention, art and social artifact.

There exist in great abundance across the country these ‘soul homes,’ where in the unmolested forests from Haida Gwaii or Gros Morne we can touch, and see, and breathe the dawn of not only our Canadian story, but modern human society, and the birthmarks of the very Earth itself. To experience a sunrise against a mountainside bearing the scars of the most ‘recent’ ice age (10,000+ years ago), or swim in a lake scoured into the surface of a two billion year old rock, is to immerse oneself in the immensity of the Canadian experience and imagination. We are greeted daily with the reality that the Edge – of the province, country, ocean or time itself – (if there even is an edge) is well beyond our ability to conceive of it. Oceans rise and fall. Mountains collide, erupt, and crumble. The glaciers come with regularity, and over time our mammalian cousins evolve to live in the sea, then upon land, only to return eventually to the oceans. Life in Canada, from cedar trees, to orca whales and Prime Ministers, is waged against the unavoidable landscape of immeasurable time.

August 2004
Echoes in a Timeless Battle

And despite the fact that North America’s First Peoples had managed in this tidal cycle of ice and evolution to live productively – if not in many cases quite comfortably – from coast to coast and north of Hudson’s Bay across the arctic barrens, the European settlers who would write the initial passages in our young nation had left a native landscape that had been subdued by the hands of men and machines for centuries. From landed nobility to indentured servants, Canada’s first settlers had little reason to expect that land, even in the ‘untamed’ New World, would do anything but surrender to the development of crops and the sweep of human progress 1

It is into this terse relationship with the land that Susanna Moodie, and later Tom Thompson, wandered out into their own North Woods and created, in paint and prose, artifact and expression of the energy and life force of the very land itself. And while many did, and many still do cling to the cities 2, there have always been Alexander MacKenzies, and Emily Carrs, and Terry Foxes, individuals who have pursued in themselves a relationship – a conflict, really: survival, waged against the country’s wilderness, and the limits of understanding our country’s character.

In line with the focus of my #Unplugd11 essay and anecdote, I continue to write the story of our country’s/countries’ unfolding narrative with these individual thoughts, and the perspectives of my friends and colleagues. I am able to continue forward from the summit replenished and inspired by time spent talking, telling stories, singing songs, and forging meaning in the ways people of this place have for millennium: beside lakes and campfires, in canoes, and surrounded by residents of a landscape that has shaped each of us.

  1. Of course, they may have also been terrified, scared witless as you or I would be setting out to colonize Mars. But I like to imagine proper French and English gentlefolk encountering the north woods of Ontario with formal-wear and tea sets.
  2. Whose character and value I don’t begrudge or discount, but aren’t the aspect of the Canadian experience I’m after here.

14 thoughts on “Canadian Conversations

  1. Bryan, Your well is very deep my friend. If only you lived ‘just around the corner’, I’d be able to more regularly tap into your wisdom… face-to-face. Alas, the reality of the wide open spaces of our country means that I’ll have to keep in touch digitally. I’m thankful that your voice resonates so well in both text and audio. 🙂

  2. I was also talking about this very topic with the Manitoba representatives at Unplugd. They mentioned this TV series, probably CBC, where some modern folk dress as pioneer folk and then take a very primitive boat up to Hudson Bay. Know the name of it? Those people drank their tea straight up, my friend. Sugar was too heavy to carry, and so was a cow for milk.

  3. That is one powerful piece of prose.

    As I shared in our closing circle at Unplug’d, I am most at peace alone in a canoe, paddle cutting through a still lake in the dawn mist. To have had the opportunity to combine that experience with artistic, literary, academic and social conversations with folks as eloquent as yourself was, well, I think I called it a state of Nirvana.

    I’ll be sharing this with every teacher I work with. We need to continue the conversation around what it means to learn and teach in Canada, in both official languages and with our First Nations friends as well. Perhaps our next conversation will be on a portage trail? Or in a cohort around your inquiry question 😉

    Be well my friend

  4. Bryan, an epic piece of writing to be sure! I was inspired and a little overwhelmed by the theme of survival to which you point. But its certainly present in our literature, in our artistic expression and in the music that is recognized as Canadian!

    A few questions as I set out on my mid-week adventures! Do you think that this part of the Canadian narrative is truly part of the DNA of each of us, even though we may not be aware of it? Is this a narrative that we want to continue to nurture among our young people? What does it mean to “survive” in today’s culture and society?

    What does this narrative thread mean for the way that we do education and, in particular, school?

    You may have some comments, but they may simply be questions that I need to carry with me for a while…just as I carry your writing with me!

  5. Wow, Bryan. Your words continually amaze and inspire me. Rodd said it best describing it as being “thankful that your voice resonates so well in both text and audio”. The infusion of music (especially the Hip), nature at its best (we had the finest surroundings and weather), and “what matters” conversations with such inspiring people made Unplug’d truly Canadian, I mean how much better can you envision “summer”, camping by a lake? For me, being in your group to hear your story, canoeing with you, listening in on ds106radio, are all big parts of my experience. I’m glad you continue to write your stories my friend!

  6. Bryan (I thought that I had replied to this earler, but alas)

    What an expansive commentary on an expansive narrative! WOW! It’s a little overwhelming to think that this is one of the stories into which we have been born as Canadians. Whether we realize it or not, the survival narrative, I suspect, is buried deep in our genetic code.

    A few questions that are rattlin’ around my mind after reading your piece. First, do people who come from other countries and cultures “read” this story in the way we live our lives? Second, is this story still as strong today as it used to be? Is this a story that is worth nurturing for future generations? Related: Is it possible to turn our back on this part of our story.

    Thanks for this inspiring and deeply resonant piece of writing! Finally, what difference do the “themes” of the Canadian narrative make to the way that we do school in this country?

  7. Bryan – beautiful…

    So much to ponder and talk about and your images, thoughts, words and references are great entrance points to start and continue the conversation.

    We are a vast, diverse country filled with diverse and divergent people, landscapes, opportunities and challenges. Its so wonderful to have the forums to share, discuss, collaborate and create (or recreate) artifacts and learnings.

    Having a shared experience is a great place to start and am so happy that there is lots to continue on with…

    Cheers and thanks for continuing the conversations…

  8. Hi Bryan, Beautiful writing, heartfelt, and the honesty shines through.

    I read this earlier, but would like to respond to one of Stephen’s questions. He asks ‘is this story still as strong today as it used to be?’ I think that the survival narrative is very much how a number of Canadians still live today, especially in rural spaces.

    Where I live, there are many that still rely on the land for survival. At times when there aren’t as many fish or gardens don’t grow as planned, these people struggle. In the winter when it’s ridiculously cold, many don’t have proper shelter and struggle to stay warm. I can’t tell you how many times in -20 degree weather that the power has gone out and I’m thankful that I have a wood stove to heat my home and keep my children warm.

    Perhaps in urban areas, the survival story has shifted somewhat. But I sense that here, and in other smaller and more remote areas, it’s still very much ingrained in the daily experience of Canadian life.

  9. Poetic in all ways, Bryan. Having just zipped most of the way across the wide open spaces (yet missing most of the real parts because I was on a road) this really brings back the feeling of being in the soul of Canada.

    I made a visit to Ouimet Canyon, which offers a grand view and does impress with its depth. As someone who lives close to a famous large Canyon, it was easy at first to say “Not quite as big” but when I thought that this one was carved through some of the toughest. oldest rock around, it grew in stature.

    I feel like I have tasted but a drop of the Canadian landscape, but it has me thirst for more. And like Tom, what a time to be able to be with nature and also be connected in this way.

  10. Wow – I’m glad my thoughts and words were able to strike such a chord across the Unplugd universe, and beyond! Lot’s to think and talk about, for sure – but I really wanted to put some of these ideas out before our panel discussion Thursday evening, and while our chapter has the floor in the e-book publication, as well.

    I’ve been thinking about Stephen’s questions all morning, and don’t know that I can answer them so much as continue the conversation about how this/these stories affect my understanding of myself, and the country.

    “Do you think that this part of the Canadian narrative is truly part of the DNA of each of us, even though we may not be aware of it? Is this a narrative that we want to continue to nurture among our young people? What does it mean to “survive” in today’s culture and society? ”

    I think the idea of survival is literally ‘wired’ into our DNA, as throughout history evolution has driven the creation of life and minds that are better suited – physically, socially, emotionally – to essential survival. But where I think the Canadian idea of survival is unique to us (and perhaps to other people living with such an immediate, omnipresent sense of our own individual, cultural, and geological mortality) is in our recent colonial history, which differs from our southern neighbors in that our geography, from bogs, to Rockies, to the arctic, populated with wolverines, black flies and grizzly bears, has been historically (and continues to be) less hospitable, as well as the scope of distance and time offered from any point across the Canadian landscape. In this manner “Survival” becomes not so much about food / water / shelter, but more about the life-struggle of grappling with one’s own mortality.

    The idea of death (not to mention what precedes life) is central to every creation mythology and attempt at deigning meaning from the human experience, and Canadians are uniquely blessed to live surrounded by the evidence that the story we are a part of – the history of our local watersheds and mountain ranges, the stories of our seas, and the curve of the Earth’s time and beyond – was around long before our arrival, and will continue long after we (individually or collectively) are gone.

    I think there is an existential humility in that knowledge that our lives are what we make them, and that our allies in this can be one another, as well as the land itself. Distilling the threads of this story are/could be essential pillars of our education, and as Tom adroitly points out, require the input of our First Nations, and the balance of our multicultural population.

    I may be descended from English and Scottish colonists and immigrants to North America, but I walk past a former First Nations fishing site on a daily basis, a creek visited seasonally for thousands of years. My story is part of the narrative that travelled across Canada with the construction of the railway (indeed, the initial terminus of the CNR was just across the inlet from my house), but also that of the indigenous residents of the Sasamat area that surrounds my node in the greater Vancouver suburbs.

    Our collective story, wherever it leads from here, will only become more “True” as it better reflects the same diversity of voices that make up our expansive population, from our past(s), present(s), and future(s).

  11. To be Canadian is to appreciate adversity and diversity and to live with our mortality.

    Maybe that’s why we check the weather channel so much and why we laugh in the face of doughnuts.

  12. Bryan, what great words to read again as we enter into another year of #unplugd12! Thanks for sharing this again!

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