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Notes of Thanksgiving

June 18, 2007

From Creature of the Shade, October 11, 2005

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If you allow yourself to fantasize about your ideal country, I bet you’ll think of one that’s defended by nature. Perhaps you’ll think of a mountain valley walled off from invaders and influence: Switzerland or Bhutan or the Shangri-la of legend. Or maybe you’ll think of an island-state, like the England of Shakespeare’s John of Gaunt:

This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
— Richard II, ii.1

Today some of us dream of Iceland or New Zealand in search of the same security, that sense (however illusory) that in such a place, the complexity and danger of the world is far away.

Secure in such boundaries, whether mountain or water, you can spin out the culture and values of your ideal country with ease. Culture will change, of course, but slowly enough, and around-the-edges enough, that it will still be your ideal country’s culture.

But what if you didn’t have natural boundaries? What if your country was a few people spread across a vast distance? What if your border was a long, straight imaginary line, so that your people lived closer to foreigners than to each other? Then, inventing your ideal country would be like trying to paint on a surface where paint turns to droplets and rolls away, while droplets from other paintings are rolling in. You couldn’t even begin.

Such is the challenge of imagining Canada. It’s hopeless, but Canada is here, unimagined. And because the harvest is earlier here, today is Canada’s Thanksgiving.

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Thanks for the worst kind of border, impossible to defend, easier to cross than to work within. Thanks for the 49th Parallel, a mathematical thread stretched east-west where everything else — mountains, rivers, energy infrastructure — runs north-south. Thanks for the 141st Meridian, between the Yukon and Alaska, which runs north-south where everything else runs east-west. Thanks for a border that is not only unnatural, but perpendicular to nature.

Thanks, as a result, for the odd sensation that the two sides of the border are the same place in every way that matters: the same high valley, the same alpine plateau, the same cliff-face, the same coastal boglands, the same rainforest, the same Point Roberts peninsula. And the same culture: the same dying prairie towns, the same wild west, the same rainy urban cappucinos, even the same Mormon polygamists. Thanks for a border that you can hike across by accident, high in the mountains, often without a sign.

Thanks for the arctic pressure that compresses the population against the border, so that the nation is the border, as arbitrary as the border itself. Thanks for the national intellectuals who worry about this for us, e.g. for John Ralston Saul, who can begin a chapter with the words: “The natural flow of Canada is east-west.” Thanks for the perfect emptiness of the word “natural” in this sentence, the creative archeology of it, as though we are picking out geologic strata as glimpsed through a waterfall.

Thanks, back east, for the cradle of Canada, the one place where cities can get back from the border and invent unbordered selves. Thanks that this center is also the center of the great division, the “two solitudes” of French and English. Thanks that however often a political leader declares that “the time of the two solitudes … is past,” the twoness will linger as long as there are two languages, and will multiply as Punjabi and Cantonese and many others find new and honored homes. Thanks for a century of practice at truly multilingual democracy, long before it was the fashion.

Thanks, still, for the special status of the French language even in the furthest corners of Canada. Thanks that a friend of mine is paid to produce French translations of the laws of the Yukon Territory. Thanks that when Japanese- and Chinese-language focus groups were asked what languages other than English should be on the signs in Vancouver’s new subway, French was their top priority.

A special thanks for South Asia’s superpower status among immigrant cultures. Thanks to people who left home countries whose low-temperatures exceed Vancouver’s highs, and who brought food and color that erupt against the prevailing northern grays. Thanks for elegant women wearing saris whose color and texture seem like windows to another planet. Thanks for the fact that conversations in the halls of power often occur in Punjabi, and that nobody minds. Thanks for the clearwater simplicity of Sikh ethics, among the many spiritual traditions arriving on this wave. Thanks for the fact that any national politician must not only speak at least two languages fluently, but must also look not-too-silly in the simple head-covering one wears to Sikh events.

Thanks for the Arctic, the otherness that presses Canadians into the border, a frontier that a century of global warming will not close. Thanks for the world’s highest per-capita supply of barren arctic islands. Thanks, as a result, for the almost tongue-in-cheek attitude that prevails over Hans Island, a rock near Greenland that is claimed by both Canada and Denmark. Thanks for the Swiftian absurdity of this dispute, plainly evident to most Canadians. Thanks for the polite editorials on both sides, suffused with such equanimity that the whole matter will probably be resolved with a game of chess, or the flip of a coin.

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Boundless, passionate thanks for the dying leaf, for the permanent autumn of Canadian patriotism. Thanks for the way the flag, rippling in uneven breeze, can fold to suggest the shapes of a leaf further gone toward mulch, the leaf already part-decayed or stepped on. Thanks for the red leaf painted on faces — whether at hockey games or on Canada Day in midsummer — a symbolic gesture of pride that is also a literal welcoming of decay: the Fourth of July and Ash Wednesday rolled into one. Thanks for all of the insecurity, mortification, and anxiety that can be spun from this image. Thanks for the serenity that lives these contradictions.

Thanks for a country that didn’t need the Buddhists to explain the “wisdom of insecurity,” because it has known nothing else.

Finally, thanks for the big noisy neighbors, so big and so noisy that Canada is all but invisible to them. When national identity becomes too shaky, Canadians can always complain about the neighbors. They can even say rude things about them, confident the neighbors will never hear. Saying rude things is good exercise sometimes; perhaps it should be a holiday tradition.

From Canada, and to Canada, happy Thanksgiving.

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by Jarrett Walker

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  1. June 18, 2007 at 10:00 am

    Oh, I remember reading this when it was originally posted, and feeling awed that a non-Canadian could write about Canada with such deep understanding, perhaps more than some of us Canadians understand our country ourselves. So, it’s wonderful to read it again here.

  2. October 11, 2010 at 9:47 am

    I know some people complain about our American neighbours but I have lived in the U.S. as a Canadian and I finished my last two years of high school with Americans overseas and I have a lot of respect for you. There’s entirely too much of us v. them attitude, when people are far more similar than different. I know it’s human nature to focus on the 10% that is bad or different. Let’s celebrate the 90%.

    • Florence
      May 1, 2013 at 9:41 pm

      Yes and thanks that 95% of this article WAS about being Canadian, and not about Americans…. that there was NOT too much of an “us-vs-them” — only one small paragraph (just right). Good on you, Jarrett Walker! And thank you for the depths of your perception. –From a Canadian who’s had to live outside Canada for 21 long years now… and dearly misses it.

  3. Stew J.
    October 11, 2010 at 7:27 pm

    We have much to be thankful for don’t we?
    Thanks for sharing this with me Jarrett.

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