Just under a year ago, I was in Canada touring the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan for an article on 150 years of Canadian statehood. That article – long since written and punctually published (http://www.spotlight-verlag.de) in anticipation of today’s celebrations – started out as a landscape eulogy (to which I am prone). And I well remember the joys of small things disrupting unbroken horizons: a solitary pronghorn standing at a prairie crossroads, waiting for the dust to settle.
But as often happens, and especially in Canada (or so I’ve found) the vaster the landscape, the more it needs people.
First there was Joe -Joe Paquette, a Métis elder. I met Joe on a press trip in autumn 2000. He welcomed me for a sunrise ceremony on the outskirts of Toronto wearing a traditional poncho and a baseball cap. Behind him, coffee house lights poked holes in dawn shadows. Joggers chirped and called to each other. Joe lit a fire around which we gathered to join hands and pass the peace pipe. Not a whiff of irony. Just smells and sounds: of freshly ground coffee, rich, pungent tobacco and a stream of softly murmured supplications.
Some years further on in Nova Scotia. Another press trip, driving Cape Breton’s lovely Cabot Trail. We were a good group, often awed into silence by sun-speckled forests and the generous swell of rivers about to enter the sea. I went kayaking on one of these with Angelo (http://northriverkayak.com/) and as our paddles slipped through the shining water an eagle floated down into a lightning tree. Unexpectedly, a lawnmower started up somewhere, not too far away, and for a moment, I felt cheated of my small delight. But Angelo laughed, a deep, throaty laugh, and we paddled on, and the noise of the lawnmower and Angelo’s laugh became part of the day.
Half a decade later, I sat next to Marlene at the Black Jack table in Diamond Tooth Gerties Gambling Hall. Friday night in Dawson City, Yukon. She told me that her husband gave her a one-man excavator on her 70th birthday, to dig for gold on their small claim. Husband Ray joined us later. He’d lost a hand in a timbering accident but was looking forward to renewing his pilot’s license. They believed in luck, and in giving luck a helping hand. Generously tutored by Marlene, I left the casino $70 richer and bought my sister a tiny gold nugget for her birthday. (What goes around must come around.)
And then – there I was last year – in Maple Creek, a small town of about 2000 in Saskatchewan. A place of frontier history and CPR freight trains crouching at level crossings, pondering their options: Medicine Hat to Moose Jaw and back through an eternity of grassland.
We’d had lunch at the Commercial Restaurant and stepped into the local museum, in which a large number of faded photographs chartered Queen Elizabeth II inaugural visit to Canada in 1957. As we stepped back out, two elderly ladies approached.
“What’s going on in there?” they asked.
“Oh, not a whole lot”, said I.
It took a while for them to understand me (“from England, eh?”) but we settled somehow into a modest itinerary of recommendations: this week’s cowboy poetry event, for example. Apart from that (eying me dubiously) they suggested I apply for an afternoon’s work at the local auction of yearling cattle? “They’re looking for sorters to open and close the gates. You’ll get a walkie-talkie … …”
I could go on.
But you get the gist, and so I won’t.
Dear Canadians, this one goes out to you. Happy birthday