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Travel General

Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw

Travels in Search of Canada

by (author) Will Ferguson

Knopf Canada
Initial publish date
Aug 2005
General, Adventure, Canadian Studies
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2005
    List Price

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The follow-up to the back-to-back successes of How to Be a Canadian (over 110,000 copies sold) and Happiness™ (Winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour).

Will Ferguson spent a three-year period criss-crossing Canada and back again. In a helicopter above the barrenlands of the sub-Arctic, in a canoe with his four-year-old son, aboard seaplanes and along the Underground Railroad, Will’s travels have taken him from Cape Spear on the coast of Newfoundland to the sun-dappled streets of Olde Victoria.

In his last book, Will told us how to be Canadian; now in this book, he will tell us what it means to be Canadian. Will’s journey takes him to far-flung isolated communities as well as deep into Canada’s urban centres. From the “million-acre farm” that is P.E.I. to the tobacco belt of southern Ontario, from the architectural mess that is Montreal to the glorious jumble that is St. John’s, from a renegade republic in northwestern New Brunswick to a tundra buggy in the polar bear migration paths of Hudson Bay, Will explodes the myths of who we are.

Funny, poignant and insightful, Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw is a provocative tribute to our quirky and fascinating country.

Excerpt from Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw:
In one particular seedy St. John’s pub, I was adopted by a work crew from Portugal Cove who took an immediate, almost antagonistic liking to me. “You’re from Alberta, you say? I have a cousin in Fort McMurray, maybe you know him.” (Everybody in Newfoundland has a cousin in Fort McMurray.) The crew from Portugal Cove tormented me with screech and second-hand smoke as they regaled me with tales of how their families were so poor “back when” that all they could afford to eat were lobsters. This was not the first time I had heard this. Apparently half the population of Newfoundland has subsisted on lobster at some point or other.

About the author

Travel writer and novelist Will Ferguson is the author of several award-winning memoirs, including Beyond Belfast, about a 560-mile walk across Northern Ireland in the rain; Hitching Rides with Buddha, about an end-to-end journey across Japan by thumb; and most recently the humour collection Canadian Pie, which includes his travels from Yukon to PEI.

Ferguson's novels include Happiness™, a satire set in the world of self-help publishing, and Spanish Fly, a coming-of-age tale of con men and call girls set amid the jazz clubs of the Great Depression. His work, which has been published in more than twenty languages around the world, has been nominated for both an IMPAC Dublin Award and a Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and he is a three-time winner of the Leacock Medal.


Will Ferguson's profile page


  • Winner, Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour

Excerpt: Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw: Travels in Search of Canada (by (author) Will Ferguson)



It’s rare to remember exactly where you were when an idea first occurred to you–or at least, it’s rare for me. I usually wander through life gathering notions and hunches the way trouser pockets gather bits of lint; I’m not really sure how they got there, but there they are. In this case, though, I can recall vividly where I was when it dawned on me that Canada is not a country but a collection of outposts: it was while I drove through a night of heavy rain, into the realm of a legendary republic, a sleeping child and drowsy spouse beside me.

We’d been on the road for hours, heading into northern New Brunswick. The wipers sloshed back and forth, barely able to keep the windshield clear. Bucket-throws of water washed across our view. At midnight, we crossed over into dangerous territory. The Republic of Madawaska. A self-proclaimed independent state, Madawaska is wedged between the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick and the state of Maine. The population is francophone, but the people are neither Québécois nor Acadian; they are les Brayons. And Madawaska is their heartland: La République.

Northrop Frye, scholar and soul-searcher, noted that what set Canada apart in the western hemisphere was our lack of a distinguishable frontier – a line that advanced purposefully across the map like an isobar separating one world from another, with “settlement” on one side and “vanishing wilderness” on the other. In this, our experiences diverged drastically from those of the United States. The American “frontier thesis” – a heavily symbolic narrative of progress and order steamrolling over the chaos of an untamed land–may be historically suspect, but its psychological impact on American society cannot be underestimated. By contrast, historian Donald Creighton advanced for Canada a “metropolitan thesis,” in which the flow of ideas and goods fanned outward from various urban centres to small scattered pockets of civilization–to outposts, in effect. In a country as sparsely populated and as vast as Canada, it could hardly have been otherwise, and this reality of who we are is played out before our eyes from the window of any given airplane on any given night. Beyond the luminous glow of the major cities, the metropolis melts away into a yawning darkness, an empty space punctuated only by intermittent clusters of light.

The effect upon the Canadian psyche, Frye argued, was something he called the “garrison mentality”: a sense of dread and loneliness bred into us from cowering behind palisaded walls, far from “home” in a land as savage as it was indifferent. The existential heebie-jeebies, as it were. (Our obsessive love of enclosed shopping malls can be seen as a continuation of this nervous tic, though personally I blame the weather.)

But garrison is too dark a word. “Garrison” suggests gnawing despair and impending attack. I prefer the term “outpost,” because it includes a wider range of possibilities. Outposts are not only geographic; they can be linguistic, political, cultural – even philosophical. I think of French Quebec and English Victoria, but also of the populist ideals embodied in Calgary’s unflagging optimism; I think of the exiled Acadians and the outcast Loyalists, of First Nations, once shattered, now regrouping. I think of failed utopias and deluded colonization schemes. Of fortunes lost and fortunes found. I think of mythical kingdoms and gold mountains. I think of the descendants of the Underground Railroad and the Gaelic communities of Cape Breton, and of the Cree in my hometown and the Mennonite colony nearby.

Outposts can become enclaves–the Anglos in Montreal or the Lebanese in Charlottetown–and enclaves can disappear. Such was the case of Vancouver’s black community in Hogan’s Alley, or of Halifax’s Africville. Or of the “thirteen lost tribes” of Canada’s Jewish Colonization Society that once existed in farming communes and hamlets between Winnipeg and the Rockies. Where are the remittance men of Windermere, British Columbia? Where are the French counts of Whitewood, Saskatchewan? The Acadians of Grand Pré? But beyond these tales of the defeated and the dispossessed, Canada’s outposts represent small triumphs of survival. Mini-epics of continuity. The French fact is a compelling example of this.

Communities overlap. Orbits collide. And outposts spin off from one another, as well. In Fort McMurray, Alberta, a tar sands town dedicated to wringing wealth from the earth, I once found myself in the colony of a colony, an outpost of an outpost. You’ve heard of Chinatown and Little Italy. In the tar sands of Alberta, a freewheeling “Newfoundland West” has taken hold. Fort McMurray’s lively (read: rowdy) ex-pat community (read: highly paid rig workers) has transformed this remote, landlocked city into one of the largest Newfoundland communities outside of St. John’s. Newfoundland, in turn, can be considered an outpost of Ireland . . . and on it goes.

Do you remember that old Roger Whittaker song “Canada Is,” with its rah-rah boosterism and its shopping list of locales? (Canada is the Rocky Mountains, Canada is Prince Edward Island. . . . ) Well, that song now seems profound. Canada is a sum of its regions. It is the outports and the outposts, the side streets and the stubborn enclaves, the city cul-de-sacs and the far-flung towns. That’s what Canada is.

The presence of outposts is evident in other immigrant nations, but in Canada it has become something of a defining trait. Whereas the United States had a frontier, and countries like Argentina and France and England have the Capital, one clear, overpowering, political, social and cultural center – Buenos Aires, Paris and London being the national Death Stars of their respective countries – Canada has no single central city. It has scattered metropolises of various sizes, regional outposts with their own spheres of influence. There is no London, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Canada’s increasingly eclectic, multicultural urban reality only highlights this patchwork character of ours. Far from being homogenizing agents, Canadian cities have increasingly come to resemble jigsaw puzzles jumbled together from dozens of different boxes, in which the various disparate pieces still somehow, sort of, almost fit.

I have spent the last three years travelling among the outposts and enclaves of Canada. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw recounts some of these travels. It is, I freely admit, a highly subjective, site-specific look at our country. I begin at the Pacific and then work my way east, from the southern end of Vancouver Island to the northern tip of Newfoundland. A more typical approach would have been to start in the east and proceed westward, following the route of European expansion. But that would give the impression of purpose, of events unfolding according to some grand master plan. Going against the sun creates a very different effect. Moving from west to east, you peel back the layers of history as you go. The trips I took are not presented here in strict chronological order, which is why my son Alex is three years old in one chapter and an infant in the next. I apologize if you find this confusing. And yes, this is one of those fake “Canadian apologies,” where you say it but don’t really mean it.

When the explorer Samuel Hearne first attempted to walk from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean in 1769, he knew he was about to enter what was for him, terra incognita, an “unknown country.” In preparation for his trek, Hearne sketched out the shoreline on a deerskin parchment, but he left the interior blank; he would fill things in as he went, adding details as he travelled. In a similar fashion, I wanted to fill in the broad outline of my own map of Canada, to add small but telling details to the cartography I carry inside me. True, unlike Hearne, I didn’t have to eat raw caribou hearts to survive, or cross arctic ice in a raging blizzard – but I was almost mugged by a gang of moose, and I did get a really bad blister on one toe. (When writing a travel memoir, it is always important to stress the hardships one has faced.)

I would have kept travelling if I could have, but that wasn’t possible. At some point you need to stop moving and try to put what you’ve seen into perspective. This book, then, is an attempt at coming to terms with this country, my own incomplete version of “Canada Is.” Canada is a Moose Jaw morning, Canada is a Sleeping Giant, Canada is the St. John’s harbour. . . .

I hope you enjoy it. And if you don’t, I apologize.

Editorial Reviews

"Yet another masterfully entertaining examination of Canuckishness penned by the Calgary author. . . . In each stop on this coast-to-coast travelogue, Ferguson sneakily wraps a local history lesson in a wickedly entertaining meander through obvious and obscure local landmarks. . . . Insightful and gag-filled. . . . Ferguson’s fascination with Canadiana is infectious." —The Calgary Herald

"Full of surprises . . . and idiosyncratic charms. . . . Travel writers don't always get to climb Everest or visit the Taj Mahal, and they can be judged best by what they come up with on a slow day. Ferguson is good when he's sipping a handful of icy water out of Hudson Bay; he's better eating pancakes in a Finnish restaurant in Thunder Bay. . . . Ferguson proves a companionable guide in Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw." —National Post

"Will Ferguson is a talent. He writes refreshingly, provocatively and eloquently. He takes on issues from a contrarian's perspective, but never exceeds the bounds of reason. He looks for the essence and his search brings out some smashingly insightful stuff." —Ottawa Citizen

"Ferguson's strength does not lie in whether he writes funny or not. His strength is that he writes so well." —The Times-Colonist

"[Ferguson] delves into the soul of the cities he visits, sometimes climbing into helicopters, seaplanes and kayaks, and attending underground poetry slams." —Airlines

"Ferguson takes readers on this quest for hidden gold in the best tradition of the true Canadian voyageur. He uncovers nuggets of hidden treasure in the stories of small towns and their resilient people. The landscape itself proves larger than life. He mixes the historical with the contemporary, adds a touch of humour and brings readers close to his subjects—in a way that only he can manage. . . . For those of us who seek to know that place beyond the horizon, this is a great journey and a great read." —The Costco Connection, Buyer’s Pick

"[Ferguson's] writing leaves nothing to be desired. It's got a kind of This Hour Has 22 Minutes shtick that generally has readers guffawing in public spaces. . . . His vast historical knowledge . . . adds intellectual credibility to what is already a hilarious read." —Georgia Straight

"You'll enjoy this book. . . . Ferguson [gives us] lively, thought-provoking riffs on Canadian culture. . . . Anyone who can spin a tale as well as Ferguson, while peppering it with trenchant and often humorous commentary on what it means to be a Canadian traveling through Canada, will easily grab and hold the reader's attention for the more than 300 pages that make up this book." —Quill & Quire

Praise for Will Ferguson:
"The funniest writer in Canada." —National Post

"Ferguson possesses a crafty eye for detail, not to mention a highly developed understanding of the essential folly in what passes for everyday life." —Edmonton Journal

"Lively, knowledgeable, opinionated, disrespectful, debatable, and immensely readable." —The Gazette (Montreal)

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