Douglas Gibson Books by McClelland & Stewart

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It was rainy and cold in Baie-Comeau when Mila and I left the victory celebration at about one o’clock in the morning and returned to our hotel suite in what I had grown up calling “the Mill Manager’s House.”

Earlier, at eight o’clock, the CBC decision desk had announced that “Brian Mulroney has led the Progressive Conservative Party to a majority government and will become Canada’s eighteenth prime minister.” I stood before the TV set with Mila, surrounded by cheering friends, as the beauty of the moment washed over me. I turned to my old pal Sam Wakim and joked, “I always said the CBC was an intelligent network.”

As promising returns had come in from Newfoundland, I had asked Fred Doucet, my long-time friend and chief of staff, to call into Madawaska for a poll — any poll — result. French-speaking nothern New Brunswick had been Liberal territory forever, but a promising young candidate, Bernard Valcourt, was running for us there, and Mila and I had campaigned tirelessly with him, trying for a breakthrough. I knew that if we were ahead in a rural poll there, we were in for a big night. When I saw the grin on Doucet’s face as he concluded the call, I realized that we were looking at a landslide. Valcourt was rolling to victory, and so were we.

My own constituency was vast and remote. Owing to reporting difficulties, for some hours the returns from Manicouagan were limited to one large Indian reserve that had overwhelmingly voted Liberal, conveying the impression to the watching nation that, while we were winning everywhere else, I was in serious danger of losing my own seat. This began to be reported almost as fact. Watching at Stornoway, our Ottawa home, ten-year-old Caroline was deeply dismayed. “I’m outta here!” she announced. She gathered her brothers silently and went upstairs to bed, awakening the next morning to the refreshing news that her father had indeed made it back to the House of Commons.

Toward the end of the evening, when the dimensions of the PC sweep looked historic, I got a call from Prime Minister John Turner, conceding the election. I’m sure it was a very painful moment for him — once the golden boy of Canadian politics, now defeated after barely two months in office. He was extremely gracious, congratulating me on a strong campaign, promising a smooth transition and wishing me well. I congratulated him on winning Vancouver Quadra, and we both chuckled over the tremendous effort his sister Brenda had put into the fight, just as my sister Olive and brother Gary had won Manicouagan for me. We agreed to an Ottawa meeting to finalize the transition.

Immediately after John’s call, I changed from the old pair of slacks and green V-neck sweater I had worn all evening to a blue business suit, so that Mila and I could speak to our supporters (by now in varying degrees of lubrication) gathered in the local arena. The atmosphere was electric when we arrived, as the band belted out our campaign song and thousands of Baie-Comeauites — including hundreds of childhood friends who had encouraged me all my life — chanted “Brian! Brian! Brian!” just as countless supporters had done across Canada. When we ascended the stage, the cheering was almost intoxicating, so joyful was the mood, with people surging forward in waves. I could sense the great pride this hard-working crowd took in watching one of their own achieve the highest office in Canada. It was like a réveillon, St. Patrick’s Day, and Pierrette Arsenault’s wedding all rolled into one. I could hardly believe what I was seeing, and what I knew was really happening.

For a few days I had worked on a victory speech. Although a little too long, it was well received by the enthusiastic crowd. After the speech we returned to our suite in the Annex, the former manager’s house, where Mila and I changed into sweaters and slacks before joining friends and the travelling staff for a party at Le Manoir Comeau, a hotel I had worked at as a waiter and bellboy when I was young and was now entering as prime minister-designate.

When the partying was over, back at the Annex I accepted congratulatory calls (everybody loves a winner), spoke to my mother, Mila’s parents, Conservative premiers from across Canada, our key organizers, and Robert Bourassa. Finally, at about five in the morning, we headed up to bed. Mila, exhausted from an almost nonstop eighteen-month campaign (beginning in March 1983 for the PC leadership), was soon sound asleep. I went to an adjacent room to change. Not wanting to disturb Mila but too charged to sleep, I lay down on the room’s small bed and turned on the radio, which was carrying regular reports on our election success. Eventually I dozed off, only to be awakened, at three minutes to seven, by the mill whistle calling the men to work. That sound had shaped my childhood, because it governed my father’s life, telling him when to get up and go to work, when to leave and go home.

As the whistle pierced the grey of a drab September morning, and the rain beat down on the copper roof, I thought of my dad. I thought of his struggles and of the great courage that had allowed him, an electrician who held down two jobs most of his life, to support a wife and six children in an isolated community like Baie-Comeau. As I got up to look out the window at our home at 79 Champlain Street — the only house my dad ever owned — I wondered what he’d think and what he’d say today, although I already knew the answer. He’d look at me, smile proudly, hug my mom, sit down, and beam — just he way he always did when I was little and pleased him with my school marks, minor jobs, or athletic achievements. My father was my hero, and I knew that this moment would never have occurred without him. I was overwhelmed by emotion as I reflected on his death, nineteen years earlier, in that small mill home on Champlain Street not five hundred yards from my hotel room.

The sound of the whistle seemed to hang in the air.

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Raisin Wine

Raisin Wine

A Boyhood in a Different Muskoka
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They lived in a three-room, two-storey house on a one-acre lot overgrown with trees in Port Carling, a small village in Ontario’s cottage country. The mother, who was Indian, had long been familiar with the dwelling. As a child in the 1920s and 1930s, she had spent time with her extended family in the tiny local enclave known as the Indian Camp where native people from her distant reserve gathered in the summers to fish and to sell handicrafts to tourists. In those early days, she used to cross the street whenever she approached it, for a villager had hanged himself on a backyard apple tree and it was rumoured that his tormented spirit had taken up residence in the long-deserted house.

Certainly the building gave every impression of being haunted. Their glass shattered by stones thrown by schoolchildren over the years, two large windows stared down at passersby on the street like the Windigo, sinister eater of human flesh and evil spirit in Chippewa mythology — at least in the imagination of the impressionable native child who had heard too many tales of monsters at home for comfort. Her fear was that the resident ghost would float out of one of the black and eyeless sockets to seize her and do her in.

She never dreamed that one day the house would become her home.

During the Great Depression, the Indian girl, now a young woman, married a white man, a hard-working unskilled labourer, scarcely older than herself. And other than a fondness for home-brew (raisin wine was his favourite), he was a good husband. After their initial shock, for white men did not marry Indians in those days, his parents accepted their Indian daughter-in-law.

The war came. The army rejected the husband because of a bad heart. The mixed couple, with their growing brood of half-breed children, drifted from town to town until they arrived in the village of her youth the year after the war ended. Their children were now four in number and the family lived in a tent on wasteland near the dump for the summer and in an uninsulated summer cottage for the winter. Desperate for a home of her own, the mother remembered the abandoned house.

The years had not been kind to it. Now known in the village as “the old shack on the hill,” it had neither indoor toilet nor electricity. Likewise, rainwater leaked through the much-patched tarpaper roof, the wooden pillars that served as foundations were rotting away, and the house leaned perilously to one side. But the unpainted, weather-beaten exterior walls that had turned barnwood-black with age were solid, the walls of the one room occupying the ground floor were clean, and the partitions of deep-brown hemlock studs covered by thin boards separating the two upstairs bedrooms were clean and dry. The mother shrugged off her fears of the Windigo, persuaded the owners to let her purchase the property by making small monthly payments, and moved her family into the new home in the spring of 1947.

The mother may have put the story of the hanged man and ghost behind her, but her son, to whom she had confided the story, had not. Not that he was really afraid. He was, after all, seven years old and had been told by his father that ghosts did not exist. Nonetheless, he was never at ease at night when he had to visit the outdoor privy some distance behind the old house in a grove of sumach trees. In fact, anyone, even someone with a less active imagination than the boy’s, would have found the experience spooky. Flashlights were a luxury the family could not afford, and the boy’s only source of light as he stumbled along the path was from coal-oil lamps inside the house that filtered out through the ancient single-pane windows casting eerie shadows on the ground outside. To make matters worse, the boy was convinced that he could hear ghostly moaning sounds whenever he passed the apple tree where the neighbour had hanged himself. His unease turned to fear on moonlit nights since at times he thought he saw the victim, a rope around his neck, swinging in the obscurity among the branches of the apple tree. And his fear turned to terror on pitch-dark windy ones since the moaning from the restless spirit then seemed to reach new levels of despair.

Once back inside the house, the boy felt brave — at least in the company of his family when it gathered together in the evenings before going to bed. There was safety in numbers in that crowded room serving as kitchen, dining room, and living room. A woodburning cookstove, a supply of drying wood, and a sink occupied one half of the space. A row of rubber boots was neatly lined up just inside the front door.

Behind the stove, screwed into the wall, were rows of clothes hooks holding the coats and hats of the family members. An oilcloth-covered kitchen table, six hardwood maple chairs ordered from Eaton’s catalogue, and an old couch filled the other half. Off in a corner was the icebox with its two standard compartments — one for milk, butter, meat and vegetables and the other for blocks of ice, cut out of Lake Muskoka in the dead of winter and delivered door-to-door throughout the year by a local farmer.

In addition to the boy, a crying baby, a quarrelsome younger sister, a bossy older brother, an overworked mother, and a preoccupied father filled every available space. This did not include a dog and cat who cohabited reluctantly with a baby raccoon the father had rescued and which he was raising with more open affection than he gave to his own children. The clamour was such, the boy reassured himself, that the ghost in the apple tree, if it really existed, would never dare enter
the house.

Upstairs in bed, when the other family members were asleep, he was not so certain. Despite the comforting presence of his brother and sisters in their shared bedroom, the boy was worried. For when the house was silent, he thought he could hear the sounds of the moaning from the afflicted soul through the old building’s exterior walls. Having heard his parents say that death by suicide was unnatural, the boy thought the spectre must be guilt-ridden at having taken his own life.

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Too Much Happiness

Wenlock Edge
My mother had a bachelor cousin who used to visit us on the farm once a summer. He brought along his mother, Aunt Nell Botts. His own name was Ernie Botts. He was a tall, florid man with a good-natured expression, a big square face, and fair curly hair springing straight up from his forehead. His hands, his fingernails, were as clean as soap, and his hips were a little plump. My name for him—when he was not around—was Earnest Bottom. I had a mean tongue.
But I believed I meant no harm. Hardly any harm. After Aunt Nell Botts died he did not come anymore but sent a Christmas card.
When I went to university in London—that is in London, Ontario—where he lived, he started a custom of taking me out to dinner every other Sunday evening. It seemed to me that this was the sort of thing he would do, because I was a relative—he would not even have to consider whether we were suited to spending time together. He always took me to the same place, a restaurant called the Old Chelsea, which was upstairs, looking down on Dundas Street. It had velvet curtains, white tablecloths, little rose-shaded lamps on the tables. It probably cost more than he could afford, but I did not think of that, having a country girl's notion that all men who lived in cities, wore a suit every day, and sported such clean fingernails had reached a level of prosperity where indulgences like this were the usual thing.
I had the most exotic offering on the menu, such as chicken vol au vent or duck à l'orange, while he always ate roast beef. Desserts were wheeled up to the table on a dinner wagon. There was usually a tall coconut cake, custard tarts topped with out-of-season strawberries, chocolate-coated pastry horns full of whipped cream. I took a long time to decide, like a five-year-old with flavours of ice cream, and then on Monday I had to fast all day, to make up for such gorging.
Ernie looked a little too young to be my father. I hoped that nobody from the university would see us and think he was my boyfriend.
He inquired about my courses, and nodded seriously when I told him, or reminded him, that I was in Honours English and Philosophy. He didn't roll up his eyes at the information, the way people at home did. He told me that he had a great respect for education and regretted that he did not have the means to continue his own after high school. Instead, he had got a job working for the Canadian National railways, as a ticket salesman. Now he was a supervisor.
He liked serious reading, but it was not a substitute for a university education.
I was pretty sure that his idea of serious reading would be the Condensed Books of the Reader's Digest, and to get him off the subject of my studies I told him about my rooming house. In those days the college had no dormitories—we all lived in rooming houses or cheap apartments or fraternity or sorority houses. My room was the attic of an old house, with a large floor space and not much headroom. But being the former maid's quarters, it had its own bathroom. On the second floor were the rooms occupied by two other scholarship students, who were in their final year in Modern Languages. Their names were Kay and Beverly. In the high-ceilinged but chopped-up rooms downstairs lived a medical student, who was hardly ever home, and his wife, Beth, who was home all the time, because she had two very young children. Beth was the house manager and rent collector, and there was often a feud going on between her and the second-floor girls about how they washed their clothes in the bathroom and hung them there to dry. When the medical student was home he sometimes had to use that bathroom because of the baby stuff in the one downstairs, and Beth said he shouldn't have to cope with stockings in his face and a bunch of intimate doodads. Kay and Beverly retorted that use of their own bathroom had been promised when they moved in.
This was the sort of thing I chose to tell to Ernie, who flushed and said that they should have got it in writing.
Kay and Beverly were a disappointment to me. They worked hard at Modern Languages, but their conversation and preoccupations seemed hardly different from those of girls who might work in banks or offices. They did their hair up in pin curls and painted their fingernails on Saturdays, because that was the night they had dates with their boyfriends. On Sundays they had to soothe their faces with lotion because of the whisker-burns the boyfriends had inflicted on them. I didn't find either boyfriend in the least desirable, and I wondered how they could.
They said that they had once had some crazy idea of being translators at the United Nations, but now they figured they would teach high school, and with any luck get married.
They gave me unwelcome advice.
I had got a job in the college cafeteria. I pushed a cart around collecting dirty dishes off the tables and wiped the tables clean when they were empty. And I set out food to be picked up from the shelves.
They said that this job was not a good idea.
"Boys won't ask you out if they see you at a job like that."
I told Ernie this, and he said, "So, what did you say?"
I told him that I had said I would not want to go out with anybody who would make such a judgment, so what was the problem?
Now I'd hit the right note. Ernie glowed; he chopped his hands up and down in the air.
"Absolutely right," he said. "That is absolutely the attitude to take. Honest work. Never listen to anybody who wants to put you down for doing honest work. Just go right ahead and ignore them. Keep your pride. Anybody that doesn't like it, you tell them they can lump it."
This speech of his, the righteousness and approval lighting his large face, the jerky enthusiasm of his movements, roused the first doubts in me, the first gloomy suspicion that the warning, after all, might have some weight to it.

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The Truth about Canada

The Truth about Canada

Some Important, Some Astonishing, and Some Truly Appalling Things All Canadians Should Know About Our Country
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This book is about how Canada has changed, and changed very much for the worse, under the governments of Brian Mulroney, Jean Chrétien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper. It is also about how, as a result of the profound changes that have occurred, we are no longer the country we think we are, and no longer the people we think we are.

In chapter after chapter, you will discover just how very different we’ve become from our long-time self-image and from what has been our international image. You’ll see how far we’ve departed from the principles and the ideas that helped Canada become one of the most admired countries in the world and the country the overwhelming majority of Canadians have so cherished for so long.

An important feature of The Truth About Canada is the fascinating international comparisons it contains that show how we stack up against other countries around the world, but principally against the other OECD developed countries. It’s no exaggeration to say that you will find a great many of these comparisons disappointing, shocking, and even appalling.

Another main theme in the pages that follow is the dismal failure of our powerful corporate leaders to use their gigantic, record-breaking profits and reduced taxes to adequately invest in our country and to conduct reasonable levels of research and development that would help make Canada more innovative, more productive, and more competitive so we can raise our overall standard of living. You will find many of the facts that follow relating to big business in Canada both disturbing and dismaying.

A further theme is the unparalleled sellout of our country in a manner no other developed country would ever dream of allowing. While this has been taking place at an accelerating rate, the purposeful dissemination in the print media of false information about rapidly growing foreign ownership and control of Canada goes a long way towards explaining why our myopic politicians have failed to take action on this and other related problems that are very quickly robbing us of our ability to plan and manage our own future.

The chapter on the Free Trade Agreement is subtitled “The Most Colossal Con Job in Canadian History.” When you read it, I hope you will ask yourself why you have never read any of this information in our newspapers or magazines, or have never seen anything remotely similar on television. God knows, you’ve been inundated with an abundance of right-wing, continentalist propaganda to the contrary. The chapter on the media in Canada should help explain why this important information has never before been available to you.

When you read the economic chapters in this book, on foreign ownership, trade, investment, productivity, competitiveness, and taxation, I hope you will be aware of the fact that exactly the same people who have left us in these weakened positions have for some time been very secretly planning more of the same in private, high-level meetings designed to integrate Canada further into the United States.

Big business, in the form of the Business Council on National Issues and its well-financed successor, the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (the very same people who helped put Canada, as you will see, into two terrible so-called “trade” agreements), are now covertly planning “deep integration” with the United States, a process that will rob us of our ability to maintain our independence, protect our sovereignty, and preserve the important values so many of us cherish.

I hope you will be angry after reading The Truth About Canada, very angry. Angry at greedy, hypocritical, intentionally misleading corporate executives, and angry at the remarkably inept politicians who have allowed a small and wealthy plutocracy to sell out our country and our destiny for their own selfish motives.

The Truth About Canada is the result of many long days, months, and years of research. It certainly will be regarded as my most controversial book, and will bring immediate cries of protest from the usual Neanderthals at the Fraser Institute, the C.D. Howe Institute, the CCCE, the increasingly continentalist Conference Board of Canada, and, of course, the house organ of all of them, the National Post.
One editor asked me if I was not apprehensive about the strong criticism such a tough book will inevitably bring. The answer is simple. You cannot ever expect to accomplish anything important without bringing criticism from the entrenched forces this book describes, criticizes, and blames for what has gone wrong in our country.

I have been very fortunate in having some of the best minds in the country available to me for consultation as I wrote The Truth About Canada. You will find their names on the acknowledgements page. Many of the most important pages of original research in this book are the result of their help, for which I am very grateful.

Whether it’s our pathetically low number of doctors, our high comparative levels of both adult and child poverty, our truly awful record of educational funding, our shameful levels of foreign aid and peacekeeping, our abysmal voter turnout comparisons, our totally inadequate research and patent performances, our high infant and under-five mortality rates, the broad deterioration in our social programs, our increasing gaps in distribution of income and wealth in Canada, our treatment of our aboriginal peoples, the rapid decline of our manufacturing sectors, our serious post-secondary education problems, our continuing and very dangerous decentralization, our coming confrontation with the United States over water, our mind-bogglingly stupid NAFTA agreements regarding oil, natural gas, and water — in any or all of these topics, and in many more, you will frequently encounter vitally important and newly documented information that will make you cringe. Whether it’s our pathetically low number of doctors, our high comparative levels of both adult and child poverty, our truly awful record of educational funding, our shameful levels of foreign aid and peacekeeping, our abysmal voter turnout comparisons, our totally inadequate research and patent performances, our high infant and under-five mortality rates, the broad deterioration in our social programs, our increasing gaps in distribution of income and wealth in Canada, our treatment of our aboriginal peoples, the rapid decline of our manufacturing sectors, our serious post-secondary education problems, our continuing and very dangerous decentralization, our coming confrontation with the United States over water, our mind-bogglingly stupid NAFTA agreements regarding oil, natural gas, and water — in any or all of these topics, and in many more, you will frequently encounter vitally important and newly documented information that will make you cringe.

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Page Fright

Page Fright

Foibles and Fetishes of Famous Writers
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"Speaking to the Eyes": Beginnings
In the early 1840s, William Bacon Stevens, a young historian and devout Christian in Savannah, Georgia, beheld with awe a manuscript roughly a thousand years old. A ninth-century copy of Moralia in Job, which Pope Gregory i wrote in the sixth century, it was the oldest of the exceedingly rare treasures that plantation and slave owner Alexander Augustus Smets kept among the five thousand books in the library at his brick mansion in the city.
Worms had chewed the volume's thick covers, but the brass clasps and studs were in good shape. The double columns of Latin words on vellum pages were remarkably neat and highly legible, and Stevens marvelled "that the hand which traced those lines in all their beauty has a thousand years since moulded into dust – that the mighty waves of more than thirty generations have risen, rolled onward, and died upon the writer's grave. . . . The little characters inscribed on that parchment . . . have enclosed for ten centuries, the thoughts of the illustrious dead, speaking to the eye now, as [they] did a thousand years back, the same sentiments of piety and truth; while the name, the habitation, the tomb even of the writer have, for ages, been buried in oblivion! How wonderful is the power of letters! We enjoy hourly their benefit, we seldom reflect upon their worth. Their origin is lost in the remotest antiquity. . . ."
Stevens then presented verse by a writer he identified only as Breboeuf:
Whence did the wond'rous mystic art arise,
Of painting SPEECH, and speaking to the eyes?
That we, by tracing magic lines, are taught
How both to colour and embody THOUGHT?
In 1803, thirty-seven years before Stevens thus praised the miracle of handwriting – already so routine among the literate they thought about it little more than about breathing – Thomas Astle, keeper of records in the Tower of London, declared, "The noblest acquisition of mankind is speech, and the most useful art is writing. The first eminently distinguishes man from the brute creation; the second from uncivilized savages." After quoting those same lines by "Monsieur Breboeuf," Astle took a 240-page stab at explaining whence the mystic art arose and how it was that, over thousands of years, it had reached a state of such excellence that, with goose quill in hand and inkpot at the ready, he could race his linked and slanted letters across paper made from boiled shreds of rags. That paper, he enthused, "surpasses all other materials for ease and convenience of writing upon."
But it was upon stone that humans left the earliest known evidence of their compulsion to express themselves – and to do so in ways that would one day speak to the eyes of those who walked on the moon, performed open-heart surgery, defeated computers at chess, and gossiped on cellphones. On shadowy walls roughly thirty thousand years ago, cave dwellers engraved and painted graceful images of lions, bears, bulls, bison, wild oxen, reindeer, horses, and fuzzy rhinoceroses. No one knows for sure why they did this, but in 1970 handwriting historian Alfred J. Fairbank declared, "The beginnings of writing are in simple pictures. . . . Picture-writing was used to help memory or identify possessions or to make records of transactions, but its link with language was the key to civilization."
For the Indians, Mexicans, Phoenicians, Hittites, Babylonians, Assyrians, Ethiopians, Etruscans, and, indeed, virtually all the ancient civilizations, hieroglyphic scripts – in which pictures of people, animals, birds, tools, and other familiar things each stood for the sound of a word or syllable – were the pioneers of written language. Roughly nine thousand years ago, when the population of the world was no more than five million, the Middle East and Far East knew so little about each other they might as well have been in different galaxies. Yet the peoples of the Tigris and Euphrates basins and those of the Peiligang culture in what is now Henan province in northern China were both raising farm animals, growing grain, making pottery, and relying on their own systems of visual symbols, usually carved or scratched into hard surfaces, to record and convey information they could not trust their memories to preserve.
Among the human remains in twenty-four of the graves that archaeologists recently unearthed in Henan were tortoise shells that bore sixteen different inscriptions. These are anywhere from 8,200 to 8,600 years old. Since they include markings that resemble the characters of "eye," "sun," "day," "window," and numbers in certain Chinese writing of more than five thousand years later, some scholars see them as proof that, eons before any other civilization, the Chinese invented writing. Others argue that the inscriptions are little more than a bunch of prehistoric pictures.
No expert will ever nail down, to every other expert's satisfaction, exactly when the sophistication of real writing emerged from the crudeness of prehistoric proto-writing, but Encyclopedia Britannica identifies T'sang Chieh as the "legendary inventor" of Chinese writing, and it was in the mid-2500s BC that he served the Yellow Emperor as official recorder.
"At night, hearing the ghosts wail for the creation of writing, T'sang Chieh looked up with his four eyes at the pointed rays of the star Wen Chang, Lord of Literature," a Chinese historian wrote in AD 847. "Inspired, T'sang Chieh looked down to see the footprints of the birds and animals. He watched the shadows cast by trees and vegetation. . . . Observing the forms of nature, T'sang Chieh copied them by scratching onto sticks of smoothed bamboo. These were the first Chinese pictograms."
And Lo! There Came unto the World the Alphabet
"Sumerian was the first language to be written, and it is largely monosyllabic," Fairbank said. "The writing began as simple pictures and some can be traced to about 3100 bc." Sumer lay in that small "cradle of civilization" between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq, and by 2500 BC its ingenious people had a complete system of writing that contained as many as a thousand symbols. Nowhere, however, were hieroglyphics more beautiful and enduring than in Egypt. More than five thousand years ago, Egyptian priests used them to carve sacred inscriptions into stone and to paint them on temple walls. In hieratic writing, ashortening of hieroglyphics, scribes joined letter to letter. Around 1000 BC there finally emerged in Egypt the demotic script, a more colloquial and popular descendant of hieroglyphics.
But how wonderful is the power of letters! The alphabet, in which each letter represents its own sound within a word, remains one of civilization's foremost innovations. Its origins, however, are obscure. Experts on the ancient world long believed that, between 1730 and 1580 bc, the first alphabet arose among Semitic peoples in their homelands in Syria and Palestine. Egyptologists, however, recently discovered evidence that, centuries earlier, Semites who lived deep inside Egypt were already using an ancestor of our alphabet. West of the Nile, on the track of a desert road that soldiers, merchants, and traders used some 3,800 years ago, the scholars found inscriptions carved into limestone cliffs. The writing was Semitic, with Egyptian influences – and it was alphabetic.
Masters of hieroglyphics were professionals who had to know hundreds of pictographs; the alphabet, with fewer than thirty symbols, emerged as a kind of shorthand. The discoveries at the cliffs, the New York Times reported in 1999, supported "the idea of the alphabet as an invention by workaday people that simplified and democratized writing, freeing it from the elite hands of official scribes." Thus, alphabetic writing was "revolutionary in a sense comparable to the invention of the printing press much later." While becoming the mightiest trading and naval power on the Mediterranean, the Phoenicians improved the alphabet, and roughly three thousand years ago passed it on to the Greeks. The Greeks further improved it, and then the idea of the alphabet spread to the Etruscans, the Romans, and throughout Western culture.
First Baked Muck, Then Papyrus
Writing was so important to the ancients that they painted, inked, scratched, or engraved it on stone, bronze, brass, bark, linen, silk, camel bones, tortoise shells, pottery shards, limestone fragments, bare wood, plaster-coated and wax-coated wood, parchment, and vellum. The Sumerians wrote on clots of muck and baked them in the Middle Eastern sun. Much of their land was marshy, flood-prone, irrigated, and rich in alluvial silt. Pressing the triangularshaped cut end of a reed into a cushion of damp clay, the writer produced wedge-shaped strokes in patterns that added up to strings of words. Later, the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, and Persians also wrote in cuneiform(from the Latin cuneus, for wedge), and thousands of their inscribed tablets remain legible to this day.
The earliest surviving cuneiform writings of the Sumerians are financial accounts and supply lists of priests. Among other ancient peoples as well, the first known writings were not imaginative. They were official, ceremonial, and religious, or simply asserted ownership, preserved legal settlements, and recorded transactions. Around 2000 bc, however, certain scribes offered a series of myths and poems that evolved into The Epic of Gilgamesh. In all likelihood, Gilgamesh was a real king who, between 2700 and 2500 BC, ruled from one of the world's first walled cities, Uruk. Over centuries, as Sumerian, Hittite, Babylonian, and Assyrian scribes immortalized him on clay, he emerged in a long epic poem as a demigod with superhuman powers. He kills a gigantic ogre, crosses the Waters of Death, overcomes monstrous hardships, tangles with gods and goddesses, agonizes over the death of his closest friend, seeks wisdom and life everlasting and, like lesser Sumerians, comes to know grief, joy, failure, and triumph. He is a Mesopotamian precursor of Hercules.
The Epic of Gilgamesh may well be the oldest written story on Earth, and we owe its best-preserved and most complete rendition to the first author whose name has come down to us. He was Sinliqe-unninni. He lived in Babylonia between 1300 and 1000 BC and wrote the "standard" version of the poem on twelve clay tablets. We know next to nothing about him, but can we possibly doubt his dedication to writing? One English translation of his Gilgamesh in Babylonian runs to more than seventeen thousand words. Yet Sin-liqe-unninni set out his entire epic by poking reeds into clumps of mud. His Muse must have immunized him against both writer's block and writer's cramp.
By his time, Egyptians had been making papyrus for roughly 2,500 years. A tall reed that grew abundantly in the shallower waters of the Nile and its delta, Cyperus papyrus was a godsend to the locals, and perhaps to the baby Moses. Some believe that it was this plant, not bulrushes, that his mother used to make the floating cradle in which she hid him at the edge of the Nile. The Egyptians turned some parts of Cyperus papyrus into food and fuel, and others into utensils, cloth, rope, sandals, skiffs, and garlands for shrines. But nothing the people of the Nile made from the hugely plentiful reed was anywhere near as important as papyrus. Upon this light, flexible ancestor of paper, scribes wrote quickly with ink they made from soot, gum and water, and pens they fashioned from hollow reeds. For a thousand years or more, papyrus was the most popular writing surface not only among the Egyptians, but among the Greeks, Romans, and other peoples who imported it from them.
The very pains the Egyptians took to manufacture it proved how indispensable it was. Papyrus makers split the stem, extracted strips of pith, laid them side by side to form a layer, placed shorter pieces over them at right angles, bonded the two crossways layers with paste or muddy Nile water, and then pressed, pounded, and hammered the sheet. Finally, they dried it in the sun. Using ivory, shells, or pumice, workers then polished one side until it was fit to receive writing. For purposes of shipment and book-length compositions, they pasted sheets end to end until they had a long strip, which they rolled up on wooden rods. Some rolls were 150 feet long, but most of those bound for Greece and Rome were thirty to thirty-five feet by nine or ten inches. They were tough enough to survive centuries of rolling and unrolling. Roman encyclopedist Pliny the Elder wrote, "Well-made papyrus can be more supple than linen."
Its production was no mere cottage industry. Egyptians produced it not in small workshops but in factories. They exported it to Mesopotamia – the Assyrians called it "the reed of Egypt" – and ports all around the Mediterranean. Rome had several papyrus dealers, and at stationery shops buyers had their choice of half a dozen grades and widths. They used papyrus not only for works of literature, but for correspondence, everyday business, and legal documents. In Rome, the government owned a cavernous warehouse for the papyrus its bureaucrats used in their offices. During the reign of Tiberius (ad 14 to 37), the failure of the papyrus crop made the "paper" so hard to get that, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910), "there was a danger of the ordinary business of life being deranged." Two thousand years later, it would take power failures to cause that sort of crisis.
Estimates of the holdings in antiquity's biggest library and first research institute indicate how enormous the production of papyrus was. Built early in the third century bc, during the Hellenistic era that began in Egypt after the vast conquests of Alexander the Great, the Royal Library in Alexandria was still in its infancy when a bibliographical survey revealed it housed ninety thousand rolls. In the 1980 television series Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, astronomer Carl Sagan said that "the intellectual venture that has led us into space" actually began at this very library, and he claimed it housed nearly a million scrolls. That was an exaggeration but even if the total was only half that, and the average length of the scrolls was thirty-five feet, the papyrus there was more than 3,300 miles long. And that was only in Alexandria. Heaven only knows how many more miles of papyrus documents sat in the dusty libraries of ancient Greece, Rome, and Mesopotamia.
On Papyrus, the New Testament. And Sex Manuals
With due respect to Gilgamesh, it was papyrus, not clay, that allowed the arrival of literature in the world; encouraged its blossoming during what Edgar Allan Poe called "the glory that was Greece, the grandeur that was Rome"; and preserved it for the printing presses and websites of inconceivably distant times. Stone and metal were fine for inscribing laws, edicts, commandments, and dedications, but not for writing literature. British Egyptologist and author Amelia Edwards (1831–1892) once challenged her readers to imagine Sappho, Martial and Horace "laboriously scratching" their poems on bronze or stone. "How the perfume of the roses and the sting of the epigrams and the aroma of the Sabine wine would have evaporated under such a process!" Thus it was on papyrus that not only the New Testament survived, but also the writings of Homer, Aesop, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Euripides, Marcus Aurelius, Tacitus, Cicero, Lucretius, and dozens of others. It was on papyrus that The Aeneid by Virgil (70–19 BC) travelled, in his own lifetime, all the way to Britain.
As recently as 2005, researchers at Oxford University employed a new technology called "multi-spectral imaging" to read papyrus fragments that had been illegible for more than two thousand years. Bills, wills, horoscopes, tax assessments, and private letters were among the suddenly readable documents, but so were works by giants of Greek classical literature. Dirk Obbink, director of the research, said the hoard contained "a complete slice of life – everything from Sophocles and Homer to sex manuals and steamy novels."
Even before the Greeks and Romans, however, the Egyptians had an extensive literature of their own, and in the Victorian era Amelia Edwards wrote about it as though it were the Eighth Wonder of the Ancient World:
The Egyptians were the first people . . . who wrote books, and read books; who possessed books, and loved them. And their literature, which grew, and flourished and decayed with the language in which it was written, was of the most varied character, scientific, secular, and religious. It comprised moral and educational treatises; state papers; works on geometry, medicine, astronomy, and magic; travels, tales, fables, heroic poems, love-songs, and essays in the form of letters; hymns, dirges, rituals; and last, not least, that extraordinary collection of prayers, invocations, and religious formulae known as The Book of the Dead. Some of these writings are older than the pyramids; some are as recent as the time when Egypt had fallen from her high estate and become a Roman province. Between these two extremes lie more than 5000 years. Of this immense body of literature we possess only the scattered wrecks – mere "flotsam and jetsam," left stranded on the shores of Time.
Since papyrus was expensive, the Romans also wrote on wax. They spread green or black beeswax on white sheets of wood and inscribed words on it with a stylus. This needle-like tool had a blunt end for corrections. Writers erased outdated inscriptions simply by smoothing the wax and using it again and again. Handy for casual jottings, keeping accounts, dashing off unimportant letters, and working on poetry or prose until it was good enough to transfer to papyrus, the tablets were the notebooks of the Roman Empire.
Like nineteenth-century schoolchildren with portable slates, Roman schoolboys wrote exercises on these waxed boards. Their teachers often tied tablets together to form primitive books, at least one of which grew dangerously heavy. "For in Plautus," Thomas Astle wrote in his 1803 history of handwriting, "a school boy of seven years old is represented breaking his master's head with a table book." The iron stylus could also be lethal. The historian Suetonius claimed that the sadistic despot Caligula (AD 14 to 41) incited a Roman mob to murder a senator with their stylli. Moreover, Astle continued, "Prudontius very emphatically describes the tortures which Cassianus [a schoolteacher] was put to by his scholars, who killed him with their pugillares (table books) and styles." The Romans eventually thought it best to outlaw iron stylli in favour of those fashioned from ivory or bone, a ruling that every teacher in the empire doubtless applauded.
From China to England over Fifteen Centuries: Paper Mills
The paper that the world now uses owes its origin to China. Paper first appeared there at least a century before the birth of Christ but, according to the British manufacturer of fine art paper, Inveresk plc, "traditional Chinese records give the credit for its development to one T'sai Lun (about 105 ad), who was even deified as the god of papermakers." He taught them to pound and grind bark, rags, and fishing nets, and to mix the result with water to make a mushy pulp. With fine mesh screens, they turned the stuff into sheets of intertwined fibre, which they then pressed and dried. "This method of papermaking," the Ontario Science Centre asserts, "has not changed in 2,000 years."
China knew it was on to a good thing. It foiled whatever industrial espionage foreigners attempted and kept its papermaking formula a secret, even from nearby Korea and Japan, for at least five centuries. In 751, however, Arab forces defeated a Chinese army in a historic battle near the Taras River in central Asia, and among the prisoners they took were papermakers. The Arabs promptly forced them into paper production in Samarkand, and by 794 Baghdad, too, had a mill. Paper slowly spread westward in the Arab world, to Damascus, Egypt, Morocco, and, in the 1150s, Spain. Still later, mills emerged throughout continental Europe and finally arrived in England in the late 1400s. That was a good fifteen hundred years after the first sheets of paper, somewhere in China, began to accept ink.
The quality of early Chinese paper, Inveresk reports, was superb. Indeed, it was "comparable even with that of handmade rag paper today." Chinese calligraphers have never been able to settle for anything less. Choosing from quivers of assorted brushes, they stroke ink onto this fine paper to express meanings that are literary, to be sure, but also visual. How they write is every bit as important as what they write and, unlike handwriting in the Western world, Oriental calligraphy is itself an art. Museums exhibit it as they do paintings, and the Chinese still treasure it as more valuable than paintings and sculpture. As a means of self-expression, they rank it alongside poetry. To connoisseurs of this Oriental art, the unique style of each calligrapher's creation reflects his character, emotions, culture, and appreciation of beauty. It thus reveals to the reader-viewer the very soul of the artist.
Chinese calligraphers preferred rabbit-hair brushes for small characters and sheep-hair brushes for bolder strokes, but also used ones made from the hairs of goats, weasels, wolves, tigers, and gorillas, and even the whiskers of mice. The ink consisted of lampblack baked with a glutinous substance, and the finest grades were delicately perfumed. Perhaps the scent made it easier for the artist to convey not only the language of thought but what calligraphy authority Jean Long calls "the artistic beauty of the thought."
No Paper? Try Sheepskin
In the Roman Empire during the fourth century ad, slaughtered animals overtook aquatic plants as the raw material for the most popular forebear of writing paper. Made from the skins of sheep or goats, parchment was a bit coarse. But vellum – the treated skins of kids, lambs, and calves – was thin, firm, crisp, smooth, and glossy. Newly born or stillborn animals provided vellum's crème de la crème. The earliest users of the best vellum undoubtedly appreciated its beautiful writing surface, but probably failed to grasp how amazingly durable it was. While rot has destroyed all the ancient papyrus documents except those found in the dry heat of Egypt, thousands of vellum documents have survived the march of centuries. Vellum had a further advantage; it was reusable. Scribes could erase writings from it and use it repeatedly. That was important. The stuff was so expensive that, for routine work, they wrote in tiny letters.
"The ordinary modern process of preparing the skins," Encyclopedia Britannica reported in 1910, "is by washing, liming, unhairing, scraping, washing a second time, stretching evenly on a frame, scraping a second time and paring down inequalities, dusting with sifted chalk and rubbing with pumice. Similar methods . . . must have been employed from the first."
The finished product, however, more than justified the painstaking labour. While the several rolls of papyrus required to contain a whole book were awkward to handle and tricky to keep in proper order, just one volume of parchment or vellum pages could hold all of Homer, Virgil, or the Bible. As early as the first century ad, the expert writer of epigrams in Latin, Martial, touted the wonderful advantages of the ancient manuscript in book form that we now call the codex. "You want to take my poems wherever you go, as companions, say, on a trip to some distant land?" he wrote. "Buy this. It's packed tight into parchment pages, so leave your rolls at home, for this takes just one hand!"
Thus, the vellum codex ousted papyrus and dominated publishing right down to the arrival of paper mills and printing presses at the end of the Middle Ages. (While the history of printing is undoubtedly fascinating, this book deals only with the tools, materials, and habits that have helped creative writers fill the blank pages that confronted them.)
After barbarian hordes conquered the Roman Empire and plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, deeply religious men holed up for centuries in a chain of castle-like monasteries that stretched across the continent. Working in silence and, for fear of fire, with no light but the sun's, they preserved on vellum not only the Bible and other supreme texts of Christendom, but the works of medicine, science, history, philosophy, and literature that have travelled all the way from classical Greece and Rome to readers in the twenty-first century. An article at reports that the pages for one copy of the Bible required the slaughter of 210 to 225 sheep and "from the first fifty years of the ninth century we have records of forty-six large Bibles and eighteen Gospels produced at Tours. A sure cure for insomnia."
If making vellum was troublesome, making ink was doubly so. In the eleventh century, an Italian monk named Theophilus began to make what Samuel Johnson, some seven centuries later, would call "the black liquor with which men write," by cutting hawthorn branches before they produced blossoms or leaves in the early spring. He laid them in a shady spot for up to eight weeks until they dried out, pounded them with mallets, and peeled off their bark. He put the bark in barrels of water for eight days to allow the water to draw off the sap, then he dumped the water into a big cauldron, heated it over a fire, threw in more bark, boiled the liquid down to a third of its original volume, transferred it to a smaller container, and heated it again until it turned black and began to thicken. "When you see it become thick," he concluded, "add a third part of pure wine, put it in two or three new pots and continue to heat it until you see that it develops a kind of skin at the top."
Around the time that Theophilus wrote his ink-making instructions, an unknown writer, in scrupulously neat Old English, transcribed the epic saga Beowulf. Set in the fifth and sixth centuries and possibly composed as early as the seventh, the poem describes in eloquent and gory detail the struggles of the Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, against the bloodthirsty, man-eating monster, Grendel; the horrifying, revenge-seeking mother of the felled Grendel; and a dragon. The sole surviving manuscript sits in the British Library. Some of the poem's admirers now call it "England's national epic." Yet it would never have come to light if it weren't for the anonymous scribe who, a thousand years ago, copied all of its 3,183 lines onto the skins of animals – with the feathers of a bird. For centuries, the quill pen had been the writing instrument of choice throughout Europe, and it would remain so for centuries to come.

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A Soccer Story
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Most of us are not yet over the hill. We see the hill in the distance, but we’re not there yet. We may look old, but some of us don’t play old once the whistle blows. Some of us, like Hans Hart, are tenacious tacklers; some of us, like Fidel Bacelic, can still put the ball in the net from all angles with the deftness of a Thierry Henry. Some of us, like Dave Naphtali, are still remarkably fast and fit. A few are still crazy enough to get into fisticuffs.

If you’re fit in your fifties, it is possible to play at a high calibre, as long as your opponents can’t run one hundred metres in ten seconds. That’s because soccer is a team game that requires wits as much as muscle. We are not particularly gifted, but we are dedicated to our sport. Most importantly, we are playing within a culture that promotes fitness in a temperate climate. As part of the Me Generation, we are baby boomers who refuse to get old. Nearly all of us are sufficiently advanced in our parenting to squeeze adequate leisure time out of our daily lives to avoid a beer gut.

We are lucky enough to play year-round in a place with the highest average life expectancy for males on the planet. British Columbia, Canada, according to a 2006 report, has surpassed Japan in this rating. It’s a good bet, statistically, that I will live at least 79.2 years. Hence we avoid the terms Old-timer or Weekend Warrior. Every week I try to play
better. Every week our team wants to play better. We look forward to our weekly soccer game as much as we did when we were kids. At least we now know what we’ll be missing if we can no longer play.

When you’re young, you never stop and ponder what your life would be like if you couldn’t play football. You take the game for granted, like oxygen or summer holidays. But this is different. This is better. The presence of Death on the sidelines heightens the drama and satisfaction of our encounters with the opposition, and our sense of camaraderie as a team.

When we show up at the pitch, we are glad to see one another and often we shake hands. We joke. We are not only concerned with how well we might perform as individuals; we are also sensitive to the requirements of communalism. Everyone feels the difference. It is a privilege to be able to play.

Your next injury could end your career. For every athlete, it is ever thus, but as a youth you don’t think that way; you barely think at all. You are too busy performing. You are lost in the moment. You don’t see the game as a highlight in a prolonged continuum.

We are old enough to know there are two game clocks going at once. There are the ninety minutes allotted to the match, as calculated by the referee’s wristwatch, and there is another invisible timekeeper, far less predictable than the referee, who likes to blow his whistle on a whim. The drama of waiting for full-time enhances every fresh encounter.

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Hot Air

Hot Air

Meeting Canada's Climate Change Challenge
also available: Paperback
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Chapter Seven
What We Should Do
Canadians ought to know by now what does not work in lowering greenhouse gas emissions. We have witnessed two decades of information and subsidy policies from our leaders — policies that continue to inspire the Harper government. The numbers do not lie: Canada’s record of greenhouse gas emissions is appalling, and the information and subsidy policies of yesterday and today will not materially change that record. Worse, as governments develop increasingly expensive policy initiatives, such as the Harper government’s “eco” policies throwing billions of dollars into all kinds of programs, the cost of failure grows in wasted money and time. In the scathing words of Johanne Gélinas, Canada’s commissioner of the environment and sustainable development at the time, describing the history of Canada’s climate policies, “On the whole, the government’s response to climate change is not a good story….Our audits revealed inadequate leadership, planning and performance.” Gélinas further noted that to address climate change effectively, a “massive scale-up in efforts is needed” by the federal government.

A massive scale-up is indeed what Canada needs to reduce GHG emissions, but not just any collection of policies, however massive, will suffice. Politicians, when they think of doing something “massive,” instinctively think of spending more taxpayers’ dollars. This instinct leads to the politically attractive option of crisscrossing the country announcing funding for this or that special project, as Canadians observed when the Conservatives rolled out their “eco” projects at a series of photo-opportunity announcements by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, with ministers playing their assigned roles in the background like bobblehead dolls.

Photo ops and eye-popping financial commitments seem irresistible to politicians, even though most of the announcements miss the target of what must be done. There is no silver bullet to reduce GHGs, but one cardinal principle stands out: The only way Canada can lower emissions appreciably over the coming decades — and this will be a decades-long challenge — is to design and implement either charges on emissions or regulations on emissions or technologies, or a mixture of both. We need economic tools and/or regulations to get the job done. There is no effective alternative. Until Canadians and their governments understand this truth, we will continue to squander money, waste time, pursue variations of failed policies, and make scant progress. We might even continue to go backwards. We need, in other words, to stop digging in the same hole.

Canadians want answers, and if those on offer for so many years cannot suffice, which ones will? This chapter and the next one aim to provide a credible set of answers, illustrating the kind of policies governments can adopt that will lead to success. We will apply the CIMS model to our own policies to show why they will work much better over time than the Liberal and Conservative plans examined earlier.

Bear in mind two points in all that follows, and in everything you hear in public discussion of GHG emissions. First, successful policies will require decades to produce substantial reductions in GHG emissions. But we need to start implementing such policies as soon as possible, because the more time we fritter away pursuing failed policies, the greater the subsequent challenge of reducing GHG emissions. Second, while the specific design of GHG policies obviously matters to individuals, regions, and industries, the bedrock idea of any approach must be that unfettered, cost-free dumping of GHG emissions into the atmosphere will no longer be permitted. The atmosphere can no longer be considered a carbon dump.

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What Is a Canadian?

What Is a Canadian?

Forty-Three Thought-Provoking Responses
edited by Irvin Studin
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A CANADIAN IS . . . in some cases, someone who wishes this eternal, narcissistic, self-­pleasuring celebration of our national identity would get to the money shot so we can feel safe, at last, from the necessity of keeping a shoe handy to throw at the radio when some CBC panellist chuckles and quips, “How very Canadian of you!”
- Jake MacDonald

A CANADIAN IS . . . almost always unsure of what it means to be Canadian. Maybe this is a strength. Maybe it is evidence of our tolerance and pluralism and of our enlightened postmodernness. Let a thousand identities bloom! Or maybe it just reveals our hollow core — a vacuity at the centre of our soul. Outside of Quebec, at least, we do not really know who we are or what we represent — other than that we have made ourselves remarkably comfortable in a cold land, and that we are good at hockey.
- Thomas Homer-Dixon

A CANADIAN IS . . . according to literary critic Northrop Frye, “an American who rejects the [American] Revolution.” Frye’s definition, dating back fifty years plus, is still, I wager, sage. In the twenty-­first century, one sees that, despite the continued (and increased) popularity of American entertainment in Canada and the commercial integration (collusion) of our two nations since 1988, Canadians still define themselves as un-­American: not (as) “God-­fearing,” not (as) homophobic, not (as) jingoistic, and not (as) anti-­government as their neighbours.
- George Elliott Clarke

A CANADIAN IS . . . 32,146,547 different things altogether — and counting. A far more telling question, perhaps, might be What is Canada?, for this is a place where the country defines the people as much as the people the country; perhaps far more so.
- Roy MacGregor

A CANADIAN IS . . . the most fortunate, demanding and indebted person in the world.

Fortunate for the resource wealth, land mass, space and opportunity Canada provides as a common birthright; demanding because of what we expect from ourselves, our society, our allies and neighbours; in debt to a history of sacrifice, determination and service that preserved and built the best for the inheritance we call Canada.
- Hugh Segal

A CANADIAN IS . . . a citizen of the world without ever having to leave home. In just over a dozen words, that encapsulates the positive reality of being Canadian. Here we live at the top of North America, citizens of a huge country with a small population of just over thirty-­two million people, including about four million “visible minorities,” most of us within three hundred kilometres of the most powerful nation in the world. Yet we maintain, despite the critics, a unique nation.
- Catherine Ford

A CANADIAN IS . . . an imaginary creature with various mythological traits, some of them charming, some irritating, many of them contradictory.

The Canadian is, famously, able to make love in a canoe; pass for American until asked to pronounce “out”; inflect sentences upward at the end. The Canadian is self-­deprecating, ironic, polite and deferential to authority. Also hockey loving, beer drinking, pemmican eating, igloo dwelling. Fond of universal health care, vestiges of monarchy, extra u’s, reversed r’s and e’s, and the sound of something called zed. Multicultural, tolerant, civil, clean, mildly socialistic. The Canadian says “Sorry” when you step on his foot.

The most accurate book ever written about the subject of Canadian identity is Anthony Wilden’s The Imaginary Canadian, a work by an English-­born, American-­trained, French-­influenced Lacanian psychoanalytical sociologist who lives in Vancouver. Wilden argued that the Canadian, like the typical Gen-­Xer or classic Piscean, is a categorical fiction, a chimera. The Canadian is a projection of our desires and fears, a straw man or whipping boy, as the case dictates, a notional sum of forces and vectors, just as illusory but a lot less useful than a centre of gravity or statistical mean, and legally of a significance somewhat less than the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus.

Because he is imaginary, the Canadian is someone we shall forever seek yet never find, for the Canadian is everywhere and nowhere at once.
- Mark Kingwell

A CANADIAN IS . . . adaptable. To illustrate, consider the depth and breadth of the Canadian woman’s wardrobe…it is the winter wardrobe that really defines the adaptable Canadian woman. There is the long wool dress-­coat for evenings out, the short car coat for trips to work or to the grocery store, and the heavy ski jacket for multiple purposes — including jaunts outside to plug in the car, shifts at the unheated hockey rink to watch sons and daughters play peewee hockey, downhill skiing at Mont Tremblant or Lake Louise, or walks around Regina’s Wascana Lake…In sum, the Canadian woman has clothing to adapt to every possible weather pattern. It is why Canadians build their houses with so much closet space.
- Dr. Jennifer Welsh

A CANADIAN IS . . . a wonderful thing to be.

I write these words at thirty thousand feet, on my way to a conference in India on ethnic conflict and nation-­building. This is one of my keen interests, exploring how countries and regions can explode with violence, and in turn find ways to put themselves back together.

We like to think of ourselves as a peaceable kingdom, whose history is as dull as ditchwater, and whose politicians are full of it. Yet conflict and its resolution have been an indelible part of our story.
- Bob Rae

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The View From Castle Rock


About ten or twelve years ago I began to take more than a random interest in the history of one side of my family, whose name was Laidlaw. There was a good deal of information lying around about them – really an unusual amount, considering that they were obscure and not prosperous, and living in the Ettrick Valley, which the Statistical Account of Scotland (1799) describes as having no advantages. I lived in Scotland for a few months, close to the Ettrick Valley, so I was able to find their names in the local histories in the Selkirk and Galashiels Public Libraries, and to find out what James Hogg had to say about them in Blackwoods Magazine. Hogg’s mother was a Laidlaw, and he took Walter Scott to see her when Scott was collecting ballads for The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. (She supplied some, though she later took offense at their being printed.) And I was lucky, in that every generation of our family seemed to produce somebody who went in for writing long, outspoken, sometimes outrageous letters, and detailed recollections. Scotland was the country, remember, where John Knox had decided that every child should learn to read and write, in some sort of village school, so that everybody could read the Bible.

It didn’t stop there.

I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some of the characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can ever be.

During these years I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first-person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted to with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I hadn’t collected I was not doing exactly that. I was doing something closer to what a memoir does – exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the center and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and color and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago. One of them got himself electrocuted and another fired off a gun in a barn full of horses. In fact, some of these characters have moved so far from their beginnings that I cannot remember who they were to start with.

These are stories.
You could say that such stories pay more attention to the truth of a life than fiction usually does. But not enough to swear on. And the part of this book that might be called family history has expanded into fiction, but always within the outline of a true narrative. With these developments the two streams came close enough together that they seemed to me meant to flow in one channel, as they do in this book.

From “Illinois”
A letter from his brothers reached William Laidlaw in the Highlands sometime early in the eighteen-thirties. They complained of not hearing from him for three years, and told him that his father was dead. It did not take him very long, once he was sure of that, to start making his plans to go to America. He asked for and was given a letter of reference from his employer, Colonel Munro (perhaps one of the many Highland landowners who had made sure of profitable sheep-rearing by hiring Borders men as their factors). He waited until Mary’s fourth baby boy was born – this was my great-grandfather Thomas – and then he bundled up his family and set out. His father and his brothers had spoken of going to America, but when they said that, it was really Canada they meant. William spoke accurately. He had discarded the Ettrick Valley for the Highlands without the least regret, and now he was ready to get out from under the British flag altogether–he was bound for Illinois.

They settled in Joliet, near Chicago.

There in Joliet, on the 5th of January, in either 1839 or 1840, William died of cholera, and Mary gave birth to a girl. All on the one day.

She wrote to the brothers in Ontario – what else could she do? – and in the late spring when the roads were dry and the crops were planted Andrew arrived with a team of oxen and a cart, to carry her and her children and their goods back to Esquesing.

“Where is the tin box?” said Mary. “I saw it last thing before I went to bed. Is it in the cart already?”
Andrew said that it was not. He had just come back from loading the two rolls of bedding, wrapped up in canvas.

“Becky?” said Mary sharply. Becky Johnson was right there, rocking back and forth on a wooden stool with the baby in her arms, so surely she might have spoken if she knew the whereabouts of the box. But she was in a sulky mood, she had said barely a word that morning. And now she did nothing but shake her head slightly, as if the box and the packing and loading and the departure, which was close at hand, meant nothing to her.

“Does she understand?” said Andrew. Becky was half Indian and he had taken her for a servant, till Mary explained that she was a neighbor.

“We’ve got them too,” he said, speaking as if Becky had no ears in her head. “But we don’t have them coming in and sitting down in the house like that.”

“She has been more help to me than anybody,” Mary said, trying to shush him. “Her father was a white man.”

“Well,” said Andrew, as if to say there were two ways of looking at that.

Mary said, “I can’t think how it would disappear from in front of my eyes.”

She turned away from her brother-in-law to the son who was her chief comfort.

“Johnnie, did you happen to see the black tin box?”

Johnnie was sitting on the lower bunk, now bare of bedclothes, keeping a watch over his younger brothers Robbie and Tommy, as his mother had asked him to. He had invented a game of dropping a spoon between the slats onto the plank floor, and having them see who could pick it up first. Naturally Robbie always won, even though Johnnie had asked him to slow down and give his smaller brother a chance. Tommy was in such a state of excitement that he did not seem to mind. He was used to this situation anyway, as the youngest.

Johnnie shook his head, preoccupied. Mary expected no more than that. But in a moment he spoke, as if just recollecting her question.

“Jamie’s setting on it. Out in the yard.”

Not only sitting on it, Mary saw when she hurried out, but he had covered it with his father’s coat, the coat Will had been married in. He must have got that out of the clothes trunk that was already in the cart.

“What are you doing?” cried Mary, as if she couldn’t see. “You’re not supposed to touch that box. What are you doing with your father’s coat after I packed it up? I ought to smack you.”

She was aware that Andrew was watching, and likely thinking that was a poor enough reprimand. He had asked Jamie to help him load the trunk and Jamie had done so, reluctantly, but then he had slipped away, instead of hanging around to see what more he could help with. And yesterday, when Andrew first arrived, the boy had pretended not to know who he was. “There’s a man out in the road with a cart and an ox team,” he had said to his mother, as if no such thing was expected and was of no concern to him.

Andrew had asked her if the lad was all right. All right in the head, was what he meant.

“His father’s dying was a hard matter for him,” she said.

Andrew said, “Aye,” but added that there’d been time to get over it, by now.

The box was locked. Mary had the key to it around her neck. She wondered if Jamie had meant to get into it, not knowing that. She was ready to weep.

“Put the coat back in the trunk,” was all she could say.

In the box were Will’s pistol and such papers as Andrew needed concerning the house and land, and the letter Colonel Munro had written before they left Scotland, and another letter, that Mary herself had sent to Will, before they were married. It was in reply to one from him – the first word she’d had since he left Ettrick, years before. He said in it that he remembered her well and had thought that by now he would have heard of her wedding. She had replied that in such case she would have sent him an invitation.

“Soon I will be like the old almanacks left on the shelf, that no person will buy,” she wrote. (But to her shame, when he showed her this letter long afterwards, she saw that she had spelled “buy” by. Living with him, having books and journals around, had done a power of good for her spelling.)
It was true that she was in her twenty-fifth year when she wrote that, but she was still confident of her looks. No woman who thought herself lacking in that way would have dared such a comparison. And she had finished off by inviting him, as plain as any words could do it. If you should come courting me, she had said, if you should come courting me some moonlight night, I think that you should be preferred before any.
What a chance to take, she said when he showed her that. Did I have no pride?

Nor I, he said.

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Alice Munro's Best

From “Differently”

Georgia got a part-time job in a bookstore, working several evenings a week. Ben went away on his yearly cruise. The summer turned out to be unusually hot and sunny for the West Coast. Georgia combed her hair out and stopped using most of her makeup and bought a couple of short halter dresses. Sitting on her stool at the front of the store, showing her bare brown shoulders and sturdy brown legs, she looked like a college girl — clever but full of energy and bold opinions. The people who came into the store liked the look of a girl — a woman — like Georgia. They liked to talk to her. Most of them came in alone. They were not exactly lonely people, but they were lonely for somebody to talk to about books. Georgia plugged in the kettle behind the desk and made mugs of raspberry tea. Some favored customers brought in their own mugs. Maya came to visit and lurked about in the background, amused and envious.

“You know what you’ve got?” she said to Georgia. “You’ve got a salon! Oh, I’d like to have a job like that! I’d even like an ordinary job in an ordinary store, where you fold things up and find things for people and make change and say thank you very much, and colder out today, will it rain?”

“You could get a job like that,” said Georgia.

“No, I couldn’t. I don’t have the discipline. I was too badly brought up. I can’t even keep house without Mrs. Hanna and Mrs. Cheng and Sadie.”

It was true. Maya had a lot of servants, for a modern woman, though they came at different times and did separate things and were nothing like an old-fashioned household staff. Even the food at her dinner parties, which seemed to show her own indifferent touch, had been prepared by someone else.

Usually, Maya was busy in the evenings. Georgia was just as glad, because she didn’t really want Maya coming into the store, asking for crazy titles that she had made up, making Georgia’s employment there a kind of joke. Georgia took the store seriously. She had a serious, secret liking for it that she could not explain. It was a long, narrow store with an old-fashioned funnelled entryway between two angled display windows. From her stool behind the desk Georgia was able to see the reflections in one window reflected in the other. This street was not one of those decked out to receive tourists. It was a wide east-west street filled in the early evening with a faintly yellow light, a light reflected off pale stucco buildings that were not very high, plain storefronts, nearly empty sidewalks. Georgia found this plainness liberating after the winding shady streets, the flowery yards and vine-framed windows of Oak Bay. Here the books could come into their own, as they never could in a more artful and enticing suburban bookshop. Straight long rows of paperbacks. (Most of the Penguins then still had their orange-and-white or blue-and-white covers, with no designs or pictures, just the unadorned, unexplained titles.) The store was a straight avenue of bounty, of plausible promises. Certain books that Georgia had never read, and probably never would read, were important to her, because of the stateliness or mystery of their titles. In Praise of Folly. The Roots of Coincidence. The Flowering of New England. Ideas and Integrities.
Sometimes she got up and put the books in stricter order. The fiction was shelved alphabetically, by author, which was sensible but not very interesting. The history books, however, and the philosophy and psychology and other science books were arranged according to certain intricate and delightful rules — having to do with chronology and content — that Georgia grasped immediately and even elaborated on. She did not need to read much of a book to know about it. She got a sense of it easily, almost at once, as if by smell.

At times the store was empty, and she felt an abundant calm. It was not even the books that mattered then. She sat on the stool and watched the street — patient, expectant, by herself, in a finely balanced and suspended state.

She saw Miles’ reflection — his helmeted ghost parking his motorcycle at the curb — before she saw him. She believed that she had noted his valiant profile, his pallor, his dusty red hair (he took off his helmet and shook out his hair before coming into the store), and his quick, slouching, insolent, invading way of moving, even in the glass.

It was no surprise that he soon began to talk to her, as others did. He told her that he was a diver. He looked for wrecks, and lost airplanes, and dead bodies. He had been hired by a rich couple in Victoria who were planning a treasure-hunting cruise, getting it together at the moment. Their names, the destination were all secrets. Treasure-hunting was a lunatic business. He had done it before. His home was in Seattle, where he had a wife and a little daughter.

Everything he told her could easily have been a lie.

He showed her pictures in books — photographs and drawings, of mollusks, jellyfish, the Portuguese man-of-war, sargasso weed, the Caribbean flying fish, the girdle of Venus. He pointed out which pictures were accurate, which were fakes. Then he went away and paid no more attention to her, even slipping out of the store while she was busy with a customer. Not a hint of a goodbye. But he came in another evening, and told her about a drowned man wedged into the cabin of a boat, looking out the watery window in an interested way. By attention and avoidance, impersonal conversations in close proximity, by his oblivious prowling, and unsmiling, lengthy, gray-eyed looks, he soon had Georgia in a disturbed and not disagreeable state. He stayed away two nights in a row, then came in and asked her, abruptly, if she would like a ride home on his motorcycle.

Georgia said yes. She had never ridden on a motorcycle in her life. Her car was in the parking lot; she knew what was bound to happen.

She told him where she lived. “Just a few blocks up from the beach,” she said.

“We’ll go to the beach, then. We’ll go and sit on the logs.”

That was what they did. They sat for a while on the logs. Then, though the beach was not quite dark or completely deserted, they made love in the imperfect shelter of some broom bushes. Georgia walked home, a strengthened and lightened woman, not in the least in love, favored by the universe.

“My car wouldn’t start,” she told the baby-sitter, a grandmother from down the street. “I walked all the way home. It was lovely, walking. Lovely. I enjoyed it so much.”

Her hair was wild, her lips were swollen, her clothes were full of sand.

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