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  • Canadian Historical Nonchalance and Newfoundland Exceptionalism
  • David Lowenthal (bio)

AN AMERICAN COMMENTARY ON CANADA RISKS INCITING Great Wall of Canada ire.1 I earned Canadian umbrage at composer R. Murray Schafer's 60th birthday symposium at Banff in 1993.2 My keynote deplored music's decline from universal art–Kepler's harmony of the spheres–to national chauvinism.3 Canadian listeners were outraged. Their concert halls and airways were swamped by American media. Schafer himself had ditched cosmopolitanism for national music. He deplored Canada's enslavement to "alien cultural models."4 "So," he rebuked me, "you don't like our Canadian music?" An elderly Québécois came to my aid. "Who needs Canadian music? We have Berlioz." A decade later I was blindsided by ignorance of hockey, unaware it was "ontologically Canadian" and spiritually inherent to Canadianness.5 A Memorial University colleague lauded me as "the Wayne Gretzky of geography."6 Who, I witlessly wondered, was Wayne Gretzky?

My Canadian forays have been marginal or eccentric. A history thesis on the bellicose New Brunswick-Maine 1838-39 boundary dispute.7 Summer on a combine-crew in southern Alberta among pious Hutterites and profane Kentucky wheat ranchers. Deadly faculty do's in 1960s Toronto leavened by waterfront pub crawls among migrant loners and Inuit hawkers. Immersion in Alberta's conflicted Ukrainian legacy. An Expo 67 sortie at Moshe Safdie's uninhabitable Habitat. A 1971 sojourn at Mt. Blackstrap, Saskatchewan's Winter Games artificial alp. Celtic confabs in BC's Gulf Islands and Newfoundland outports. Parks Canada and Heritage Canada conclaves in Victoria and Ottawa and St John's. My 1999 Memorial University Henrietta Harvey lecture on global slurs against islanders (idle, inbred, insular idiots), "Newfie" and "Tassie" (Tasmanian) jibes much the same. Many Canadian locales showcase exotica–Victoria's Stratford-on-Avon replicas, PEI's Anne of Green Gables, Edmonton's refugee-orchestral fame as the "Athens of [End Page 152] the Tundra." They mirror Canadian education "about a history that is 'ours'," says Peter Seixas, "even if it is not 'here'."8

Canada strikes me in sum as a congeries of curmudgeonly diversities: Atlantic and Pacific and arctic and prairie habitats, First Nation, Anglo-French, and colonial and immigrant habitants. How could a nation meld such different memories, such distinctive heritages, such divergent histories? Is Canadianism sturdier at the sesquicentenary than at the centenary, when Ramsay Cook held the search for national identity doomed from the start and sought to abandon the futile quest? Soon afterward William Westfall declared the region "destined to rival, if not replace, the nation-state" as the main focus of Canadian studies.9 Local, provincial, and regional consciousness far outweighs the stereotypical coast-to-coast national inventory not just touted to tourists but burned into Canadian brains–"chestnut canoes, Emily Carr, golden wheat fields of the prairies, Blackfoot medicine wheels, Haida totem poles, Joe Batt's Arm on Fogo Island, ice skates, Northern Lights, soapstone carvings, loons, igloos, toboggans."10 Will Canadian culture ever sufficiently coalesce, asks philosopher Ian Angus, to provide "enough unity to become a nation . . . at all"?11

Some say that Confederation's diversities doom its survival. "Canada cannot be a national state" because of the strength of its regional and provincial identities, contended David Alexander in 1980.12 My 1950s and 1960s lectures in Ottawa and Toronto stemmed from Canadian concern with a more fragile federal amalgam–the British Caribbean, just emerging from colonial dependency. Born in 1958, the West Indies Federation expired four years later, the victim of insular distances and disparities of size, inter-island rivalries, ethnic and racial irritants, and utopian UN promises of sovereign benefits to impecunious islets.13 The breakup left in its wake two Canadian-gifted ferries, a hurricane-warning weather service, a peripatetic university, and an insane asylum–the last two, some sneered, one and the same. [End Page 153]

With discrepancies little less dismaying, confederate Canada has survived–even flourished. How much this owes to political maturity, to welfare-statism, to First Nations accommodation, to immigrant rapport, and how much to abhorrence of all things your "gun-toting, bigoted, loud-mouthed, venal aggressive, tyrannical bastard of an American is" is hard to...


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