The new design of the Canadian passport is, in many ways, ingenious. This does not refer only to the technological features which work to protect it from counterfeiters, but also to its presentation of Canadian identity through illustrations from history and national icons. English and French is carefully balanced, not only with almost every caption and quote from one language translated into the other, but also with the order of translation switching with every turn of the page so that no one language gets primary place. (The only quotes not translated, interestingly enough, are from ‘The Fathers of Confederation / Les Pères de la Confédération’ pages, where we get an English quote from John A. Macdonald and a French one from George-Étienne Cartier.) So a great deal of thought must have gone into the design.
But, as mentioned in yesterday, the history and identity which this passport design promotes is only Canada from one particular point of view. It is a Canada of explorers, achievements, sports, and military life (well, war life). Art, science, and religion are on the periphery. And many people are absent. Aboriginal peoples are reduced in presence to symbols. Non-white Canadians are invisible. Women have a page showing a detail from a statue commemorating the legal decision that women are persons and a picture of the statue of Canada at the Vimy Memorial, but none of the five quotes sprinkled throughout the passport come from women.
Hence #altCanadaDay, our little attempt to remember that there are other stories out there, that there are many Canadian histories, not just one.
Since our posts were mostly on Facebook and Twitter, we thought it would be good to gather the rest of ours here, following the quote from Anne Michaels which started this.
And please, if you have any quotes or links to music or art or other to add, please do, even if Canada Day is over until next year.
All the best,
The Kippah and the Collar
The absence of women, ethnic minorities, or religious minorities in the new Canadian passport is all the more startling because so very much of Canada’s culture has been shaped precisely by women, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities. Here’s Susannah Moodie (and here’s where everyone who went to high school in Canada starts rolling their eyes because she is such a staple of Canadian literature classes), from Roughing It In The Bush (1854):
“Eastward, the view down the St. Lawrence towards the Gulf, is the finest of all, scarcely surpassed by anything in the world. Your eye follows the long range of lofty mountains until their blue summits are blended and lost in the blue of the sky. Some of these, partially cleared round the base, are sprinkled over with neat cottages; and the green slopes that spread around them are covered with flocks and herds. The surface of the splendid river is diversified with islands of every size and shape, some in wood, others partially cleared, and adorned with orchards and white farm-houses. As the early sun streamed upon the most prominent of these, leaving the others in deep shade, the effect was strangely novel and imposing. In more remote regions, where the forest has never yet echoed to the woodman’s axe, or received the impress of civilisation, the first approach to the shore inspires a melancholy awe, which becomes painful in its intensity.”
From ‘Last Ink’ by Michael Ondaatje:
In certain languages the calligraphy celebrates
where you met the plum blossom and moon by chance
—the dusk light, the cloud pattern,
recorded always in your heart
and the rest of the world—chaos,
circling your winter boat.
Night of the Plum and Moon.
Years later you shared it
on a scroll or nudged
the ink onto stone
to hold the vista of a life.
A condensary of time in the mountains
—your rain-swollen gate, a summer
scarce with human meeting.
Just bells from another village.
The memory of a woman walking down stairs.
Susannah Moodie is, in fact, so foundational to Canadian literature that Margaret Atwood wrote an entire volume of poetry (1970, smack in the middle of her feminist literature phase) re-visioning Moodie’s diaries. One important message to take from both Moodie and Atwood is the idea of Canada as a nation of immigrants–always, as the very non-Canadian Andre Aciman has written, “from elsewhere, and from elsewhere before that”. Except, of course, for the Canadians who aren’t immigrants… but that’s for the next post. #altCanadaDay
Disembarking at Quebec
Is it my clothes, my way of walking,
the things I carry in my hand
– a book, a bag with knitting –
the incongruous pink of my shawl
this space cannot hear
or is it my own lack
of conviction which makes
these vistas of desolation,
long hills, the swamps, the barren sand, the glare
of sun on the bone-white
driftlogs, omens of winter,
the moon alien in day-
time a thin refusal
The others leap, shout
The moving water will not show me my reflection.
The rocks ignore.
I am a word
in a foreign language.
Thomas King is so well-known that people are occasionally surprised to learn that he’s Canadian. OK, so he was born in California, but we don’t hold that against him; we are, after all, a nation of immigrants. Except for those of us who aren’t: the First Nations–a group to which Thomas King belongs, which means that me calling him an immigrant is actually pretty mixed up. Pretty backward. #altCanadaDay
From the beginning of Green Grass, Running Water (1993):
…But when that Coyote Dream thinks about being a dog, it gets everything mixed up. It gets everything backward.
“That looks like trouble to me,” I says.
“Hmmm,” says Coyote. “You could be right.”
“That doesn’t look like a dog at all,” I tell Coyote.
“Hmmm,” says Coyote. “You could be right.”
I am god, says that Dog Dream.
“Isn’t that cute,” says Coyote. “That Dog Dream is contrary. That Dog Dream has everything backward.”
But why am I a little god? shouts that god.
“Not so loud,” says Coyote. “You’re hurting my ears.”
I don’t want to be a little god, says that god. I want to be a big god!
“What a noise,” says Coyote. “Just stop shouting.
“Okay, okay,” says Coyote. “Just stop shouting.”
There, says that GOD. That’s better.
“Now you’ve done it,” I says.
“Everything’s under control,” says Coyote. “Don’t panic.”
From ‘Angel of Infinity’ by Lorna Crozier
What do you ask of the Angel
More room for your children, more
time, more time.
The cat seemed undisturbed.
He bunted his head
against the angel’s legs
as if this were an ordinary guest
with cats of her own
in whatever house she lived in.
Last one for #altCanadaDay, because it’s been a long day and I need to sleep:
Some years ago now, I was lucky enough to be invited to a symposium on Jane Urquhart’s work. In Poland. With Jane Urquhart. I was in the middle of writing the chapter on The Stone Carvers that now appears in Making Memory (it was, in fact, the first chapter of that book to reach its final form). Of course, one of the questions that came up–and I can’t recall whether it was originally directed at her or at me–was about the mythology of the Battle of Vimy Ridge, its supposed role in shaping Canadian nationhood. I do remember her answer, though, or at least a rough paraphrase: Wars do not make nations. People, culture, history: these things make nations. Vimy did not make Canada; the Canada Council, those decades of deliberately funding arts and culture to wean us away from being a satellite of Britain and keep us from getting absorbed as a satellite of the United States: that is what made Canada, what gave us a coherent national identity.
From Map of Glass (2007):
After Jerome and his family had drifted down from the north in his early childhood, they had lived first in a small suburban house and then in an apartment building perched on a cluttered edge of Toronto, far away from such haphazard architecture as tool sheds, chicken coops, stables. And yet, his otherwise solemn and often angry father could be brought to levels of brief excitement in the vicinity of childhood projects such as the making of kites, go-karts, tree houses, or forts in scrub lots slated for future development. The engineer in him, Jerome now believed, that part of him he had been forced to abandon when the mine closed, could be miraculously, though falsely, shaken into wakefulness by something as simple as the placement of load-bearing lumber in a tree. His enthusiasm waned quickly, however, as did Jerome’s, and these projects were almost always left unfinished, slowly decaying on the margins of the property, until Jerome returned to them later and took a renewed interest in their construction and eventual restoration. After the horror of his father’s death, Jerome would call to mind the structures on the now residential lots, and he found that he would be able to recall almost exactly the way a tree house had creaked in the wind, one loose board knocking against a branch, or the way the large nails had looked in his father’s palm, his mouth, and then the same nails after a year or so, exposed and rusting during the decline of winter. Once, as a young adult, Jerome had walked all over the low-rental housing development that occupied what had been the vacant land, looking for the tree near a dirty stream where one of these projects had begun to take shape. But both the stream and its culvert were gone. There was simply no way to place even the few scraps of memory he had retained. His first project, then, would be an attempt to rebuild what he thought of as the few good moments of his childhood and would take the form of temporary and incomplete structures – playhouses of a sort – that he made himself with torn plastic, discarded wood, and broken objects found in abandoned lots.
He remembered a journey he had taken a few years before on a train, a journey he was able to recall now only in terms of the images he had collected while staring out the window. Trains were vanishing from this vast cold province and were often half empty, those who were there likely being too poor to afford the kind of cars he saw on the freeway that for part of the journey mirrored the path of the railway. He had been thinking about the early days, about vacations taken when his father was still relatively well, holidays that were spent in one provincial park or another, he and his parents crammed into a tent that his father had bought at an army surplus store. He remembered the sight of this tent, an ominous bundle strapped to the roof rack of their deteriorating car along with the bicycle that his father had given him and that he seldom rode. He also recalled the campfires his father had taught him to make, the configurations of which were named after architectural structures such as “the teepee” or “the log cabin.” It wasn’t until years later that he realized that the ignition of these constructions, made so that air might move more freely and carry fire farther, faster, was like the burning of the history of the country in miniature, a sort of exercise in forgetting first the Native peoples and then the settlers, whose arrival had been the demise of these peoples, settlers in whose blood was carried the potential for his own existence.
To close off, while it is still Canada Day at the far reaches of a land an ocean and a continent away from me, the very beginning of Obasan by Joy Kogawa:
There is a silence that cannot speak.
There is a silence that will not speak.
Beneath the grass the speaking dreams and beneath the dreams is a sensate sea. The speech that frees comes forth from that amniotic deep. To attend its voice, I can hear it say, is to embrace its absence. But I fail the task. The word is stone.
I admit it.
I hate the stillness. I hate the stone. I hate the sealed vault with its cold icon. I hate the staring into the night. The questions thinning into space. The sky swallowing the echoes.
Unless the stone burst with telling, unless the seed flowers with speech, there is in my life no living word. The sound I hear is only sound. White sound. Words, when they fall, are pockmarks on the earth. They are hailstones seeking an underground stream.
If I could follow the stream down and down to the hidden voice, would I come at last to the freeing word? I ask the night sky but the silence is steadfast. There is no reply.