''Where did you learn to sing opera? In New Brunswick? Really? Wow, I never would have thought it possible."
Canada’s 150th birthday celebrates the anniversary of Confederation, a political union of former British colonies that, at the time, comprised only one third of the provinces and territories that now make up our federation. As a typical Canadian, so they say, I am not prone to getting all patriotic and full of pride for what we represent as a country in 2017.
That said, I am very happy of my Canadian identity and I consider myself fortunate to live in one of the most peaceful and prosperous countries in the world. Perhaps I should insert here also that I am a proud New Brunswicker, from one of the original four founding provinces.
You might want to know the origin of the quote at the beginning of this piece. That is, prior to joining the Jesuits I had a respectable career as a solo classical singer and I was asked these kinds of questions from time to time as I performed in different cities across the country. So much for knowing each other, eh!
And so, as I reflect on Canada's sesquicentennial one of my first responses is that we are a country of great diversity geographically and culturally, such that we don’t always know much about one another. As a Maritimer, I can attest to the fact that our lack of knowledge of one another extends beyond the traditional ‘two solitudes’ or English/French divide.
We can presume that we know about one another but in the end often we give in to stereotypes. A few examples:
1. In Newfoundland most people are fishermen.
2. In Québec people aren’t interested in learning English.
3. In B.C. people don’t go to church much.
4. That all native people live on reserves.
5. Or, that the Maritimes are a cultural backwater.
Disparate because of geography, diverse because of culture and language, and stereotypes…. well, just because we are human.
It seems that many people today have short memories or a lack of interest in history or background and tradition. This is sad because more knowledge of the tide of history of our country (much older than the 150 years we celebrate this year) can help one to appreciate why things have turned out in many varied ways. In turn, it could help to make us an even better place for such a rich diversity of cultures and traditions.
Yet, this sensibility doesn’t seem to hold much sway in a contemporary world that is concerned more with Trump’s next tweet than with yesterday’s triumphs of perseverance, inclusion and ingenuity or the tragedies associated with nation building, colonialism and the loss of culture and language.
My Acadian ancestors, from my maternal grandfather’s side, sailed out of La Rochelle, France in the 1640s. They established themselves as farmers mostly and they developed a rich culture that is now celebrated in its folklore, music, literature, language and cuisine.
It wasn’t easy to be Acadian after the English defeated the French way back in the 1750s and many of these ancestors fled to the French territory of Louisiana where their culture took on whole new influences due to the African and Caribbean influences. Many of the Acadians hid in the forests of what we now call the Maritimes and eventually, with the help of their native brothers and sisters, they eventually started over again.
Next came my Swedish ancestors, who had actually spent a few generations in England prior to immigrating to Nova Scotia in the 1860s. They were sailors, farmers and entrepreneurs. In fact, in a testament to the women of the day, it was my great, great grandmother Susannah Oland who opened a small brewery in 1867. Hers was the name on the Moosehead billboards from a few years ago.
Finally, my Irish ancestors arrived in the 1880’s, well past the exodus caused by the potato famine but still hoping to find a better life. Interestingly we know least about them and their roots.
And so, what am I trying to say? Let’s celebrate our nationhood this year not so much because 1867 was a remarkable year but because we, as Canadians, represent so much rich history and potential; so much diversity and talent. The task of each individual (and that of educators) is to make sure that s/he seeks knowledge beyond twitter and stereotypes.
Might I suggest that the reader consider visiting or reading up on a part of the country about which they know little. If nothing else, find a factoid that refutes a common stereotype and share it…. on twitter? Did you know that Saint John, N.B. was one of the world’s largest shipbuilding centres in the late 19th century?