Shudder or Think? We Must Decide

Canadians are being asked to be afraid. We should apparently be so afraid that we will trade a little more security for a lot less liberty with Bill C-51, Canada’s Patriot Act. It will affect our privacy at home and at work and is why four former prime ministers, retired judges, and so many academic experts in privacy matters oppose it.

At the same time, we are to be afraid of what people wear. A hijab, we’re told by the federal government and a Quebec court, is a threat; not a burka, that covers a person’s face, but a hijab that covers one’s hair. Is this a thin edge of the wedge where courts and the government can tell us what to wear and to fear those outside the mainstream, wherever that ever shifting current happens to be at the moment?

quebec-hijab-dispute-crowdfund-20150228

Rania El-Alloui was recently told by a Quebec judge to remove her hijab or consult a lawyer before proceedings could continue. (Photo: Graham Hughes)

Rather than shuddering, many Canadians opting to think because the anti-terrorist bill and hijab kerfuffle are stirring a debate regarding the definition of Canada.

To try and define Canada, however, is tough for any assortment of words quickly tumbles into confessions of a job half done. Canada is the dancing fire in Iqaluit’s sky as much as the homeless veteran on a Yonge Street sidewalk. Canada is Montreal private club English and Moncton Franglais as much as Ottawa Valley twang and Come By Chance slang.

If only we could ask the Irish who, when the potatoes went dead in the ground and rents flew high, left to start again where merit meant more than whose your father. It would be nice to ask the slaves who snapped their chains and followed the North Star to freedom. Or, maybe the Ukrainians, those peasants in sheepskin coats, who left poverty and oppression for free land and a fresh beginning.

Nowhere was Adolf Hitler’s evil more banal than at the death camps, and the worst of the worst was Auschwitz. The innocent who suffered unspeakable horror spoke of a building where their confiscated property was stored. It became a sliver of light through the cruel darkness. It held the promise that someday they might be released. We could speak with them about their naming the building Canada.

At the war’s end, Canadian doors opened to its victims. Hungarians, Italians, Czechs, Poles, and more came to work the mines, factories, and farms and build the schools, roads, and little towns and towering towers. The Ottawa men called them Displaced Persons while some snarled DP as an insult. The latest to arrive are always harshest on the next in line. Ask the Vietnamese about the Pakistanis or the Irish about the Jews or, for that matter, ask the Boethuk about the English; that’s if you can find a Boethuk to ask.

All the answers from all these people, along with songs and stories and dusty old Royal Commissions, leave us with a country too complex to fully comprehend let alone define. Maybe that’s OK. Canada is like the shape-shifting trickster Raven whose beauty is its ever-changing complexity.

Perhaps this vision brings us as close as we will come in our quest for understanding. But in our hearts, we have always understood the Canadian secret. It is the freedom to try and fail and try again. It’s the draw bridge locked open to new people and ideas.

It is embracing complexity and the fundamental notion that there is value in us all that has created a society where each of us gives a little to help folks we will never meet, whether it’s the old man across town or the hungry child half way around the globe. It’s the notion of community extending beyond our family to where every child is ours. It’s where differences in whom we are, whom we worship, and whom we love are not just tolerated but accepted as who we are

It’s complicated. It’s hard. It’s meant to be. But it is what will save us from fear-based prejudices and policies, be they the proposition of police-state practices or a national dress code. It is our celebration of Canadian complexity that we guard, oh Canada, when we stand on guard for thee.

 If you like this column please share it with others through your social media of choice and please consider subscribing to my Monday morning blog.

 

Africville: Racism and Redemption

The bulldozers came in the morning. For days they roared like monsters demolishing houses and streets and even the church. They tore down what remained of Canada’s moral authority to say anything about race other than, “We were wrong.”

Africville was created in 1842 with land grants to African American families escaping slavery and discrimination for the hope of better lives. The original sixteen single-acre lots overlooked the Bedford Basin and were separated from Halifax, Nova Scotia by a thick woods and impassable road. The community was called Campbell Road. As Black families left the racism of Halifax and elsewhere seeking solace among friends it was dubbed ‘Africville’. The name stuck.

Links between Halifax and Africville grew over the years as kids were bussed to school and most of their parents worked in the city. Throughout the 1940s and 1950s a number of famous people visited, including retired boxing champion Joe Louis, and Duke Ellington who married an Africville woman named Mildred Dixon. Folks were thrilled with the celebrities but understood that their hospitality was essential because while Louis and Ellington were feted in Halifax during the day they were unable to find lodging in the segregated city at night.

In that way, Halifax was no different than most other cities and towns. The Queen may have been Canada’s head of state but Jim Crow was boss. African Canadians grew used to restaurants where they could not eat, churches in which they could not pray, houses they could not buy, business licenses for which they could not apply, and schools their children could not attend.

Africvillephoto credit: Halifax.com

By the 1950s Halifax had grown to encircle Africville. The city council embarked on a determined campaign to rid itself of the Black community that had become part of their city. Despite the fact that Africville’s people were Halifax citizens and paid municipal taxes, the road to and through the community was unpaved and in the winter it seldom saw a plow. There were no streetlights. There were no sewers. Families drew water from a central well that the city had dug as a “temporary measure” in 1852.

Police seldom patrolled and ignored most calls. In 1947, seven houses were destroyed by fire because, although the fire department had been called, like usual, it had not responded. Insurance companies refused to sell home and property policies, so banks issued neither mortgages or home improvement loans.

Africville churchphoto credit: Halifax.com

Everything distasteful and dirty went to Africville. With no consultation with Africville’s citizens, and in defiance of petitions and presentations, Halifax council located in or adjacent to the community a pungent slaughterhouse, oil refinery, and tar factory, a deafeningly loud stone crushing plant, and a hospital for infectious diseases. A railway company was allowed to build a line through the community and landowners were only partially compensated for expropriated land. The city dump was relocated 350 yards from west end Africville homes and then a smoke-belching incinerator was constructed nearby.

The disgraceful treatment of the community and the racism faced by those working in Halifax took its toll. Africville got tough. The “Mainline” portion of town was home to middle-class people who worked hard and did their best. The “Big Town” area, however, knew every crime and vice imaginable. The only white people who saw Africville came to Big Town for dirty old times after Halifax bars closed.

University of Toronto’s Gordon Stephenson wrote a report that echoed 1950s urban renewal practices. He recommended relocating Africville’s people and razing their homes. A 1962 Halifax Development Department report stated that the majority of Africville’s people did not want to leave; they just wanted the services that other Halifax citizens – White Halifax citizens – had enjoyed for decades. The report concluded, however, that the people should be ignored and the professor obeyed.

Concerned Africville citizens met at the heart of their community, the Seaview Church. Over a hundred people vowed to save their homes. Peter Edwards made an impassioned plea to city council on October 24, 1962. He spoke of Africville’s history and spirit. He spoke of the racist policies and treatment endured over the years and in the current process. “If they were a majority group,” he said, “you would have heard their impressions first.”

City council responded by hiring University of Toronto’s Albert Rose to study the situation. No one was fooled. Rose had written Regent Park: A Study for Slum Clearance. They knew what he would say. In no time at all he said it. Africville was doomed.

Residents received an average of $500 for their homes. It was later discovered that additional assistance had been available but only 30% of the people were told about it and then only 15% of applicants were approved. People who had been self-sufficient homeowners were forced into a subsidized housing project and then forced to move again when told that even before they had been crammed into the ramshackle apartments, the complex had been scheduled for demolition.

By 1969, Africville was gone. The city had said it needed the land for industrial expansion but it never happened. It said it needed the land to construct a bridge but ended up using a sliver of the property.

In 1985, a monument was erected to the people of Africville in what had become the Seaview Memorial Park. The names of the original families were engraved into a stone. Family reunions began finding their way home with grandchildren being told the old stories. A former resident recalls, “Out home, we didn’t have a lot of money but we had each other. After the relocation, we didn’t have a lot of money – but we didn’t have each other.”

Africville lives. It lives as a symbol of the more than three hundred years of systemic racism that African Canadians endured and against which they struggled. In 2010, the Halifax City Council apologized to the people of Africville for all they did to, and all they did not do for the community. It apologized for Africville’s destruction.

A hectare of land was set aside and money allocated to rebuild the Seaview United Baptist Church. It will serve as a historical interpretive centre in a park renamed Africville. There, stories will be told of a time when racism coursed through Canadian veins and of a hope that someday, racism will be relegated to the dustbin of history. Someday.

If you enjoyed this column, please share it with others, consider commenting or following my blog, or even buying my book entitled Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism, that addresses the history of racism in Canada. (Find it at Amazon or here at Chapters online: http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/en-ca/home/contributor/author/john-boyko/

Of Flags and Fury

February brings us one thing that Prime Minister Harper wants us to know and another he wishes we’d ignore. He hopes we pay attention to Bill C-51, his new and still pending Anti-Terrorist bill. He hopes we forget that today our flag turned 50 years old. The two offer a tremendous opportunity.

Unlike with the War of 1812 or the First World War, Mr. Harper has given little money or attention to the flag’s birthday. He’s right, let’s snub the flag. The notion is not as blasphemous as it sounds. Consider that every school day, millions of American children stand and recite, “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which is stands.” In other words, it is not the flag that deserves allegiance, but what it represents. So maybe Mr. Harper is right that commemorating the flag would trivialize our national identity by indulging in a patriotic celebration of its mere symbol.

Flag_of_Canada.svg

Patriotism, after all, is ankle-deep and transitory. It’s civic-nationalism that delineates who we are. Patriotism can dance merrily along without concern for introspection but civic-nationalism demands it. Unlike the bread and circuses of patriotism or jingoist chest-thumping or empty-headed chauvinist aggression, civic nationalism rests upon a quiet, self-assured confidence among citizens in what is unique, valued, and valuable. It is inspirational and aspirational in defining what deserves to be protected and enhanced.

Our flag is just patriotism on a pole. The day before Lester Pearson assumed office in 1963, a bomb shattered a Montreal afternoon. The horrible blast and those that followed fueled the ethnic-nationalist debate regarding the creation of an independent state for the Québécois nation. Pearson’s new flag offered tribalists and the rest of us the patriotic balm that the British flag would be removed from ours. To the parts of the prairies and north where maple trees do not grow, of course, the big red maple leaf offered yet another reminder of central Canada’s myopic vision and arrogance.

So let’s forget the flag’s patriotism and use the opportunity presented by its birthday and C-51’s potential birth to question not what’s up the pole but in our hearts. For too long we have been called taxpayers. For too long we’ve been treated only as consumers. We’ll soon just be considered voters. Let’s demonstrate that we are citizens by engaging in a national conversation. Let us post blogs, send tweets and emails, and my goodness, maybe even speak with one another. I suggest these questions to begin:

Do we respect parliament and so believe that new legislation should be introduced in the House and not at some place akin to a campaign stop? Do we believe the rule of law insists that our police and spies always obey the law? Do we believe that adequate staff, budget, and mandate must exist along with a process that reports to parliament before anyone can speak of proper oversight of our spies and police? Do we believe the rule of law implies that citizens can only be arrested when they break a law and not for what others think they’re maybe thinking? Do we believe the best way to fight those who do not share our democratic values is to suicide the democratic values we treasure? Do we believe misinformation is criminal propaganda if a citizen creates it but not if disguised as an MP mailing or TV ad? When the House debates begin, will we recall the difference between insult and argument? Do we believe a party that says it opposes the law should vote for it? Do we understand that economic prosperity and environmental sustainability are not either-or propositions but that security and liberty are?

So let’s take our government’s advice and ditch celebrations of a patriotic symbol. Let’s instead engage in something deeper – active citizenship. If we use C-51 to consider whom we are and whom we wish to be, we may just end up proving ourselves worthy of our allegiance to the flag through deepening our understanding of the Dominion for which it stands.

If you enjoyed this, please send it to others using your social media of choice, consider commenting, or joining my blog where I post about history, politics, music, or musings once a week.

Time to Change the Faces on Our Money

It’s been loud lately. The tragic popping of gunfire from criminal minds in Paris and Alberta and from Canadian troops in Iraq, along with the sucking sound of the latest oil boom going bust have been loud indeed. Lost in the din have been two related arguments that deserve some attention.

The first began with Sir John A. Macdonald’s 200th birthday. Many commemorated our first prime minister as a visionary. Others castigated him as a racist. The second was stirred by a letter from NDP MPs Niki Ashton and Murray Rankin to Bank of Canada Governor Stephen Poloz in support of an effort begun a year ago by Victoria’s Merna Forster to have more women, such as the Famous Five, on our money.

The arguments are related because they go to the heart of our nationhood. Those we choose to celebrate in books or bronze, or on whatever that sticky polymer stuff passing as paper money is, say a great deal about the character traits and achievements we believe represent the best of us.

So perhaps we should remove Sir John from our money. But then, William Lyon Mackenzie King is on our 50, yet in the Second World War he interned Japanese-Canadians who had committed no crimes. Sir Robert Borden is on our 100, yet he approved his party’s virulently anti-Asian British Columbia campaign under the slogan “White Power.” Should they be removed from our money too?

Oscar Peterson banknote

Queen Elizabeth is the only woman currently on our currency. But does our sovereign’s visage remind us of our sovereignty’s limits? Does she represent a political system based on the hereditary passage of power that contradicts current Canadian values and has passed its best-before date? Accordingly, should she be removed from our money?

And what of the Famous Five? Their fame began when Edmonton’s Emily Murphy was appointed Canada’s first female police magistrate. Shortly afterward, an uppity male lawyer said she was unqualified because the constitution listed “Persons” who could be judges with the implication that they were male. Murphy and her Alberta friends took the case all the way to Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council where, in 1929, it was determined that women were Persons. It was an enormous step for women and toward citizenship and equality for all.

However, Emily Murphy was also a novelist who wrote under the pseudonym Janey Canuck. In The Black Candle, published in 1922, she wrote of non-White immigrants running the Canadian drug trade to intentionally defile White women and destroy the White race. The only option, she argued, was to purify Canada by ridding it of all people of colour. Should the writer of such reprehensible ideas be on Parliament hill, or on the Edmonton mural, or on our money? What would Sir John or those currently attacking him say?

The Ashton and Rankin letter states, “Our banknotes are an important opportunity to celebrate the diversity of our country and the innumerable contributions to its history made by people of all genders, ages, religions and ethnicities.” Perhaps agreeing with that very Canadian thought leads to a desire to replace all of the political figures now on our money with those who better animate our collective soul: our artists.

Susanna Moodie banknote

Louis Riel once said, “My people will sleep for one hundred years, but when they awake, it will be the artists who give them their spirit back.” He was right. Painters, poets, authors, songwriters, and sculptors and more speak to our intellects and emotions while inviting us to think deeper about that which truly matters. Let us celebrate those who help us celebrate our spirit.

The Bank of Canada regularly considers recommendations for changes to our currency and advises the minister of finance who signs off on new designs. Let the conversation begin. Mr. Poloz, for our 10, 20, 50 and 100 I recommend Oscar Peterson, Susanna Moodie, Norval Morrisseau, and Alice Munro.

This column originally appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on February 2, 2015. The Citizen created the images. If you enjoyed it, please share it with others through your favourite social media.

Canadian Slavery

It’s time for Canadians to grow up. Whether living in a big city or a one-Tim’s town, too many Canadians seem to share a warped vision of our past that allows us to press our noses against the shop window that is the United States and tsk, tsk away with smug condescension. Forget it. Let’s take one of many points that could wipe the smirks from our faces – slavery.

chains

photo from http://www.bccns.com

Slavery is as old as humanity itself. Slaves built the pyramids. The ancient Greeks, who gave birth to our western civilization, owned slaves. The idea of enslaving Africans is credited to a Catholic priest who accompanied Columbus on his second voyage to the New World. The priest was sickened by Columbus’ ongoing slaughter of Haitians who had been enslaved to search for gold. He believed that Africans would be better able to do the job.

The first Africans arrived in the West Indies on Portuguese ships in 1518. They had been ripped from their homes and stripped of their families, religion, names, and humanity. Fifteen million followed. The Portuguese word for black is negro.

European notions of inhumanity soon found their way to what would become Canada. The first slaves were Native people. Explorer Jacques Cartier even kidnapped Iroquois chief Donnaconna and several of his people and toured them through France like a circus act. Most died of European diseases and none saw their homes or families again.

The first African slave to be settled in Canada was a six-year-old from Madagascar. He arrived in 1628 as a cabin boy on a pirate ship captained by the ruthless English rogue David Kirke. Kirke captured Quebec City in a violent raid, and then sold it back to France four years later with the boy part of the bargain. He was purchased by a French clerk and then a Jesuit priest who renamed him Olivier Le Jeune.

Despite the fact that slavery had been abolished in France, Quebec governor Jean Talon pressured King Louis XIV to continue the practice of slavery in Quebec. Slaves were purchased in Africa, the West Indies, and the United States, and were owned by nearly all of the business and political elite as well as the leaders of the colony’s Jesuit, Franciscan, and Dominican Orders.

The Seven Years War – French Indian War if you are American – led to the fall of Quebec to Britain in 1759. The articles of capitulation guaranteed the continuation of slavery in the colony. With the world war finally over and Britain stuck with Quebec – it had unsuccessfully tried to swap it for Guadeloupe but that’s another story – the newly appointed British governor James Murray sent a message to New York asking for more slaves to become fieldworkers and domestic servants.

Slavery was also common in the Maritime colonies. They were used to build Halifax in 1749. The growing city became a centre for the Maritime slave trade, with public auctions turning tidy profits. The only known opposition to slavery came from Halifax’s small Quaker community, but it was ignored.

The American Revolution brought thousands of Loyalists northward. The British government offered them and war veterans land, assistance, and permission to bring their slaves. About 10% the Loyalists fleeing to Nova Scotia were slaves or free Blacks. Slaves also moved with their owners to what would become Quebec, New Brunswick, and Ontario.

The powerful Mohawk leader Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) had fought for the British. He was rewarded with 30 African slaves. He brought them when settling his people on a huge land grant along Ontario’s Grand River. Slaves helped build the settlement that is now Brantford and then a handsome home near what is now Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington. Other slaves constructed many of the fine stone buildings that still stand in Belleville, Kingston, Montreal, and elsewhere.

The War of 1812 saw the United States, as it had during the Revolution attempt to take British North America. Towns were burnt and civilians murdered in what became a brutal war. To disrupt American invasion plans, Upper Canadian Attorney General John Beverley Robinson declared that any slave arriving from the United States to Canada would be freed. An all-Black regiment was formed and Black soldiers joined a number of other British regiments. About 50 Black soldiers served at the decisive battle at Queenston Heights. About 2,000 escaped slaves fought their way to Canada during and in the years following the war.

The British government banned slavery in 1833. Nearly all British North American slaves had already been freed. However, racist laws and segregation practices remained. Segregated churches, schools, restaurants and public services were commonplace in Canada until the 1960s. Segregation laws died in Canada at about the same time as in the American South with racist attitudes, of course, more difficult to kill.

Image_Niagara74

Canadians deserve to feel proud of their history that, despite the despicable way in which too many of us learned it teems with fascinating stories and colourful characters. However, in looking at how the United States and other countries are still dealing with race and being shocked when a disturbingly racist event occurs in our backyard, it would serve us well to remember that while we have come a long way, there’s a long road before us. On our journey toward becoming the type of people we like to think we have always been, we would be well served to recall that our hands are not clean.

If you enjoyed this, please share it with others. You might also be interested in my book Last Steps to Freedom: The Evolution of Canadian Racism – find it at Amazon or Chapters or at http://www.johnboyko.com

The Power of Reinvention

When I was a young Dad, my favourite books to read with our daughter were from the create your own adventures series. Even as a child she had a rapier wit and daring sense of wonder. We would arrive at the parts where the protagonist was presented with options and she would pick one but often we would invent more until we were legless with giggling. Later, I explained that the books were existentialism instruction manuals.

You see, my brow has always furrowed at the notion of Christian providence. After all, if God has a master plan for the universe, and even for me, then is prayer not presumptuous? Why should my puny, clasped-hand demand throw Him off his game? Is His plan that negotiable?

Similarly, I’ve never understood science’s determinist ideas of nature and nurture. If one the other or both are so powerful then why am I the only one of four brothers to attend university, write a book, play an instrument, sing, and live where we grew up. Those things don’t by a long shot make me one whit better than any of them, after all, one brother is tougher, another handier, and the other smarter than I will ever be. But do our differences, and we are all quite different, not dispute the determinism?

Religion says things occur because God makes them happen. Science says things occur because natural laws make them happen. Existentialism says shit happens. I kind of like that. It invites us to write our own adventures. I find that a bold and empowering notion.

I was the first of my extended family who did not work in one of Hamilton’s two steel mills. That decision, again making me no better and in many ways dumber and affording a life less secure, was at its least a declaration of reinvention. In university I thought I’d invent myself as a lawyer. After some research revealed that lawyers spend most of their days doing things far removed from the exciting stuff I’d seen on TV, I scotched that idea and became a teacher.

Teaching was challenging and fun. There is nothing in the world like working with a student and suddenly seeing the light flicker on; not to whatever subject is at hand, subjects are just vehicles, but to suddenly cotton on to the idea that she is smart, and can learn, and that learning is fun.

I was being groomed to become a principal in one county before we moved home and then it happened again. I took neither the bait nor the necessary course. I said no to bosses who encouraged me. I saw some principals doing good work but too many forced to be clerks pushing paper and firefighters addressing the conflagration de jour. Besides, it’s an odd system that increases pay with every step taken away from the reason we’re there – interacting with kids. Reinvention, I guess, demands sincere commitment or its just change.

Instead, I continued to do the best job I possibly could but began reinventing myself as an author. I had written a textbook and had it published by Oxford University Press but that was a fluke. I had no idea what I was doing. So I wrote another. This one dealt with the history of Canadian racism and I was thrilled when Winnipeg’s Shillingford Press published it. It’s ironic that Winnipeg has just been tagged as Canada’s most racist city.

Boyko

Shillingford published my next book too, the one that looked at the right wing attacks on Tommy Douglas and the CCF. For the next one I upped my game. I secured a literary agent; the hard working and marvelous Daphne Hart. She secured my next book, a biography of the misunderstood and under-appreciated Prime Minister R. B. Bennett, with a much bigger publisher – Key Porter Books. I felt like I’d arrived.

However, just as Bennett was building, Key Porter was caught in a whirlwind of reinvention itself and, like many other publishers, went bust. The good people at Goose Lane picked up the paperback edition. My next book was about Canada and the American Civil War and Daphne had it placed with Canada’s biggest house – Random House. I could not have been happier. It did well in Canada and the US and has even been translated into French – I’ve now written a book I can’t read! My next book will be with them too and film rights have already been secured.

I’m out of the classroom now but not really. The shameless book promotion that is now essential for all authors has taken me from coast to coast speaking at events and doing radio and TV. After speaking engagements I am often asked how I can talk for 40 minutes, wandering the room with my lapel mic, and all without a note. I confess that after dealing with a room full of thirty 16 year olds, that being with two hundred adults is easy. It calls for the same skills and tricks: know your stuff, make it fun, tell stories, and sneak learning in the back door when they’re not looking.

The craziest question I’ve ever been asked was by a Calgary interviewer on live radio. “Of all Canada’s prime ministers,” he said, “which would have been the best NHL hockey player and why?” No dead air allowed. No time to think. What would you say? Again, the dancing I’d learned in the classroom made it easy.

boyko-at-commemoration-of-death-of-sir-john-a

So my latest reinvention is now complete; I am an author. I write books, this Monday blog, book reviews, op. ed. columns in newspapers and magazines, and enjoy speaking engagements. I have created my own adventure. I once read that our greatest fear is not that we have no power but that we have all the power we need to do what we wish. For me, and for those who believe in existentialism’s liberation, that is no fear at all. I wonder what I’ll do next?

If you enjoyed this, please share it with others or even consider checking out one of my books at http://www.chapters.indigo.ca/home/search/?keywords=john%20boyko

The Ancient Understanding of Water

Dear Canada,

The intrepid explorers who left Quebec’s relative comfort for God and gold did not scar the land. They didn’t bang and clang along in wagons breaking trees and cutting tracks. No, they slipped through in canoes, in silence, leaving not a trace of their passing.

Voyageur_canoe

It’s perhaps this collective memory, this ancient understanding down deep in our souls that urges us to water. We are born of water. Many of us are baptized with water. Water is our playground where we seek sanctuary and salvation in splashing and skiing and paddling and floating. Blessed is the contentment of long, gentle afternoons in hypnotic contemplation of sparkling waves. We bob at dusk in little tin boats with smelly worms and silly hats and silently wish that a splashing bass will not spoil the tranquility. We work fifty weeks to afford a clean and tidy house and then leave it for two to paddle a canoe and haul it over treacherous rocks and roots, and all to live from a sack, sleep on rocks, and eat food we’d send back in the dingiest diner. And we love it all, because we’re on water.

The Atlantic was your welcome mat and the St. Lawrence your doorway. It invited us in. It was your superhighway to your inland seas – the mighty Great Lakes. Settlements grew to towns and then cities along their shores. Without the lakes there would be no Kingston, Toronto, Hamilton, Thunder Bay, and the rest.

The lakes are a line. We’re here and the Americans are over there. They always coveted more and once they crossed the lakes to get it. As blood-soaked armies showed neither mercy nor shame, battleship artillery boomed. It drowned out the cries of the poor drowning men. We burned their capital. They returned the favour and burned ours, but we beat them in the end; we beat them 18 to 12. We then agreed to ban the guns on the lakes and try, one more time, to live a hard and bitter peace.

Another war’s end, a couple of wars later, offered its own kind of boom – prosperity and babies. The navy sold out at garage sale prices and shipping companies soon had plenty to ship in their ships. Supply could not meet demand to fill new houses in new neighbourhoods with new stuff. Europe was still bleeding and Canadian wheat, iron, and wood steamed through the lakes to help with the healing.

The big freighters lumbered like slow-moving monsters. They chugged from plants and mills and lake to great lake and on up the St. Lawrence to the sea. Their choking smoke, like the belching factory stacks, were a sign of good times. The depression and war were over and we yearned for order. There was an old man on parliament hill and a young Elvis on TV, well, from the waist up anyway, and the smoke stacks meant there were jobs for everyone. For most of us, it was a Leave it to Beaver world and folks along the lakes were lulled in their beds each night by the freighters’ mournful horns echoing over still and foggy water.

Edmund Fitzgerald

Edmund Fitzgerald

But just like life was not so serene everywhere, the ships were romantic only to those elsewhere. Life was tough and the men tougher. Ships were too often floating sweatshops. Company men and the politicians they bought winked and nodded as captains ignored the imaginary border drawn somewhere on the waves and rival union goons broke skulls and laws.

There were moments of calm amid the chaos. Peaceful nights on watch with no shore in sight allowed a man to imagine himself at sea. The lake’s gentle roll offered time to recall what drew him to that life in the first place. Then, sudden gales could whip up mountainous waves and transform freighters big as towns to bathtub toys. Everyone knew their jobs but when the running lights and radio went out as another wave crashed over the deck there was nothing to do but pray. Like in a battlefield foxhole, there are no atheists aboard freighters locked in the cold embrace of a Superior storm.

The Great Lakes’ beds are rusting, ramshackle naval museums and holy unmarked graves. Canada, your lakes and the rivers both mighty and small are the blood in your veins. Their waves are the rhythm of your soul.

Sincerely,

A Friend.

This is one of a collection entitled Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you liked it, please share it through social media and see some of the others at johnboyko.com

The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald               © Gordon Lightfoot

The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead
When the skies of November turn gloomy
With a load of iron ore twenty-six thousand tons more
Than the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty
That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed
When the gales of November came early
The ship was the pride of the American side
Coming back from some mill in Wisconsin
As the big freighters go, it was bigger than most
With a crew and good captain well seasoned
Concluding some terms with a couple of steel firms
When they left fully loaded for Cleveland
Then later that night when the ship’s bell rang
Could it be the north wind they’d been feelin’?

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
‘Twas the witch of November come stealin’
The dawn came late and the breakfast had to wait
When the gales of November came slashin’
When afternoon came it was freezing rain
In the face of a hurricane west wind
When suppertime came, the old cook came on deck
Sayin’ “Fellas, it’s too rough to feed ya”
At seven PM a main hatchway caved in
He said, “Fellas, it’s been good to know ya”
The captain wired in he had water comin’ in
And the good ship and crew was in peril
And later that night when his lights went out of sight
Came the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald

Does anyone know where the love of God goes
When the waves turn the minutes to hours?
The searchers all say they’d have made Whitefish Bay
If they’d put fifteen more miles behind her
They might have split up or they might have capsized
They may have broke deep and took water
And all that remains is the faces and the names
Of the wives and the sons and the daughters

Lake Huron rolls, Superior sings
In the rooms of her ice-water mansion
Old Michigan steams like a young man’s dreams
The islands and bays are for sportsmen
And farther below, Lake Ontario
Takes in what Lake Erie can send her
And the iron boats go as the mariners all know
With the gales of November remembered

In a musty old hall in Detroit they prayed
In the Maritime Sailors’ Cathedral
The church bell chimed ’til it rang twenty-nine times
For each man on the Edmund Fitzgerald
The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down
Of the big lake they call Gitche Gumee
Superior, they said, never gives up her dead
When the gales of November come early