You are a land of water. It’s right there in your motto: A Mari Usque Ad Mare (From Sea to Sea). It’s from the Bible: “He shall have dominion also from sea to sea, and from the river unto the ends of the earth”. In your case, of course, it should read from sea to sea to sea, because your rivers rush to die in not two oceans but three.
The Arctic Ocean is furthest from most Canadians and for decades it never crossed their minds. It was just as well. Its beauty is more than southerners can fathom. At the sight of a 360-degree horizon beneath a sky bigger than wonder itself, folks used to living in concrete, seeing the world through a windshield or screen, or whose vista ends at the backyard fence, would risk having their heads explode.
Then came oil; black gold, Alaskan tea. The problem was not how to get the gunky goo out of the rock but how to ship it south through water with the irksome habit of turning to ice. The problem changed when the climate changed. The big melt came quicker than anyone expected, especially those who claimed there was no such thing as climate change but now rushed to exploit its effects. Your northern ocean was suddenly everyone’s friend. Men in silk ties beneath brand new parkas lined up with candy, flowers, and dewy-eyed concern for sovereignty.
The Pacific is Canada’s gateway to Asia. Back when Vancouver was nothing but a fort and a dream, people plied the vast blue water east from the East and helped shape your west. They came for the gold that created the province and then the railway jobs that built the nation. Then, sadly, came the disgrace of discriminatory laws and race riots and the shame of wartime internments. Sometimes apologies are not enough.
The Pacific invites jealousy. The North Pacific Current flows through the Hawaiian Islands and turns to kiss the coast before sluicing on to California. It is the ocean, therefore, that offers TV pictures of Victoria daffodils to those suffering another 20 below Edmonton morning. But then, later, when folks at Portage and Main are swatting mosquitoes the size of Buicks, they try not to be smug when the radio reports rain in Vancouver. It’s said that British Columbians don’t age; they rust.
The Atlantic invited adventurous Europeans. They came for the fish, oil, and wood. Pines too straight and tall to be real became masts on British ships that built an empire. The oil was not drilled but was whale blubber boiled and barrelled. It was poured into lamps on sitting-room tables and poles along cobblestone streets. Canadian whales lit up Europe.
Then there were the fish. Cartier wrote of his men dangling buckets into the sea and seconds later withdrawing them to marvel at their flapping bounty. The fish brought rugged people to rough and tumble outports and little towns hugging the rocky coast. Men braved morning’s chill to beat dawn to their boats and then vanish into haunting mists. Everything from canning factories to shipyards depended on the fish and the fish never let them down. There was enough for everyone and forever. To believe something deeply enough and long enough is to erase the thin line between opinion and truth. Meanwhile, even Lunenburg’s mighty Bluenose, immortalized on the dime, when not beating all comers with its lightening speed and daring crew, was a fishing boat.
Like the men working Cape Breton coal mines, those on the tiny boats that disappeared each day into the ocean’s enormity traded risk for livelihood. Their fathers and grandfathers understood as well as them that at any moment, and without reason, the earth or ocean could shrug and swallow them whole. There are too many stones over empty graves.
Fisherman’s wives were as hearty and brave. They raised the kids who seemed to keep coming, and the kept the house, and watched laundry on the line flap hard and horizontal. They sang their party pieces with gusto around kitchen tables where hot fiddles and cold beer linked all in tears, fears, and dreams of better days.
And there was the woman, like so many before, who when the boat was late, put the kids to bed, pulled on a thin cardigan, and walked to the hill atop the town. Pulling the sweater tight around her waist she gazed out into the icy, purple world, out to the point where the sky melts to sea. Walking along the green, moss-covered silver stone she hummed the tune they sang together and loved so well. She was there the next night too, and the next, and the next after that. And then, finally, came a night when the sweater stayed on the hook.
Yes, Canada, you are a land of water. Like all of nature’s magic, your oceans are powerful beyond measure. What we see is a fraction of what they are and more than our meager minds can comprehend. They teem with life and can snatch it away without comment, remorse, or judgement. Like you, the oceans were there long before we arrived and their waves will pound your shores long after we’re gone. And that reality, when allowed to rise to our consciousness for a startling moment, like a great blue off the bow, is a humbling reminder of our responsibility to you and each other.
This is the third of a series Dear Canada: Love Letters to a Nation, inspired by the songs of Gordon Lightfoot. If you enjoyed this, please share it with others and consider checking out the first two at johnboyko.com
Bitter Green by Gordon Lightfoot
Upon the Bitter Green she walked the hills above the town, echoed to her footsteps as soft as eiderdown
Waiting for her master to kiss away her tears, waiting through the years
Bitter Green they called her walking in the sun loving everyone that she met. Bitter Green they called her waiting in the sun, waiting for someone to take her home
Some say he was a sailor who died away at sea, some say he was a prisoner who never was set free
Lost upon the ocean he died there in the mist, dreaming of a kiss
But now the Bitter Green is gone the hills have turned to rust, there comes a weary stranger whose tears fall in the dust
Kneeling by the churchyard in the autumn mist, dreaming of a kiss