Canada: Home of the beaver

July 1, 2015

It is, once again, Canada Day: the 148th anniversary of Confederation in 1867. We’re definitely on the homestretch to our sesquicentennial in 2017.

As I write this—true to form—it’s raining. So far, it looks like it’s shaping up to be the rainy, drizzly kind of Canada Day rather than the bright warm kind that is punctuated during the day by a brief but heavy downpour. (I’ve never known a July 1 where it didn’t rain in Ottawa at some time.) Either Way, of course, it won’t affect the spirits of the massive block party happening on or near Parliament Hill.

Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) was a Canadian poet of English and Mohawk descent. She was born on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario. As an adult she had a profitable stage and literary career; however, as much of her fame rested on her performances, her reputation declined considerably after her death, although in recent years her significance has been re-evaluated.

Today, Johnson’s claim to fame arguably rests on one poem in particular, although in a different form that should be nonetheless recognizable to many Canadians, particularly those who spent time in the Scouting movement. The Canadian folk song, “Land of the Silver Birch” has, after all, been sung in the round by many a Cub, Scout, or Girl Guide around a late-night campfire.

The lyrics are perhaps more romantic than nationalistic, as they idealize living in the wild at harmony with nature. (As Johnson loved canoeing and the outdoors, however, it may betrue to her own experience.) Also, the repeated refrain of “Boom diddy-ah da” tends to rob the lyrics of some of their dignity. Nonetheless, “Land of the Silver Birch” also serves as a gentle reminder that the Canadian notion of two founding peoples—English and French—is really a myth. There were peoples here before us, and all of us are equally Canadians: as another of Pauline Johnson’s verses put it, “one common Brotherhood / In peace and love, with purpose understood.”


Canada Day 2014

July 1, 2014

Happy 147th birthday, Canada! We’re definitely on the home stretch to our sesquicentennial celebration (150 years) in 2017. Absolutely true to tradition, this Canada Day is a muggy scorcher, threatening later in the day to break into thunderstorms. (In fact, as I write this, Ottawa is even under a tornado warning.) Fortunately, the buses are free, as I will be heading downtown this evening to view the fireworks with a friend, who has a perfect view from his balcony.

My blog posting has been sporadic in recent years, but unlike many of my more ambitious plans, I have always made sure to post something on Canada Day every year since 2004. My habit—though, after 10 years, I think I’m right in calling it a tradition—has been to showcase a Canadian patriotic song each year.

I discovered Stan Rogers 8 years ago—in fact, it was while researching my Canada Day post for 2006, in which I wrote: “It is said that the best recording [of “Farewell to Nova Scotia”] is that of the late folk singer Stan Rogers, although I have not heard it.” In fact, I still haven’t. Even YouTube (which hardly existed back then) hasn’t managed to come through yet. Now I’m actually skeptical the recording even exists (curse you, Wikipedia!). However, the lack of one particular, fabled recording hasn’t stopped me from enjoying the rest of Rogers’ music over the years.

In his first trip to the North in 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper referred to Rogers’ 1981 song “Northwest Passage” as Canada’s unofficial national anthem. The lyrics parallel the search for the fabled Northwest Passage across North America to the Pacific Ocean, with Rogers’ own trip west. Like many Canadian patriotic songs, it makes numerous references to history, mentioning several explorers directly or indirectly:

  • John Davis was a sixteenth-century English navigator, who led several voyages during the reign of Elizabeth I to find the Northwest Passage. Davis Strait, between Greenland and Baffin Island, is named after him.
  • Henry Kelsey (“brave Kelso” in the song) was a seventeenth-century English fur trader and explorer for the Hudson’s Bay Company. He was likely the first European to see present-day Saskatchewan.
  • Alexander Mackenzie was a Scottish explorer, the first man to cross North America to the Pacific north of Mexico, in 1790. The Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories is named after him: he travelled to its mouth hoping it would lead to the Pacific, but named the river “Disappointment” when it opened into the Arctic Ocean.
  • David Thompson, who worked as a fur trader and surveyor for both the Hudson’s Bay and North West companies, mapped nearly four million square kilometers of the North American west: one-fifth of the continent.
  • The Fraser River is named after Simon Fraser, the Scottish fur trader who charted much of present-day British Columbia, and in 1808 explored the Fraser River from Prince George to its mouth.
  • Sir John Franklin sailed on four Arctic exploration expeditions. The final one was to travel the theretofore unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage. Both ships and all hands of the expedition were lost in 1845 when they became icebound in the Arctic near King William Island.

Stan Rogers died at the age of 33 on June 2, 1983, when a fire aboard Air Canada Flight 797 forced an emergency landing at Cincinnati Greater Airport. Seconds after landing, a flash fire killed Rogers and 22 passengers who had not yet had time to evacuate the plane. His legacy is a small library of wonderful recordings, and a deep influence on Canadian music.

Happy birthday, Canada.

Previous Canada Day songs:


And now . . . this – Jun. 18/14

June 18, 2014

An Edmonton woman who says she’s being discriminated against because she has 22 visible piercings is reigniting the debate about workplace dress codes. . . .

[Kendra] Behringer has launched a campaign to make it illegal for employers to discriminate based on body modifications, something that would require an amendment to the Alberta Human Rights Act.

[Full Story]

Remember back in 1997, when Austin Powers’ desire to live in a “consequence-free environment” was kind of a funny joke? Well, now there are entitlement-minded people who think that should be a reality, so much so that they want it enshrined in the human rights code.

I suspect this petition will go nowhere. It is your right to pursue self-uglification. It is not your right to expect potential employers to overlook your severe lack of judgment and good taste. They own the position. You do not. Get over yourself.


Canada Day 2013: “sing God save the land we love the best”

July 1, 2013

For the tenth time in this blog’s history: Happy Canada Day!

Today is the 146th anniversary of Confederation, and, as usual, Canadians temporarily cast off their restraint and display unbridled patriotism. This is, of course, most evident here in the nation’s capital, where the streets surrounding Parliament Hill become one very crowded block party for the day, culminating in a stage show and the annual 10 pm fireworks. The first Canada Day I attended, back in 1995, featured performances by Burton Cummings and Spirit of the West. This year, though, it’s Carly Rae Jepsen and literally no one else I’ve ever heard of, so I think I’ll skip the stage show (though I do have an invitation to see the fireworks from a well-situated downtown balcony).

This is also the 140th anniversary of Prince Edward Island, which joined Confederation on July 1, 1873—the eighth province or territory to do so. In honour of the anniversary, I devote this year’s customary patriotic song to PEI’s provincial hymn: “The Island Hymn.”

This song dates back to 1908. The lyrics were written by Lucy Maud Montgomery, best known of course as the author of Anne of Green Gables, that quintessential Canadian redheaded orphan:

Fair Island of the sea,

We raise our song to thee,

The bright and blest;

Loyally now we stand

As brothers, hand in hand,

And sing God save the land

We love the best.

Upon our princely Isle

May kindest fortune smile

In coming years;

Peace and prosperity

In all her borders be,

From every evil free,

And weakling fears.

Prince Edward Isle, to thee

Our hearts shall faithful be

Where’er we dwell;

Forever may we stand

As brothers, hand in hand,

And sing God save the land

We love so well.

The music was composed by Lawrence Watson specifically for this hymn. I’ve heard one recording of “The Island Hymn,” and in my opinion, the lyrics deserve better. In fact, when I first read the lyrics, I mentally matched them to “Olivet,” the Lowell Mason tune to which “My Faith Looks Up to Thee” is usually sung. “The Island Hymn” was officially declared as PEI’s provincial hymn in 2010.

2013 is also a sadder milestone, as it marks the passing of Stompin’ Tom Connors at the ripe old age of 77 in March. Connors was a Canadian patriot, with many of his best-known songs referencing Canadian culture, history, or folklore. Appropriately for today, his first single, and arguably his best-known, was “Bud the Spud,” a lighthearted ballad about a PEI potato trucker who raises the ire of the police.

This being my 10th Canada Day blog post, I thought it only fitting to go out with a twofer. Happy July 1, everyone.

Previous Canada Day songs:


“Investigate some abortions as homicides”? Um, not exactly

January 31, 2013

I have just read what may very well be the most egregiously slanted writing on an abortion-related news story that I have ever seen—and that’s saying something.

The headline on the CBC Web site reads: “Investigate some abortions as homicides, Tory MPs ask RCMP.” Similar headlines have been published all over Canada, as Google News indicates, since the original story comes from the Canadian Press.

Read the rest of this entry »


Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010)

November 29, 2010

Canadian comedic actor Leslie Nielsen died today after a bout with pneumonia. He was 84.

Today, Nielsen is probably best known for his deadpan comedic roles, especially in Airplane! and the Naked Gun movies. But he spent the first part of his career as a serious dramatic actor on both film and television. It was his second film role that made him famous: starring in 1956’s Forbidden Planet as John J. Adams, a James Kirk-type spaceship commander. (Forbidden Planet – one of my favourite science-fiction films&cite;- was one of the main inspirations for Star Trek, which just goes to show that Canadians make the best starship captains. Oh, and Firefly too.)

A little-known fact outside of Canada is that Nielson’s older brother Erik was a longtime Member of Parliament for Yukon and a Cabinet minister during the Conservative governments of the 1980s. This relationship was named in the (in)famous mockumentary The Canadian Conspiracy as the connection to a Canadian government conpriacy to subvert American media.

Rest in peace, Lt. Drebin.


Margaret Atwood, censor

September 6, 2010

Political thick-headedness from someone who ought to know better:

Margaret Atwood is criticizing Stephen Harper over what she sees as his dictatorial approach to regulating the airwaves.

The literary icon has signed an online petition aimed at keeping a “Fox News North” channel off the air in Canada. But it’s not the idea of a right-wing television station she’s objecting to. Rather, the prolific and celebrated writer doesn’t like the Prime Minister’s style of governing.

“Of course Fox & Co. can set up a channel or whatever they want to do, if it’s legal etc.,” she told The Globe and Mail in an email. “But it shouldn’t happen this way. It’s like the head-of-census affair – gov’t direct meddling in affairs that are supposed to be arm’s length – so do what they say or they fire you.

“It’s part of the ‘I make the rules around here,’ Harper-is-a-king thing,” she wrote.

[Full Story]

On August 31, Atwood tweeted that she had signed a petition to the CRTC to disallow Sun Media a license for a new news channel: “Yikes! Canadians wld be forced to pay for this? Not!” As the Globe article indicates, her real motivation is ostensibly because she doesn’t like the process by which this channel is being imposed.

Fair enough. But the Web page the petition is on betrays a considerably different motivation: “Stop Fox News North,” it says. It calls Sun’s news station – which has yet to broadcast a single second of news – “American-style hate media,” “hate-filled propaganda,” and a “nightmare.” (Ironically this petition, circulated under the auspices of Avaaz.org, which was co-founded by MoveOn.org, the hard-left advocacy group that funds Democratic candidates in the United States, encourages the CRTC to “stand up for Canadian democratic traditions.”)

It appears that whatever Atwoods own motives may be for signing this petition, the motives of the petitioners themselves are quite different: censorship of opposing viewpoints. Atwood herself has been the target of censorship attempts: her fine novel The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the most frequently challenged books in American libraries. So why is she lending her good name to the efforts of Internet activists to censor opinions they don’t like? Worse, she’s a writer. Is a signature on an inflammatory Internet petition the most persuasive argument for her position that Atwood is capable of?

Fortunately, this is an Internet petition, so no one who matters will take notice.

By the way, to be consistent, Atwood must also support the privatization of the CBC, which all Canadians must pay for whether they want it or not. Correct?

Even prominent public intellectuals are not incapable of the occasional brain fart, so this particular controversy seemed like a good occasion to resurrect the DIM BULB du jour, awarded to those who are able to grab the public spotlight, then abuse the privilege by saying or doing something stupid.

Tell you what, Mags: I’m going to petition our public library to remove your books from the shelves. But it’s not the idea of feminist CanLit I’m objecting to. Rather, I don’t like your style of protesting.