Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The way back is the way forward

The saying goes that those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. To that I would add: or to forget how to. History can be a liberation.

I read a column today in The Globe and Mail... I forget who it was by, but the gist of it was a maudlin retreading of that tired old saw that it really didn’t matter how right we might be doing things in Canada, we’re joined at the hip by Fate to the United States and we’ll only be as well as it is sick.

Is that what we fought for as separate colonies in two continental wars? Is this why we finally came together to forge a new nation and common nationality a hundred and forty years ago? To imagine we have no future, no destiny, but that of the nation we’ve had to work so hard to remain distinct from?

A couple of weeks ago, I was in a used bookstore in rural Ontario. I came across a nice softcover book of Ontario’s history from 1610 to 1985. For the past week or so I’ve been reading it about half an hour in the mornings. And I came across some figures that were truly eye-opening.

In the middle of the 19th Century, before Confederation, the United Province of Canada (what had been Upper Canada and Lower Canada, and would become Ontario and Quebec respectively in Confederation) had a reciprocity agreement with the United States. Partly because they were sore at Britain for its conduct during the Civil War, and partly because they believed Canada’s separation from the US and adherence to the British Empire “unnatural” and only encouraged by reciprocity, the US unilaterally terminated the arrangement in 1866. And do you know what happened?

Canada promptly and obligingly curled up and died. Right?


Canada found other markets. And prospered.

In an age before the first prop-engine freighter ever took the skies, before refrigeration and air conditioning, when rail and sail were still the only ways to get it from here to there, this country (or what was to become this country) turned away from the easy, lazy continental trade we’ve decided is the centre of the universe, and actually hustled and found markets elsewhere.

In 1870, 51% of all Canadian exports were going to the US, and only 38% was going to the United Kingdom (the balance going pretty much to the rest of the Empire). But by 1916, 61% of our export trade was going to the UK and only 27% to the US. Even by 1937, the figures were about even: 41% to the US and 38% to the UK.

Now I’m not suggesting we can simply fall back on Mother England as our alternate to trade with the United States. But let’s remember... there’s a whole lot more to the world than just the United States, and if they’ve been rich and they’ve been close-by, that’s been convenient. But times change, and as they did before, so we must adapt. Our own history shows us what’s possible. If they could do it back then, with the incredible obstacles that time and distance represented for them, what right have we to fall back whining that the end of all good things is upon us? The EU is well-heeled, has nearly twice the number of consumers as the US, and looks upon us favourably (seal-clubbing notwithstanding; and we'll reserve comment here on fox hunting and bullfighting). China, India, and even much of South America are on the rise. These are places that will need our resources and can easily absorb the excess manufacturing output of a relatively smaller nation like ours. What I mean is, it really wouldn’t take that much of the world to pick up the slack the US is leaving behind for a country the size of Canada – if we’ll just get up off our asses and get in the game instead of moaning on the sidelines.

We did it before, and we can do it again. By all means, let’s wish the US well, but let’s not consign ourselves to the role of some Roman slave obliged to open his veins to share the fate of a humbled master. We have our own national life to lead, and our own stars to follow.

After all, wasn’t that the point in 1776, 1812, and 1867?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A study in contrasts

In the past week, P-Doug and I have been back twice to a nice place on the Humber we had kind of forgotten about since last summer. Even though only three days separated the two visits, the difference in conditions was astounding.

Saturday we arrived around noon. The river was shallower than it had been the previous time I'd visited (a couple of weekends earlier, by myself), and the riverbed was clear and visible. When we stepped in and wandered down the river to our bathing spot, it barely even wet the hems of my shorts. When we arrived, we undressed and sat under the overhanging shade tree. The day was hot and humid, the water was quite warm for this early in the summer, and the sun was blazing. Even in the shade, you could feel its might.

A couple of summers ago, we had gone nude hiking into the hills there. That side of the river is on a large isthmus that is very nearly an island, and will be soon, I think. P-Doug wasn't game for it this time, fearing the bugs, but I set off on my own and climbed the hill, made my way down the far side, and crossed the river. A climbed the far bank and sat for a while on a bleached white log left in the grass by some long-ago flood, and watched the river. After I bit I crossed back over to the isthmus side and settled back in the grass to lie in the sun. Eventually I made my way back up into the forest and down to where he was still enjoying the water. The bugs had never bothered me. We both got a bit of a burn that day, though; his worse than mine because I spent about an hour of it in the forest.

Wednesday was Canada Day so we decided to go back. It was overcast and only warm, rather than hot. When we got to the river, it was the colour of hot chocolate, and obviously far deeper, even to look at. It had rained quite a bit in the previous two days and we had to undress before even stepping in. The current was surprisingly fast, and it was deeper than we'd even guessed, not to mention somewhat cooler. I was still wearing my shirt and eventually even the bottom of that was soaked. By the time we got to our usual spot and I could take it off, we were at parts that were armpit deep. I've never seen the river as deep as that at that spot. It was anytime we turned to work against the current that we realized just how strong it was; it was hard even to take a step against it. I decided to be prudent with my backpack and put it on road side of the river rather than the isthmus side so I wouldn't have to carry it back across. We spotted a flat, muddy landing on the isthmus side and struggled to reach it, and ended up spending most of our time there, half in and half out of the river. There was really no place shallow enough to actually sit down in the river itself this time. We spent some time there before fighting our way back to the road side where our clothes and food were, and ate sandwiches and oranges on the grassy side of the bank. We sat briefly under the tarp I carry on hikes when it started raining, just enough to give the day another interesting detail.

Eventually we decided to drift off. I prevailed upon P-Doug not to attempt wading back to the initial landing against the current on this day, but suggested instead climbing the steep valley wall behind us back to the old road. He was eventually persuaded, and I spotted what looked like a deer trail and made my way towards it. He gathered his things and followed, and ended up doing a few minutes of nude hiking in spite of things. When we reached the top, we dressed, checked out the trail a bit, and headed back. It was the nicest way to spend Canada Day and really celebrate the great outdoors of this country that I could think of. :)