Canadians — or at least Canadian writers — are big on using Canada Day as an excuse for a little navel-gazing.
Who are we? What is our national identity? What makes us unique?
And when those writers aren’t filling a lot of space with musings on what we aren’t, such exercises generally result in lists of a few recognizable products, activities, symbols or attitudes that represent as much of a shared experience as a country with nearly 250,000 kilometres of coastline spanning six time zones can have.
It begs the question, out here on Canada’s western edge — the Pacific Southwest for those not duped by the standard American narrative — are we truly the same as our brothers and sisters in Red Deer, in Antigonish and in Chicoutimi?
In (shudder) Toronto?
Just how Canadian are we?
Canadians love beavers, Canada geese and maple syrup
When Vancouver Islanders talk Canada geese their focus seems to be on looking for ways to rid our fields and wetlands of those pesky varmints.
The last time a beaver hit the news here, it was breaking into a home Nanaimo.
And maple syrup? Isn’t that a Quebec thing?
Hardly. The big leaf maple is extraordinarily common on Vancouver Island and a growing number of Islanders are turning on their taps to harvest their sweet nectar.
According to authors and sapsuckers Garry and Katherine Backlund, Vancouver Island tapping is best done between November and early March (once all the leaves haven fallen off the tree and before the buds open the following spring). Sap flows are normally sweetest in January and February.
Every February, the BC Forest Discovery Centre in Duncan joins forces with an organization known as the Sapsuckers to stage the Big Leaf Maple Syrup Festival, a family-friendly showcase of the sweet wonders of Island maple syrup.
Canadians love hockey
Vancouver Island has its own junior B league featuring teams in Campbell River, the Comox Valley, Parksville, Mill Bay, the Saanich Peninsula, Saanich, Nanaimo, Victoria and Westshore. We’ve got the BCHL Grizzlies, Capitals, Clippers and Bulldogs. And we have the Western Hockey League’s Victoria Royals.
We boast an NHL scoring champion in Jamie Benn and a Stanley Cup-winning captain in Rod Brind’Amour. And, coached by the legendary Lester Patrick, our Victoria Cougars were the Stanley Cup champions in 1925, before moving south of the border to become the Detroit Red Wings.
And Ladysmith once set a record for the world’s largest street hockey tournament.
But our biggest claim to hockey fame is a 38-tonne of steel-reinforced mounted atop the Cowichan Arena. At 62.48 metres long, the world’s largest hockey stick and puck is officially recognized by the Guinness book of World Records and ensconced in the Hockey Hall of Fame. The stick was built by the federal government for the 1986 world’s fair in Vancouver and purchased by the Cowichan community in its aftermath.
Canadians live in the snow
“There are strange things done in the midnight sun
By the men who moil for gold;
The Arctic trails have their secret tales
That would make your blood run cold;
The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,
But the queerest they ever did see
Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge
I cremated Sam McGee.”
The thermometer drops below zero in Victoria maybe 10 times each year and the capital sees an average of 26 centimetres of snow annually.
But the heart of a Vancouver Islander pumps as cold any Canadians. For proof, check the work of one of our nation’s most legendary poets.
Robert Service, the Bard of the Yukon, rose to fame more than 100 years ago with his prose chronicling the romance of the gold rush in the far north and was the best-selling poet of his time.
But his formative adult years were spent as field labourer and a store clerk, tutoring children and chasing love in Cowichan Bay. His time there is immortalized by a stone cairn roadside marker.
Canadians love the Tragically Hip
Silver jet, Clayoquot Sound to Cape Spear…
They say the Tragically Hip is Canada’s house band and the late Gord Downie its poet.
The Hip played Vancouver Island countless times over the years, from a July 1991 gig at Victoria’s Royal Theatre to the launch of their bittersweet farewell tour at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre almost exactly 25 years later.
But the band’s most notable attachment to the Island was perhaps its role in the tree-hugging wars of the early ‘90s. As the environmental movement’s bid to halt clearcutting reached its zenith in the early ‘90s, the Hip spoke out in favour of the environmentalists blocking logging in what it now the Clayoquot Sound UNESCO biosphere reserve and recorded a song to benefit the movement.
And they also give one of the Island’s most beautiful spots a mention in the 2002 song Silver Jet.
Canadians are not Americans
Canadians like to define themselves in the great number of ways they are not like Americans.
Nowhere is the more evident than in our little seaside community of Ladysmith.
In the mid-1800s the United States was chasing its Manifest Destiny across the great plains of North America, the British rulers of what would eventually become Canada were trying to avoid them sweeping into their holdings. East of the Rockies the 49th parallel latitude line was the accepted border, but what is now Oregon and parts north was occupied by both countries.
Rallying around the slogan “54’40” or Fight” – which would have essentially put Prince George everything south of in the States, Americans threatened war. But already tied up in conflict with Mexico to the south, negotiation in the north became their preferred course.
According to historian Jim Kershner, the 49th Parallel was eventually agreed upon with one small sticking point: Vancouver Island. The 49th cut through the southern half of the Island at a place called Oyster Bay. In June of 1846, a compromise was reached and all of Vancouver Island was confirmed as British territory.
Ladysmith didn’t officially become a town for another 50 years, but it has embraced its near-miss wholeheartedly. The town’s grocery store is called the 49th Parallel and its high school sports teams are known as the 49ers. The line is also immortalized by pair of markers downtown.
Canadians are funny
From Rich Little to John Candy to Jim Carrey to Seth Rogen to Russell Peters, we’ve been cracking them up for as long as we can remember.
According to BBC culture writer Rob Salem, the Canadian sense of humour is borne partially out of the inherent isolation of our large and under-populated country. But he also suggest it is deeper than that, that it is rooted in our national inferiority complex, the overlooked sibling of a brother incapable of vacating the spotlight.
“We are constantly inundated by US culture, and yet we have no real stake in it, aside from our exported talent. This puts us in a unique position to observe and ridicule, and get away scot-free.”
“We are funny in self-defence because we are ‘other’, and humour is inclusive.”
Do Vancouver Islanders fit the profile? Well, one of our iconic attractions is the country market in Coombs, where they sell food out of a building where goats live on the roof, and they publicize it with the above sign.
Canadians are children of the British Empire
Our capital is named after a queen. It’s signature hotel is called Empress and is noted for its high teas.
Many of our towns and geographic landmarks take their names from British navy officers.
We’ve hosted the Commonwealth Games.
And Vancouver island has been swooning over the Royal Family for well over 100 years.
According royalwatcherblog.com, the first royal visit to the Island occurred in 1901, when the couple who later became King George V and Queen Mary posed on the shiny new legislature lawn. King George VI was here in 1939 and his wife, the Queen Mother joined him then, and then opened the Royal BC Museum in 1966.
Queen Elizabeth the II was here in 1951, 1971, 1986, 1994 and 2002.
Everyone’s favourite royal, Princess Diana was here in 1986 and her son, Prince William brought his entire family in 2016.
Canadians are multicultural I
In 1901 a handful of Finnish settlers piled into rowboats in Nanaimo. Eager to escape the harsh working conditions of the coal mines, the group pulled their way 350 kilometres north to Malcolm Island, near Port McNeill. Their goal was to set up a utopian socialist society based on the teachings of Matti Kurikka.
The Sointula (the name means place of harmony) dream collapsed within five years due to financial difficulties and a devastating fire, but many of the followers of “Kalevan Kasa” and their descendants remained. Today the community numbers about 500.
In 1917, Mayo Singh, a Punjabi immigrant who had been working to keep a struggling Fraser Valley mill afloat arrived in the Cowichan Valley searching for a timber supply. At a creekside north of the Cowichan River, not far from Duncan, he found the perfect site for new mill and founded what became a thriving multi-ethnic logging town.
Paldi, named after the village he was born, grew into a thriving multi-ethnic community of Japanese, Chinese, European and Indo-Canadians, with more than 500 residents, a bustling mill, store, post office and school house.
The Paldi mill closed in 1945 and over the next two generations the community faded in its absence, no longer a town but a small neighbourhood of rural Cowichan, the Sikh temple remaining as the most visible remnant of its past.
Canadians are multicultural II
* St. Michael’s Residential School in Alert Bay (1929 to 1975)
* Ahousaht Residential School on Flores Island (1895-1940)
* Alberni Residential School in Port Alberni (1892-1973)
* Christie Residential School near Tofino (1900-1983)
* Kuper Island Residential School near Chemainus (1890-1978)
“When the school is on the reserve the child lives with its parents, who are savages; he is surrounded by savages, and though he may learn to read and write his habits, and training and mode of thought are Indian. He is simply a savage who can read and write. It has been strongly pressed on myself, as the head of the Department, that Indian children should be withdrawn as much as possible from the parental influence, and the only way to do that would be to put them in central training industrial schools where they will acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men.” — Canada’s first prime minister John A. MacDonald.
“For over a century, the central goals of Canada’s Aboriginal policy were to eliminate Aboriginal governments; ignore Aboriginal rights; terminate the Treaties; and, through a process of assimilation, cause Aboriginal peoples to cease to exist as distinct legal, social, cultural, religious, and racial entities in Canada. The establishment and operation of residential schools were a central element of this policy, which can best be described as “cultural genocide.” — finding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.
“Everywhere I went, everything I did, all the jobs I had, all the towns I lived in, all the people I met, always brought me back to, to being in residential school, and being humiliated, and beaten, and ridiculed, and told I was a piece of garbage, I was not good enough, I was, like, a dog….” Daniel Andre, residential school survivor.
About 150,000 Canadian children were taken from their families and forced to attend residential schools. The last residential school on Vancouver Island closed in 1983.
Canadians are polite
It has yet to be proven that the first word most Canadians speak is “sorry” as mom is bent over their dirty diapers, but the stereotype of the well-mannered Canadian is a strong one.
How rooted is it in Vancouver Island reality?
Well, there is the recent case of Sooke resident Jordan Cote that became an internet sensation last fall.
A brief video shows Cote graciously asking a mother bear and her cubs to leave his yard. It ends with Cote thanking the bears as they amble away, saying “Hope you enjoyed my yard, have a good day!”
And there is also this year’s visit to Nanaimo by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau against the backdrop of heated debate over the Trans Mountain pipeline.
As Trudeau attempted to answer questions during the “town hall” meeting format, protesters shouted “shame,” drowning out much of the first 15 minutes of the event.
“Come on! Really?” the prime minister said, turning on one in frustration. “Will you please respect the people in this room?” he said before asking for a show of hands about who wanted the protesters to leave.
Their removal was greeted mostly by applause.
Canadians like beer
According to the BC Liquor distribution branch, beer is a billion-dollar industry annually.
British Columbians spent $233,664,746 on beer in the fourth quarter of the 2017/18 fiscal year, on just under 62,000,000 litres of fermented hops and barley, or a little over 13 litres per person.
Sales of micro-brews were up 22 per cent over the fourth quarter of the previous year and account for about 10 per cent of the total volume of beer sold. BC aletrail.ca lists 30 microbreweries on Vancouver Island, from Sooke to Campbell River — a number that has shown steady growth over the past decade.
Brewed in Victoria by Labbatt’s, until 1982, Lucky lager still holds a special connection with the Island. It was the top-selling beer in Nanaimo in 2015, despite not being in the top 20 across B.C.
And though we suspect the author of the Lucky Wikipedia entry may be having a bit of fun, we have make note of the following quote:
“Though generally considered a “non-premium” beer, it enjoys a dedicated following on Vancouver Island and is popular in Island towns such as Langford, Sooke, Lake Cowichan, Ucluelet, Duncan, Chemainus, Crofton, Cobble Hill, Cherryville, Campbell River, Comox, Courtenay, Cumberland, Gold River, Port Alice, Port McNeill, Port Hardy, Port Alberni, Nanaimo, Ladysmith, Sidney, Cassidy, Cedar, and Victoria.”
Canada is Beautiful
Sometimes a few pictures are worth a thousand words. From the @vifreedaily Instagram account.