Canadian Life: The Near Far-East

Let’s take a journey. Imagine you are standing in the middle of Oxford Circus in London and head east, through the smog of consumerism, towards Tottenham Court Road. But instead of calling it quits on the Northern Line, you keep going, through the City, towards Essex and beyond… for two thousand miles beyond. Depending on your rough trajectory, your ability to read Czech road signs, or just let your IPhone 8 do the talking, the end of the road will be somewhere in eastern Russia, possibly even northern Kazakhstan. You would have worked your way across up to ten countries, failed to navigate in multiple languages and you’d still have overshot Moscow by five hundred miles. Now, if you take a similar line from Vancouver, along West Hastings Street, obviously bypassing East Hastings, and continuing for two thousand miles on the same slight East-South-East line, the flag doesn’t change, and you still can’t see any Atlantic. Or, four and a half hours on a plane and you’re in the same country, with the same maple leaf flying over the courthouse. You’ve crossed three time zones and four provinces to reach Ontario, and despite skimming the Rockies an hour in, the rest of the journey is essentially one big flat wheat field; the Prairies make Lincolnshire look like the Himalayan foothills. Adios BC.

How does thousands of miles change the make-up of the same country living under the same banner? In a relatively short, fairly intense, whistle-stop trip, I wanted to know.

Relatively short is a stretch – I had Toronto for a day. More interested to see Quebec and the fall foliage, I cannot therefore judge the city too much. Except I can and you’ve heard it before: “It’s just a little New York bud”… “Ah, it’s just a small, Canadian version of London”… “You been to New York? Yeah well, it’s basically the same but smaller, less busy.” A standard western concrete jungle. The train from the airport to the city, went through identical industrial swamps that lie either side of the tracks in Harringay in North London. And when you’re pushed for time, what’s the one thing to do in a standard western concrete jungle? Get up something high – but this time it is really high. CN me up. The tallest structure in continental North America, with the tip rising only 7m above One World Trade Centre, even at the revolving 360° restaurant at 350m, the Eiffel Tower could fit below with 30m of air. It’s a staggering, nausea inducing, don’t-know-whether-to-look-up-or-down, civil engineering, cement-and-sand masterpiece. And looking over Lake Ontario, the smallest of Canada’s five Great Lakes, you realise Toronto is more attractive than just a concrete metropolis. Clearly a day doesn’t do it justice, but the vibrant, cultural scene was in the air, especially on Thanks-Giving weekend. The cultural and financial hub of a nation, one must surely go back to fully taste the city lights – the summer city lights. So I will.

The Lake is big, real big, two-hundred-miles-long real big. An hour and a half of Megabus later and I was round at its southern shore in St Catharines. Known as ‘The Garden City’ due to the exuberant micro-climate that its location between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie creates, it is part of the wider Niagara region, which is considered to be the fertile fruit basket of Canada, with vineyards in and around the whole area. The green town also wears a blue collar, and with a history of being an industrial and manufacturing hub, with General Motors until recently, having been one of the city’s biggest employers, industry has played a major role in ensuring that life goes on. It also possesses a laid-back aura to match its setting. Standing on the shore of the Lake, with a tequila sunrise of a sunset on the horizon, you can make out the outline of Toronto’s skyline thirty odd miles across the water, the CN looking like little more than a shadow of its former, earlier self – but far more little, with far less shadow…

Staying with an old buddy of my dad who teaches a culinary science course at Niagara College, which has the only fully licensed teaching winery in the country, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to some exceptional food & drink options over the next few days. So, his recommendation for that night? An English pub laden in soccer memorabilia. You can take the boy out of Brum, Al. The night ended watching two skin-head, 250-pounders flopped over the bar, shrieking out a rendition of “I’ll Stand By You”. God Save the Pub – sent us victorious.

St Cats is the gateway to Niagara Falls, which is itself a gateway to the States, being on the border with New York. The 60m Falls, on the Niagara River running between Lake Erie and Ontario, are a remarkable sight, even in the thick mist. I wanted to capture this sight, so carefully selected an older American couple who seemed to be camera-savvy enough to shoot my scene. The lady asked if it was OK and my response was one, which within seconds of you now being just another lone figure in the field of tourists, you regret: “Ah, I’m sure it is.” It wasn’t. It was of my face and my face only, no Falls. Thank-you lady. Take-Two, with some Chinese… all Falls, no face… “Shit, that’ll do.” A relief for some.

Niagara Falls town itself is nothing like one would imagine, unless you envisioned… Blackpool? Hartlepool? Skegness? I hope not. I did the ‘Horror Playground’ just off the main street. The guys seemed surprised that (a) someone had come in at the dead of midday, and (b) that they had come in alone. Pitch-black, follow the small red lights, good luck. $10 gone. Probably worth it. Advisable to go in a group.

A half-hour drive away, through what could be England’s New Forest, is Niagara-On-The-Lake. A beautiful colonial town, akin to Chipping Campden in the Cotswolds, and is a world away from the tacky thrills & spills of Niagara itself. With the oldest golf club in continental North America and views of the Lake, it brings in all the tourists, and what seemed like half of Shanghai. Crawling alongside a side street, heading towards the shore, a SUV suddenly backed out, almost, and then stopped. The back window then dropped and a flailing arm of a third Chinese woman started to wave frantically to guide the driver and navigator in the front. It didn’t help; the SUV remained engine on, but driver off. It wasn’t going anywhere. And by blocking the road, neither were we, nor the car behind. Who gave her the key?! After a few painstaking minutes of laughing, crying, comprehending, we veered off onto the grass along with the next ten cars and counting… but Don’t Look Back in Anger, I heard you say. How could we.

Toronto, plus a six-hour Megabus shift, equals Montreal and Quebec – the largest Canadian Province and the only official French-speaking region. I’ve wanted to go for a long time. It’s where today’s Canada was fought for after a tumultuous three hundred years of sporadic French and English battle, continuous rivalry, and it is unknown how many moose died along the way. The founding of Quebec City in 1608 by Samuel de Champlain and of New France in 1663, preceded the Seven Years’ War, ending with the Treaty of Paris and the British Royal Proclamation of 1763, giving name to the Province of Quebec. With an increasing number of British Loyalists arriving in the Province over the next few decades, it was divided into Upper and Lower Canada in 1791, but still allowing the French speaking population of Lower Canada to maintain their Civil Law and Catholic practice. After a rising French rebellion in the nineteenth century, the British merged the two once again in 1840, under one Province of Canada, yet within three decades, and in the face of the rapidly growing demand for a self-governing national union, it was divided into the new Provinces of Ontario and Quebec, and with the British North America Acts of 1867, the Canadian Confederation was established. Happy 150th!

Montreal is a wonderful place. Canada’s second biggest city, with a million more people than Vancouver, but you couldn’t really tell – it seemed quieter and smaller. It gets much colder over winter, but loses out on the lack of a real mountain backdrop. It is also officially the best place in the world to be a student, with the famous McGill University even having an intake of 15,000 more than University College London. There is history all around the old colonial town, strip clubs lining Downtown, and panoramas all around ‘uptown’ up on Mount Royal; this is a huge claim bearing in mind its height of 230m. I therefore, declare my home of High Barnet, Mount Barnet, future home to London’s first ski resort. But I digress. At the summit stands Saint Joseph’s Oratory, whose dome is the third largest of its kind in the world, with Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome the most prominent. There was some sort of Catholic sermon taking place, so after quickly taking in the grace of God, I was off through the park and back down the hill. Amen.

The time to see the city is when summer’s in the air. There are music festivals and its true cultural energy comes to fruition. Until then, and when it’s too cold to emerge, many just head down below to the Underground City and the 30km of tunnels housing effectively, the world’s most obscure shopping mall. But -30 is -30; these temperatures don’t mess around and so this is the way people deal with it. In London, -5 and good luck getting anywhere. Everything but the temperature messes around, and the city doesn’t deal with it. Apparently the Gulf Stream could have some surprises up its sleeve… we’re gonna need a bigger mall…

Quebec City, the Province’s capital, is four hours on the train and you might as well have walked into Avignon. It’s as French as you get, and is a great city in many respects; unless you’re a battling vegan in which case, Godspeed – you’ll need it. Its history and architecture sets it apart and it’s a refreshing change from the grotesque glass-saturated high-risers littering most North American cities. On the Sunday, it was relentless, torrential rain, and so we decided to say hi to the big guy upstairs again. Getting an Uber to the Basilica de Notre Dame, the driver, supporting the decision, said well what else are tourists supposed to do in this weather?! “Exactly – go visit a big church. Pray for some Sun.” The big guy upstairs, also turned out to be old Saint Nick. Don’t stop believin’…

Quebec was the scene of many battles which influenced and shaped the Canada that exists today. But of course, the land was occupied long before Europeans decided to jump ship and start trading fur for fortune. The Indigenous Peoples of North America provided that fur, and over the centuries have seen their way of life overwhelmed by the power of the European desire for colonisation. They have also seen a gross misrepresentation of their culture and heritage through popular culture, art and film. In the Fine Arts Museum in Montreal, a new exhibition called ‘Once Upon a Time… The Western’, portrayed the history of the Western film and some of its key characters – John Ford, Calamity Jane, Buffalo Bill, John Wayne – but it also had a more profound underlying theme. Through early depictions of landscape and other forms of iconography, which in turn influenced the first Western filmmakers of the late 19th century, Native inhabitants were being omitted, vilified and marginalised. This being at a time when not only had most communities been forced from their land and onto reserves, but their populations had decreased by 90% since the first explorers arrived four hundred years previously. But that was then, and it’s said art has the power to maintain but also to challenge the most widespread beliefs. Thankfully, today in Canada such stereotypes are being challenged and Native virtues are being more widely adopted.

As the early 20th century Sioux Chief, Luther Standing Bear, proclaimed:

“Out of the Indian approach to life, there came a great freedom – an intense and absorbing love for nature; a respect for life; enriching faith in the Supreme Power; and principles of truth, honesty, generosity, equity and brotherhood as a guide to mundane relations.”

There is something in that. In a country so vast and diverse, there is something in that. And it shows how a blueprint for the solution to many of the world’s social ills is at hand. One just has to be willing to go and grasp it. Safe travels.

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