“Some countries have too much history, we have too much geography”
William Lyon Mackenzie King
Here’s something you can try at home. Use Google Maps street-view to set off from Victoria British Columbia and follow the Trans-Canada Highway to Sydney, Nova Scotia. Given it takes an average five days to cross Canada this should take about ten, but you’ll give up before then. Frankly, the activity is as interesting as watching aquarium scenes on television. Even skipping large sections you realize the prairies look much the same from one side to the other but they are nothing compared to the monotony of the pine forests in Ontario. Actual driving is different. After a couple of days of the same landscape you enter a zone the Buddhists call the Fifth Jhana, where material consciousness has begun to dissipate, the beginning stages of incorporeal tranquillity. You can’t get that from a computer.
Let’s start at the western edge: Victoria, B.C. if there is something essentially British about this scene of the lake and medieval bridge at Beaconhill Park, (taken on Sunday the 2nd of August 1942) that is no accident. To the city’s aldermen and landscape designers in the 1880s, the essence of a beautiful park lay in its evocation of old England. We see the same ideas in Australia. They were supposed to transport us ‘home’, a place more and more people had no experience of.
Still in B.C: in Chilliwack. The word bounces off the tongue. It has its roots in the local First Nations language but we must credit our ancestors for taking words from indigenous tongues and mangling them into something that could be spelt. The results can be poetic. Just weeks ago (March 2013) Chilliwack’s Paramount Theatre was bulldozed. The opposition was passionate but small. In time more will regret its loss.
Into Alberta and the Canadian Rockies, to Lake Louise, named after one of Victoria’s numerous offspring though I prefer Lake of the Little Fishes, the translation of its original Nakota title. The royal family had lots of places across the empire named after them and they’re always dull by comparison to the local word.
Banff, oddly enough, is Scottish. The president of the Canadian Pacific Railroad had the privilege of naming it so chose that of his birthplace, Banffshire, a coastal town set among low, rolling hills, ie, nothing like this Banff. Today Banff, Canada, is said to be populated by Australians who come for the real snow and mountains; things they (we) don’t really have at home.
Traditionally totem poles were erected then left to rot, which on British Columbia’s wintry coasts could be a matter of weeks. This totem pole outside Jasper’s railway station stood for over 70 years but then its authenticity was always unreliable. It is a Haida totem pole, from B.C, which is a bit like saying Hans Christian Anderson was French on account that he lived nearby. It may not be apparent so far but we are following the train line across Canada.
Which brings us to Swift Current, Saskatchewan. Everybody, from the original Assiniboine through to the French and the English, has always known this place by some reference to the river currents. The Assiniboine called it Minihaha, which coincidentally is the name of Hiawatha’s main squeeze in Longfellow’s cringeworthy epic. A good photo, this one. It looks like an accidental discovery of Modernism.
Moose Jaw … It sounds like a place the characters in L’il Abner would go for a holiday. The name English surveyors first gave it was Moose Jaw Bone Creek, which deserves a revival. ‘Army Navy Stores’, the cars, the signage - this looks like a mash-up of Fred Herzog photos. There are Internet forums dedicated to Moose Jaw’s Royal Theatre and the Exchange Café. Moose Jaw was never a big town and these were the gathering spots for its artistic community.
We are on the Prairies, and an image Robert Adams couldn’t find fault with – except of course for the edge of the train window in the top right. It is conceivable someone took this to prove to friends there was nothing out on the Prairies, only to discover that was what made them special.
This rather excellent hall was designed by three architectural firms; Northwood & Chivers, Pratt & Ross, and J.N. Semmens. Only the last names means anything to me. I once had to look at some photos of buildings in Vancouver that Semmens had designed and would have liked to have pointed out to the photographer that he had done a very good job of making fine buildings look trite. Anyway, Winnipeg is close to the geographical centre of North America, which according to some people explains its abundance of paranormal activity.
Back to the Prairies. Canada has four major geographical areas; the arctic, the mountains to the west, forests to the east and the Prairies in the middle. When you drive across big, empty spaces like this it’s the little things you notice.
Mink Tunnel, on the edge of Lake Superior. We are in Ontario and gradually we’ll see more towns, more people, more details. But for now we need to stop and think about the nation’s spine, the Canadian Pacific Railroad. Until it was built in the 1880s the only way to get from Vancouver to Ottawa or Montreal was overland by wagon and that took weeks. Americans can get nostalgic about their railway building the West but Canada’s was longer and more necessary. No wonder there was a whole side industry devoted to its promotion.
Sudbury was a mining and factory town. The men were tough, the women tolerated them. I know people from Sudbury. They are very polite. Whenever you ask what the city is like they provide you with a pregnant pause so you can fill in the details yourself.
Somewhere on the Great Lakes or the St Lawrence River in Quebec. Unlike most of the photos we can’t be sure where in Canada this was taken but it is too good to waste.
Quebec, 1939, as the banner welcoming George VI and Elizabeth indicates. The store was called Henry Morgan’s, on the corner of St Catherine and Phillips Square. The building still exists. It is now the Bay, after the Hudson Bay Co. So far as a lot of Inuit people are concerned, it switched names from one pirate to another. A great photo, probably taken with a Minox or a half frame camera, which explains the toytown appearance.
Technically speaking, the Central Station still exists but it has been renovated and improved upon so this is no longer recognizable. You can see from this scene, especially the way it fits so neatly with the overpass, that in its time it was a triumph of contemporary design.
The road to Gaspe, at the mouth of the St Lawrence. Just across the water lies Saint Pierre and Miquelon, an island that still belongs to France and beyond that it isn’t so far to Ireland. A current theory has the first inhabitants of North America, pre-dating the Clovis culture, arriving from the Brittany coasts, able to do this because the distance between Europe and Canada was broken up by enough small islands to make a canoe crossing possible.
If or when these early arrivals sighted Percé Rock it wouldn’t have looked anything like it does now. In the 1600s Jacques Cartier claimed there were three arches on the rock formation. One was recorded as collapsing in 1845. So far as North American geography is concerned, Percé Rock is the edge of the world.
We started in Victoria and end at the other side in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, which is a tautology if you think about it. I don’t know how Scottish it appears but it certainly has the Victorian look to it. In any case, we have bypassed Newfoundland (a common error and cause of some sensitivity), forgot Ottawa and Toronto and really got no further north than the railroad would take us, so in a sense we have failed. But then MacKenzie King was right. This country has too much geography.