Some Thoughts on Canada Day

As celebrations of Canada’s 145th birthday proceed through the weekend, what and whom reside in the periphery of our national consciousness?

By the time this column is published, I should be somewhere in Ottawa, enjoying the festivities surrounding Canada Day and the general pleasantries that come with being on vacation in the summertime.

It will be especially pleasant because I’ll be with family and friends that I have not seen for a while and enjoying the amenities that are generally lacking here in Arviat – restaurants, coffee shops, theatres, architecture and trees.

It’s been close to a year now since we moved north, and so far life in Arviat has worked out well. My wife and I have both found professional opportunities and challenges that would never have been open to us back in Newfoundland. We’ve made many new friends and had many new educational experiences, and the exposure to a rich and diverse culture has been a particularly enriching personal experience as well.

While we did not know exactly what to expect when we decided to move to Nunavut, we knew life here would be different. While we were prepared for the cold weather, the increased prices, and the cultural differences, one thing I was not quite prepared for was the sense of isolation – a sense of being somewhat removed from the mainstream consciousness of Canada.

A Part of Canada’s Identity?

Although Arviat is the southernmost community in Nunavut, in many ways life here feels like it is on the Canadian periphery. Not just geographically, but politically and economically as well. This is not unexpected – with a population under 40,000 and relatively little economic activity compared to the provinces, there is little to attract the attention of politicians and businesses from southern Canada, let alone that of the average Torontonian or Vancouverite.

Despite the growing cognizance of global warming and the political and economic potential of the north, and the recent (and I suspect fleeting) media attention to the high cost of food in Nunavut, in many ways it is obvious that the distant north is largely an afterthought to the majority of the Canadian public – maybe even on the very edge of many Canadians’ perception of their country.

Southern discussions of seal hunting and polar bear quotas seem to often fail to consider the traditional hunting practices of the Inuit people. Similarly, conversations about the economic potential of the Northwest Passage and northern resources often disregard the lives of those who live in Nunavut. The north has always played a strong role in Canadian identity: the frozen yet beautiful landscape, the hardy explorers, and a challenging way of life mastered only by those with generations of experience.

Canada Means the North

Yet perhaps its more accurate to say that the north has played a role in a Canadian mythology. Despite the larger-than-life role of the fur trade and the Hudson’s Bay Company in our national consciousness and history, the story of Canada’s creation is largely one of westward expansion – from the Atlantic Ocean, up the St. Lawrence River, through the heartland of Lower and Upper Canada, westward across the Prairies and over the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean.

Because of this settlement pattern, and our shared history with the United States, the majority of Canada’s population is strung out along a narrow band along the south of the country, far closer to Detroit than Hudson Bay. Think about how different Canada’s major cities are from one another. If you traveled west from St. John’s and hit all the major Canadian cities en route to Vancouver, you would come across different languages, cultures, restaurants and neighborhoods and climates. But your average sidewalk in Halifax or Toronto is not all that different from the average sidewalk in Vancouver, and none of them come close to reflecting the realities of the north.

So this Canada Day weekend, while you are sitting at an outdoor table on one of those Canadian sidewalks with your favourite beverage–as I will be–I hope you will think about the size of our country and remember it is far larger than we often realize. There is an enormous part of Canada in need of attention, worthy of recognition, and deserving of the nation’s acknowledgement and acceptance into the wider national identity.

If you only see the fireworks between St. John’s and Vancouver, there is a whole lot of Canada you’re missing.

The views and opinions in this column are those of the author alone, and are not necessarily those of the Hamlet of Arviat, Government of Nunavut, any of its departments or agencies, or anybody else.

61st Parallel will return on Monday, July 30, 2012.

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