6.20 Confederation

Canadians, always trying to define ourselves. Who’s kidding who? There are 364 days in the year besides July 4th, yet Canada Day – our equivalent to Independence Day – coincidentally falls just three days prior. What about August? There’s no major American holidays in August. January? Maybe we could move Canada Day in the dead of winter? How, well, Canadian. The close proximity of the inception of our respective countries speaks to a larger issue. We desire to be defined as separate from America, yet long to emulate. America is the good-looking, football-playing, older sibling. We are the bookish younger brother. Passive-aggressive behaviour is in our blood.

I feel that we are not like America. We might be ruled by a conservative government but we really like your President Obama. Europeans seem to be able to tell us apart.

It’s the little differences.

At the start, Canada had a series of conferences. Canada liked conferences. Charlottetown 1864, Québec 1864 and London 1866-1867. Finally, Confederation occurred on July 1, 1867. Canada became a country with four provinces. America has states, Canada has provinces. Completely different.

10 years prior to Confederation, there was a dispute between Québec City, Montreal, Toronto and Kingston as to which city should be named as the capital. Queen Victoria came to the rescue. Apparently, she chose Ottawa (a city not even on the list) because it was smack between Toronto and Québec City. She tried to make everyone happy. The Queen’s advisors suggested Ottawa because it was far away from the American border. It was in a better defensive position if America attacked Canada again like in 1812.

Canada adopted the British parliamentary system and boasted about our multi-party arrangement. In the southern United States, grits might be a local delicacy, but up here, we call them Liberals. Tory’s used to be Progressive Conservatives, an oxy-moron even by political standards. They dropped the ‘progressive’ a few years ago. There is a Marijuana Party of Canada. A Christian Heritage Party. If we had a real house party where the attendees represented politics, it would be much more exciting than an American political house party, which would only have two people staring at each other with nothing in common and nothing to say to each other.

The Governor General of Canada is the Queen’s representative. She lives across the street from the Prime Minister in a much larger house. Canada just can’t get away from the British – every time we buy something, there’s the Queen, staring back, tsk tsk tsking: “do you really need that, really?”

We still have Canada Day.

It should really be called Ottawa Day. Ottawa is pretty much the only place Canada Day was celebrated with any gusto.

As a child, my family would go to the Parliament Hill party. The city really came alive on Canada Day. All the downtown streets were closed, packed with people, a sea of red and white. We sat on blankets and chewed on snacks from home. Suffered through the crowds, the heat and the entertainment: Céline Dion, Rita MacNeil, Anne Murray, et al. All for the fireworks. Even the fireworks were polite. But they were ours.

As I grew into a teenager, we discovered the locks. The Rideau Canal Waterway connects Ottawa and Kingston through a series of locks. There is a total of 45 locks between the two cities and each is 41 meters by 10 meters. Boats travel between locks, the water levels change and they open like gates from old castles.

As a teenager, beer was more important than fireworks. We filled up backpacks of alcohol instead of snacks. We were there for patriotic reasons.

On one particular Canada Day, a few friends and I walked around the city sucking on various beverages. The young crowd formed along the sides of the canal that snaked around and beneath Parliament Hill. Hippies danced, sparklers twizzled and fizzed away, drummers drummed and strangers spoke to you.

Police officers walked around but largely left us alone. People started jumping from the top of the locks into the water. The party was over. People ran as the police snatched the canal divers under the arms and dragged them to shore. The only entrance to the street was blocked. A friend pointed to the cliff that ran parallel to the canal. I shrugged my shoulders, my indifferent answer to almost everything at the time.

We climbed. It wasn’t an especially tall cliff but when you thought the police were after you and your blood alcohol level far exceeded where it should be, the cliff was higher than originally perceived. We made it to the top. It was some kind of right of passage.

That fall, I moved away for school and grew into a man. After the canal jumpers, they closed down access to the locks on subsequent holidays in the years to come. Canada Day’s spent by the locks were over. A tragedy for future generations of Ottawa youth.

I try to make it to Ottawa on Canada Day, but failed this year. Canada’s Confederation day might not equal America’s Independence Day, but it is one day of the year where we are different. Ours is a little smaller, more humble.

I think back to all those years ago, hanging off the side of that cliff and risking a glance behind me. I could see the War Monument as it reached towards the sky, blocking out the setting sun. The monument was a platoon of soldiers, guns slung over shoulders, forever in a collective mid-step. It doesn’t strike me as a necessarily triumphant image, more as a frozen moment in time for us to ponder acts of war. I have never been asked to die for my country and the freedom to foolishly cling to this cliff half drunk was probably not what they were fighting for. But that day, I reached the top of that cliff feeling more Canadian than ever before.