I am approaching, all too soon, a milestone birthday, and, as age seems to produce a certain boldness, I thought I would depart from my usual discreet journalistic anonymity just this once and offer a few personal reflections on my life as a Canadian.
Baby me entered the world halfway between the end of World War II and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. That perhaps explains my lifelong fascination — some would say obsession — with these two seminal events of the 20th century.
The place where I made my entrance on a woefully cold Wednesday was about as distant from any action or excitement on the planet as you can imagine. The ramshackle northern Ontario gold mining town was in a deep post-war slump, and the future looked bleak. (It would be saved in a few years by a massive base-metals discovery by a company called Texas Gulf Sulphur; the find also sparked a huge insider trading scandal.)
My nurse mom and teacher dad were both raised in this forlorn but magnificent party of the country, still very much an untracked wilderness. Her dad was a travelling sawyer; dad’s father was a telegrapher at a series of remote railway stations.
Canada in 1954 was about as grey and conservative a place as was the United States. You had avuncular Dwight Eisenhower; we had Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent.
“Uncle Louis” was in his mid-70s when I was born. I would later go on to be a friend and colleague of his nephew. We signed the deed for our Quebec City house at St. Laurent’s former law office, now a museum in his honor.
St. Laurent was, at that time, only the second francophone prime minister in Canadian history. I grew up knowing Canada was partly French, although, typical of what in retrospect was the shocking xenophobia of my multi-ethnic town, the English population generally treated the local French-Canadians with condescension and scorn (the reverse was probably true, for all I knew).
Off I went to school, where there was further evidence of a country with latent conflicts and issues of identity. Each morning we sang “God Save The Queen” (“God save our gracious Queen, Long live our noble Queen”). “O Canada” didn’t enter our lives until later, as a certain nationalism stirred in the lead-up to Canada’s 1967 Centennial celebration.
The flag we saluted was called the Red Ensign, which was basically a British Union Jack on a field of red, with the coat of arms of Canada on the side. Canada would not get the Maple Leaf Flag until 1965, but only after a bitter debate between defenders of Canada’s colonial past and those wanting a more independent nation.
I got my first taste of Quebec when I was 13, when my family took a Griswold-style vacation to see Expo ‘67 in Montreal. I recall little of the adventure except Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, which served as the United States pavilion, and my father’s terror at driving in what seemed like a foreign country.
On that same trip, we took a detour to see the impact of the flooding of historic villages to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway, a mega-project started the year I was born. One of the areas flooded was Crysler’s Farm, the site of one of the key battles of the War of 1812.
Other things happened in 1954 that have particular significance today. The first oil from Alberta was moved eastward in a pipeline — little would people know how huge and controversial that oil production would become.
Upon reflection, the Canada I was born into has changed immeasurably in my lifetime. While there are — and one suspects always will be tensions — between English and French and between east and west, there seems now to be a certain serenity to that relationship.
I’ve done my bit for national unity by marrying a wonderful québécoise and raising two effortlessly bilingual children.
The kid that took his first breaths in that rugged, rude and remote northern town, which remains fond in my memory, now feels quite at home in the elegant, historic capital of French Canada.
Happy birthday to me.
Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.