My friend, Carmin, he’s pretty good with a camera. The man, I tell you, has one helluva eye.
Given that we’ve known each other since the days of dinky toys and jet ice cream bars, we have, over the years, embarked on a number of pursuits. Some worthwhile; others perhaps of the foolhardy kind.
Long story short, we decided to, once again, collaborate on a trial project. The goal being to put words and images together.
Here’s our first attempt. Thought I’d share it with you.
I can’t remember who it was, Maria maybe, that raised the question.
We were here, mere steps from Parliament Hill, surrounded by a sea of humanity, a never-ending crowd—young, old and in between—almost everyone dressed in red, or white, almost all of them expectant, celebrating, waiting for the Canada Day festivities to begin. And Maria poses the question.
“What makes us Canadian?”
Actually it wasn’t Maria asking the question. She was just relaying it. Explaining how that very question was asked of her by a puzzled European, one who couldn’t quite understand the mix and makeup of Canada, and of Canadians.
“How are you a Canadian?” This man from Italy asked her, “What national trait defines you?”
And we stood there, listening. And we shrugged. Then we offered the stereotypical reply, the one that pointedly maps out who are by explaining who we’re not. “We’re not like Americans are,” Someone suggested.
Yes that much is true, we’re not like them. We don’t broadcast our nationality, we don’t wear it on our sleeve (except maybe during Olympics hockey). No, no, we’re quieter than our neighbours to the south, more subdued. And yeah, yeah, we’re polite. And contrite. Painfully so. Like that time, visiting a friend, and I absentmindedly walk into his coffee table, bashing my shin. And my friend says, “Oh, sorry!” Sure, because it’s his fault I wasn’t paying attention. It’s his fault the coffee table was in my way, just a few inches from his sofa.
But you know what? Whatever we are, whatever it is that defines us, we are all of us out here, in Ottawa, in the tens of thousands; all of us out here, celebrating Canada’s 149th birthday.
The noon hour approaches and the crowd builds, more and more of us—more and more of these ill-understood and ill-defined Canadians—making our way to Parliament Hill, and then standing patiently, joking, chatting. And waiting.
Taking it all in, I’m reminded of something. Star Trek. The USS Enterprise and its crew. Romulans and Vulcans and Humans (of course). They all look so different, they all sound so different. And they all pull together, work together, in order to… well, you know how it goes. You know what it is that Captain Kirk (played by a Canadian) says at the start of every episode.
A buzz builds, a cheer goes up, flags wave more enthusiastically. Our fresh-faced PM, Trudeau fils, has arrived. He’s a people person this Trudeau. He’s got the common touch. Watching the large monitors, I can see it. People lean forward, hoping to get a glimpse, they hold out their hands, hoping to shake his. People adore him, this Justin Trudeau. And they love Sophie, his self-made and elegant wife.
I glance at the crowd. It’s a feel-good moment. All these people, of all stripes, lined as far as I can see, stretching east and west along Wellington Street, spreading south all the way down la Rue Metcalfe.
And I brew about that European. Maybe he had it wrong. Maybe it’s our diversity, rather than our cultural uniformity, that marks us as Canadians. Maybe we’re just like the USS Enterprise. We all look different? We all sound different? Who cares? Different is good. Different is dramatic. Because… who wants to eat vanilla ice cream every day?
So, we make it work. We make the nation and the nation makes us. Sometimes the work comes easily. Sometimes not so much.
There’s more electricity in the air. Something’s happening. I glance left, then right. A finger points up, toward the sky. I’m surprised to see the finger is mine. Excitedly pointing at the smoke trails, heading toward us. The Snowbirds, coming in fast.
They swoop in from the east, nine of them, quietly, at first. They’re so close, how do they fly so bloody close? One plane looks different, out of proportion. Only when they’re overhead, no longer quiet, I see it’s a CF18. It’s so much larger, so much more menacing, than those sleek, almost-dainty Canadair jets used by the Snowbirds. And it’s chasing them down, right on their tail, like the venomous hornet that it is, imposing its presence on those little planes that are, (sing it) turning into butterflies above our nation.
With a loud roar, they disappear, off to our left. But we’re not fooled, we watch the skies. We know they’ll be back.
And so they are, soaring in overhead. The Hornet’s absent now–hunting other prey?–and the Snowbirds make a long lazy arc right in front of us. Glorious, oh so glorious.
Oh look! The Governor General is here! He arrives in style, in a horse-drawn carriage. And then an elder appears. He performs an Indigenous, spiritual ceremony—a smudging—that sees the PM and other invited dignitaries take part in a purifying, cleansing smoke bath. And my mind drifts back on that one time I was fortunate enough to experience the very same thing. A smudging is a truly touching ceremony.
And then a cannon fires, frightening the crowd. A salute! Twenty-one guns? I don’t know, but there were many. And then the anthem is sung. And once again the crowd roars. And, one more time, the Snowbirds swoop in. They arrive from over the Peace Tower this time, and then up, straight up, into the sky. And then they break off, each one falling away, backward, as though gravity told them, no more.
Then they hightail it out of there, screaming across the sky, disappearing for good.
Everyone’s thrilled. Everyone’s happy. Everyone, in their own way, is having a good time.
And that European’s question stays with me still. Look it, I finally decide, maybe there’s no need to define a Canadian. Maybe there’s no need to mandate what makes a Canadian a Canadian. Because, I decide, looking out at the throng on Parliament Hill, maybe it actually is—like so many, including Trudeau père, had always suggested—maybe it is a mosaic thing. Maybe there’s a piece of Canada inside each of us. And inside each of us, that piece is just a little bit different. Maybe we all interpret that piece differently, we all perceive it in our own unique way.
And when we come together, on a day like this, we all make our contribution, join our unique piece to everyone else’s. And together, in our own way, we make a nation.
Is that how it all works? Who knows? It’s good enough for me though.
And besides, it’s Canada Day, it’s sunny, and it’s hot.
“C’mon,” Someone suggests, “Let’s go get a beer.”