Surprising Canada

By William Markiewicz

When I came to Canada I jotted down this bunch of impressions, intending to send it to a European agency in France or in Spain, which I planned to visit shortly. A change of circumstances caused me to cancel my visit to Europe. Still, this article appeared in Spanish in "Latino" a Toronto Spanish weekly which no longer exists. The editor judged that this material would also interest readers in Canada. Today, it's part of nostalgia.

The French say, "To go away is to die a little." We can complete this thought by: "to arrive is like a rebirth." I transmit then, the impressions of a newcomer over twenty years ago, agog at the sights of the exotic North American world. The reader has to take into consideration that many things which are taken for granted everywhere today, were hardly thought about then in Europe. In those days Europe itself wasn't equal everywhere. There were more and less progressive areas; in France I saw Portuguese immigrants-workers looking with amazement at women who smoked on the street. As a new immigrant in Canada I was in certain areas "progressive," in others "regressive." So I had a long road to go.


As Canada is a country still in search of itself and its loyalty toward the Commonwealth is an expression of self-defence in the face of U.S. cultural and economic pressure, I will not try to define the indefinable Canadian identity. Instead I want to present some facts that could interest the overseas reader.

What immediately strikes the newcomer is the atmosphere of power and opulence so characteristic of the North American continent. Canada, however, does not have the counterpart -- the slums so visible in many US cities. It does have well-developed social assistance programs.

Canada is a country of paradoxes: a high degree of inflation and unemployment, crowded cities, immense material wealth, and simultaneously, huge empty territories. In the cities, the labour market is saturated mainly because, like everywhere else, technology has created a balance between supply and demand. Many simply do not look for work, which is not very important anyway as not much work is available. In a free country no one can push people toward the huge desolate areas that could be settled. Canada functions very well in the spirit of freedom, say the Anglo-Saxons who lead the Canadian mosaic, and the government takes care of the unemployed. At the same time, a well-organized police force watches constantly so that nobody uses the excess of free time anti-socially. Canadian cities are among the few on this continent where a person can walk in relative safety at night. "Do whatever you want as long as you don't disturb others," is the very Anglo-Saxon leitmotif.

The common form of social help is government aid for collective or individual projects, called a "grant." Collective projects have priority as they create jobs. Various projects are submitted -- some of rather unusual character. I will describe some which underline the paradoxical aspect of the new continent.

One sect calling itself "Satanists", applied for and received a grant. With this money they published literature explaining their doctrine and also had imposing black velvet capes lined in red made for themselves. Thus, one day at the corner of Bloor and Yonge (the longest street in the world) appeared young men and women dressed a la Dracula. They tried to convert passersby to their doctrine. This sect had a short public life. Probably the grant was exhausted and they did not receive another. "One is enough," say the authorities.

In principle, the grants serve those projects which can sustain their own existence after the initial help.

Another curious example of Canadian liberalism: There is a small United church building which "Lovers of Old Toronto" saved from the developers. It stands now, with its small courtyard, within an immense newly built commercial centre. One day when I was in the neighbourhood, savouring the contrast between the small and romantic and the new and powerful, I suddenly perceived an appetizing aroma coming from the parish house. I looked inside and saw a large group of young people engaged in lively conversation, some eating, some distributing dishes. They invited me to eat and continued their conversation without paying attention to me. The ambience was somehow strange but I couldn't pinpoint what it was and asked the neighbours what occasion they were celebrating. They answered in the most natural way that it was a friendly gathering of young Christian homosexuals. I noticed a few ministers, probably also homosexuals and among them, an attractive woman also dressed like a minister. Her features drew my attention; they seemed almost carved in stone and she had a steely regard, intense and intelligent. She was a sacerdote from the Christian Lesbians Group who had come to discuss their common problems with their masculine colleagues. It doesn't have to be mentioned that these groups received generous grants. Unlike the Satanists they do not tend to disappear and they do provide various social services to their own groups.

What is the philosophy behind this freedom and help accorded to almost everybody? Anglo-Saxons are very pragmatic and when they have the upper hand they fear nothing and nobody. The politicians reason that "we live in a pluralistic society and we cannot throw the marginals into the sea. So they may do what pleases them as long as they don't disturb others." Canadian leaders in general and Anglo-Saxons in particular know from experience that all extremes and eccentricities remain the lot of a minority. And this is the key to successful leadership of a society so diversified and full of paradoxes.

The same liberal attitude is applied to the cosmopolitan mosaic that is Canadian society. Official policy recognizes so-called multiculturalism and supports groups wishing to maintain their heritage, with grants. Anglo-Saxons in general do not feel too much sympathy for multiculturalism; many even consider it harmful to national unity. But for many others, multiculturalism is a necessary way to sooth nostalgia and ease adaptation. Thus politicians keep it under control with grants and expect votes in exchange.

A glimpse of the United Church: it is a Protestant institution that practices an extreme ecumenicism and takes practically everybody under its wing. in this way one encounters there not only homosexuals, but even a group that does not believe in God and considers itself Christian! The chapel I visited looked architecturally like any other, but the cross was not in the central place. It was placed together with other religious symbols -- Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish; the reverse "hippie" cross is also included. The United Church is active in many fields; social, political, cultural, artistic; they offer the interiors of their churches to many artists and theatrical youth groups, which, with the help of grants, perform for the public. The repertory is frequently unconventional in character and not very religious, but always performed with real enthusiasm and talent.

Anglo-Saxons love sects. Gurus of various calibers come from India and other places to North America where they find an unlimited number of followers. The authentic East Indians generally keep their distance from those messengers of old or revised creeds and westernize willingly and successfully. Meanwhile many bored North Americans "orientalize." Blond-bearded young men in turbans, or dressed yogi-style, and young women in saris are often seen on the streets. One of the sects, Hare Krishna, performed ritualistic songs and dances on the street while some East Asian witnesses had a good laugh. They are not seen so much any more. Maybe the grants ran out -- if they happened to get one -- or perhaps they simply went out of fashion. As the Anglo-Saxons know, eccentricity sooner or later wears out.

A few words about universities: the University of Toronto campus is situated downtown and it is the biggest in the British Commonwealth. Another one, York University, is on the periphery. Both are beautiful and give an impression of wealth and power, as does all of North America.

Canadian architecture is gigantic. Cyclopean, institutional buildings seem always to be huge monolithic masses expressing the austere Canadian character. The interiors are palatial, provided with all technological comforts. At York University, though smaller than the University of Toronto, the luxury struck me, as a newcomer, as being almost surrealistic. In this decor, some students and even professors were so informal in appearance that they were almost living banners for non-conformism: long hair and beards, dressed any which way, sitting or standing or lying everywhere during classes. Transvestism and drugs flourished freely. Today the winds of conservatism are blowing at the universities. Clearly, everybody is tired of the excess.

Art for North Americans is, first of all, an expression of vitality or experimentation. Everything else, whether done yesterday or 200 years ago, is old fashioned. As a result, classification of art work by time and style of influence is not as respected as in Europe. The past is the past, all mixed together. The same casualness is applied in radio broadcasting. One program may contain, without warning, classical, modern, jazz or folk music. The newcomers from Europe have to overcome their conditioned sensitivity -- or turn off the radio.

A few words about CARAVAN: it's a multicultural festival lasting one week. Each ethnic group forms one or more pavilions in which it showcases its cultural heritage for the public. The government helps support this rewarding initiative with generous grants. The public buys "passports." At the door a "visa" is stamped. Inside, shows can be seen and food and souvenirs can be purchased. Caravan is indisputably a learning experience about the world panorama represented in the Canadian mosaic.

In this anonymous, soulless, dehumanizing big city atmosphere, happiness or sorrow is an individual responsibility. If one is alone, loneliness may be fatal. Make an effort and the gates will open, but remain passive, and no one will try to find you. Many don't understand the tension that tries even the strongest nerves; there are many suicides and psychic breakdowns. Solitude is very dangerous in North America because of the lack of historical, cultural, and aesthetic atmosphere that in older countries may serve as an antidote. Observing a solitary person at night on the street, one may often see some oddity. Either this person will talk to himself, gesticulate, or both at once. An immigrant can save himself by going back for awhile to the old country. On his return to Canada he will find he has been immunized and can better face his problems.

As one Canadian said, "Canada is like a Christmas cake -- some candied fruits and some nuts." No comment.

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