Contemplating Canada


Back in August 1988, then presidential nominee George H. W. Bush called for a ‘kinder, gentler,’ America.

“Wait a minute,” said those of us living north of the border. “That’s us. It’s Canada.”

I remembered Bush’s catchphrase when I crossed the border and immediately felt a subtle shift in culture that actually runs quite deep.

Canada is larger than the United States in land mass but with a tenth of the population – which is roughly the size of California’s. The country shares the way of life and values of the United States from a global perspective, but it ranks higher on several quality of life indexes.  An attitude of decency, tolerance and humanity is palpable in Canada in a way it is not in the United States. (I have trouble  imagining a bunch of Canadians blocking buses and yelling at frightened Central American children to go home.)

Taxes are higher here, but most Canadians feel they get something from their government in return, not the least of which is health care – however imperfect the system. For the first time in history, the Canadian middle class is doing better financially than its counterpart south of the border – despite the taxes. And the education system is turning out better-prepared students.

Sure, there is still much to complain about and much to work toward in Canada. And its Progressive Conservative prime minister (who some call the “Crime Minister”) idolizes the American ethic. But, the baseline for how things are here is, by international standards, enviable.

Here are few recollections from recent weeks:

                                                                             On Diversity:

Prom at another high school, nearby

Hundreds of people are crammed into a hot auditorium at Northview Heights Secondary School in a Toronto suburb, where my niece is graduating from public high school. Even in a cosmopolitan city where scanning faces of subway riders is like a taking a trip around the globe, the immigrant character of the families gathered for commencement at this magnet school is nothing short of striking.

The standing-room-only crowd includes people from countless countries and regions: China, India, Philippines, Russia, Latin America, the Middle East; the hopes of parents the world over are represented in this hall.   The names of the highest achievers, those who have won the top scholarhips, include Satyam Choudhouri, Arthur Wang, Yael Kostrinsky, Nuri Kim and Zabihullah Mohammad Hassan.  There are only a handful of names in the program such as Barker, Campbell, Williams and Wright. The vast majority are Asian, African, Middle Eastern or Eastern European. I read Castro, Gorbacheva, Chung, Fathi, Mistry, Nguyen, Abbas, Renzetti and Pham.  And there are dozens more, even more exotic. All in the same class.

On hand to address the grads are elected representatives from the school district, the local municipality, the provincial government and even the federal parliament. In an excruciatingly long ceremony, each politician praises the school as a model of Canadian values and Toronto’s success.

“How many people here were not born in Canada?” calls out Mark Adler, the Member of Parliament for the school’s riding, York Centre.

About 90 percent of those in the crowd raise their hands. I’m astonished. As the audience rises to sing ‘O Canada’, hardly anyone joins in. It’s not that they don’t want to. They just don’t have it memorized.

“Wow,” I whisper to my sister. “Hardly anybody knows the words.”

Both of us raise our voices and sing out that much louder – for them as well as for us.


On Nature:

Walking Gunter along the dirt road near our family cottage, I stop to speak to a young woman who slowed her dark hatchback and rolled down the window.
“I have a very large snapping turtle in the back seat and I need to release her into the lake,” she says to me, clearly frustrated. “I don’t want trespass on private property. But the public boat ramp isn’t a good spot.”Her name is Steph she has a dog massage business as well as working at an animal rescue clinic in Peterborough, a town an hour south of here, not far from where rock star Neil Young grew up.“Why didn’t you return the turtle closer to Peterborough,” I ask.

“There are strict regulations. She has to be released where she came from, which is here. She was picked up on this road about a year ago.”

“You can put her in at our place,” I say, directing the animal rescue worker to our gravel road. “Put her in just to the right of the dock.”

On her drive out again 10 minutes later, Steph tells me “our” turtle is about 30 years old and has lived in our lake her whole life. Although the animal has a number painted on her back I likely won’t get a glimpse of her  because she has already laid her eggs and so won’t come up on land nor stay near the shore. I think sheepishly back to my childhood, when my brother, sister and I caught a turtle in a pail and our grandmother painted an M on its shell in silver nail polish so we would recognize it if we ever saw it again after letting it go.

We never saw “M” again.  And I haven’t seen Steph’s turtle either – perhaps M’s daughter or granddaughter? But two weeks later, I got the following from Steph after I emailed her to ask if there was a photo of the turtle or if  it had been given a name:

All the turtles we admit at the Kawartha Turtle Trauma Centre are given ID numbers.  We see hundreds come in over the spring/summer season and operate as a hospital and rehabilitation facility.  The majority of them have been hit by cars as they cross the busy roads to find proper sites to lay their eggs.  I’m sorry I don’t have a name for you, but she was a success story just the same.  Snappers are a threatened species, and 7 out of 8 Ontario turtle species are on the list of concern when it comes to their numbers.  You did a great thing letting her go from your property.  She now has many years ahead of her and will go on to help preserve her species.”

My grandfather bought this piece of lake shore in 1947.  We are on the fourth Morris generation to enjoy it and expect that to continue for another few generations. Surely M’s snapping turtle ancestors were here long before my grandfather. Let’s hope her descendants continue to thrive – alongside  my future grandchildren.


On Media:

In cottage country, radio stations have names like MOOSE-FM, CANOE-FM, THE WOLF, and THE DOCK and THE LAKE.  (They play Alanis Morissette  about once an hour. And songs like the Tragically Hip’s “Bobcaygeon,” named for a town about 25 minutes from our cottage.

The counterpart to NPR is CBC. Below is an episode of an oddball CBC radio program I discovered this summer called “This is That”. Deadpan humor is a Canadian specialty. If you can spare 27 minutes, check it out. It oozes a quintessential Canadian-ness.

Here are a couple of articles that point to a  ‘kinder, gentler’ approach:

The conservative Canadian government cracked down on refugee claimants, but the courts and individual Canadians stepped in to do the right thing:

A small business that puts its employees before profits:


GOON DOG’S VIEW:  Oh yeah. I can really get into this place – particularly the cottage. It’s like a northern equivalent of the Upper Ojai Valley.  Fresh air, lots of wilderness. Chipmunks and tree squirrels to chase instead of gophers and ground squirrels. No leash. No little plastic bag cleaning up after me.  A country road to walk on and a trail through the woods.

The main difference of course is: Water! Tons of water.  We saw more rain here in three weeks than we saw in SoCal in three years.  They say Canada has 20 percent of all the world’s fresh water. I love to wade in our little lake. And to chase froggies along the shoreline. I had to wear a life jacket in the beginning and Ma got me into the kayak twice. But my incessant sniffing near the shoreline and every island made her nervous that  I would jump out and chase a beaver or a loon. So now she goes paddling without me. I no longer swim after her in the water. I’m quite used to this place and relaxed on shore.

I sometimes sit for a whole hour on the deck starting at the birds attracted to the bird feeder. One night I could not sleep. I chased a mouse around the kitchen until Ma finally shut the mouse into a bedroom and shut me into another. Then there was the day we looked up and saw a chipmunk eating my kibble. How on earth he got in the house is anybody’s guess. Well, it was me to the rescue – so to speak – as I chased that rodent as fast as I could. Luckly, Ma got us both into the screened in porch which prevented a chase through the entire porch. The chipmunk was racing up and down the screened windows and actually flew across the room a few times with me not far behind. Finally it ran right out the door and I continued to chase until I lost it. “Oh, be still my beating heart!”

We’ve also been to Toronto a few times. That’s another story. I spent a couple of hours on the patio at the Second Cup coffee shop on the Danforth, watching the people go by. So many people. So many smells. Kinda reminded me of Santa Fe, but not as spicy. Still, I’d rather take the countryside (read: the no-leash-side) over the city any day.  Just a few more days before we do the cross continent thing all over again. Stay tuned for a different route home.


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