I’m taking a moment here to say something that should be said more often:
I love the province of Ontario. It’s a huge, beautiful, swath of widely varied land, full of rocks and trees and water and great highways and train tracks that seem to run to the end of the earth. It’s full of charming little towns, rambling farms, sprawling northern outposts, prosperous suburbs and dynamic cities full of culture and life. Ontario has wonderful wildlife, great parks, interesting people, a robust economy and the Great Lakes. It’s a camper’s paradise, an art-lover’s dream and a robber baron’s playground all at the same time. It’s the land of the silver birch and the home of the beaver. It’s my home and native land.
Sound familiar? You bet. That’s because everything I’ve just said about Ontario is a tried and true cliche about Canada! And that points to a very complex and intriguing issue: the overlap between what’s “Canadian,” and what’s Ontarian.
Ontario is the only province in this country that could never separate. If all the other provinces were to go their own ways, we Ontarians wouldn’t call the remainder Ontario. We’d call it Canada. That’s the way it is here. We actually see the nation stretching from sea to sea to sea and we call the whole thing home.
Now, that’s a problem some of the time. It’s a bad habit to show up in Newfoundland from Toronto, look around and go “God, isn’t Canada great?” Because while that’s true, it’s not fairly recognizing the regional reality: in Newfoundland, Newfoundland comes first, and it would be a lot more respectful at that point to say “Isn’t Newfoundland great?” like a tourist, rather than a co-author of its greatness. Whether it’s in Quebec, Alberta, or the North, it’s a truism that Ontarians who wander around the country as if they own the place annoy everyone.
Yet it’s an understandable thing to do, because, while every region has sacrificed something (in some cases, perhaps too much) for the sake of Confederation, Ontario, it seems to me, is unique in having given over its provincial identity for the national one. And the average Ontarian is not offended if a Newfoundlander shows up at Niagara Falls, and says “God, isn’t Canada great?” We’re not looking for regional kudos here. We generally believe (I do, anyway) that the whole thing belongs to everyone, however awkwardly the goods and access may be distributed. That’s our inheritance from the British Commonwealth, I suspect.
This fact cuts both ways: on the one hand, we suffer from insufficient regional identity syndrome, meaning we fail to appreciate (or care for) our own vast backyard appropriately and shoulder instead the overly grand aspirations of a nation; on the other hand, having subsumed our provincial vision, we paint Canada to look like Ontario. Mac jackets, maple syrup, and even the ubiquitous “eh” are rare, for example, on Vancouver Island. But they are treated as “national” symbols, despite the fact that they are regional. Like a two-four of beer. Like Tim Horton’s. Like that bloody great tower in the downtown core here…
I’m a proud Canadian. But I’m also a skeptical Canadian. I’m not sure our nation can work, actually. It’s a pretty bold vision. It’s awfully big for the number of inhabitants we’ve got here, and especially for the huge variety of peoples and places it’s meant to encompass. I’ve travelled the country for my whole life and I still don’t know it, much as I may moon about it in words and music. Still less do I understand it.
But I suspect that the success of this nation lies not in the breadth of its vision, but in the ability to make it work uniquely in its smallest constituent parts. Getting to know my neighbourhood and my community and, to a small extent, my city has taught me this. And I find myself wanting to learn from PEI and Saskatchewan and the Yukon, to focus on the pragmatics of what’s around me FIRST rather than on the scope of the national vision.
I’ve said it before: Canada’s too big a concept to be a country. It’s a set of beliefs, really. More like a religion. Just like religion, it can inform what we do and lend value and spine to our actions as individuals. But meanwhile we are citizens of what’s around us.
So like the old song says, “Gee ma, I wanna go, back to Ontario. Gee ma, I wanna go home!”
And here I am. Hey, look …. it’s mine to discover!