I am not a military veteran but I do have a Remembrance Day story. It was on this day in 1966 that I came to Vancouver from Dublin, Ireland. Such a date you never forget. I was 23 years old. This past month, I turned 73. Time to pause and reflect.
I have never regretted the move. I became a Canadian citizen as soon as I was eligible. A parent tells an adopted child: “You are special because we chose you.” Canada is special because I chose it.
It was not a difficult choice. The other English-speaking alternatives might have been the United States, South Africa or Australia. No thanks. Canada was the only option.
I arrived in Vancouver – with my fellow traveller Michael Murphy – in the middle of rainy Grey Cup week. The Ottawa Roughriders versus the Saskatchewan Rough Riders. What strange names for football teams. I had grown up with Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur and Shamrock Rovers. It would take a while before I got used to Edmonton Eskimos and Winnipeg Blue Bombers.
There were other things to get used to. A Vancouver mayor whimsically referred to in the press as Tom Terrific. A federal Opposition leader immortalized in satirical song as “Dief the Chief.” Pubs called “beverage rooms” with separate entrances for men and “ladies with escorts.”
New words entered my vocabulary. Landed immigrant. Permafrost. Tuque. Block heater. Separate school. Weather office. Some of the wittiest were typed by a Vancouver Province columnist named Eric Nicol. “British Columbia,” he wrote, “is a large body of land entirely surrounded by envy.” I knew what he meant when I heard a visiting guest on Jack Webster’s radio program cynically refer to Vancouver as “Winnipeg with mountains.” The rest of the country is jealous, cackled Webster.
Canada had an inferiority complex. Vancouverites kept telling me how much better it was here than in the United States. I knew they were right. But I wondered why they always sounded as if trying to convince themselves.
Things changed in 1967. Canada celebrated its 100th birthday. The world came to Expo Montreal to toast us. For 75 cents I bought the sheet music to the Bobby Gimby song, “Ca-na-da.” The words were daft (four little, five little, six little provinces) but I learned them anyhow. I sang them while sitting with two Canadian friends – one a francophone from Pointe-aux-Trembles – on a hill overlooking Dawson City. Merrily we roll along, together all the way. It seemed inconceivable then that Quebec separatism could ever threaten Canadian unity.
I played piano in the Gaslight Follies show at the Palace Grand Theatre in Dawson. That’s how I made my living. After the show every night I repaired to the bar of the Westminster Hotel and played piano until closing time. Members of the Dawson Indian Band came to the bar and merrily they sang along – in their native Han – while I banged out a tune called “Squaws Along the Yukon.” Nobody seemed concerned that the song reinforced a racial stereotype.
Pierre Trudeau became prime minister. I wrote a song called “Pierre the Kissing PM,” recorded it at a radio station in Sudbury, and was surprised and pleased to hear it played on radio stations throughout Ontario and Atlantic Canada.
Politicians were an easy mark for satire. I wrote another parody, to the tune of the popular Trinidadian calypso song “Marianne,” about Lyndon Johnson. All night, all day, LBJ. He is the swingin’ leader of the USA. One night I was doing a gig at the Skylon Tower in Niagara Falls, Ontario. A group of Americans in the audience laughed loudly when I sang about Trudeau and the Queen. They turned serious, however, when I sang about LBJ. “You shouldn’t come here and make fun of our president,” they warned. I pointed to the Canadian flag behind the bar. “I think you’ve forgotten what country you’re in,” I said.
The country seemed to be united by song. Oscar Brand’s “Something to Sing About” was one of my favourites. It still is; a stirring patriotic ballad with resonant echoes for any Canadian who ever sat around a campfire strumming a guitar. From the Vancouver Island to the Alberta highland, cross the prairie, the Lakes, to Ontario`s towers.
I travelled back and forth across this great land between 1966 and 1968. Everyone I met seemed to know the words to “Alouette” and “Four Strong Winds.” Then I left the music business and became a journalist. I settled in Calgary in 1974, when I received a job offer from the Herald that I could not refuse.
In November 1991, I mentioned to a Herald editor that I was celebrating my 25th anniversary in Canada. She suggested I write a column about it. We were four years away from our second national referendum on Quebec sovereignty, and I was concerned.
“My adopted country is a house divided,” I wrote. “Nobody sings ‘Ca-na-da’ any more. Anglophone bigots boo at hockey games when the national anthem is sung in French. Lindros refuses to play for the Nordiques, and a francophone Montreal journalist says he would ‘happily reinvent the Holocaust’ just for Mordecai Richler.”
“Canada what happened?” I wondered. “What happened to the unifying spirit of Expo 67? To the promise of great things to come? To the great surge of national pride that followed Paul Henderson’s last-minute winning goal in the 1972 Canada-Soviet hockey series?”
I noted that we used to be the envy of other nations because we had a stable democracy, money in the bank, and peace in the family. We wore sensible shoes, flossed after every meal, and were in bed by 11:00 PM. “Maybe that made us boring but, hell, we were happy.”
“Now,” I continued, “we have a prime minister (Mulroney) who plays footsy with the United Nations while Quebec separatists try to negotiate the kind of political disintegration that occurs elsewhere to the accompaniment of drums and guns. How did we get into this mess? Were we fooling ourselves when we thought the Canada-Quebec marriage was working? We have many questions. Nobody offers answers.”
I thought an artist might have the answers. What Canada needed was not more speeches from politicians, but a unifying song for the 21st century. Where was Bobby Gimby when we needed him?
Canada voted in 1995 to say no to Quebec independence. Gimby died three years later. We now have peace in the family once more. We no longer need a unifying song.
But we do need to remind ourselves occasionally just how lucky we are to live in a country where we resolve our political problems by gathering around a table and trying to find middle ground. We don’t shout xenophobic insults, we don’t employ bullying tactics, and we don’t reach for our guns whenever we want to fix things.
I feel blessed to have spent more than two-thirds of my life in Canada. This country gave me a lovely wife, a beautiful daughter, many new friends, and a rewarding career as a writer of stories. Who could ask for anything more?Click here for reuse options!
Copyright 2016 Brian Brennan - Writer