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Day 1: Across Canada with John Stackhouse

Saturday, August 5, 2000

Saint John, New Brunswick -- The shores where my ancestors landed, after they were turned away as undesirable boat people, are brimming again with foreign dreams and strange accents.

In Canada's first city, the place of Loyalist grit and Irving money, there are Romanian database managers, new waves of French Canadians coming south for prosperity and a team of Russian software programmers who play beach volleyball outside Market Square.

There's also unemployment, to be sure, and the bitterness that comes with decades of decline. A closed sugar refinery. Idle shipyards. An empty port. And the perennial exodus of bright young minds, not to Upper Canada or the New West, but further south, reversing the journey my ancestors, my great-great-grandfather and his brother, Joseph and Robert Stackhouse, took in 1783 from New York City on one of the last refugee boats to escape the American Revolution.

This is the Canada I have set out to see, a country defined (and often cursed) by history, and now challenged (and often divided) by new forces we scarcely understand -- just as the Stackhouse brothers, freshly discharged from the New Jersey Volunteers, were when a mob of refugees already on the New Brunswick shore scared away their ship. The 10,000 refugees already on land, like so many Canadians still, felt there was no room for more, not when flour was running low and a hapless British administrator had just distributed moth-eaten blankets for the winter. But the tenacious Volunteers prevailed, turning ship and entering what is now Canada on another shore, across the harbour.

For the next month, I have been assigned to travel across Canada to find out how our country is again changing, in ways and in places that may not make the nightly news but, like the Blanket Affair of 1783, have their own lasting impact.

When I last crossed Canada, in 1986, by train (another age), regionalism still united and divided the nation. Now the country is being shaped by forces beyond our borders. Our table talk revolves around American prosperity, not regional parity. The brain drain, not national standards. Cultural erosion, not bicultural vision.

I chose to start my journey in Saint John because this is where so many of those tensions are quietly raging. This was Canada's first city, incorporated in 1785, long before the nation was born and then became an urban country. This is also where some of the fundamental challenges to Canada lie, to be bilingual in a multicultural world, to be competitive in a region known for decline, to constantly change in a place that cherishes loyalty and order.

When I arrived in Saint John this week, such change was as difficult to see as the remains of old Fort Howe in a fog that swallowed the Fundy coast. Up on Mount Pleasant hill, the Irving estate, my first stop, continues to epitomize old Canadian contentedness -- supported as it is by a $6.2-billion fortune built on those very Canadian business ideals of extraction, monopoly and secrecy.

Down the way, on the lower west side, where the Stackhouse brothers were given plots of land as compensation for a Pennsylvania farm that was confiscated by American Patriots, there are equally few signs of a new Canada. Jobs and families have been leaving the west side for years, with the only new commerce coming in the form of a Tim Hortons.

But across the toll bridge, there are new arrivals every day, from $1,500-a-week techies to $10-an-hour telephone salespeople who come to Saint John -- and Moncton and Fredericton -- to pester people in other countries and across the street, in English and French, to take a vacation, buy a car or sign up for a newspaper. They are the call-centre economy, and in the evenings they play beach volleyball on the spot where my ancestors helped build a shipyard, once one of the world's finest.

Declines and ascents. Deaths and quiet rebirths. The tensions and transformations, and the continuing voyage that shaped an old Canada are still shaping us anew.

John Stackhouse's Notes from the Road will appear daily in The Globe and Mail, and on, until the Labour Day weekend. His conclusions will be published in September.

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