Divided we stand
Canada, as we know it, is dying. A month spent hitchhiking
from sea to sea leaves our writer certain that the nation is
embroiled in change that will either kill it or make it stronger
Saturday, September 9, 2000
Canada is a land of towering trees and mighty rivers, of courageous and humble people with resilient . . .
No, no, no.
Canada is a land in crisis, with dwindling resources and people who have ceded their national identity to a bigger, southern . . .
Canada is a land of opportunities new and old, of open minds, charitable hearts and forgiving . . .
Canada is a little of each of these, I discovered as I hitchhiked across the country this summer. It is a vast and gorgeous country, the most beautiful probably in the world.
We are good people, too, with more humility than the Americans, more decency than most Europeans and broader minds than most Asians. And for all our whining -- and, oh, can we whine -- we still enjoy one of the world's great societies in which people, for the most part, can speak without fear, play without boundaries and grow without consequence.
But all this is changing, and changing in ways few Canadians may recognize. In the early days of the 21st century, a new Canada is emerging -- more correctly, an old Canada is re-emerging -- as a nation deeply divided.
These are not the divisions I expected to find when I set out on a 9,000-kilometre trek early last month. These are not the divisions between rich and poor, English and French, East and West we seem to read about every day.
Rather, Canada is being divided again by the fissures of a century ago -- by an inexorable pull from the United States that has recreated a north-south continent, by an urban commercialism that is shredding and yet reknitting the small communities that make up Canada's oldest fabric, and by new technologies that may yet be our best hope as they infuse new life in remote areas and revive our cities with purpose.
These are divisions that could well end the country, but when I reached the West Coast last week, having crossed 10 provinces in close to 100 cars and trucks -- having listened to schoolteachers, farmers and fishermen, having spent hours with an estate agent in Saskatchewan, a drug dealer in Montreal, a couple of piano movers in Ontario and a Mormon family going to pick fruit in southern British Columbia -- I have to believe that these also are the divisions that can unite Canada.
Ultimately, this country is a nation of very distinct communities and regions. Each is moving in its own direction, with its own aspirations and fears, held back I found only by governments that rule by yesterday's standards.
Across the Maritimes, but also in Northern Ontario and in British Columbia, I heard tales of an unemployment-insurance system that continues to be abused and cheated and, more troublingly, is inhibiting the very communities it is meant to protect.
In Quebec, I heard repeatedly about the great legacy of language laws and cultural protection that was isolating an entire population, before the Internet and satellite technology ran right over them.
In B.C., as in the Maritimes, good old resource mismanagement -- central control and local greed -- was considered the greatest mistake this country has made.
And everywhere, I heard anger about native Canadians, not from alien city slickers, but from the hunters and fishermen who live by their side, know about the corruption of false native self-rule and see the paternalism of a central government trying to manage communities scattered across the world's second-largest country.
Fortunately, most of the Canadians I met, especially the young, have moved beyond these legacies. The ones I met are comfortable with their country's humble identity, and yet ambitious to live and work in a bigger world, one in which their Canada enjoys a sovereignty-association with the United States. They know they can have both -- autonomy and alliance -- and are afraid of neither.
Perhaps it was the summer sun. Perhaps it is the great prosperity of 2000, the seemingly endless good times that have a coal miner in Alberta earning $160,000 this year and a snow-crab fisherman in Newfoundland netting $70,000.
Whatever the cause, these were the Canadians I met along the road, people who for once were content with themselves. Even as their nation bubbles with discontent.
I set out to hitchhike across Canada because there is no better way to see a country and meet its people, to have long conversations (sometimes very long), to test public generosity and to overcome fears, within oneself and in others. The highway is also the place where so much of Canada, a nation built along the railway, now lives.
I started in Saint John because that was where my ancestors arrived in 1783, aboard a refugee boat from New York. Like so many other refugees over the next two centuries, they were initially chased away by local residents, themselves fresh off boats, who feared that there was no room for the newcomers.
In a way, I feared Canadian attitudes had not changed, that we are still too distrusting of strangers, too paranoid about random crime, too . . . well, American in our fears, and that only the capricious would pick up a hitchhiker.
But there are enough trusting people out there to make it from one coast to the other. All you need is time. I spent hours, long and sometimes aching hours, standing on roadsides, singing to myself, throwing stones, listening to weird sounds in the woods and slipping into the general psychosis that only long-distance hitchhikers and prisoners in solitary confinement can understand and then, when finally someone pulled over, having to snap into a happy conversation with a complete stranger.
I set out seeking evidence of how this country had expanded so bravely westward and north -- an axis essential to Canadian history. I assumed the nation was still on it, but soon discovered there is a new Canadian axis, one that runs north and south, both in body and mind.
Some of this is a brain drain, real and strong, that is a challenge to our collective future. But mostly it's a renewed confidence, and, sure, a convenience, that has Canada's many regions looking south more than east or west for opportunity.
This is the way it used to be, a retired salesman named Bruce Donald explained to me. He and his brother, Ian, who has been confined to a wheelchair for more than 20 years, live in their childhood home, a 155-year-old house on Saint John's run-down lower west side. (Across the road the Stackhouse home stood until 1967 when it gave way to an expressway.)
Back in the 1940s and 1950s, before federalism became such a potent word and Saint John was run into the ground, the city thrived and "there was a Boston boat every second day and a Boston train every day," Bruce recalled.
Every summer, he made several trips just to see Ted Williams and the Red Sox play.
That started to change when he moved to Toronto to find work, a stint that lasted two years. But now, half a century on, he sees his life again as fundamentally an East Coast one, and he drives regularly to Boston, to shop, see friends and seek medical treatment for his wife, who suffers from schizophrenia.
Bruce said the New Brunswick medical system is so poor that he would rather spend his retirement savings on private U.S. care. Universal health care, I was to discover, is something many Canadians are coming to see as a myth.
Across the foggy Saint John Harbour, in the revitalized downtown core, I would hear much more of this from a different generation, a group of high-tech workers, most of them attached to the booming call-centre industry, who were playing volleyball after work on an artificial beach. The vibrancy, the shouting, the Backstreet Boys songs pulsating in the background from a renovated marketplace -- this is the sort of scene that should give Canadians hope. I left feeling not so sure.
"We keep hearing there's no brain drain, but I know Rod and Cameron and Bruce and the other Rod, and they're all gone," said Curtis Baxter, who grew up all over Canada (his father was in the army), married a database manager and settled to perpetual comfort in a big-box suburb.
There's only one problem. He and his wife can't stop thinking about leaving.
Together, they gross about $130,000 -- in the States, it would be about $250,000 (U.S.). Of course, Curtis, 39, knows the tradeoffs they would have to make. He admitted to a strong resonance in the "I am Canadian" beer commercials.
He also doesn't want his two children to be educated like the narrow-minded Americans he meets on business trips to Silicon Valley. But he would like them to be educated. He and his wife recently put their 14-year-old son in a private school because there were not enough textbooks for everyone in the local public school, and so there was never any homework.
It's the sort of growing inequality you can find anywhere in Canada, but what can an ambitious and caring father do? Pay more taxes? Accept a lesser education for his son? Wiping his sweaty face with a towel, Curtis balked. "I'll plead apathy."
He knows the question is being answered anyway by every decision he makes. To send his son to private school, to think daily about tax rates, to hear about people like Bruce taking his wife to a Boston hospital is in no small measure shaping a new Canada.
As New Brunswick turns to Boston, and B.C. looks to Seattle, and Thunder Bay decides it stands a better chance of survival linked to Minneapolis than Toronto, Canada's regions may, paradoxically, strengthen and protect their unique character, which is, in turn, essential to the nation's.
While on the road, I listened to people describe how distinct the provinces are from each other -- especially when it comes to driving habits. Perhaps you have to stand on the roadside for 28 consecutive days in 10 provinces to appreciate this, but it's true: You really can pick out a Canadian at the wheel a kilometre away.
Everywhere I heard "401" used as a synonym for recklessness, because of the manic driving on Southern Ontario's Highway 401. The only drivers more aggressive are to be found in Quebec.
Actually, they can be found anywhere in Canada, as long as they have a Quebec plate. Driving north of Lake Superior, a middle-aged Montreal woman and her mother stuffed me in the back seat and took turns lipping off at local drivers for their infuriatingly slow speeds. "Come on, Sleeping Moses!" the older lady cursed before commanding her daughter, a manager with Bombardier: "Pass her, girl!"
In British Columbia, Albertans are ridiculed for their inability to handle mountain corners at any speed. In Alberta, with its 110km speed limit, law-abiding Saskatchewan drivers are mocked. For some reason, Prince Edward Islanders, who can cross their province in a morning, drive as if they have to get to Yukon by dinner.
It's in New Brunswick, calm and conservative New Brunswick, where the real slowpokes can be found. The limit is 90, and everyone seems to obey it. As my first ride out of Saint John told me when I said I was from Toronto: "Those drivers are crazy. They all go 130, 140 on the 401."
His digital speedometer was fixed at 89.
Despite its slow drivers, Atlantic Canada is in top gear economically, at least compared with the past. In Newfoundland and parts of Cape Breton, the crab and lobster harvests are fetching double the price of a year ago, which may be one reason the native people at Burnt Church are trying to catch as much as they can. PEI and coastal Nova Scotia have also become major international tourist destinations, and Newfoundland is catching up on that front too.
In the Maritimes cities, there's another transformation under way, nowhere more so than in Moncton. A city that was supposed to decline with the closing of the CN yards, it now fancies itself as Atlantic Canada's business capital.
Its call centres -- the big phone rooms where your 1-800 calls go and from where those annoying dinner-time marketing pitches are made -- have created about 10 jobs for every lost CN job. So on a balmy Friday night, after the intrusive Bay of Fundy tide has chased away the mosquitoes, Main Street of a city that was once very poor was clogged with sports cars, SUVs, souped-up roadsters and one stretch limousine.
Along several blocks of sidewalk cafés, every table was filled, while on a side street a local rock band played in an open-air concert. The next morning, when the stage was cleared to make way for a weekly farmers' market, the centre aisle stalls were occupied by women from Lebanon and Afghanistan, yet more new faces for the Maritimes.
It was an old-style federalism, a perpetuity of equalization payments, fish quotas, unemployment insurance and subsidies that amounted to regional welfare, that kept places like Moncton in relative poverty for so long.
Mayors and premiers waited for their monthly cheque from Ottawa so that they could go on a big booze-up of road and bridge construction projects and skills training programs that only shipped successive generations off to Toronto and beyond.
Now, private business, immigration and a new regionalism have Atlantic Canada in the ascendance.
A series of rides out of Moncton with people building the new Maritimes -- a blast-furnace worker, a civil engineer, a lobster-truck driver -- offered ample evidence to refute the claim that Atlantic Canada is full of deadbeats and slouches. Then I met Joe.
On an empty stretch of highway in eastern New Brunswick, near the Northumberland Strait, I was so desperate to get a ride across the bridge to PEI that I ignored my better judgment and hopped into the back of Joe's van -- the passenger seat being occupied by his girlfriend, Judy.
"I was doin' her pretty good last night, John," he said after introducing himself. His bloodshot eyes glimmered in the rear-view mirror. "I went to bed about the time I usually get up, so there's still some intoxicants in me, I think."
We had yet to reach the turnoff to Confederation Bridge when Joe, who makes a living stocking vending machines, reached behind Judy's seat, opened a small cooler and offered me a Guinness.
"It's a bit early for me," I said.
"Oh, yeah, you're right," Joe replied, noticing the dashboard clock. It was just past 11 a.m.
He opened the Guinness anyway, and then lit a joint, passing cars at 140 as Judy read a pocket novel and sipped a Tim Hortons coffee. In the back, I remained braced behind my knapsack, focusing on Joe's Celtic-music collection on the floor, rather than the oncoming traffic.
When Joe finally returned to his rightful lane, I made the mistake of requesting Kilt's cover of the Kiss classic I Was Made for Loving You.
Cranking it up, Joe again took to the passing lane, shouting, "Let's let her rip." He passed three cars on the two-lane approach road to the bridge before pulling in behind a van and reaching for another Guinness. "Are you sure you wouldn't like one, John?"
When the CD finished, Judy put down her book and told me she is a nurse in Moncton and wants to stay in the Maritimes. She recently turned down a $10,000 signing bonus offered by a Toronto hospital and a U.S. contract with a $1,500 (U.S.) bonus every three months. You can't drive to PEI for the weekend from Toronto or Phoenix, she said.
Besides, Joe added, taking over the conversation again. There are plenty of other ways to make money in the Maritimes.
On the 13-kilometre-long Confederation Bridge, with traffic stopped briefly for maintenance work, he lit another joint and explained. "Anyone can go to Toronto and buy a cloned marijuana plant and bring it back to Moncton. You can clear 100,000. Easy." He meant dollars per year, Canadian, tax-free.
Although Joe and Judy were headed to Charlottetown for a Saturday-night party, I decided to break a cardinal rule of hitchhiking -- never give up a good, long ride -- by announcing a change in destination. There was a tractor-pull under way in the next field, I pointed out to Joe. He was not interested, but shook my hand and offered me a Guinness for the road. I thanked him just the same.
Crapaud, home of the 20th annual PEI tractor pull, is the sort of small community I found only in the Maritimes, unaffected by recession, unknown to upheaval, a place with determined people who either have extraordinary resilience or live in a Green Gables fantasy. It's a bit of both, I discovered, with a whack of federal money on the side.
Crapaud is set on the island's backside, right on the Trans-Canada Highway as it follows the west coast from the Confederation Bridge to Charlottetown. There are rolling pastures and stately farms, and a fairy-tale sense of balance to the place, even with the $900-million bridge that brings a steady flow of traffic in summer.
"We're still islanders, even though there's a bridge," said Anna Stewart, the patrician president of the Crapaud Women's Institute, which runs the ice-cream stand at the tractor pull. "We have boundaries. You're constantly keeping those boundaries in the back of your mind. All island people, I think, are like that."
Since 1981, Crapaud has played host to the island's only major tractor pull for one simple reason: The Crapaud Exhibition Society won't allow any other community to do so. It's the sort of friendly elbowing that goes on in hockey rinks and small towns, and keeps communities like this thriving.
So essential is the tractor pull to Crapaud's summer that Anna's son, an engineer working in Ontario, had called nearly in tears because for the first time in years he couldn't be the emcee.
He'll be back, though, she assured me. "They all come back. The island draws them back. The island. The island. It's a very strong sense of community on PEI. Everyone knows everybody."
It's not just the summer fairs. Every winter, every school on the island holds community classes for cooking, conversational French, guitar, whatever a local volunteer can teach. Anna has taught sewing for 20 years at the school.
There is also the women's institute, which operates in just about every village on the island, raising money for hospitals and keeping government in line. Two years ago, the women pressured PEI's government to ban video gambling machines from corner stores because they were "ruining families and lives," Anna said above the din of a tractor ripping through dirt with a three-tonne weight.
With the video terminals gone and the bridge no longer a controversy, I asked Anna what the burning issues are now. She smiled. There aren't any.
"You probably have to be an islander to understand," she kept saying. She's only partly right. It's certainly hard for people from big cities, shaped by cynicism, fear and blame, to understand how communities like Crapaud stay together with only a small fraction of the resources and conveniences enjoyed in Toronto or Vancouver.
But they do, which is important to the rest of Canada. These communities provide people like Anna's son, but more important they make for a keel for the entire nation, keeping us from tipping right over into the American sea.
Of course, Crapaud, indeed all of PEI, has the fortune of living in good times and on good soil. The potato crop this year is bountiful. The new golf-course economy (Anna's husband is a contractor) is booming, so much so that farmers can't find field hands.
And Ottawa is there again with its constitutional dole, providing the island with its largest single source of revenue, money that indirectly goes to the upkeep of Crapaud's community school and the stable upbringing of a boy who gets to emcee tractor pulls, gains an engineering degree and helps to make Ontario more productive.
The more I travel through the Maritimes, the more I see of this peculiar human landscape of small communities, and what they do for Canada and how, very slowly, they are eroding like sandstone bluffs into the sea.
After crossing to Nova Scotia by ferry and thumbing up the Trans-Canada Highway and down a series of back roads to the very tip of Cape Breton, I find one such community that is perched -- socially as well as physically -- at the edge of a cliff.
Meat Cove has survived more upheaval than anyone can remember, at least since whaling ships began to stop there to purchase supplies. Through it all, the hamlet has enjoyed one of Canada's best views: whales in summer and seal-bearing floes in winter.
But now it is facing a fresh assault, one that is unlike any it has seen before. There's prosperity.
Each of its 50 houses has a satellite dish able to receive 999 channels and a community Internet connection courtesy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
There's also a new four-wheel-drive vehicle in most driveways, courtesy of the collapse of Alaska's crab catch, which sent local prices soaring this year. And in each garage two or three snowmobiles, courtesy of UI (no one calls it "employment insurance" down here), which finances the entire community through winter, in boom or bust. The good times are hardly the equivalent of a bull market on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The houses of Meat Cove, colourful in spirit and compact in efficiency, are only slightly bigger than a two-car garage in Toronto's newer suburbs.
But they are good times all the same, and it's unsettling the community in many new ways.
I had gone to the edge of Cape Breton with Frank Neubeiser, a transportation planner from Berlin, who had been in Boston for a wedding and decided to take a side trip, drawn by the great Celtic-Canadian music he'd heard in Germany.
Like so many of the tourists who besiege this island every summer, Frank was familiar with the sounds of Natalie McMaster and Ashley MacIsaac, but he didn't know quite what to make of the place itself. On the way up the Cape Breton coast, we had found a lighthouse converted to an ice-cream stand and an old schoolhouse that is now a bed and breakfast, and then more serious signs of depopulation in the form of abandoned barns and the decaying remains of homesteads.
To a transportation specialist from a crowded country, all this posed a bit of a riddle. "For a German," Frank said at one point dryly, "immigrating to Canada would be for the wide-open spaces, and a loss of income."
It wasn't until we got to Meat Cove, and met a priest named Duncan MacIsaac, that I began to realize why all this was happening to Cape Breton.
Balding and slightly overweight, Father MacIsaac looked a bit soft, but had a sharp Cape Breton tongue. He had returned to his old parish on the northern coast to attend the wake of an 89-year-old woman. Although he now serves in another part of the island, he has seen pain and hope around those parts pretty much most of his life.
There were feasts, like the one from the crab harvest, and terrible famines, he said, gazing over the sea. And there's a Maritime stoicism that sees it through.
But lately, as in the past 30 years, he continued, there's something Cape Breton has not been able to overcome, and that is the loss of its young people, the lucky ones who stick with school and get out.
They're the ones who should be filling those empty valleys we passed through. They're the pipefitters and electricians I later meet in Northern Ontario and in Alberta. They're Philip Walker, a blast-furnace worker who gave me a ride in New Brunswick as he headed home to Sydney to see his family for a long weekend. He said he is one of 250 Cape Bretoners working on an oil refinery project in Saint John.
The island is so uniquely beautiful, honest and simple, Philip told me before I got there, that he would rather spend 25 weeks a year working away from home than take his three children away from Sydney and the sea. In five years, he has put 360,000 kilometres on his Pontiac to do just that.
Sadly, though, he knows his children won't be able to stay, not if they want to work as adults. "Even if they learn a trade, there's no jobs. There won't be any either," he said.
The gradual depopulation of Cape Breton has stripped the island of much of its tradition. The Celtic language, spoken widely during the time of Father MacIsaac's parents, has pretty much vanished from public life. Cape Breton fiddling was about to go, too, when in the 1970s a group of fiddlers set about promoting their art once again to the public, and encouraging the next generation.
Ironically, though, it may be the rise of disposable income among those who have stayed -- the very reduction of absolute poverty that so many said was Cape Breton's curse -- that is finally pushing its culture over the edge. A 999-channel television is a powerful tool in any community, especially one that shuts down for winter.
"I think our storytelling tradition has gone," Father MacIsaac said, as if already giving his lament for the late parishioner. "We don't take the time. Because of television, I think we've lost some of the values. There was always a moral in the story. There were values in the stories. There is a tremendous love for people in this culture, a sharing of memories and treasures. Out of that came hope for the future. That's eroding, naturally."
I found myself wondering whether it's money, or just easy money -- a sudden doubling of crab prices, another cheque from Ottawa -- that has wounded the Cape Breton way. But then Father MacIsaac said it for me. "The pursuit of materialism," he noted, watching a new van go by, lobster traps strapped to its roof, "is quite a wedge."
When I finally reached Sydney, in a pickup truck strewn with empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers (the driver said he doesn't like to litter), I found that there's yet more darkness to the Cape Breton experience.
Communities such as Meat Cove always have the land and sea and forest to fall back on, and stunning sunrises over the Atlantic to enjoy. But in towns such as Sydney, with its legacy of economic intervention, of subsidies, bailouts, high-tech dreams and perpetual UI cheques, there is nothing to see but the blight of industrial failure.
In neighbouring North Sydney, where the ferry to Newfoundland docks, much of Main Street is boarded up or occupied by downmarket buy-and-sell stores. Next door in Sydney Mines, the economy is so depressed that a two-storey house with a large yard goes for $44,000. Something the local real-estate agent calls "a starter home" can be had for $18,000. No one is banking on another bailout from Ottawa.
Much of Atlantic Canada now believes that the age of fiscal federalism and equalization payments has passed, that the four provinces must find ways to stand on their own feet. But unemployment insurance remains one of the last great sacred trusts of the Canadian compact.
Whether in Meat Cove or Red Bay, Labrador, or Bowser, B.C., many of the resource towns I travelled through feel they have a constitutional right to seasonal assistance.
"I mean, I don't feel guilty taking money from the government, after what I've given them," a B.C. tree planter, Corey MacDonald, told me much later heading down the Thompson River valley to Kamloops. At 20, he is already a veteran of the system, which he first heard about from his father, also a tree planter. Last winter, he collected $9,000, which financed a few months of skiing and travel. His father prefers to pass the down months in India.
"I'm not going to do this forever," Corey assured me. "At least you have to work for it. It's not like welfare."
As with so many troubled social-assistance programs, it is the people who have moved on who know best the dangers of dependence. I met one such person on the road to Dryden, a mill town in Northwestern Ontario, an expatriate Newfoundlander named Dion Mackenzie. He was 22 and following his father's footsteps into a life cycle of seasonal work and UI when he decided instead to follow an uncle to Toronto.
Back in Norris Point in northwestern Newfoundland, Dion had learned all the tricks to the UI trade: how to get false pay slips to inflate his insurable income, how to pay someone for a layoff notice, how even to pay an employer to pay him if he all needed was a few more weeks of work to qualify for another winter of assistance.
But the winter void, the thought of willingly being put into a vocational deep freeze, was not for Dion. "I'm strong. I have my Grade 12. I can work. I don't need UI."
He found Toronto's pace too overwhelming, and so moved north to Thunder Bay, where he now installs fire-sprinkler systems for $30.91 an hour.
Uprooting people like Dion is hard on the individual, and hard on a country if it happens too often. At least he had a choice, provided by a growing economy. But so many others I met in the Maritimes, especially older people, saw no alternative to UI. They had resigned themselves to a lifetime of state support and, with it, a growing feeling of entitlement. Many even resented the rest of Canada for making unemployment insurance harder to collect.
I had not seen such a mood of dependency since I left India a year ago to move back to Canada. There was almost a passion about it, and it was voiced nowhere more loudly than in Newfoundland.
Newfoundlanders -- they call themselves Newfies in mixed company -- may be the most genuine Canadians, honest, witty, acerbic and blunt, but still the most decent people in the land. You know it the moment you step off the ferry in Port aux Basques, and everything tells you that you're in a very different place, an island to be sure, where a welcome band greets travellers with a jig, people move a bit slower, everyone's a "dear" and the older folk wave hello to strangers on the street.
It struck me immediately as the kind of place people with nice cars pick up hitchhikers.
Since the ferry had arrived at dusk, I decided to stay in Port aux Basques for the night and walk around town to enjoy the seaside air, not thinking I would happen upon an unnamed cinema hall playing The Perfect Storm. A tough audience for a fishing movie, I figured, but that was only the first indication of how little I knew of the place.
At the end, at the very moment the credits appeared, several women left the packed movie house wiping tears from their eyes. "Whew," one man said, shaking his head to the manager. "Best since the Titanic,"a woman said on her way out.
Still, I had to wonder if Billy Tyne, the swordfish-boat captain played by George Clooney, would have applied for government assistance rather than face the perfect storm had he lived in Newfoundland.
Everywhere I looked, and I had only just arrived, there's public assistance, and calls for more of it. The next morning, the local newspaper was filled with outrage over a plan announced by Premier Brian Tobin to move 257 jobs from St. John's to outlying centres, but not Port aux Basques.
Later, when I headed up the Trans-Canada with Amos Collier, a fisherman, it was hard not to marvel at all the crews expanding and improving one of the best stretches of Canadian highway I would cross. In Newfoundland, no fishing cove seems too small for a big, wide turning lane, no mill town too obscure for a cloverleaf and overpass.
For all the evidence of public works, however, Newfoundlanders remain deeply bitter about the hand Confederation has dealt them. Much of Canada may see them as fun-loving fishermen on the dole, but in Newfoundland it is those duplicitous dealmakers from Upper and Lower Canada, the Pearsons, Trudeaus and Chrétiens, who have done the cheating.
I simply had to announce that I was from Toronto to unleash a bitter, although usually eloquent, condemnation of Central Canada's establishment. The news that I work for The Globe and Mail, considered the voice of that establishment, was to unleash something much worse. The full Newfie rant.
"We got more resources per capita than any other province," said one driver, Ted Sheares, who at 80 knows his Newfoundland history. "The federal government has robbed, plundered and wasted it all. We're poorer off today, in a sense, than we were when we joined Confederation.
"Look at the cod. While we're not allowed to fish, foreign trawlers are out there scraping the bottom. Look at our oil. Last year, Newfoundland got $10-million while the federal government got $60-million. We should have got the 60 million because we own the damn stuff and brought it into Confederation. When Alberta wanted to ship gas and oil into Ontario, Mr. Trudeau said, 'Oh, no problem. We'll build you a corridor across the other provinces.' Sure, Smallwoood made a bad deal. I agree with that, but that doesn't excuse what's happening today.
"By gosh, there's never been a bigger bunch of rogues in the world than the ones in Ottawa. No country in the world, not even the Communist ones, would treat a province the way Canada treats Newfoundland."
I'm not sure I had finished introducing myself.
Ken Gaudet, a mill worker who plays gospel music in his Honda CRV, continued the theme. "The way Newfoundland works is we have lots of resources, but we give it away. That's just the way it is. Joey Smallwood started it. We gave our hydro to Quebec. We gave our fish to everyone."
They have also given away generations of talent, including Ken's two grown sons.
He and his wife, Emily, picked me up while returning from a short visit to Halifax, where their younger son, an apprentice fabricator, lives. The older one, a pipefitter, is in Edmonton, and like his brother not likely to come back. There simply aren't the jobs, at least on the island's west coast, not even with the province's economy growing faster than any other in Canada.
In Corner Brook, at the big Krueger mill where Ken works, the work force is now about one-third its former size. New technology did that. And so his boys will have to accept their fate, living elsewhere, helping to build the rest of Canada. It's neither good nor bad, Ken said, the harmony of Ask and You Shall Receive playing in the background. It's just the way it's always been.
This sort of fatalism is a very Canadian curse, one entrenched by the historic notion of haves and have-nots, and perpetuated by the politics of equalization.
But within regions there are subregions emerging with a desire to shape their destiny. They've seen the writing on the banker's wall, after a decade of cuts to federal transfer payments. They're also seeing new opportunities in international and interprovincial trade and emerging industries that offer more hope to young people than another make-work scheme.
If one place is succeeding in this, it is at the very edge of Canada, where a strip of land called the Labrador Straits juts into the North Atlantic. There, after crossing by ferry from St. Barbe on the northwestern tip of Newfoundland, I came across a dozen isolated communities that have much less than what I had seen in the rest of Newfoundland and Cape Breton, and yet are overcoming the very problems that seem so insurmountable in other places.
The ferry landed at Blanc Sablon, a town straddling the Quebec-Labrador border. It has a few restaurants, an oil depot, a residential school and little else to dispute Jacques Cartier's impression of it as the land God gave to Cain.
Right on the 54th parallel, set on one of the world's oldest rock formations, there are few forests and little in the way of soil. The only thing in abundance were black flies. Swarms of them. So many that a ferry employee warned me not to be caught outside on a still day without insect repellent and netting -- unless, that is, I wanted to be eaten alive.
Rhoda, the ferry worker, seemed serious about all this as she gave me a lift out of Blanc Sablon, at least as serious as she was about the annual Bakeapple Festival where we, and everyone else along the coast it seemed, were heading for the night. "Bakeapple" is the local name for the cloudberry, an orange-red fruit similar to the brambleberry that grows in abundance in the area.
A highlight of the festival, Rhoda explained, is "chicken-shit" betting. A chicken is placed on a big bingo card and people wager on where its droppings will land. Last year, someone picked the right number and won $200.
What else do people here do for fun? "Oh, we all go berry pickin'," she said, quickly adding that gloves and a netted hat are essential.
And in winter? "The men go lookin' for firewood." Her face was perfectly straight.
It would be easy to ridicule the people of Labrador Straits, until you realize all they have done for themselves over the past decade. When the cod fishery died, a lot of young people started to leave, as they were doing all over Newfoundland. But then something strange happened. Local business leaders gathered and decided that rather than appealing for more government money, they owed it to their children to start new enterprises.
"A lot of businessmen realized they had to be more creative," explained Dean Flynn, a fisheries official who returned from Halifax six years ago. "A core of people in this area took it as their mission to make this a place where young people could stay."
With the Bakeapple Festival's lip-sync contest about the begin, Dean outlined some of the changes. Instead of road construction projects, the communities applied for and received government money to start a computer and business-development centre. They also lobbied to get a small cod quota restored to keep their community-run fish plants operating.
As well, Dean's brother-in-law started a business to capitalize on the cloudberry crop and now sells close to $1-million worth of preserves every year. Up the road in Red Bay, a couple started an outdoor clothing company that sells to shops in Toronto and Montreal.
Dean figured that two-thirds of his high-school class have returned to the Straits. As long as they have work, he said, there's no other place they would rather be. "We seek no city streets nor lanes," goes the Ode to Labrador, a song everyone at the Bakeapple Festival came together to sing.
There's a sense of belonging, of knowing your place. Dean leaves his keys in his pickup truck at night, and doesn't remember the last time he locked his doors. His eight-year-old daughter can ride her bike wherever she wants. He always knows somebody will keep an eye out for her.
I noticed that most of the festival's music was American country and that a good number of the young people, Dean included, were wearing Tommy Hilfiger jeans. He admitted that his daughter watches mainly American television. But it matters little. These are accessories, not the things that shape a community with a sense of its own culture.
The next day, walking up the highway as an offshore wind subsides, I felt an itch in my hair and then another, and when I rubbed, my fingers came away spotted with blood. I looked up to a swarm of black flies, and ran to the nearest store for bug spray.
When I returned to the road, the local economic development officer, Reg Hancock, picked me up -- a happy coincidence for someone who lives to tell the world about his region.
He said a group of communities written off a decade ago now boast a median household income of $42,200 -- not bad for a place where most homes are mortgage-free and the standard municipal property tax is $380 a year.
Of course, they still rely heavily on UI. "If you took that away, people would have to find work in the winter months," Reg conceded. "But we have a way of life in this country, in this community. We have a social safety net, and people have come to expect it."
The absence of a highway made it difficult to hitchhike west out of Blanc Sablon. So just before midnight, I boarded another ferry, this time heading into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, to the mouth of a mighty river that created the old Canada and the start of a road leading straight across the new one.
Leaving the Maritimes behind, I had to wonder if some of the building blocks that give so many Canadians pride -- income support, equalization payments, universal health care -- are no longer building a nation but blocking the progress of its weakest regions.
It's an old argument, one typically dismissed as right-wing and Western, but I'm impressed by how many Maritimers are also questioning these legacies of Confederation, in a world changing by the day.
What surprised me more was to hear the same arguments at my next stop, in Quebec, against the very institutions that were supposed to make the province distinct.
THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE
In today's opening instalment, our cross-country trekker sets out from
Saint John, where his family first set foot in Canada more than 200 years ago. He then travels north to Prince Edward Island and across Cape Breton before taking the long ferry ride to Newfoundland. After thumbing up the west end of the island, he reaches St. Barbe and finds himself back aboard a ferry for the short hop across the Strait of Belle Isle to Blanc Sablon.