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Margaret Wente (Kevin Van Paassen)
Margaret Wente (Kevin Van Paassen)

Margaret Wente

How I became a real Canadian Add to ...

A Canadian is someone who knows how to have sex in a canoe.

-Pierre Berton

Thirty years ago, in 1979, I became a Canadian citizen. I stood up in citizenship court, along with dozens of complete strangers, and pledged an oath to the Queen. I had it easy. Most of them had crossed an ocean and learned a new language; I had merely crossed a border. Afterward, we all shook hands, and I cried.

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The next step, obviously, was to have sex in a canoe.

I was determined to become a real Canadian. I deliberately toned down my Midwestern accent ("I'm from Chicawgo"). I learned the difference between Saint John and St. John's. I discovered that "roof" doesn't rhyme with "woof," and that "chesterfield" is not a cigarette. I enthusiastically sprinkled my spelling with random u's.

But I soon learned that the authentic soul of Canada is in the wilderness. Just ask Margaret Atwood (or my pal Roy MacGregor). If you want to feel truly Canadian, you've got to get out there and learn to paddle a canoe.

So I set out to make up for lost time.

My first canoe trip in Canada was through Algonquin Park. How iconic is that? Pristine lakes, gorgeous sunsets, whispering pines. I was young and in love. My love object and I would pitch our tent under the Milky Way and listen to the call of the loons.

It didn't quite work out as planned. We hadn't foreseen the bugs, the rain or the beer-logged louts on the next island who were obviously not interested in the transcendent beauty of the landscape. By the time we'd found a vacant campsite, pitched our tent and devoured our soggy dinner, I was feeling rather snappish. Once again, I learned that sleeping on the ground is highly overrated. In the middle of the night, we were woken by an awful racket. Bears? No. It was raccoons, helping themselves to our food, which had been carefully strung on a line between two trees. Perhaps they'd formed a raccoon pyramid to get at it. My beloved companion grabbed the first projectile that came to hand and launched it at them. It was my canoe paddle. It hit a tree and broke.

Margaret Atwood would have had an extra paddle. We did not. Nor did we have extra food. The next morning, we bundled our hungry selves into our canoe. I huddled in the bow against a ferocious headwind as my former love object tried to paddle us back to the parking lot.

We broke up soon after that. But my fitful romance with the wilderness endured. I even travelled down the Nahanni, one of the most glorious rivers in Canada. I can't tell you much about the scenery, though. Soon after we set out, it began to snow. (It was August.) The snow turned to rain and fog that soaked our clothes and lingered throughout the week. Just as we reached the end of the trip, the sun peeped out again, and we were swarmed by mosquitoes as big as hummingbirds. There are reasons hardly anyone lives up there.

The wilderness is central to the Canadian identity. But very few Canadians spend much time in it. That makes it even easier to romanticize. In reality, we are one of the world's most urban nations. Our hinterland is magnificent, hostile and almost entirely uninhabited. Even though we've put loons and lakes on our money, hardly anyone lives near loons and lakes, or even sees them. Maybe we should have Timbits on our money, instead.

Canadians like the idea of the wilderness a lot more than the thing itself. Ninety per cent of the people who take vacations in the Rockies never venture more than an hour away on foot from the parking lot. After two or three hours on foot, you'll have the trail to yourself; after four or five hours, you'll have entire lakes and mountains to yourself. All you have to do is hump a lot of stuff on your back, give up indoor plumbing, and get blisters.

The trouble with the wilderness is that you can't experience the awesome beauty of it without some measure of inconvenience, effort and discomfort. Most people prefer comfort. Take Muskoka, a once-idyllic place of musty summer cottages and rustic plumbing. Today, the shoreline is crowded with timbered mansions decked out in faux rustic style and every conceivable mod con. People spend three hours in heavy traffic to get there from the city. Only millionaires can afford to go there, and the haunting call of the loon is drowned out by the roar of giant smelly engines.

Fortunately, transcendent places still exist in Canada. You don't even need survival skills to experience them. You can rent survival skills. That's how I got down the Nahanni and kayaked the Queen Charlotte Islands without drowning. I've seen the Northern Lights and mountain goats and elk and bears, usually with plenty of help from enthusiastic young people who do all the heavy lifting. I'm aware that experiencing the splendours of the wilderness is a privilege largely reserved for indigenous peoples and well-heeled Anglo-Saxons who grew up reading Pierre Berton.

Will future generations of Canadians continue to believe that the wilderness is central to our identity? I'm not sure. Will it ever even occur to the kids of newcomers from Pakistan or China to have sex in a canoe? I have no idea. What I can tell you is that, in the interest of research, I tried it once myself. Like most wilderness experiences, it involved a fair degree of inconvenience, effort and discomfort. But I didn't mind. At last I knew I was Canadian.

 

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