R.M. Vaughan is a Canadian author and the 2020 writer-in-residence at University of New Brunswick
The cashier at the grocery store recognizes me. She’s about 24, a university student and, if I’m reading the pins on her apron correctly, a proud hue in the LGBTQ rainbow. We’ve been chatting once a week for months now, none of it very personal, always with a laugh. We’re almost at the waving-as-we-pass level in our acquaintance.
Today I cannot see her smile, or much of her face at all. Masked and gloved, she waves me forward from my position behind the line of tape on the floor. Forward to a less distant spot, but a point still farther away from each other than feels comfortable or natural.
I ask her how she’s doing and we share a shrug. What can you do?
“It just feels weird to be so … unfriendly,” she says, from under her mask.
“I hate this.”
And that, in three words, is small-town Atlantic Canada today. We hate this. Three weeks ago, being anything but friendly was weird and gaspingly rude. Now, it’s compulsory. I want so much for my small-town Canada to come back that I leave the store a bit teary. I know, I know: No crying in pandemics.
I spent my entire childhood in small hamlets and semi-rural towns in southern New Brunswick, and then half of my youth in urban New Brunswick. Only the topographies are different: New Brunswick is New Brunswick no matter where you go or how you live. All the clichés of Atlantic Canadians aside – the spoon playing, the crusty fishermen in their slickers, the endless tartans – it simply is a much friendlier place than central Canada. Or, at least, it was.
When the accounts are taken after the pandemic, an entire academic enterprise will be built on studying what happened to urban Canada, to the big-three cities. As it should: Cities are economic dynamos. Small-town and small-province Canada will have less tangible before-and-after markers to study.
Small towns rely on the very opposite of every current public-health advisory. Small-town businesses, and the small-town social contract, are built on conversations. The grocery store I use is almost a century old. It’s where everybody goes for local produce, such as fiddleheads in the spring (will there be a fiddlehead harvest this spring?) or new potatoes in the summer. Strawberries come in July, raspberries in August, both from the town across the river.
The store hardly needs to advertise. When the strawberries are in, everybody knows in about 15 minutes. The word “artisanal” would only be used here as a joke, and most people are locavores whether they know it or not. Atlantic Canadians do not monetize normality. Such stunts are seen as flashy and cheap.
I am afraid New Brunswick’s resistance to the excesses of global capital, already precarious at best, will collapse entirely after the virus goes back to hell. Because, medically effective as they undoubtedly are, social-isolation strategies are culturally stunted – a one-size-fits-all remedy that makes absolutely no sense in Atlantic Canada. Ours is a culture built on talk. Now we have to shut up and walk on. Like the rest of the country.
When you live somewhere that is considered off the map, as New Brunswick is, you are used to having fewer resources and much less national attention. To wit, a recent edition of a Canadian culture magazine just presented its 2020 “national” spring roundup of events – a list that went as far east as Montreal. Sure, you resent being overlooked, but you accept the reality. Because in a postcolonial country such as Canada, a country forever in search of a centre, the outlying communities rarely occupy central status or, unfortunately, only do so when something horrible happens.
Well, something horrible is happening: The fabric of our culture is fraying, but there are too many people in much larger places, and too many people in desperate need, for the country to take notice of the psychological (and thus ultimately the economic) impact of the pandemic on the country’s less populated provinces. In New Brunswick, we are content to sit this out. For now. But how will we move forward? Being ignored by the rest of Canada is as old to us as Confederation, but we’ve never been asked, until now, to ignore each other.
The connections you need to thrive in and truly enjoy a small province are being snapped, abruptly and possibly forever. I have friends here in New Brunswick who have spent more time online in the past couple of weeks than they typically do in an entire year.
Unlike more urbanized Canadians, who demographers tell us were already living alone and feeling alone long before COVID-19, Atlantic Canadians perceive mandatory social isolation as a necessary torture – like a root canal – not as an odd but manageable interruption. We invented house parties, after all.
The distancing measures we live under are a cutting shock to our systems. And in communities that already struggle to maintain a balanced engagement with the larger world – not too fast, not too slow – the larger world is not just more present today, it is an invading army supplied and sustained by a constantly churning news media. It is an army enforcing inhuman rules and regulations that we would never generate ourselves.
The idea that I cannot stop on the street and pet a stranger’s dog, or take a few moments to chit-chat about the weather with strolling seniors, is utterly alien to me. Nature might be taking her revenge on us stupid, messy and murderous apes, but she’s doing it in the cruellest way possible: by making us behave unnaturally toward each other.
At this point I’m supposed to say something encouraging, something about Maritime resilience and how we will all meet again soon. Something Vera Lynn-ish.
But I am not ready to do that. This new reality hurts too much and may take a generation to properly heal, if at all. Telling Atlantic Canadians to quit socializing is like telling Torontonians to stop fixating on real estate. It is what we do and who we are.
Atlantic Canadian culture is fragile and will always be imperilled by larger, more moneyed cultures. Now the virus is the threat. Today, it feels like the warm, scratchy yarn that knits us together is turning to flimsy nylon.
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