Conservative leadership candidate and MP Kellie Leitch perhaps did us all a favour in broaching the unbroachable when she asked supporters in an e-mail survey if the Canadian government should "screen potential immigrants for anti-Canadian values." Think of the miscreants who would be turned aside at the border: those who root through piles of neatly folded sweaters for the only size large and leave them in disarray. Monsters who deliberately mis-shelve books at the library. Public nail-clippers. This is a plan that could prevent chaos on a national level.
I'm sure all of us, from coast to coast, harbour secret heresies, and worry that someday there will be a loud thumping – or more likely a polite tap – at the door, and a guy with a laminated Canadian National Identity Assessment badge will tell us it's time to get on the bus to Seattle. I'm a heretic myself. I often say sorry when I don't mean it, just to be part of the soothing symphony of apology. I've never read Robertson Davies. And I loathe winter and its diabolical handmaiden, hockey, more than I can say.
Now that most of you have stopped reading, the rest of us can celebrate the clear superiority of summer and its sports. This country isn't l'hiver, as Gilles Vigneault famously sang, it's l'été, because it's in these few precious months that the country is happiest – the bit of flesh escaping its dreary parka cage, the farmstand clock that counts the months from asparagus to strawberries to peaches. There are no icebirds who drive to the Arctic at the beginning of June, or, if there are, they have the good sense to keep it to themselves.
If we saw ourselves as a country of water rather than ice, we could admit that swimming makes a better national sport than hockey. Apparently 1972 is supposed to represent the zenith of our national sporting pride, but for those of us who hate hockey, and resent its sentimental stranglehold on popular culture, alternatives are abundant. For me, it's the accomplishment of two 16-year-old female swimmers, six decades apart.
This Thursday marks the 62nd anniversary of Marilyn Bell's heroic swim across Lake Ontario. The audacity of that effort is as mind-boggling now as it was then. Here was a teenager who had never swum at night before, setting out at 11 p.m. from Youngstown, N.Y. to cross a lake that had never been crossed by a swimmer. She couldn't tell where the lake ended and the sky began. Halfway across, she was swarmed lampreys, lampreys for God's sake, as if the freezing water and the cramping and the hallucinations weren't bad enough.
Her coach, Gus Ryder, in a boat alongside, wrote encouraging notes on a chalkboard (the Twitter of the day) telling her that the people of Toronto were behind her, and also in front of her – they'd gathered by the thousands to greet her on the shore. Drivers turned their headlights toward the lake so she'd have something to aim for. When she emerged from the water after almost 21 hours, she was the first person to have swum across the great lake, and Canada had a new darling.
Then, this summer, we had another water marvel. Penny Oleksiak, also 16, had a staggering triumph at the Olympics in Rio, winning four swimming medals and the honour of carrying the flag in the closing ceremonies. The effort to reach that goal, the endless unheralded hours in predawn pools, is unimaginable for most of us. Then she won the charm Olympics with her good humour and ebullience and desire to see Drake in concert.
We rarely celebrate swimming, even if thousands of us slip every day from the cottage dock or the edge of the community-centre pool into a silent communion with water. Maybe it's not dramatic enough, even if it is one of life's great free pleasures. I often measure my summers by the bodies of water I've been lucky enough to swim in: This year it was Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, Georgian Bay, Lake Couchiching and the St. Lawrence River, where an encounter with a water snake had me swimming almost as fast as Penny and almost as far as Marilyn.
The best moment of the summer, though, happened on a night when my local pool stayed open late during a heat alert. It sits high on a hill above a park, and every year some joker erases the "L" in the sign that says, "to pool," which renews my faith in our unruly impulses. Well past bedtime, the pool filled with kids and grandmas, the fit and the ungainly, lithe teenagers showing off for each other and old people who'd fulfilled their procreational duties and were happy just to float in the shallow end. I watched everyone bobbing around together, and I thought, this is why it works.
Now it's over for another year (sorry to remind those of you who are behind in your binder shopping). If it were up to me, we'd hang out a sign that says, "country closed for the next eight months due to sanity." Instead I'll just have to wait till the ice melts, and it's time to swim again.