Leo Durocher, manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, won immortality in 1946 when he pronounced, “Nice guys finish last.” Although his dictum has survived the ages, he obviously didn’t know many Canadians.
They are the iconic nice guys of the modern world, welcoming the oppressed, helping the needy and speaking calmly while declining to carry a big stick. At the same time, they are peaceful and prosperous, newly confident on the world stage and a magnet for immigration among everyone from Hong Kong millionaires to Somali peasants.
For centuries, Canada has also been the haven of last resort for desperate Americans. Many of the one-third of Americans who sided with the British in the War of Independence fled to Canada in the 18th century. Black slaves migrated there in the mid-19th century when offered freedom. Today, thousands of immigrants to the U.S., terrorized by Trump administration threats, have been walking north across frozen borders.
Domestically, however, Canadians have not been so tranquil or so nice. The cruelties inflicted in Canada by the French and the British, on each other as well as on the First Americans, make for sleepless bedtime reading.
Black Canadians faced discrimination and today are in part isolated in impoverished ghettoes like the north side of Halifax, the capital of Nova Scotia and the biggest city in eastern Canada.
Native Americans—called First Americans in Canada—were not massacred by the millions as they were in the U.S.and Spanish America, but were treated miserably and still struggle to find their place in an otherwise prosperous nation. Suicides and drug overdoses have become epidemic in the past few years.
Before they collaborated to create a unified Canada in 1867, the French and British settlers did all they could to marginalize and humiliate each other.
When American sympathizers of the English fled to Canada in the late 18th century, most were immediately sent packing back to the U.S., the source of today’s Acadians.
This fall, my wife and I, along with my wife’s twin sister, decided to seek a clearer understanding of this complex and contradictory history while seeing parts of eastern Canada that were mostly new to us in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, Labrador, Quebec and Ontario.
Nor has Canada itself had a clear understanding of what it is. For a century and a half after permanent European settlement in the early 16th century (the Vikings settled temporarily 1,000 years ago but decided not to stay), Canada was divided more or less equally between France and England. When England defeated France on Quebec’s Fields of Abraham in 1767, the entire country (minus two tiny islands) became part of the British Empire.
In 1867, Canada became a British “dominion,” but Canadians didn’t agree on what that meant. Were they an independent country or still part of the British Empire? In any case the British part of the bicultural marriage dominated and so humbled the French that for decades Quebec threatened divorce.
Meanwhile the eastern provinces of Newfoundland and Labrador declined to join Canada until 1949. Even today, some of the Scots, Irish and English of eastern Canada, together with small pockets of French, are not quite sure whether they belong more to Europe or to distant Ottawa and Toronto, the political and commercial capitals. (St. John’s Newfoundland and Halifax, Nova Scotia, are about the same distance from Europe as from Toronto and Ottawa.)
The confidence of some in the eastern provinces that they made the right decision to jinn the rest of Canada is not, shall we say, unlimited. On the wall of Trinity Mercantile, a pleasant craft shop in the quaint Newfoundland village of Trinity, is a framed copy of a newspaper dated March 31,1949, and headlined “End of Dominion ” with the subhead, “God Guard Newfoundland.” Asked about the insecurity implied by this prayer, the proprietor responded thoughtfully, “Of course we have regrets, but we’re not sorry.”
During a month-long 8,000-mile road trip, we stayed in vast, prosperous, modern cities—Toronto, Montreal, Quebec and Halifax—and visited some of the most isolated and timeless villages on the North American continent, for example, the gorgeous village of Trinity on the northern coast of Newfoundland, Meat Cove on the northernmost tip of Nova Scotia, and Harrington in northern Quebec where the only links to the outside world are a weekly coastal freighter and, in winter, snow mobiles.
Everywhere we went, everyone we talked to was, without exception gracious and generous. Nice is far too “nice” of a word. When later I asked my wife what her most important impression of the trip was, she pondered hard and finally said, “Everyone was so kind.” Her voice clogged with emotion, she repeated, “So kind.”