Canada Part 4: the ship is our road

Eastern Canada can be a dangerous world. In Gros Morne National Park, they don’t mince words. At the trailhead for a 10-mile hike we made up the eponymous mountain, a sign warned the trail was “grueling. Don’t go on if you can’t see the top. If you walk in fog you may fall off a cliff and get injured or die.” There was in fact plenty of fog the day we hiked to the top of the mountain, but by peering intensely into the gloom, we could just barely see cairns with their little green pointers.

The tales of eastern Canada are full of icebergs and whales, vicious storms and shipwrecks, months of isolation and bitter cold.

On the ship we took hopscotching along the northern coast of Quebec, we stopped before sunrise at the roadless village of Harrington, a tiny English outport amid the vastness of French Canada. The village has no vehicles except 4-wheelers and snowmobiles. The streets are boardwalks, iced over and slippery in the cold morning. It has a cute Anglican church, a contrast to the Roman Catholic churches elsewhere in the province.

The entire town is built along the wooden boardwalks. Even an outhouse is linked to a home by a boardwalk.

The mayor of Harrington noted in a video shown on board our ship, “We have no road. Until we get a road, the ship is our road.”

A portrait of Maude Lewis, a legend in Nova Scotia and the heroine of the new film “Maudie.” With arthritic hands and no training, she became a moving artist whose masterwork was her own small cabin, where she covered every inch with her childlike paintings of daily life.

At 6 a.m. as the sun was just starting to rise, our ship slowly made its way out of the harbor through a deep channel wedged between steep rocky islets colored pinkish in early slanting rays. In the brilliant morning, the gulf was calm and a profound blue. If I didn’t know better, I’d think this was paradise.

In the next stop, another roadless village called La Romaine, we were told residents get around best in winter, when they ride snowmobiles to neighboring villages and even a thousand kilometers south to Quebec City.

Comparing the U.S. and Canada can be illuminating. Canada’s population is 10 percent smaller than California’s, but it is spread out over an area 20 percent larger than the entire U.S. Most Canadians live in the south, in cities huddled close to the U.S. border.

Despite its image as a WASP haven, Canada is actually less white, and less English-speaking than the U.S.

Non-hispanic whites constitute 61 percent of the U.S. while English speakers constitute 56 percent of Canada. In the city of Toronto, 130 languages are spoken and the population is only 50 percent white. The largest metropolis in Canada, the city has 2.8 million people, and the spread-out metro area 5.5 million.

An outport on the northern coast of the Bay of St. Lawrence in Quebec Province. Such isolated villages depend entirely on occasional coastal freighters and, in winter, snow mobiles to connect to the rest of the world. Photo by Thelma Bowles.

Native Americans are more than twice as significant in Canada as in the U.S., with 4.2 percent of the population in contrast with about 2 percent in the U.S.

Quebec City has a notably relaxed attitude toward food and drink. The Hotel Concorde is one of the tallest buildings in the city, and to take in the panoramic view many tourists as well as residents ride the elevator to its high revolving bar called Le Ciel. At the entry to Le Ciel (which means both sky and heaven) is a sign: “Alcohol kills slowly. We don’t give a damn. We aren’t in a hurry.” And a sign at the city’s largest food market proclaims, “One can’t buy happiness but one can buy cheese and it’s almost the same.”

France lost its New World empire in a kind of comic opera battle. It transpired on a grassy meadow called the Fields of Abraham, after the shepherd who grazed his flock there. It lasted 20 minutes and killed both the French and English commanders. The English had shelled the French city for three months, destroying much of it. When English troops scaled the wall around the city, the badly trained French troops were totally unprepared.

It never ceases to amaze me how much joy there is in the hard places of the world, where the sun seldom shines. In St. John’s, Newfoundland, people supply their own sun—in the vivid pastel colors of the buildings, the murals that lighten every streetscape, the music that rocks and swings and moves the greatest density of pubs and bars and clubs in North America.

The climate may be grim but the people aren’t. Many who live on the harsh shores of eastern Canada (unlike the prosperous urbanites further west) are poor—indisputably poor—but their lives aren’t.

The grandest symbol of these people was an Nova Scotia artist named Maud Lewis, who is celebrated in the Art Museum of Halifax, a memorial outside Digby and in “Maudie,” an internationally acclaimed documentary movie released last year. (It recently screened in Santa Fe.)

Maud Lewis had an unimaginably harsh life in a remote homestead in Nova Scotia, where all her life she was mistreated by her relatives and her husband. Although her hands were crippled by arthritis and she had no training whatsoever, she made herself into a talented artist. She used her tiny house as her canvas, covering nearly every inch with simple paintings of vivid colors and childlike joy celebrating the scenes of her daily life. Her entire house has been moved into the Halifax museum. The story of her life makes you want simultaneously to weep and wonder, mourn and honor this tiny woman of grandeur. Her story also makes you understand better the struggles, the successes and defeats, of the peoples of eastern Canada.

In many a rich and snug city, whether Toronto or New York, people in the street seem solemn and sad and pressured. Their fortunate lives are such hard work.

To have so much and enjoy it so little seems a crime. To enjoy it not at all seems a felony.

In the towns of eastern Canada, so much joy can erupt in a festival, an impromptu dance, a greeting in the street of two old friends, even a smile for a stranger, that it makes you wonder at the intensity of our own country’s war for wealth.

Why bother when the best is free?

Despite the song, freedom isn’t just another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is the long lazy road from Labrador amid the reds and yellows of autumn.

Freedom is a word for the road a woman named Thelma and I took 34 years ago, together for the first time, and under the spell of the long road became man and wife.

Now again, on the long road home, we pause, as we did 34 years ago, at Niagara Falls. We stand on the shelf of Niagara and, submerged in mists of memory and water, drowned in the roar of past and present, watch the cataracts power over the cliffs of American and Horseshoe falls, two nations divisible.

The long road that began on the whale-spouted, iceberg-lacerated shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, runs sweetly home for 4,000 miles. At the end of this road, like all our roads, like all our trips, resides a mixture of depression—the adventure is over—and expectation—our home lives resume. Real life will always live here, at home, but, too, there will always be another trip—always, until there isn’t.

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