Canada is celebrating its 150th birthday. What I find most surprising about that is how small that number is and how much has taken place in such a short period of time.
Living here near Hastings in Northumberland County on an old farmstead, I have the privilege of seeing a part of our past every day when I look out a window to the east and see our remarkable old barn. We’ve been told it was built in 1906, about six years before the house was built. The hand-hewn beams and posts, and the square-headed nails attest to that fact. It has made me think about the people involved in the barn raising and what their experience of Canada, at that point in time, had been.
Confederation had happened only 39 years prior so it’s likely that many of them still had a mind-set wherein the shape of Canada was totally unlike what we know today. Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick all entered Confederation in 1867. The Northwest Territories joined in 1870, British Columbia in 1871 and Prince Edward Island in 1873. (Read more about this on pg 20) To continue the formation of the Canada that we know today, Yukon joined Confederation in 1898, Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 (just before the barn was built), Newfoundland 1949, and last, but not least, along came Nunavut in 1999.
It’s probable that some of the barn builders were first, second or maybe even third generation “Canadians” from Ontario, formerly known pre-Confederation, a mere 39 years prior, as Canada West and maybe some had travelled from Quebec, known at that same time as Canada East. Some were immigrants, most of them from the British Isles; Ireland, Scotland, England and Wales, who saw a landscape here in this part of Ontario that was similar to what many of them were familiar with overseas. I wonder about the conversations that went on between those working men as they hewed and hauled and nailed together the gigantic shelter for livestock and grain. Did they discuss the confederation? How many different accents were there in those united voices? What were their visions for the Canada they knew that was barely out of infancy? Leaders, like Sir John A. Macdonald, who had only passed away 15 years earlier in 1891, would still be significant figures in their minds.
Did they have dreams of covering the huge expanse that was Canada – from sea to sea – a land that had only recently been linked coast to coast by the railroad in 1889? Or were they determined to stay put, still pioneering their homesteads, pulling boulders from the land to make the huge stone walls that we still see standing in the farmers’ fields today, working to provide a home and income in a country that held promise, reward, hope and vision.
I think it’s regrettable that we can’t all experience first-hand a few days of living the life of a Canadian just post-Confederation. There is no better way to appreciate how things have come to be than by being part of that process. It makes me think again of the barn raising here that I mentioned earlier. I can imagine the camaraderie of neighbours helping neighbours – the men having only oxen and draft horses to stack and raise the beams. Cold water from the well, cool, fresh milk, home-made bread and preserves along with fresh meat and cheese would have been delivered in baskets by the ladies who were, I’m sure, always apprehensive when they saw one of their “boys” standing 50 feet above the ground, balancing to catch another board to nail to the post, probably tethered with an old farm rope to prevent a fall. I’m not sure how long most of us would last in the environment they were so accustomed to. I have come to appreciate it very much by living here, often envisioning the lives of others who were here prior to us – and realizing how hard they had to work for everything they needed.
Although the politicians in the mid-1800s certainly pulled things together to unite this astoundingly beautiful and diverse country, it has been the people, the citizens – from all walks of life and all nations – who have made this country a place to be very proud of, a place to call “home.”
I’m glad that there are those who still enjoy the things of our past and seek to obtain them. It indicates an interest and a desire to preserve that memory, since the time itself can only be re-enacted, not re-lived. When Peter and I got into this business of antiques 23 years ago, I did not expect to enjoy the learning process that came with it as much as I do. It has provided an entirely new insight into my concept of Canada and how we came to be where we are today. Books are wonderful, the internet can be amazing, but nothing can take the place of actually handling something that has been used by others before you.
We recently made what I’ll call our “Sesquicentennial purchase” when, totally unexpectedly, I fell in love with a Grandfather clock at an auction. I have admired many clocks, being my “father’s daughter,” (he loved clocks) but have never actually considered looking for one of such grand stature until I discovered this handsome 7 foot-tall timepiece last Saturday. Beautifully crafted in burled walnut, it was sitting on a skid under the cover of a tent waiting for someone to claim it and take it home. Peter looked a bit surprised when I asked him to bid on it. It surprised me, too. And what surprised me more was when he came home with that lovely old marker of time. It is a delight to think of all the people who have wound it up since the mid-1800s when it was built by James Murdoch of Ayr, Scotland. When did it arrive in Canada? Was it pre-Confederation? Was it a gift presented to someone? Did someone save for years to acquire it? How many people have glanced at it to catch the time of day – how many have listened to the tick/tock of the pendulum with the massive lead weight and measured their days against that comforting sound. Who has polished it, kept the keys in a safe place, and admired the workmanship? To me, clocks represent much more than the average household item does. They are a source of thought and planning and provide a reference for your day; those days turn into months and they, in turn, become years – more quickly than we ever think they will. How many tick/tocks has the old clock ticked, I wonder? I am delighted to be a temporary care-giver until it passes into other hands some day (far off, I hope). I think adopting it was an excellent way to mark such a commemorative year.
I’m looking forward to enjoying some of the up-coming Canada Day celebrations. There are many to choose from right across the nation, although we’ll likely stick close to home. (The little village of Hastings has one of the most incredible firework displays held each Canada Day and I’m sure this year will be especially exciting.) In the meantime, I am struggling to get over my annoyance with the ridiculous notion that the importance of our nation’s 150th birthday should be in any way celebrated with a large yellow duck purchased, not in Canada, but from the U.S. (Even if it were purchased here at home, it would still be ridiculous.) Also somewhat disappointing is a song accompanying a visually lovely commercial commemorating our sesquicentennial year. It is a re-make of an ‘80s hit tune called “True Colors” written by American songwriters Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly and performed by Cyndi Lauper on an album of the same name, also from the ‘80s. It’s a nice song, as pop songs go, but I am surprised that whoever created the commercial for our 150th birthday couldn’t find a Canadian songwriter to fulfill the noble task of creating an all-Canadian song to call our own in the years to come. We have an enormous amount of talent in this country – we excel at creating incredible music in all genres. Using a slightly worn-out pop song, not even Canadian at that, seems somewhat unpatriotic. In the Centennial year of 1967, a special song was written for the celebrations. Although it wasn’t exactly symphonic, it was sung by children and was happy, upbeat and enthusiastic. Most people loved to sing, whistle or hum along with it. I still remember the words (by Bobby Gimby) – described appropriately as “bouncy lyrics” on one website.
This is how the song went if you don’t still have it jumping around in some nostalgic part of your brain:
(One little two little three Canadians)
We love thee
(Now we are *twenty million)
(Four little five little six little Provinces)
Proud and free
(Now we are ten and the Territories sea to sea)
North south east west
There’ll be happy times,
Church Bells will ring, ring, ring
It’s the hundredth anniversary of
Ev’rybody sing together!
(Verse in French begins)
Rah! Vive le Canada!
Three cheers Hip, Hip, Hooray!
That’s the order of the day
Frère Jacques Frère Jacques
Merilly we roll along
Together all the way
(Repeat second chorus)
I think I will just stick with that happy little song, squeeze in the words “and fiftieth” between “hundredth”and “anniversary” on the 12th line and be done with it. (*I will have to change the population too, I guess.) It was a joyful little song, it was Canadian, and that’s exactly what I always want to be; a joyful Canadian, recognizing that there is so much to be grateful for even when I don’t always “get” it, politically speaking. We are truly blessed here.
Happy birthday, Canada! And, (dare I say it?) God bless us! Have a wonderful, safe and happy summer.