Tag Archives: Canada

Canada Day

People ask me all the time: “What’s Canada like?”

I can answer that it’s a lot like America but with different healthcare, and you press 2 for French instead of for Spanish. Or that it’s cold in the winter – sorry about that, eh? I can tell you that we celebrate Thanksgiving in October and we’ve got the Queen on our money. All of that is true. But it’s not the whole story, at least not for me.

Canada is my history. I grew up there and it will always be an important part of who I am and how I think. Canada is my memories.

Canada is a Tim Hortons coffee warming my hands through my gloves. It’s biting into a toasted and buttered Saint-Viateur bagel and getting sesame seeds stuck in my braces.  It’s braving the Drummond ice sheets to get to my classes at the Stewart Biology buildings. It’s breakfast Chez Cora and a pint at Hurley’s. It’s “sorry” and it’s “câlisse.” It’s the green line and the orange line and the three note salute from the trains as they pull away. It’s potholes and orange cones and jerks speeding down Decarie in souped-up Civics. It’s Christmas lights on McGill College Avenue and the world’s greatest fireworks all summer long at LaRonde.

Canada is my genes and my soul. It’s Grandmaman and Matante Gigi trash-talking each other over dice games. It’s Momo’s big house with the lions out front. It’s my parents and siblings and aunts and great-aunts and cousins. It’s emphatic French cursing and hand-waving and hugging. It’s my opinions and my voice, grown from twenty-five of my most malleable years, living in the Great White North.

It’s my history. It’s my heart. It’s my home.

I miss you, Canada. Happy birthday.

A Part of My Heritage

When a building is integral to the story of a place, sometimes government steps in and protects it from the forces of progress and change by calling it a heritage site. The home in Salzburg where Mozart was born. The Old North Church in Boston where furtive lanterns warned patriots that the British were coming. Tear down those buildings, and the towns don’t just suffer a loss of tourist money. Losing heritage sites is like losing history, diluting identity. 
You don’t have to be a country, or even a city, to have a heritage sites. Everyone has places that played an important part in their lives, their histories. A childhood home where that one cabinet door never closed right. A corner store where allowances were spent on gummy worms. A park where someone knelt and offered a ring. Any place whose destruction you would mourn, because you could never share it with your children, is a personal heritage site for you. 
I’d like to share one of mine.

Place Ville Marie is an office building at the heart of downtown Montreal. It’s 47 stories of steel and sparkling glass, making an cross shape distinctive enough to earn it a place on postcards. A spotlight spins around on its summit after dark, sending out a bright white beam for miles.

At the heart of the cross, a dozen elevators whoosh up and down at an alarming speed, popping ears and making riders reach for something to hang on to. Downstairs, beneath the atrium where the sounds of high heels and conversations echo off the marble walls, is a shopping mall connecting it to Montreal’s underground city.
Outside, between the main building and one of its small satellites, is a courtyard with trees and slick grey granite. Every warm sunny day, it’s filled with suits and their to-go lunches from the food court.

That courtyard is my heritage place.

I visited often enough during my suburban high school and CEGEP years, but once I found myself on the McGill University campus every day, I became a regular. Between classes, or before leaving for home, I’d come and sit on the granite ledges, alternating between reading a book and watching the water play on the green statue in the fountain. Sometimes I’d throw a penny into the fountain as I passed, although I can’t say that fountain was any better at delivering on wishes than any other. When the weather got too cold for me to sit on the stone, I’d stand at the railing overlooking McGill College Avenue, a double-double warming my hands through my gloves, and take in the sparkling Christmas lights and the scarf-wrapped crowds.

The view is beautiful from that spot. McGill College Avenue, wide and tree-lined, stretches out from Place Ville Marie up to McGill’s Roddick Gates and the campus beyond. Behind the university’s old stone buildings, Mount Royal looms, its colors shifting over the seasons. I made sure to bring my husband here when he visited Montreal, to show him this little place that means so much to me.

I miss that courtyard dearly, and I always try to return when I’m in town over a weekend. I stay just long enough to throw a penny into the fountain, sip a coffee, and enjoy the sound of my city.

Killer Kittens and Monster Squirrels

I read an article today about how cats in the United States kill billions of critters a year. Billions. Per year. In the US alone. For reference, this is a billion: 1000000000. Multiply that by 20ish, and you’re looking at how many mice, squirrels, birds, bats, and other small fluffy or feathery lives are extinguished per year, in America, in the jaws of vicious kitty cats.
Some thoughts:
1) Holy crap, we have a lot of critters out there if cats are murdering billions a year and the population of birds and squirrels still seems to be thriving (as far as I can tell, anyway).
2) I guess the loss of that many birds and small mammals is probably bad for the environmental balance, and the whole catch-neuter-release idea for stray cats isn’t necessarily the best plan, although the alternative breaks my heart.
3) I wonder how much higher that number would be if my Horton was an outside cat.
4) Maybe that explains the giant monster squirrels in Mom’s backyard. Evolutionary pressure.
No, really! Think about it! Obviously, the cats are preferentially picking off the smaller and weaker creatures, leaving the giant-critter-genes disproportionately represented in the population! This explains why the crows in my yard are getting so fat they waddle and the squirrels are big and strong enough to haul beefsteak tomatoes off my garden vine and eat them on the deck.
I’m in Montreal this week, and Mom likes to have her morning coffee and cigarette on the back porch even in the cold of a Canadian winter (our blood is thick up here, folks). On my second day here, I heard her yelp and race back in, slamming the door behind her. “He’s back, ‘stie! Jennifer! Come see this sucker!” She pointed out the window towards the biggest squirrel I had ever seen.

“He hates me,” Mom told me, still wrapped in her fur coat and wanting her smoke. “He’s an aggressive son of a bitch! He’s the one who ate through my garbage cans and dug up my flowerpots! I put mothballs like my friend told me, but he just dug them out and threw them on the neighbor’s balcony! When I’m inside at the table, he comes to the windowsill, looks me in the eye, and poops there on purpose right in front of me, the little shit!”

Good daughter that I am, I put on my purple down coat with the fluff-lined hood and stood on the balcony with my mother, brandishing a plastic shovel to defend her from giant attack squirrels. This guy came towards us once or twice, but the whoosh of the shovel scared him back to the neighbor’s hanging flowerpot. I got a picture of him:

And this was one of the smaller guys.

While I was out there, I had a good look around. We were surrounded. There were dozens of squirrels hanging out in the trees behind Mom’s place in Montreal, and every single one was bigger than the ones I usually deal with back in Maryland. The Canadian squirrels look exactly the same in terms of color and features, so I’m sure they’re the same species, but they must weigh at least 3 pounds each.

Weight-loss-inspiration photo these guys surely have
taped to the bathroom mirrors in their nests.

I’m not kidding. Thick branches dip dangerously under their weight. The downstairs neighbor is contributing to their weight problem by throwing crackers and stale bread out for them on a regular basis. If you’re quiet, you can hear them crunching from the balcony. It’s surreal, hearing dozens of crackers being crunched by hundreds of tiny teeth.  I tried hard to get a picture of the really fat one, but he stayed too far away. He doesn’t fit through the holes in the chain-link fence, poor little guy, so he had to climb the fence to get at his carbs.

A photo of Fatty from 2008. He’s still using it in his SquirrelMatch.com profile.

I’ll be back out there tomorrow for more balcony defense. Wish me luck. They may bring reinforcements. Does anyone have an outside cat I can borrow?


A part of our heritage.
Say those words to any Canadian in their thirties, and they will either mime a frantic telegraph operator or tell you they smell burnt toast.
No, we’re not all insane. 
Years ago, when my age cohort was young and impressionable, a series of short  films were aired on TV alongside commercials for Skip-Its and Ninja Turtle figurines. These “Heritage Minutes” were sponsored by various corporations over the years and were aired on Canadian TV networks as a way to increase the amount of Canadian content we were exposed to. 
Thus we learned about Doctor Wilder Penfield, pioneer in neurosurgery and mapper of the brain, first director of McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute. 

We learned about the Halifax Explosion of 1917, where a ship loaded with explosives caught fire in the harbour after a collision. The disaster would have claimed more lives than it did had it not been for the sacrifice of Vince Coleman, a telegraph operator who stayed at his post to warn incoming trains of the danger.
While we absorbed Saturday morning cartoons, we learned of hockey heroes, war heroes, inventors and pioneers, all Canadian, all a part of our shared heritage. Those short films have stayed with me for decades now, snippets of them playing in my head, their words waiting on my tongue.

Johnson, Sir… Molly Johnson.”

I looked these videos up today because it occurred to me that I’ve forgotten much of my Canadian history. I will need to study American history if I am to pass the citizenship test next year, but much of the Canadian history I learned as a child is beginning to fade. I remember Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain. At least, I remember their names. I remember the Iroquois and their longhouses. I remember Vimy Ridge, and the bright poppy fields of Flanders. But I can’t remember the story. I can’t explain anymore what Canada is, where it came from, how it changed and grew. I am forgetting my heritage.

If you would like to watch more of these videos, and I recommend that you do, there is a playlist of all of them on Youtube here.