We stand up in the classroom. Our chairs scraping on the tile floor. We move beside our desks leaden and face the front of the room. Our arms are slack at our sides and we wait for the cue. I look at the blank blackboard in front of me and wonder why we don’t have a flag to stare at instead. The teacher starts us off “O Canada, our home and native land” and we join in. Monotonous and pathetic. We are just a bunch of kids crossing the anthem off our list for the day. We finish and sit down again. The classroom begins to buzz now with more energy, the hubbub of gossip, books pulled out, lunches stowed, and notes passed with giggles.
I have been in the same class of kids since kindergarten. Only a few kids come and go. The class pictures are so consistent we might as well be family of siblings. But one girl's family went to the United States for a year and she has just come back. At recess we gather around her like she has just returned from space, like she had just met “the others.”
“What is it like?” I ask.
“Hot, but pretty much the same.” she says.
“What about school? Is it the same?” I probe.
“The teaching part is the same but they do a lot more stuff about their country.” she shares.
“Like what?” I inquire.
“Well, they sing the anthem but they also recite a Pledge of Allegiance. It is kinda different than here. They are very serious about it.” she says.
I haven’t really been anywhere. I mean, I live a few minutes from the American border but I don’t think of that as far away. I haven’t been anywhere other than a few hundred miles from my childhood home. My exposure to Canada and other countries comes from atlases, geography class, and National Geographic. I think about what my friend said and log the American patriotism into my memory bank and move on with childhood.
A few summers later I am packing my box of summer clothes to slide under the tent trailer bed. We are going to Expo ‘86 in Vancouver and along the way we are stopping at all of the iconic tourist attractions - the Calgary Stampede, Roger’s Pass, the Icefields, etc. I am so torn between being excited and being dejected. What sixteen year old wants to spend their summer in the backseat with their brother only a few feet away? Not to mention have their parents within arms reach. This summer is going to cramp my style. The only consolation is they keep telling us there is going to be lots to see and that we are travelling across the country with family friends. They have three girls that are close enough in age to my brother and I and we have known them since we were babies.
I won’t bore you with all of the details of our trip. I can sum up the first ten days or so - forest, rocks, lakes, repeat, and then grassland. Lots of grassland. I look out at the endless patchwork fields and think “neat” and then five minutes into it, I am bored. You could pick a spot on the horizon and drive towards it for a few days! I change the batteries in my Walkman and let Corey Hart sing his pouty faced songs into my teenage ears.
Fast forward through a few more days and tourist attractions and here I am catching my first glimpse of the mountains. They are just a whitish bumpy line on the horizon. I feel a little hitch in my throat and my heart flutters.
Mom asks “Do you see the mountains?”
I am careful to answer “Yeah, whatever.” Best not to let on. I am breaking free from them, remember?
A few days later the scenery really begins to change. We are entering the foothills, tree covered rolling smooth hills. But soon we are surrounded by sheer cliff faces, rocky towering cliffs that surround us on all sides. I am amazed. I haven’t seen anything like it. I press my face up against the side window and look up at where the rock faces disappear into the frothy clouds. This cliff face fades and then there is another one, and another one. Each one is different and yet I feel as if I have known every one of them. The mountains are no longer a picture in a geography book. They are my own memories and I store them carefully.
And then I am standing at the ocean. My first ocean with its craggy rock and saltiness. It is so unlike the freshwater lakes of home. This water is not a gentle invitation to slide in. It is bumpy and almost violent. It is an angry spirit you have to contend with but its power is inspiring all the same. I soak up my trip across the Western provinces and when we return home I know that I am part of something bigger.
I have since seen the oceans on the other side of Canada and visited each of the Eastern provinces. The flat swamps and icy fjords of Newfoundland. The bushy backcountry of New Brunswick and the long bridge across the water to the red sand of Prince Edward Island.
Canada is a vast place. A country with space filled with so many colours and textures. I have been blessed to see a large portion of it and come to know its beauty. The people are the same as the landscape, colourful, textured, different and beautiful. I am reminded of the American patriotism I logged in my memory so long ago. I wasn’t taught my patriotism in school. I learned to love my country like I love the sun on my back on a cold winter’s day. I feel it in my body, I snuggle up to it, and I viscerally know it as my friend.