Canadians are nice people. Everyone in the world knows this. They are not just superficially friendly like their American cousins, but somehow wholesome and true, and when they say “we should get together for a coffee,” they usually mean it. Sometimes, traveling Americans attach a little Canadian flag to their backpacks in order to be well received out there in the world where people might not take kindly to the star spangled banner but aren’t frightened by the maple leaf.
I find people in Quebec especially nice. In Montreal, for example, we live in a metropolis but still interact as if we were on the farm. Random female shopkeepers routinely address you with "ma chère" and "ma belle," and there is some sort of camaraderie in it, like something between women, you know. People thank the bus driver when they get off the bus like he’s doing them a favour. A friend had her wallet stolen and it reappeared in her mailbox the next day with all identification documents intact, only minus the credit cards and cash. On a night last winter, as I was lugging groceries over snow and ice, a plastic bag burst open spilling a cascade of oranges down Avenue Mont-Royal. The people who witnessed the incident immediately got down to collecting the escaping fruit and returning it to me.
This gentle Canadian spirit is reflected in one of the nation’s favourite pastimes, which consists of watching leaves changing colour in the fall. This is a discipline as advanced and developed as bird watching. The tourism website quebecoriginal.com says “Let the colors enchant you this fall” and features a map indicating the state of leaf colour evolution in various parts of the province, with no less than seven stages, ranging from “Non-debutée” (Beginning Soon) marked by a green leaf icon to “Terminée” (End) marked by a grey leaf. In between, one finds “Début” (yellow), “Milieu” (orange), “Avancée” (red), “Apogée” (burgundy) and “Déclin” (brown).
Coming from the Balkans, I found this leaf map extremely civilized. What better sign of an organized nation devoted to the pursuit of self-actualization? Here, even the leaves had been sorted and classified, facilitating the peaceful milling about of citizens in pursuit of natural beauty!
As I was recently deciding which leafy region to visit, I asked a francophone colleague for the meaning of the word “Apogée." The woman shot up from her chair like a bullet fired from a gun, threw her fist into the air and exclaimed: "C'est LE TOP!" These were the very best leaves, apparently. It was all very exciting and the next day I immediately set out for the Dorwin Falls Park in Rawdon, anxious that the leaves might fall off their trees prior to my getting there (Terminée!)
In this gentle, leaf-observing country, the national sport is hockey, where fighting among players remains an acceptable and integral part of the game. According to the book “Hockey: A People's History”, four players were killed due to frequent brawls and violent stickwork in 1904. Indeed, deliberately injuring opponents constitutes an essential part of any good hockey strategy, and the variously violent roles of players are as carefully gradated as the shades of the autumn leaves.
A Goon or Enforcer, for example, is to respond to dirty or violent play by the opposition. When such play occurs, the goon is to react aggressively, by fighting or checking the offender. Pests are players whose role is to agitate opponents and distract them from the game, without necessarily fighting them (but maybe). Then, there is the Grinder. According to a hockey website: “Whether the team is up by 1 or 2 goals, grinders are sent out to put into good use their specialty of defense. A tendency of grinders is also getting into fights. Racking up points isn't necessarily a skill a grinder has, meaning these players have little to no fame at all.” Fancy that. The sport has attracted the attention of the criminal justice system and government reports have been written on the subject of violence in hockey.
Nor is hockey just a sport reserved for the people while the Canadian elites devote themselves to polo or something. High status is displayed by the possession of expensive hockey tickets, and business at the highest level takes place in the hockey lodge. In Montreal, the biggest corporations have their own lodge at the local hockey arena and this is where their clients are dined and wined. Snore.
On a given Saturday afternoon in October, then, an ordinary Canadian forays into the nearby countryside in search of enchanting leaves. His spirit elated with wonder, he returns to town in the evening to watch a teeth-smashing Maple Leafs game. His higher self and inner neanderthal thus satisfied, he feels generous and kind toward the world. If he is merely one of the people, he takes the bus home and thanks the driver for the courtesy of the ride, then steps off to gather oranges spilled by strangers like a bird collecting berries in a leafy forest on the eve of fall. Ô, Canada!