From Far and Wide

July 4, 2018

 

We're all immigrants on this land. First, second, third, fourth, maybe fifth generation. Not absolutely all of us, but many, most. July 1st, Canada Day, comes and goes with little reflection on that point but the reality is there. It's undeniable. In Montreal, Canada Day is celebrated by moving house; it's officially the unofficial moving day. I'm sure a metaphor is buried in the tradition which has been taking place for I don't know how long, but I haven't heard anyone  properly articulate why Canada Day became moving day. For now, we accept it as a convenience. 

 

The real "Fête nationale du Québec" is the weekend before Canada Day: that's June 24, St.-Jean-Baptiste Day.  Whether it is on the June 24th long weekend or July 1st, what these holidays mean in practice for many locals is an escape from the city. Usually that's a trip to the cottage and if you're a fifth generation Quebecker like me, or whatever exactly it is I am, there's a good chance you either have or had a family cottage on a lake somewhere. Maybe in Quebec, maybe Ontario, maybe Manitoba. Maybe you know that the family drama that is likely to ensue on either of these holiday weekends can equal that which Thanksgiving is so famous for. What is it that brings families together in this way? Is it the desire to be together and learn from each other, or is it the mutually beneficial use of the land?  

 

Most Canadians know their roots. Not their Canadian roots per se, but their ancestral roots. It might sometimes be perceived roots, but almost always there will be the history of a complex cultural entanglement with Canada at the nexus. A Montreal man that lives in the Mile End (having grown up in Nova Scotia) can tell you about the part of India one of his grandmothers comes from, and about his father's roots in Guyana, that part of his family having arrived to Nova Scotia through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery. But he struggles most to ascribe details about his Algonquin grandmother. She lost her "Indian status" when she married his Quebecois grandfather; choosing to marry a non-indigenous man cost her her aboriginal rights and maybe even the ability to pass on a culture. 

 

This is another oft not talked about aspect of St.-Jean-Baptiste Day: the presence of First Nations "among the founders of Nouvelle-France." Apparently, "their contribution was revealed by genetic studies of uniparentally transmitted markers showing the existence of Native American mitochondrial DNA lineages in the contemporary Quebec population." But don't hold your breath waiting to hear this discussed during the holiday events.  You probably won't hear much about it. The French connection is clear, the rest is murky. Even those of us  whose jewish ancestors were exiled before being sent to concentration camps vaguely know about the German, Hungarian and Russian blood flowing in our veins. 

 

But when does one's blood turn Canadian exactly? Why do we, almost all of us whether first or fifth generation, continue to tie ourselves to these nebulous homelands? Maybe it's a mystery or maybe it persists because we are afraid to dig in our own backyards. If we dig too deep, what will we find? 

 

That the family land was stolen, not bought? Maybe it is, in fact, deeper than land. Maybe we are afraid if we look closer we will find we are not Chinese, Nigerian, German, Irish, Jewish, but something new.

 

It is the New World after all, isn't it?

 

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