Published: June 5th 2011September 1st 2009
YVR is stocked with olympics regalia a half year before its festivities, protests, bilingual squabbles and steep rise in 'made in Canada' product driven patriotism swell the city I call home. Canadians in uniforms, perhaps faithful to their pay cheque or I'd argue merely intoxicated on their own little bit of power, take to their duties rather seriously, and given the least provocation, over zealously. Despite my theory that dressing up a little for the flight would lead to better service, my bags are thoroughly searched - at random. I exit into the wrong wing of the terminal and must run to catch my flight, the last to board, appearing in the cabin as my name is called over the PA. A small problem arises soon after I've taken my seat, however, taxiing to the runway when the flight attendant requests a passenger to remove his earphones during take-off and the man obstinately refuses. I ignore most of what ensues in somewhat hushed tones a few rows back. The flight attendant discusses with her colleague and they with the captain and our plane returns to the gate where the passenger is removed by two RCMP officers. Flying is no longer the
romantic lure of the privileged. More and more so the seats are filled with business folk, students, far flung family members - far an ever shrinking term.
I ask the woman seated next to me, short grey hair, friendly squinting eyes, is she done with the paper. Occupying the top margin on the front cover of the Province the continuing saga of Ryan Jenkins. He has been found dead in a motel in Hope. He was 32. I ask her what she thinks. She recounts what her husband said that morning to her, that Jenkins had taken the cowardly way out. She and I disagree, to commit suicide requires a degree of courage even if deep shame leads one to such acts. The man had entered Canada illegally cutting across the border along the beach in my hometown. My neighbour and I had spoken about it as well, how she kept a close look out in the evening when her husband had taken their collie for his evening amble and how I’d been stirred from sleep late night and had to make sure what was the ruckus before falling back to sleep.
I'm caught unaware that WestJet doesn’t
provide meals. Passengers must pay extra for sandwiches, extra for headsets. Non-alcoholic beverages are served complimentary. The passenger seated next to me is headed to Sherbrooke to visit her brother. I tell her I'm moving to Ottawa to begin studies in Poli Sci and Human Rights at Carleton University. The peak of Mt Baker nudges above the clouds. The Okanagan Valley, the Arrow Lakes, and Kootenay Lake lie below slits in the cloud cover. A clever young boy seated behind her keeps a vigil watch out his window, cross checking with the map displayed in the headrest, reporting to his mother when he calculates we've entered each province’s air space. The prairies spread out beneath a hazy clear sky, green and brown quarter mile squares pockmarked with countless tiny lakes and dried river beds cracked like wrinkles. Somewhere over Manitoba, below the haze, a small town sits waiting on the shores of a sea sized lake. What a lonely looking world is much of Canada, a third of its population settled in one of the three largest major cities. How is this really a nation at all? We share a donut shop chain, a history of beaver trappers and lumberjacks
- and a much downplayed genocide of the First Nations. We are more accurately a chain of towns linked along a rail line. Perhaps had I ridden the train instead I'd feel a stronger connection to my 'homeland' and to my fellow canadians. Everyone sits strapped in, cocooned in their own headsets. The boy and his mother try to recall all the names of the Great Lakes but failed to reach the fifth, the largest one which glimmers and laments silver and grey 40,000 ft below. What is Lake Superior for 400, Alex.
The Ottawa river guides the plane east over the capital and neighboring Hull-Gatineau. I spy the Parliament Buildings perched at the river’s bank the north side of downtown and scan the urban grid to find Rideau Canal and the university where I'll be studying. There are no mountains and no ocean. This hardly resembles the Canada I know. I've lived overseas for six years. A book was written to document the ten year voyage of Odysseus but I'd wager a decade in his time would not see as much change as transpires within a few months of our fast paced age - though perhaps people aged
faster back then. Were his travels to the edges of the Mediterranean, to the gates of the Underworld far more contrasting than my own odyssey? My old friends and acquaintances have married, have gotten out mortgages, have bared children, have pursued their careers, have moved to scattered points of the globe. In my own family a generation has passed on, a younger one has grown.
For a week or more, while checking the rental listings, I bunk at the Backpackers in Byward Market a stone's throw from the Parliament. It's fully booked with international students arriving from France, Germany, Britain, Israel. Most will be attending the nearby U of O, a series of old buildings conveniently located along a major bus line and within walking distance of downtown and the market. Carleton, I discover is quarantined to a bend in the canal isolated from the surrounding neighbourhoods by highways and over passes, a jumble of buildings trapped in the 1970s, a few construction sites rush to dig deeper before the frosts and numbing cold descend. There is none of the landscaping or symmetry of SFU or the foliage and sweeping views of UBC. There are tunnels in its stead
where students burrow along with the groundhogs.
I'm surrounded by shops and bars and restaurants, a lifestyle I can't afford, a lifestyle completely neglectful of those not skilled enough, educated enough, not earning a decent regular income. How may nights can one be sustained on canned foods or frozen pizza? Ottawa's average income is substantial, the median family income 20,000$ above the national median - among urban areas, tied with Calgary for the most affluent - though no doubt skewed by a small community of extremely wealthy. The neighbourhoods are picturesque, stone and brick and quiet with few grid patterns and plenty of windy dead ends. Traveling by bus is cumbersome and time consuming. Strange that universities are situated in the most expensive parts of the country. Tuition continues to be a major debate in Ontario, the second highest in the country - with the highest number of students. Amazing to consider how many are secured employment on the backs of university students and the loans they will be repaying for years to come, employment not only on campus and in surrounding services but even the banking and government loans offices - a good proportion of Bombay, I'd reckon.
essential for Gay Pride
a handsome man dressed up as a handsome woman
Besides Parliament hill, Ottawa provides for the tourist a series of stone statues of various 'historic figures,' Europeans who 'discovered' various parts of Upper or Lower Canada, a beautiful hall full of officially sanctioned art. As Canadians we are fortunate that our government spends funds wining and dining the world's artistic elite, securing the next wave of the acceptable exceptional. And the building is large enough with a rooms to security guards ratio that favors a visitor who likes to catch a souvenir snapshot. Across the river in Gatineau where the official language is French though my ears would disagree, stands yet another hallmark to Canadian culture and yet another tax funded investment to perpetuate a collective national identity. Much of it appears to be booty from the West Coast, the Haida, the Coast Salish, the Tsimshan and Kwaikutl.
There are more photos below