Canadian Conversations



Over the course of the past few weeks, I have had a number of conversations with Unplugd participants Tom Fullerton, Andy Forgrave and Stephen Hurley, as well as #ds106radio folks like @drgarcia and @easegill about the nature of the Canadian experience or identity. Spurred on by the inspiration of attending the first “uniquely Canadian educational summit,” the discussion of just what it means to live in Canada, how the landscape influences our national character, and how the immensity of our country factors into the dreaming and expression of its artists, thinkers, and politicians, has continued to fill my thinking. In advance of our author panel coming up this Thursday evening, I thought I would attempt to synthesize some of this thinking and delve into some of my own piece of the Canadian narrative.

Let me debunk an American myth: I take my life in my hands.

Gord Downie

Canada is a big place. And the creation of that mythological Canadian character, that supreme individual in whom resides the imagination of the country is as immense as the space between our scattered cities.

Margaret Atwood has characterized the chief concern of Canadian literature as Survival, and the breadth of citizens living out this central theme in our national life has ranged from the colonists of Susanna Moodie, to artists such as Tom Thompson, and athletes like Sidney Crosby.

Terry Fox.

Gordon Downie.

Iceage Leftover

Erratic Behaviour

These are people with a vision expansive enough to see the whole country, and channel the exaltation of a people bound to one another and their local communities by distance, weather, mountains, plains, and the scattered tribes of NHL franchises, hometown heroes, and brief flirtations with international notoriety. But for the fringes of ‘civilization’ freckled across the 49th parallel, the True North of long nights and longer winters, of hockey played on backyard ponds, and of an intimate awareness of our cohabitation with a visceral wilderness are the everyday experience in the great wide open that separates us all, in our cities or outside of them. And it is against this sparsely populated landscape that the characters and authors of our national narratives lived and recorded their lives in monuments of necessity and invention, art and social artifact.

There exist in great abundance across the country these ‘soul homes,’ where in the unmolested forests from Haida Gwaii or Gros Morne we can touch, and see, and breathe the dawn of not only our Canadian story, but modern human society, and the birthmarks of the very Earth itself. To experience a sunrise against a mountainside bearing the scars of the most ‘recent’ ice age (10,000+ years ago), or swim in a lake scoured into the surface of a two billion year old rock, is to immerse oneself in the immensity of the Canadian experience and imagination. We are greeted daily with the reality that the Edge – of the province, country, ocean or time itself – (if there even is an edge) is well beyond our ability to conceive of it. Oceans rise and fall. Mountains collide, erupt, and crumble. The glaciers come with regularity, and over time our mammalian cousins evolve to live in the sea, then upon land, only to return eventually to the oceans. Life in Canada, from cedar trees, to orca whales and Prime Ministers, is waged against the unavoidable landscape of immeasurable time.

August 2004

Echoes in a Timeless Battle

And despite the fact that North America’s First Peoples had managed in this tidal cycle of ice and evolution to live productively – if not in many cases quite comfortably – from coast to coast and north of Hudson’s Bay across the arctic barrens, the European settlers who would write the initial passages in our young nation had left a native landscape that had been subdued by the hands of men and machines for centuries. From landed nobility to indentured servants, Canada’s first settlers had little reason to expect that land, even in the ‘untamed’ New World, would do anything but surrender to the development of crops and the sweep of human progress [1. Of course, they may have also been terrified, scared witless as you or I would be setting out to colonize Mars. But I like to imagine proper French and English gentlefolk encountering the north woods of Ontario with formal-wear and tea sets.]

It is into this terse relationship with the land that Susanna Moodie, and later Tom Thompson, wandered out into their own North Woods and created, in paint and prose, artifact and expression of the energy and life force of the very land itself. And while many did, and many still do cling to the cities [2. Whose character and value I don’t begrudge or discount, but aren’t the aspect of the Canadian experience I’m after here.], there have always been Alexander MacKenzies, and Emily Carrs, and Terry Foxes, individuals who have pursued in themselves a relationship – a conflict, really: survival, waged against the country’s wilderness, and the limits of understanding our country’s character.

In line with the focus of my #Unplugd11 essay and anecdote, I continue to write the story of our country’s/countries’ unfolding narrative with these individual thoughts, and the perspectives of my friends and colleagues. I am able to continue forward from the summit replenished and inspired by time spent talking, telling stories, singing songs, and forging meaning in the ways people of this place have for millennium: beside lakes and campfires, in canoes, and surrounded by residents of a landscape that has shaped each of us.

Adventure Trip Photos

“We who the sign might justly be considered ‘odd’ by the world; yes, even crazy, and dangerous. We were aware, or in the process of becoming aware, and our striving was directed at achieving a more and more complete state of awareness, while the striving of others was a quest aimed at binding their opinions, ideals, duties, their lives and fortunes more and more closely to those of the herd. There, too, was striving, there, too, were power and greatness. But whereas we who were marked believed that we represented the will of Nature  to something new, to the individualism of the future, the others sought to perpetuate the status quo.

“Humanity – which they loved as we did – was for them something complete that must be maintained and protected. For us, humanity was a distant goal toward which all [people] were moving, whose image no one knew, whose laws were nowhere written down.”

Hermann Hesse

A Summer in Pictures

As a means of dusting off the blog after a long summer’s nap, I’ve embedded a collection of my Flickr photos from the last few months spent kayaking, concert-going, camping, hiking, and otherwise enjoying the peaks of a Pacific Coast summer. Above you’ll find the fruits of trips paddling in Port Moody’s Burrard Inlet, camping on Vancouver Island’s Sombrio Beach, Pemberton’s Blowdown Pass, and the Columbia River Valley for a Kings of Leon concert at the Gorge Amphitheatre.

Cultural Geography Public Service Announcements

No sign of Boo BooAs a means to delve creatively into the cultural geography in Western Canada, our socials ten students will be undertaking the creation of public service announcements on issues relating to the present states of plants and animals across several different biomes. Having practiced digital storytelling skills in writing, performing and editing a brief time-line of human history in the local area last week, their sights will be set on documenting the evolving history of human interaction with, and use of, resource species such as the Rocky Mountains’ bears, the Plains’ buffalo, and the Pacific Coast’s salmon.

They were not a nation, nor even a tribe, but a loose association of groups consisting of up to a dozen families. All were, however, united in their allegiance to Tuktu – the caribou – which, in their millions, not only furnished the necessities of life but most of whatever else these people needed. Caribou skins provided clothing (the warmest and lightest known), footwear, tents, sleeping robes, covering for kayaks, even the heads of drums. Tuktu gave meat, and fat both to eat and to fill their lamps; sinews for sewing; and antler and bone for the manufacture of innumerable hunting and domestic implements, even including children’s toys. Tuktu was life itself to human dwellers in the Barren Lands.

Farley Mowat Walking on the Land


Each of the animals and biomes selected by the groups this week bear a similar tradition of use that reaches back to the dawn of humankind, and I look forward to seeing the class’ representations of these ecosystems as they once were, on through their current state. Even in our suburban setting, there is still a reverence for the outdoors in many of the class’ undertakings – whether natural or urban – and the energy in class today as the groups selected their biomes and animals and set out on research stemmed from a connection many members of the class feel with their local setting. In documenting the traditions of our ancestors on this land alongside modern Canadians’ stewardship of the country’s most valuable resources, the project’s lofty purpose will be to offer a message to those who will follow in our footsteps here.

“We are all five-fingered people, the holy people. My grandfather and uncles always said that when we are taught these things, they are for the people, the children, and whoever comes to you wanting your help and the medicine of our ancestors. It is our responsibility to help them.”

Brian Payton Shadow of the Bear

Hopefully we do better than Dwight.

Field Trip: Urban Geography & the Canadian Identity

Rising From The RubbleOur students are faced with planning cultural outings over the course of the year that occasionally turn into full-fledged field trips. While other events are attended by handfuls of students – it is expected that each TALONS class member attends three cultural events – others take on such a pertinent range of learning opportunities, as tomorrow’s excursion downtown does, that we arrange our two blocks of study around a trip for all to benefit from.

Saskia has organized tomorrow’s adventure around catching the Vancouver Art Gallery‘s exhibit on the early painting and photography (1860 – 1918) of the North American landscape, as well as the sketched collection of Canada’s Group of Seven, whom we have already studied as creators, and communicators of the Canadian identity.

On our way to the art gallery, we will also be visiting Vancouver’s Chinatown, and otherwise undertaking the journey from our suburb into the heart of downtown on foot and public transit, taking the bus and SkyTrain, arriving between the Olympic venues of BC and GM Place, and walking through the heart of the 2010 village.

Covering English, history, and science, our class spends a lot of time investigating, exploring and discussing our local environments and their influence on our individual and collective identities. And while the inspiration for these discussions is often the natural world – as our forays into the local woods, islands, inlets and otherwise bring about a sense of belonging in a place inhabited for some ten thousand years that cannot help but build one’s affinity – adopted or otherwise – with a sense of home, there is a strange energy that comes with our visits to The City.

In the fall, we make an annual research venture to the Vancouver Public Library and the downtown core’s independent booksellers to gather material for the initial stages of the Eminent Person Study. For many of our grade nine students, the trip is an introduction to Hastings Street, and the truly urban environment of western Canada’s temperate capital is capable of overwhelming many in the way that Manhattan must astound the youngsters of Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.False Creek Transit

Tomorrow though, these very same students head into the city with a vague sense of what to expect. Our intentions are to experience the city’s diverse culture, transit, people and public collection of art which is indisputably a national treasure. The benefits of such additions to one’s education are invaluable, as these glimpses of our urban center balance the culture of our wild places with a potency of vibrant life, architecture and identity that is unique to Vancouver. With the Olympics set to begin a month from today, we are irretrievably on the verge of the city never being the same again, and I look forward to seeing and sharing the trip with 27 sets of the youthful eyes that will take up the creation of our local, provincial and national identity in the Games’ impeding wake.

As a means of focusing the trip, and beginning the artistic creation of our collective identity beginning tomorrow (and continuing, really, every day), I will be asking the students to identify and report on a moment of experienced, realized, or witnessed Canadiana on their blogs. Whether this ends up as a blog post with a cell-phone video shot street side, or a reflection, description or meditation on a local landmark, character, or painting, I am not bothering to prescribe. But to live out the intentions of Goethe‘s quotation that “A person sees in the world what they carry in their heart,” I look forward to the expressions that tomorrow afternoon yields.

As ever, I will be quick to share the postings as they come in.

David W. Orr’s “Goal of Education”

Tidepool JellyMy sister showed me a quote from David W. Orr she came across during an Environmental Education course this summer. When study is meaningful, the subject is often not what is learned.

The goal of education is not mastery of subject matter, but mastery of one’s person. Subject matter is simply a tool. Much as one would use a hammer and a chisel to carve a block of marble, one uses ideas and knowledge to forge one’s own personhood. For the most part we labour under a confusion of ends and means, thinking that the goal of education is to stuff all kinds of facts, techniques, methods and information into the students’ minds, regardless of how and with what effect it will be used.

And while many have come around to this way of thinking with regards to content not necessarily being the center of a course, but the means by which to drive critical thinking and a sense of pride and individuality into the curriculum, we have yet to entirely address these ideas in terms of technology. The use of more technology is not a golden ticket to ‘better’ learning, as it must serve the larger goals of creating community, and helping the members of that community to realize their potential. As with content, technology is merely the tool which may – or may not – allow this type of growth and awareness.

Retreat Photos

More work from (one of) my very talented sister(s), shot this September in Indian Arm, British Columbia.

One Week Job

Friends of mine, Ian MacKenzie and Sean Aiken, have put their lack of direction to good use – and a good cause – with their One Week Job project.

One Week Job: The Documentary from Ian MacKenzie on Vimeo.

“Instead of take the first job that came along, he found a unique way of figuring it out: the One Week Job project.

How it worked: Anyone, anywhere, could offer Sean a job for one week. Any money he earned for the work, he asked the employer to donate towards the ONE / Make Poverty History campaign.

On his inspirational quest, Sean tried everything: Bungee Instructor, Dairy Farmer, Advertising Executive, Baker, Stock Trader, Firefighter, and more. Wherever he could find work, he’d go there, find a couch to crash on and immerse himself in whatever profession was at hand. And then he’d move on.”

The Long Way Home


As a means of solidifying many photographs and words written long ago (2002), I will be posting subsequent chapters to this initial endeavor here.

The summer I graduated from University, my younger sister and I worked at a Boy Scout summer camp in the Ozark Mountains, where I had interned the previous year. With the stowed paychecks of six weeks work in our backpacks, we went to Toronto and bought a car, took the train to Montreal, and visited Niagara Falls’ misty fury before heading west. Having taken root in the heart of the South for five years, the trip across our country was a fitting homecoming and definitive personal culmination of many things. This is the record of that voyage, and what I thought it meant at the time.