Canadian national identity is a much ballyhooed (does Canadian national identity exist?) subject in our pop culture, but to my mind there has always been something that unites Canada. And it is not Molson beer. The true North strong and free: danger, responsibility, risk, and reward.
I know. Last week I was skiing past some bear prints in the snow in the Chic Choc mountains in the Haute Gaspesie with a friend when the weather came in unexpectedly, a bank of fog at the top of Mont Des Loupes. I read the map with my best navigating skills, and a compass, but the map was not declinated to magnetic north, it was simply declinated to grid north and our calculation in descent was slightly off. (Also, the map was published in 2004 and due to global warming the mountain gods had let the beard grow out turning what was tundra on the map into boreal forest: another missing declination.) So what had become an error of feet quickly turned into an error of degrees.
Trapped on the side of the mountain, we could neither go up nor down, so I suggested that we build a camp. I called 911 from my cell phone. I explained that we were lost in the park, and in four connections and in nine minutes we were speaking to a park ranger who told me that he would be to me in three hours with a snowmobile. I didn’t understand how a snowmobile could possibly get to us.
I also phoned someone in Montreal who could communicate with the park on my behalf should my cellphone die, which it did. Being in the “Canadian Wild” knowing that there was someone from “Canadian Civilization” (and furthermore from (”Quebec Civilization”*)) aware of us gave me a strange if not flawed sense of security. Within an hour we had built our snow cave. It was 8’ x 5’ x 3.5’ and it had two air holes at the top. We put our backpacks in the entranceway to stop the cold from coming in, however it was extremely cold due to the moisture. We were cliffed in.
The shivering felt good. It felt like what I imagine it feels for dogs to pant. We were cold and the shivering warmed us up. It was violent shivering, convulsing even.
Upon reflection some days later, I thought that shivering is a very strong metaphor for the Canadian condition. In addition to the “cold” connotation, shiver means to break into many small pieces or splinter; to shatter; to break to pieces by a blow. Shiver me timbers was a form of oath formerly used by sailors and so Canada has been ashiver always, but it is a hearty shiver, a shivering hearth of whimsical community at the very edge of the world.
We descended the wall with the two park rangers who rescued us on snowshoe and were escorted four hours down the cliff and finally over to police snowmobiles at dawn. Beneath the majestic northern edge of the Appalachian range, the snowmobiles ferreted us back to our point of entry into the wilderness; I felt a bit of an epiphany about Canadian national identity then. Industry, necessity, snow, invention, imagination, a white slate, a confederation shivered together by the challenges of the North, of the New World I thought in my delirium on the back of the sled.
* But even within this northern context there remained the Quebec question in my mind. My American friend accompanying me on the trip (an organic farmer in Vermont—a state with its own cottage sovereignty movement) sees the Quebec question as one of political expediency. “What a great country,” he said of Canada, “doesn’t really make sense for anyone to want to leave. But,” he added, “I don’t see anything wrong with threats. Politics is a dirty business all over the world.” Buck up Canada and count your blessings, he seemed to say, yours is god’s country.