Sonnet L’Abbé is an award-winning poet and culture critic who teaches creative writing in the Faculty of Creative and Critical Studies at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus, She has embarked on a two-month whistle-stop tour aboard ViaRail, talking with Canadians about our country at Year 150, as part of the CANADA 150/2017 STARTS NOW conference series. These conferences are presented by CBC/Radio-Canada, in partnership with VIA Rail Canada and Community Foundations of Canada (CFC), www.2017startsnow.ca. Twitter #Canada150.
ViaRail exec Yves Desjardins-Siciliano and I took the same morning train from Saskatoon to Winnipeg. When we arrived that evening at Winnipeg’s Union Station, we were already inside the conference venue. Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano, clearly proud of this building and its heritage, led me to the large rotunda that faces Main Street. Tables, chairs and screens for breakout sessions had been set up under the high, pink dome ceiling. A production crew was busy testing sound and lights in the adjoining citizenship court. “A fitting space to talk about Canadian values, no?” asked Mr. Desjardins-Siciliano. The next day I would hear from Winnipeggers that what’s important to them is supporting the vibrance of multiple histories, languages and identities.
Perhaps it was my state of mind having just come from Saskatoon, or maybe it was just that Elder Gary Dano was that good a performer, but the song he sang moved me to tears. Something about his voice and the ancient syllables of prayer reverberating against the limestone walls of English and French colonialists’ “gateway to the West,” made me aware of breathing the same air as everyone in the room. Each elder who has spoken at the #Canada150 conferences has emphasized honoring the water, land and air as nourishing us and nourishing our future. Dano made it seem possible that our very Canadian identity could become an honoring of those things.
Lawyer Aimée Craft built on the idea of these conferences as nourishing Canada’s future. She reminded the audience of not only to think seven generations forward but also to consider new ways of interpreting Manitoba’s treaties. Craft echoed publisher Deborah Morrison’s call to remember Manitoba’s many, multiple histories. Through Morrison’s eyes, I saw Manitoba as the site of Louis Riel’s resistance, of Nellie McClung’s mock parliament, and of the Winnipeg General Strike – in short as home to some of Canada’s greatest champions of human rights.
I was unprepared for the degree of French bilingualism in the room. Nor was I prepared to be struck, in Mariette Mulaire’s speech, by an accent I recognized. It was twenty miles from here that at age eight I first learned to identify as French-Canadian and to speak what I now understand is a Manitoban French. When I was little, I had no idea Winnipeg was as bilingual as it is, with streets named Goulet, Taché and Lagimodière, at its heart. The francophone tables were vibrant and full, as attendees from the Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain and Festival du Voyageur spoke of celebrating Canada’s 150th not with new cultural institutions, but with renewed support for those that already exist.
Harold Westdal’s impassioned call to support a trans-Canada hiking trail spoke to the B.C. outdoorsiness in me: what a great idea! Curator Anthony Kiendl made me see, through the eyes of a Manitoba artist, the U.F.O. Landing Platform in St. Paul, Alberta that hosts have mentioned at every conference. Kiendl drove home how public art brings openness and playfulness to a civic questioning of official histories.
Finally, David Chilton shared his perspective on how good we’ve got it in Canada. His command? Quit complaining. Chilton’s straight-talking humour lightened everyone up for the breakout sessions but also prepared listeners for Roméo Dallaire’s more critical talk. Dallaire spoke of commemorative events as recognizing the price of 150 years of Canada’s stable democracy. Dallaire hoped that as a nation we will more maturely acknowledge the violent conflicts through which nation-states are formed. He insisted that we remember the sacrifices “in blood” of veterans and of First Nations peoples that established Canada as we know it. Dallaire’s parting words were to me as powerful and mindful of multiple histories as Elder Dano’s closing song, which, after Dallaire took his seat, rose up once more to touch the domed height of the station.
- Sonnet L’Abbé, Award-winning poet and culture critic