I left Belfast in the mid-1970s, certain that Canada would be everything my dysfunctional Northern Ireland was not.
Today, nearly half a century later, I’m not so sure. The country of the maple presents lines of faults surprisingly similar to those on our premises.
Only too aware that my opinions may surprise, even shock, you should know that they are influenced by my life, mainly in the turbulent “Nation again become Province” of Quebec.
Before emigrating, I had witnessed, in my mid to late teens, civil rights marches turning into riots and bus burnings. In my early twenties, I lived through the first and bloodiest years of the Troubles.
My atypical emigration has surely also colored my opinions. I arrived on my own, on a 30-degree January evening, in a furiously English-speaking small town in rural Ontario where French was not really welcome. Two French-Canadian colleagues were told “it would be better” if they didn’t speak French to each other at work.
To me, that “it would be better” sounded more like Belfast.
Then I discovered, tucked behind the Holy Land of language, another – only too familiar – Holy Land. In the first sentence of Hugh MacLennan’s quintessential Canadian novel, Two Solitudes, he speaks of “Protestant Ontario and Catholic Quebec”. I was stunned.
MacLennan was not far from Protestant Ontario, where the Orange Order banned the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Toronto from 1878 to 1988, some 110 years. The so-called Lord’s Day Act, which was not repealed until 1985, protected Sundays in Toronto, just like Sundays in Belfast, from children playing on swings or – heaven forbid – from tobogganing in winter. Chained children’s swings. So nothing like Belfast?
After three years, I moved to Montreal, which was love at first sight. It’s always like that. However, despite my love for Montreal, my hard-earned fluency in French, and my affection for Quebec, as an Anglo, I am as second-class here as I was as a “Catholic” back home.
Now is it Karma or what?
Prior to my arrival, Quebec had been plagued by political violence: the FLQ (Quebec Liberation Front) – never as deadly as the IRA or UVF – still managed to bombard the province in its October Crisis 1970. This led to Pierre Trudeau (Justin’s father) invoking the War Measures Act, deploying troops to Montreal and detaining 400 Quebecers without trial.
Do you see the parallels here with my old life?
The internment gave life to the province’s separatist movement and led to two Quebexit referendums. Although the former, in 1980, was beaten 60/40, the latter in 1995 came within a hair’s breadth – 50,000 votes – of breaking Canada.
In my mid-40s, if Canada had fallen apart, I don’t know what I would have done.
Incidentally, the separation did not begin in Quebec; it started in Western Canada whose obnoxious battle cry was “let the bastards of the East freeze in the dark”.
In 1980, after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau gave protesters in the West a one-finger salute, they fought back with stickers emblazoned with, you guessed it, “Let the bastards of the East…” on a radio show, an Alberta resident said: ‘If my voice is shaking I’m terribly angry, to the point that I’d be happy to fight for our freedom and I mean literally fight with a gun.”
Forty years later, in January 2022, the “Freedom Convoy” – largely from Western Canada – came to Ottawa where protesters and their trucks occupied downtown for a month. Other protesters blocked bridges and border crossings into the United States. At one of the border protest sites, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) found a cache of weapons, which I found disturbing.
Firearms had come out before, not far from my house. In July 1990, a shootout broke out between Quebec police and the Mohawk Warriors from the community of Kahnawake. A police officer died and Canadian troops were deployed to restore peace.
In August, a convoy evacuating Mohawk women, children and elders from Kahnawake was ambushed and stoned by white Quebecers in a display of public savagery as bad as anything I had seen back home. Watch the National Film Board documentary Whiskey Trench Rocks .
Finally, up to 9/11, the world’s worst terrorist act was the June 23, 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182; perpetrated by Canadians, most of its 329 victims were Canadians.
Some Corkonians know more about this tragedy than most Canadians. A memorial event is held annually at a memorial garden near Ahakista in West Cork. The bereaved families formed lasting friendships with local people who opened their homes and hearts to them in 1985.
Of course, thankfully, Canada’s fault lines never led to the magnitude of violence I experienced back home. However, they are there and they show no signs of leaving.
If you settle here, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience, but know that, like my native Norn Iron, Canada is also a divided society.
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