Friday, August 02, 2013

Oh Canada

In the domestic economy of my household, it falls to me to do the vacation planning. This year, mostly due to unanticipated open heart surgery, I got a dangerously late start. In early June, I was about to pull the trigger on a one-week rental in the Lake of the Ozarks area in south central Missouri. But, remembering the last two summers in July and August, and how insufferably hot they were, I had second thoughts about booking a place even further south than central Illinois. About that time, I was in the company of one of the newer clergy in the diocese, a priest whom we imported from New Brunswick, and I had a flash: the Canadian maritimes! My Canadian friend assured me that the weather would be quite pleasant there in late July--not much worry of being too hot--so we pointed our search engines in a northeasterly direction.

Eventually we stumbled on a a listing for a "fabulous and comfy converted church" near the Nova Scotia community of Annapolis Royal. Indeed, it turned out to not just be a church, but an Anglican church, St Alban's by name. It was build in 1892 to serve the faithful in the town of Lequille, and we have since learned that it remained a functioning church as recently as 2000. We did all this blind, without so much as looking at a map to see where the heck Annapolis Royal even is before making a commitment. I don't recommend making vacation plans this way, but, in our case, grace abounded.

On the way to that abundant grace, however, there were some moments of anxiety. One was when we got around to making air travel arrangements and discovered Porter Airlines, whose fares to Halifax were enough lower than those of the standard brand names that we couldn't just ignore it. Our fear was that it was built on the model of "low cost" airlines that snag passengers with low published fares, but then charge for every conceivable amenity. At first, this suspicion was borne out, as we did have to pay extra to book seat assignments online at the time we purchased the tickets. But on the day of travel, we were mightily impressed: very short check-in line at Midway (and no kiosk to deal with ... straight to a human being), no charge for checked baggage, access to the priority line for security screening, a unique and very classy in-flight magazine, staff in "retro" uniforms, uncrowded seat distribution in the aircraft, and beverages served in real glass. All Porter flights either originate or conclude at their Toronto hub, which is the small island airport on Lake Ontario right in front of downtown, affording a spectacular view on every takeoff and landing. Presently, they only fly the same model of Bombardier turbo-prop on all their routes, but they are negotiating for permission to land jets in Toronto (a "quiet" Bombardier model), and expand their footprint to western Canada, California, and Florida. Three cheers (one-and-a-half each from Brenda and me) for Porter Airlines.

After a substantial layover in Toronto, and a fifteen minute "station stop" in Montreal (spectacularly impressive from the air; so much "waterscape"), we landed in Halifax around 6:45pm, Atlantic time (one hour earlier than eastern). After picking up our rental car, and making a wrong turn onto a freeway after exiting the airport because all of our electronic devices seemed to be on strike, this put us in the driveway of the property manager for our rental around 10pm, slightly frustrated but happy to have arrived. En route, we stopped in the community of Windsor to get something to eat because we'd had no serious food the entire day. We knew we weren't in Illinois anymore because the local McDonald's had a McLobster sandwich on the menu ... and because everybody in the McDonald's was  ... so darn nice. This is a cliche about Canadians, I realize, but all stereotypes have to originate somewhere, and I can see where this one came from. It was our consistent experience during the entire trip.

Actually, Americans pretty much just don't know what to make of Canada. Here was have a geographically vast but sparsely populated country across our northern border, with a culture that seems substantially the same as ours, or, at least, with no greater differences than between the various regions of the U.S. To the attuned ear, they have a distinctive way of speaking English, but they are a lot closer to the U.S. standard accent than either of us are to our mutual British cousins. It's relatively easy for a Canadian to "pass" south of the border, as many have even while attaining celebrity status (Peter Jennings and Michael J. Fox, inter alia). But a bunch of them speak French, and all the official signs are in both languages. And they have learned to think in meters and grams and degrees of Celsius, all of which tend to vex most Americans. Their money is strange, but I found it much easier to get used to than in Britain. They have eliminated paper denominations lower than five dollars, but comfortably circulate one-dollar (the "loony") and two-dollar coins. More recently, that have begun to phase out the penny, rounding cash transactions to the nearest multiple of five cents. All this seems eminently reasonable, and I don't know why we haven't done it yet here.

As I said, we chose Annapolis Royal with no more intentionality than if we had thrown a dart at a map of the maritime provinces while blindfolded. (We would indeed have been delighted if the dart had landed on Prince Edward Island, on account of its Anne of Green Gables associations.) As it turned out, we ended up in what is arguably the birthplace of Canada. The first European settlement in what is now Canadian territory, a French fur-trading outpost just a few miles down the river basin from Annapolis Royal, was established in 1605. This is two years before the Virginia settlement at Jamestown and a full fifteen years before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock. In fact, the French
A reconstruction of the 1605 French settlement.
settlement was eventually raided, pillaged, and destroyed by a contingent from Virginia, foraging for food during a famine while channeling the spirit of the Vikings who scattered their seed in East Anglia a few centuries earlier, and importing from Europe the ancient and perpetual animosity between the French and the British.

A group of Scots established Charlesfort on the current site of A.R. in 1629 (thus planting the seed for the enduring name of the entire region--Nova Scotia, New Scotland), only to abandon it to the French three years later, who renamed it Port-Royal. As such, it became the capital of the French colonial province of Acadia. But there was constant conflict, with the real estate changing hands several times, for the next 125 years. In 1755, with the British finally in permanent control, and the town having been renamed Annapolis Royal (a combination of the French name and homage to the current British monarch), the French community--the Acadians--were deported. Some of them found their way to the Franco-friendly territory of Louisiana, where they have since become known as Cajuns (a corruption of "Acadians").
Facsimile of Acadian cabin
Having lived in south Louisiana for five years in the late 80s and early 90s, with substantial contact with both Cajun culture and Cajun cuisine, it was fascinating to be in the land they had come from. Nowadays, one tends to associate French Canada with Quebec. It is ironic that the francophone presence is now minimal in the territory where France had its first foothold in North America.

While reading the Toronto Globe & Mail on the plane while en route home, I ran across this op-ed piece that crystallized some of what I felt during our brief Canadian sojourn. Of particular interest was the author's comment about the lack of a dominant coherent narrative of Canadian history ... among Canadians. This came as news to me. Of course, as an American, most anything about Canadian history comes as news. I can recite a few factoids about Canadian politics since World War II, though not enough, but, as a student in suburban Chicago public schools in the 1950s and 60s, I was taught nothing about Canada. Zilch.

What I did learn was that the United States, by contrast, does have a compelling narrative of its own history: George III was an evil tyrant who mistreated his good-willed subjects in the American colonies (it never occurred to me to wonder about the British colonies in what is now Canada), leading the freedom-loving colonists to, reluctantly, declare their independence and set up the United States of America, a shining beacon of liberty and democracy that is an inspiration to the entire rest of the world. Brier Island (from whence we embarked on a whale-watching tour), a historical marker matter-of-factly refers to the leaders of the American Revolution as "rebels" and indicates that several families on the island yet bear the names of deported loyalists from the 1780s. That may not constitute a coherent narrative of Canadian history, but it is certainly a pretty coherent counter-narrative of the American Revolution!
I have since managed to piece together enough information to understand that historical reality is a little more complicated than the dominant narrative might let on. Neither side can stake an exclusive claim to the moral high ground in the armed conflict that ended in 1783, free of any self-serving motivations. Being in Canada, being in Annapolis Royal, reinforced my perception of complication. After the war, several tens of thousands of colonists who had been loyal to the Crown were re-settled in Nova Scotia. On the wall of the Anglican parish church where we worshiped on the Sunday we were in town, there was a plaque memorializing a priest who led some 500 loyalists from the lower colonies to their new home in Annapolis Royal. On

Nova Scotia is shaped more or less like the head of a hammer, with two large peninsulas extending either direction from its connection to the mainland. The southern and western peninsula is separated from New Brunswick by the Bay of Fundy. (I have to confess ... I am so conditioned to hear "fundy" as a shorthand for "fundamentalist" that it was difficult to resist snickering when I saw commercial signs like "Fundy Electric" or "Fundy Cleaners" or the "Fundy Restaurant" in Digby, where we enjoyed a wonderful dinner of steamed lobster.) The Bay of Fundy is distinguished, due to a combination of geographical quirks, by being the locus of the highest tides in the world. And
Ebbing tide
since the high tide is so high, the differential between high tide and low tide seems exaggerated, and quite dramatic. What is a waterscape when you see it at one time of day is a landscape when you see it a few hours later. This is evident even in Annapolis Royal, several miles up the river basin. When the tide is coming in, the river flows visibly upstream. It's really quite astonishing to see. The force of the tidal cycle is so great that they have built one of the world's few tidal power generating stations there. The ebb tide drives a turbine that adds megawatts to the Nova Scotia electrical grid. And, aside from inconveniencing a few keen-to-spawn fish (for whom alternative facilities are provided), it is very "green" energy.

As I mentioned upstream, our lodging was in a "converted" (interesting re-purposing of religious language) church building. I anticipated feeling a little awkward about this, given that I superintend a handful of buildings that are potentially vulnerable to such a "conversion" sooner than we like to imagine. But I was gratified to find that those who have planned and maintained the makeover have endeavored to honor the building's first use even as they have done an outstanding job providing for its second use, and all without trivializing, cheapening, mocking, or exploiting. Not an easy needle to thread, but they did it.

Yet, St Alban's is by no means unique in its status as a "redundant" church in the area. I was encouraged when I discovered that there is a functioning Anglican parish in Annapolis Royal, and certainly no longer a need for a "chapel of ease"in Lequille, not even a ten minute drive from St Luke's, in A.R. Indeed, the adjacent graveyard, still labeled "St Alban's Anglican Cemetery," is still very much in continuing use, welcoming as new guests Anglicans and others from the entire area. I have seen statistics indicating that, just a few decades ago, the observance of Christianity was higher among Canadians even than the population of the U.S. Judging from the number of church buildings that dot the landscape in the areas where I traveled, I can believe this. But it's safe to say that Canada is now generally further on down the road of post-Christian secularization than the U.S. is, which is pretty far. Probably a third of the buildings I saw that were originally constructed as churches were no longer being used as such. Some had been "converted" along the lines of St Alban's, some were maintained but with no signage or other indication of current use, and some were derelict.

We hope we can return to Annapolis Royal and to Nova Scotia. We didn't get to spend nearly enough time in the Kejimkujik National Park in the center of the southern/western peninsula. We missed the part of Nova Scotia that faces squarely into the majesty of the north Atlantic (though we did have a premium encounter with about six humpback whales in the Bay of Fundy). We also completely missed the city of Halifax, other than the airport. And I have about twenty dollars in Canadian cash that I still need to find an opportunity to spend.


Malcolm+ said...

FWIW, you really weren't in Halifax at all. The Halifax airport is miles and miles from Halifax.

Jesse Zink said...

My old stomping grounds—Wolfville, Annapolis Valley, Bay of Fundy, etc. Wonderful piece of Creation, and I have three cheers of my own for Porter, too.

Cape Breton, though—that'll have to be your next trip.

john iliff said...

In the fall of 1986 we flew into Bangor, ME and took the car ferry from Bar Harbor across the Bay of Fundy to Yarmouth, NS. We spent a couple of delightful days in Annapolis Royal. That evening (this was tourist off-season) we stumbled upon a heritage festival with many town folk dressed in colonial garb. At the time we noticed the color theme of the celebration was "red, white and blue". It was quite an education to learn the history of how many of their Loyalist ancestors - expelled from the newly independent American states - settled in the Maritime provinces, in many cases where the French Acadians had originally settled. Worth a return trip for sure!

Richard Harris said...

Bishop, as the former rector of your Canadian transplant I'm so glad that you got a taste of his homeland. If you come east again do plan to spend time on Cape Britten Island. The A.G. Bell museum in Bedec and Fortress Louisberg are not to be missed. We in New Brunswick also have history and places of interest. Halifax is very much worth a visit. Do come again!

Bob Maxwell+ said...

Add Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and that will give you at least 4 more glorious vacations at this time of year. The Cabot Trail is a beautiful ride.

The summer of '71, I bought a pop-top tent camper for our 1st vacation in 5 years [that included seminary, and my 1st year as the curate at St. Gregory's] and drove from Deerfield via Ontario and Quebec to PEI, the N tip of Nova Scotia, Acadia Nat Park, Cape Cod and back across lower NY to Deerfield. Thirty days, 2 little boys and an Old English dog gained us instant friends all across Canada.

Tom Ferguson said...

Glad you enjoyed it. I come from a long line of Fergusons on Cape Breton Island and have been to Nova Scotia many a time. In the winter, though...

Thanh said...


Unknown said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading your adventure story and am pleased that you enjoyed your trip to Canada and into Annapolis Royal. I just thought that I would write to you to let you know that I am originally from LeQuille, Annapolis Royal and that St. Alban's Church was my childhood Parish. I was baptized and confirmed in that Church. Many, many of my family and friends were buried from there as well. My Grandmother (whom I lived with), and I went to that Church every Saturday to clean, dress the Altar, arrange fresh flowers and perform other preparation for Sunday Service. I was also the only Altar Boy that Church ever knew.
I just found out that the old Church is being rented to vacationers (as I now live in Montreal). After all of the various reviews I have found about St. Alban's, I think I am going to book it for mid-October and go home for a visit.
Thanks for your story.
Gordon Howell-Mercer (formerly Gordon Bailey)