JAIMIE VERNON: SNOWED-IN NATIVE LAND

vernon_1997On Friday night I spent 2 hours in the car traveling from Toronto International Airport to my house in the far-off suburbs. Why? Because it was the first true snowfall of the season. It wasn’t even a particularly bad snowfall but despite the best efforts of the perpetually inaccurate Weather Network, people just weren’t prepared. A massive accident to the east of Toronto involved over 50 cars. Ramps off our main highway (401) were littered with flipped vehicles, impacted vehicles and stalls. Fortunately, a phalanx of 21 snowplows passed us in the opposite direction to clear the 401 from east to west. In other words it was a winter night like any other in this country. We live a Bob & Doug MacKenzie cliché.


Winter trafficHistoric, and hysterically stereotypical, visions of Canada usually consist of Eskimos, dog sleds, igloos, Mounties, and clear tracts of land filled with snow-capped mountains and evergreen forests. Oh, and people going over Niagara Falls in barrels.

It’s hard to say whether this was something broadcast to the world by Canada’s tourism industry in the guise of the redundantly named Canadian Motion Picture Bureau of Canada at the turn of the last century, or by the stage-coach loads of tourists that visited during the War of 1812; following an attack by a drunken Canadian WAR OF 1812 USrebel militia who burned  the White House down in Washington during a particularly lengthy bender, those puritanically refined Americans came here to see where those former unwashed Brits and Europeans were hiding so cleverly to have eluded the American troops in the first place.

No longer greeted at Canadian Customs by our matron of honour Laura Secord, Americans that crossed the border into a sparsely populated 3.8 drunken_sailorsmillion square miles of water and trees and subsequently lost a wheel or two on the Trans-Canada Dirt Trail, would soon be stuck in the vastness of an aboriginal controlled outback. With Cree “Injuns” patrolling the rest stops (i.e. the tree line), the Americans were quick to jump to conclusions and relayed stories of their harrowing travails throughout our hinterland back to the rest of the ‘civilized’ world. Mix those anecdotes with the older word-of-mouth mythologies handed down from sailors docking and trading (no doubt fabricated during the downing of several quarts of hard liquor) in the ports off the Pacific Coast, the Atlantic Coast, The Hudson’s Bay, and along the mighty St. Lawrence River, and you had yourself a picture post-card stereotype ready for framing and proliferating.

HardingTo his eternal credit, it was American president Warren G. Harding who opened the dialogue between Canada and the US in an effort to re-engineer the perception of what Canada was, at least in the eyes of Americans, as he was the first US president to visit here (in 1923) and gave an eloquent speech about our home and native land at Vancouver’s Stanley Park. So touched were we by his rousing praise of our country that we built a statue in honour of him that pigeons patriotically crap on to this very day.

But, first we needed to deconstruct that fictitious RCMP caricature known as “Sgt. Preston of The Yukon” who was, by and large, our only visual representation stateside, albeit one created by Sgt_PrestonAmerican filmmakers in the first place.  I can only wonder aloud why former Russian-Canadian movie director Louis B. Mayer never produced a movie showing the world what was really going on in the Great White North. His family, having survived a Bolshevik genocide, owned a scrap metal business in New Brunswick at the dawn of the industrial age. Surely, that story was worthy of a few news reels or at least a dramatic re-creation starring fellow Canadian actresses Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish.

MaidoftheMistIt took a new media approach of propaganda branding to shift the public’s imagination from what they thought they knew about Canada, to what was actually going on here. Appropriately, documentary travelogue film shorts started surfacing in the 1920s. Initially, our government waded into it, as previously noted, with such blockbuster hits as “Land of the Moose” and “On the Nipigon Trail” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QnaYKKthms. But the theatres in North America were controlled by very powerful American chains like Loews and so, new production companies sprang to life to capitalize on the news reel trailers being screened prior to each Hollywood feature. This led to monotonously mundane silent travelogues by Fox Varieties and Castle Films. All rather competent productions, but 12 minutes of watching tide pools buffet The Maid of The Mist 1.0 in the basin of Niagara Falls without so much as a little piano music accompaniment tried the patience of even the most avid of movie goers.

TraveltalksCanada’s reputation was eventually given a fresh coat of paint with the advent of a more vibrant colour commentary through James A. Fitzpatrick’s Travel Talks series of shorts that ran in cinemas from the 1930s through the 1950s. Patrick made hundreds of these vignettes, sometimes spending weeks filming in these locales, and ultimately condensed down to 9 minute prehistoric Power Point presentations. He made a few stops in Canada during his six trips around the world to bring us such scintillating Technicolor wonders as: Victoria and Vancouver: Gateways to Canada (1936) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OYZyqUVYaTc , Quaint Quebec (1936), Glimpses Of Ontario (1942) , Mighty Niagara (1943), Quebec in Summertime (1949) , and Jasper National Park (1952). Today, they’ve been lovingly restored by Turner Classic Movies and available to watch on YouTube.

Canadian mapAll of these films focused on the meat and potatoes of agriculture, customs and sight-seeing actively erasing many of the stereotypes about the people and the places he showcased. But the Canadian coverage was spotty at best. If we went by his road map, there was nothing connecting Ontario to British Columbia or Quebec to the Atlantic Ocean – no land, no railways, no people. This entire exercise only proved to irritate those who already lived here and misdirect those who didn’t. By then, Canadians no longer called its northern aboriginal peoples Eskimos (even the current name, Inuit, is a vague generalization), and had been free of British and French skullduggery  – at least in principle – since 1867.

But the one aspect of Canadian mythology that the films failed to address, and was actually true, was the perilous snow. So, the big question remained: did it really snow here a lot? Damn straight it did and still does as it continues to supply a rather lively snow dependent winter wonderland tourist industry [i.e. skiing, snowboarding and snow tire making/selling].

weinsteinI have often joked that we endure 11 months of winter and four weeks of bad skiing every year. Well, at least until the last decade where “climate change” (wink. wink.) caused the weather to stay on the U.S . side of Lake Ontario and pound the bejeezuz out of Buffalo, New York instead. They appreciate it too as there are an awful lot of fires to put out in the older part of that city on a weekly basis.

AirplaneFor Canadian travelers who can’t afford to mortgage the houses of their future grandchildren to pay for airfare on Tundra Terror Airlines, seeing Canada by automobile is the only affordable option. And driving to points outside of the province – and sometimes points inside the province that involve casinos, tanneries and flea markets – between November and May are most assuredly fraught with road conditions only attempted by ice-road  truckers and dogsled drivers who came here with Samuel de Champlain in 1603 on the French galleon As-tu perdu la tête (better know in history books as the good ship Are You Out of Your Freakin’ Mind?).

TitanicTaking all this into account, The Vernon Clan has only ever committed to traveling long distances between June and September in any given year. A tradition started with my great grandfather William “Dominion of Canada or Bust” Vernon’s journey from Chapel-en-le-Frith in the Peak Forest region of England to Canada in 1911 with his lovely bride Elizabeth “You Want Me to Go Where?” Vernon. By sailing in June, they safely avoided an iceberg littered Atlantic Ocean that, tragically, The Titanic would find itself in a year later. The L.E.D. caution arrow signpost wouldn’t be invented for another 80 years, so the lesson learned is that you don’t attempt a crossing near the Arctic Circle in April.

Never Cry WolfIt would take a generation of Canadians reading Farley Mowat’s Never Cry Wolf, Lost in the Barrens and Curse of the Viking Grave to “get it” but we now apply it to winter life judiciously. Well, with the exception of Heritage Canada funded rock bands from Winnipeg who are, ironically, too ‘cool’ to absorb the subtleties of Bruce Cockburn’s song “Coldest Night of the Year” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Mwc43Fd9DY about nearly freezing to death during a Canadian winter – and he was only talking about the suburbs of Toronto!

MooseAnd here’s why Canadians talk so much about winter: our best case summer traveling scenario these days is driving through massive infrastructure redevelopment construction projects that are peppered with rain and wind or, conversely, blinding sunshine and ridiculous bouts of humidity. Either version will have its fair share of landslides, fallen trees, Provincial police, rest-stop ladies of the evening, kids playing ball hockey, moose, deer, bears (bi-polared, grizzled, slightly browned, blackened, honeyed or sugared), wolves, beaver, porcupines, ground hogs, foxes and/or skunks crossing traffic in places other than where humans have placed large yellow warning signs. And let’s not forget to mention mosquitoes that are the size of CF-18 jet fighters.

TransCanadajpgBy 1965, Canada was well on its way to making inter-continental travel from sea-to-sea-to-sea a lot easier and more enticing. The Trans-Canada Highway had linked the otherwise awkward and barely passable sections of Lake Superior in Ontario and the Rocky Mountains between Alberta and British Columbia.  And so, my grandparents decided to take a little trek out of province to see that the world didn’t end in Port Arthur, Ontario (merely “life” as we know it).

Like any trip, whether it be in a boat or a plane or a space shuttle, you can’t just hop in your car with a tank full of gas and expect to come out the other end either alive or with your car intact or even still in your possession. However, the modern conveniences of instant cash access, bigger populated areas featuring rest-stops, gas and food, and easy to maintain automobiles with mind-numbing entertainment centres to stifle one’s children from the incessant “are we there yet?” bleating has certainly made this a near possibility – today.

old car45 years ago a cross-country vehicular trip was only four wooden wheels short of a chuck wagon ride. Forearm snapping Rack-And-Pinion steering controlled by a satellite dish for a steering wheel, non-adjusting benched leather seats which were brittle in the cold and like fly paper in the summer (causing various exposed parts of your body to go “ppppuckkkk” when peeled from it), no seat belts, or at the very most, seat belts that were like bolo projectiles when you hit a bump (or your sister), windshield wipers the size of hockey sticks, and 24-hours of non-stop crap radio reception. And you didn’t even have the option of heating or cooling the passenger compartment. You just rolled the windows up or down as required – by hand – and hoped the temperature outside was opposite to what you had inside. What the cars of the 1950s and 1960s did offer was a sizable cocoon to protect oneself from the careless driving of traffic coming in the opposite direction – these were the heady days when drinking and driving was what you did in the car while driving not merely before you got inside. If you thought eight drunken college football players are unmanageable during a team after-party, just imagine them in a car being used as a two-tonne battering ram.

1960 Buick Invicta 4-door SedanMy grandparents drove a 1960 Buick Invicta 4-door Sedan. It was an aircraft carrier on wheels. White- walled wheels to be exact. There was also enough trunk space to carry all your earthly possessions or a second automobile in it. But you needed the space. It was called a trunk for a reason. Space-age polymer materials had yet to be perfected for consumer use and so luggage was still a series of 1897 steamer trunks in various shapes and sizes – the largest had to be carried on the roof of the car utilizing pyramid-building pulleys and grappling hooks while the smallest was still able to hold a dead body should one need disposing.

LuggageAccording to the photographic evidence, it took three of these excessively large pieces of baggage to sustain my grandparents on their first adventure out west; 27 dress shirts, 18 neckties, 24 blouses, 5 skirts, 15 dresses, 31 head-scarves in case you wanted to roll the window down in the car, 12 pairs of shoes (all in various styles of formal wear as long as they were black, brown or white), 80 pairs of socks, nylons, stockings, underwear and one brown belt to hold up the lime green polyester pants.  In the SECOND suitcase was outer-wear: a single Volkswagon seat cover of a gingham jacket with leather elbow patches, a black Wise Guy woolen trench coat, a gray mock mink fur coat, a felt fedora with quail feather inserted into a red ribbon along the brim, two Sunday bonnets (one blue and one yellow),  and requisite winter wear like galoshes, rubber pullovers, toques, rabbit pelt-lined leather gloves, mittens, mufflers, and faux fur ear-muffs – after all, a trip in September would put them on the cusp of a blizzard in either Manitoba or Saskatchewan; The third suitcase – the equivalent to an airline ‘carry-on’ – was used for sundries like shaving utensils, toiletries, bobby-pins, first aid kit, pens and pencils plus stationery for writing letters and postcards to home, a deck of cards and cribbage board, a sewing kit, a three watt hair dryer the size of a cannon, a hot plate, and electric curlers in a glass-encased hot house the size of an Easy-Bake Oven.

There were no cell phones in case they broke down and absolutely nothing to listen to except the fading, scattered static of local radio stations as they would ultimately pass farther from civilization and deeper into the vast unknown of the Canadian outback.

MapWithout MapQuest to direct them (or a GPS system), the entire trip would be guided by a series of gas-station purchased Provincial road maps that occasionally indicated points of interest – like large 300 foot inclines that would test one’s mettle should the brakes give out on the car. Of course, this inevitably led to fights over who was going to drive and who was going to navigate. You see, the first settlers quickly realized you couldn’t unfold a map to read it and drive at the same time without your vehicle meandering off the road and taking out entire segments of scenery, or another vehicle full of drunken footballers.

The cruel irony of riding the Trans-Canada Highway system is that it starts far out of the reach of the denizens of Toronto; the closest it comes to Hogtown is by way of old Highway 7 – better known to Torontonians as the ‘Mullet Line’ but that’s only a convenient route for those travelling east to Ottawa, Montreal or the Maritimes.

Highway400All the Grand Vernon journeys began in the east end of the inner city from their apartment on Dawes Road – and, later, Goodwood Park – up the Don Valley Parkway where it would meet with the 401 to take them west over to Highway 400 north; and when I eventually traveled with my grandmother out west in 1975, we went that route as well. With both my grandparents working for the Diamond Taxi Co., a summer holiday was probably limited to a strict two weeks every year. Maybe it was only a week with the second one sacrificed without pay. These holidays happened every year from at least 1965 through 1977 – shortly before my step-grandfather, Larry, passed away – leaving my grandmother to find other interests as she was unable to make the trips alone. She would become a hell of a bowler instead. And that’s a much better way to wile away long winter months in Canada.

Send your CDs to: Jaimie Vernon, 180 Station Street, Suite 53, Ajax, ON L1S 1R9 CANADA

=JV=

Jaimie’s column appears every Saturday.
Contact us at dbawis@rogers.com

DBAWIS ButtonJaimie “Captain CanCon” Vernon has been president of the on again/off-again Bullseye Records of Canada since 1985. He wrote and published Great White Noise magazine in the ‘90s, has been a musician for 33 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 16 years. He is also the author of the recently released Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and a collection of his most popular ‘Don’t Believe A Word I Say’ columns called ‘Life’s A Canadian…BLOG’ is now available at Amazon.com

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