GRAN’S CANADA HIGHWAY – EPISODE 2: THE FIR TREES AND BEYOND by Jaimie Vernon


Historic, 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. Monty Python also made a huge deal out of our lumberjacks as well.

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 rebel 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 million 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 the indigenous Cree 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.

To his eternal credit, it was American president Warren G. Harding who opened the dialogue between Canada and the U.S. in an effort to re-engineer the perception of what Canada was, at least in the eyes of Americans, as he was the first U.S. 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 American 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.

It 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. 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 water 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.


Canada’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 Talk 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 them into 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), 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.

All 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].


I 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 highly contested climate change 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.

For 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 known in history books as the good ship Are You Out Of Your Freakin’ Mind?).

Taking all this into account, The Vernon Clan has only ever committed to traveling long distances between June and September in any given year. It’s 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.

It 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” about nearly freezing to death during a Canadian winter – and he was only talking about the suburbs of Toronto!

Canada’s best case summer traveling scenario 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.


The Vernon road-trip idea seems to have started with my grandmother – my Dad’s mother. As my aunts and uncles finally became old enough to leave the nest in the late ‘50s, she found herself sneaking off to New York State (and sometimes to Manhattan itself) on weekends with a crew of ladies from her work as a dispatcher for the Diamond Cab Company in Toronto. Being a single parent during the post-war era could not have been easy – especially with six children in a cramped three bedroom house in the inner-city.

She would find love and companionship again in the guise of my step-grandfather Larry, a Maurice Chavalier-looking jocular French Canadian, who was driving a taxi for the same cab company. They eventually moved into an apartment together and started, what would become, a love affair on wheels.

One of her sons, my uncle John, had made some rather harried treks to Montreal in the years preceding this, with my father in tow, to rescue my aunt Jean who seemed to always need help evading a boyfriend or the Quebec constabulary, so it came to pass that he’d start making long haul work assignments as a trucker with veritable ease to the west coast as a habit. He often bragged about getting to Vancouver in four days. I don’t doubt it. I just wonder how strong the coffee was – in a pre-Tim Hortons era – that kept him awake or how many cars in the on-coming lanes ended up propelled into river beds trying to avoid him!

Though he would never admit it, he soon fell in love and married a gal from Chilliwack and set about establishing a life for him and my aunt Lauretta on the West Coast. And with the birth of my cousin Janine in July of 1963, plans were afoot by the Ontario Vernons to visit the new western farm team.

NEXT WEEK – EPISODE 3: LOADED TO BEAR

=JV=

Skip Prokop’s “Sunny Days” is available as a 325 page book from Bullseye Publishing
http://gwntertainment.wixsite.com/bullseye-records
Or Amazon
https://www.amazon.com/Sunny-Days-Skip-Prokop-Story/dp/1698098464

Jaimie “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 41 years, and recently discovered he’s been happily married for 24 years. He is also the author of The Canadian Pop Music Encyclopedia and editor of “Sunny Days: The Skip Prokop Story.” Available through Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/s?k=Jaimie+Vernon

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