A NATION OF JUGGLERS © David Watts 10/04/2010

The Jester juggles sense and rhythm, hops through hoops to find the core

He pours himself into the river, then he drinks himself back from silver jars …

He goes by the name of joy and of sorrow, by the name of the bitter and sweet

And all through the house his voice echoes simple, to the tapping of his nimble feet …

Québec’s Cirque Soleil has given Canada a new face abroad.

The élan, esprit, et joie de vivre of this group’s appearances from Vegas to China show a more colorful Canada, and a warmth and levity not usually associated with a sub-arctic half continent.

But before we surrender one stereotype for another, let us recall that juggling—balancing multiple objects or concerns simultaneously—is serious business. And that’s what Canada is about.

First, the land we live on, from Grand Banks to Haida Gwai, is a juggling of 30 tectonic plates. At places like James Bay they are pulling apart, in other spots they are squeezing together.

Large pieces of our coast have come from elsewhere. Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands originated in the South Pacific. Nova Scotia and Newfoundland were once part of Africa.

While Canada has had no volcanic activity since the arrival of Europeans, there are dormant volcanoes in our Coast Mountains and very active submarine ones west of Vancouver Island.

Now inert, the Canadian Shield was once an area of intense volcanism, including the mountain of Montreal. Stable on the surface, the Québec plate is still creeping underground.

Second, Canada’s story is a juggling of peoples who live here. This goes back to First Nations.

In the East there was a juggling between Algonquians and Iroquois. On the plains, was a struggle between the Blackfoot and the Cree who were Algonquians displaced by Iroquois in the East.

On the Pacific Coast the contenders were Salish and Nootka in the south, Haida and Tlinget further north. In the far north were the Slave and Chippewa, the Inuit and Dene.

European historians may prefer to call this state of affairs “tribal warfare” as encounters between peoples were often violent. But the object of these interactions was not obliteration or enslavement of one people by another. It was more like human tectonic plates rubbing or “juggling together.

Often first peoples formed alliance to solidify what they’d gained against encroachment. In the east was the Five—later Six—Nations of the Iroquois, in the west, the Blackfoot Confederacy.

While this movement and migration of First Nations was going on, European traders appeared on the scene with a parallel juggling for spheres of interest. On the east coast there was the juggling of colonies between France and England, on the west coast, between Britain, Spain and Russia.

In this international competition, Port Royal in Acadia, bases in Newfoundland and even Québec passed back and forth between contenders before Britain gained ascendancy over France in 1759.

Forty years later an exiled Napoleon put forward a plan to “liberate” Québec from the British as a springboard to a return to power in France.

On the west coast the peaceful competition between Captains George Vancouver and Juan Quadra was displaced as Spain surrendered its interest and colonies to Britain a few years later.

When Britain’s North American colonies gained home rule and joined in Confederation, the jousting between European peoples continued in the new Dominion. Look at our coat of arms:

Imagine the symbols of England, Scotland, France and Ireland on our crest as peoples of our imported multicultural mix juggling for influence and position. In Europe these peoples had been at war with each other at some time. In Canada after 1763 the interaction was mostly peaceful.

French influence started out in Québec and Acadia and spread to the plains with the voyageurs. The Scots first came to Canada with the English but often allied with the French against them, as they had done in Scotland. The Irish and French bonded on the basis of shared religion.

Today our competing ethnic elements include Africans, Middle Easterns and Chinese and others from Asia, who may make up a majority of the population of British Columbia by 2050.

Finally, with such demographic movement, it is not surprise that Canada’s federal politics has become a juggling sport. Sometimes the juggling plays out in a rapid alternation of parties in power as between Macdonald and Mackenzie, King, Meghan and Bennett, Trudeau and Clark.

Equally often, it takes place inside political parties and coalitions. Canada’s longest-serving, most successful prime ministers were expert at juggling many balls and seldom dropping any of them.

Mackenzie King survived a war and a national unity crisis over compulsory military service with the ingenious slogan “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”

Sir John A. Macdonald juggled the Red River Uprising by sending in an army to satisfy Ontario, briging Louis riel to flee to appease Québec, and asking “Where is Riel?” in Parliament.

Lester Pearson barely survived a two term minority that brought in a new flag, pension plan and federal health care scheme.

Even with majorities, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Chrétien had to deal with dissident wings in their own parties. And in his second minority, Stephen Harper has become very adept at juggling disparate regions and interests in order to remain in office.

Canada is a Nation of Jugglers: politicians, striving to keep the issues buoyant, the people they represent, shifting like clothes in a tumble drier; and underneath, the land, creeping imperceptibly.

A woman’s admiration of this kind of agility figures in a folksong sung by the McGarrigle sisters:

For he goes burling down the down white waters

That’s where the log driver learns to step lightly.

Burling down the down white waters

The log drivers’ waltz pleases girls completely.

Québec’s—and Canada’s—Cirque Soleil takes this to new heights. Significantly, these acrobats are not exhibitionists, but simply revel in the pleasure of being human, alive and doing their job.