A NATION OF ZIGZAGS © David Watts 12/05/2010

The zebra stripes on CN locomotives represent more than what used to be our public railway. The black-and-white zigzag is as much a Canadian motif as the “one warm line” in Stan Rogers’ song.

It is the pattern of many of our major rivers. The Churchill zigzags northeast in its path to Hudson Bay, the Mackenzie west to north and back again in its course to the Beaufort.

The Columbia zigzags north, south and west on its way to the Pacific. And the Fraser, whose three distinct sections make the three strokes of a backwards “Z”, is our watery zigzag extraordinaire.

The progress of our peoples and politics, as much as our waterways, zigzags back and forth among interests playing for dominance, that regroup as new forces and elements are injected into the mix.

This is especially true in the to-and-fro between a developing popular will—or wills—and pluralism since the transfer of New France from French to British colonial administration.

Even New France was not a monolith. There was tension among the three pillars of the Governor, the Intendent and the Bishop, representing defenses, the economy and social life and services.

And there was tension between the settled aspect of the colony and an itinerant, dispersed fur trade, the Fortress Quebec mentality and the re-possess Canada that continues in our own time.

When the British acquired Québec in 1763, they first tried to anglicize it: to turn it into a colony like those to the south. But this didn’t work. The Thirteen Colonies were talking freedom of trade. That didn’t concern Canadians as long as their language, religion and culture were left undisturbed.

So in 11 years Britain did an about-face on Québec society, guaranteeing the culture of those who had lived under New France rather than making it an appealing destination for English immigrants.

This had unforeseen consequences. The former New France stayed loyal to Britain. New England and the other colonies to the south broke away to become the United States. And Americans who had not supported Independence came to Quebec to continue to live under the Crown.

Once more Canada changed direction. Britain split two of her remaining colonies in two, creating New Brunswick out of Nova Scotia, and Upper and Lower Canada out of what had been Quebec.

This was intended to provide closer administration for the new territories that were being settled… But it was also an attempt to separate French Canadians from the new English speaking settlers.

50 years later, after uprisings in Upper and Lower Canada, Britain changed course again. On the advice of Lord Durham, the two colonies were rejoined in another attempt to anglicize Quebec.

This policy failed when French speaking members reenacted protection for their language in the assembly of the united Canada. Eventually this led to the compromise of Confederation, where French Canadians regained their own government and province in a federal, not unitary Canada.

In time this policy, too, became outmoded. The 1960’s energized a new sense of homeland in Québec from which the rest of Canada came increasingly to look like a foreign country.

Faced with an apparent drift towards independence by our one officially bilingual province at the time, the federal government moved to extend use of the French language in the national capital and in national parks, airline and rail services and in public service Canada-wide.

Immigrant groups of other languages reacted to the publicly funded spread of French, particularly in the west. To appease them, Ottawa replaced adopted official multiculturalism.

So from the need to deal with differences following the transfer of New France to British rule, Canada has zigzagged from unilingual to bilingual—the reverse in Québec, and from foreign to homegrown and now multi cultures, from a union to a federation with countless First Nations.

The reason for these direction changes is not simply a balancing act: to correct a policy that has gone too far, or even to adapt to new circumstances like the arrival of a new wave of immigrants.

These are one dimensional views of a more complex situation.

The zigzag course of merchant ships in wartime conveys was not just to avoid being hit by enemy fire or submarines. Seeming to go sideways was a step on the way to somewhere else.

And the goal of the Canadian experience is not about French v English, Catholic v Protestant, East/West, Liberal/Conservative, immigrant/citizen or any of the other polarities we treat as real.

Rather, it is to realize a greater, more elastic oneness that incorporates—not assimilates—these elements in a unified whole where the contribution of each is enhanced.

This is not about tolerance or coexistence, much less chaos or conflict, but building comm-unity.

Seen from this overarching perspective, the course of the Canadian—and human—journey is not the wigwag of the pendulum or the zigzag of a trend line on a graph, but an expanding spiral.

What appears as a back-and-forth from the side is from overhead a circling round—not to the same place we’ve been before—but to encompass a larger space created by new awareness.

This is the spiral pattern of galaxies in an expanding universe. It is the shape of the whirlpool and watch spring, the motion of the cyclone and design on which many social insects build colonies.

From the side, a hornets’ nest looks like a ball. From underneath, it is a spiral with a leading edge where outward growth takes place. Unlike a beehive, it can accommodate more than one queen.

Such is the path of Canada, a colony that was more than a colony, the country that is more than a country and a dominion that extends not by imperialism but by benign and benevolent influence. It is the path of a waking humanity that is more than a rampant species on a congested sphere.

On the west slope of the Great Divide in the Rockies, between Lake Louise, Alberta and Field, BC and beside the Trans-Canada Highway, are the Spiral Tunnels of Canadian Pacific Railway.

They were designed to reduce the treacherous grade of the Big Hill to a more manageable slope.

Within a limited space, trains snake back and forth over each other, losing 100 feet in altitude at half the grade of the once straight line. What used to be one of the most hazardous sections of track in North America has become one of the marvels of the engineering world.

Seen as a zigzag in cross section, the spiral is a sign of resolution, resolving forces that, unleashed in linear fashion, would lead to catastrophe in nature, conflict in society. A spiral is the smoothest if not the shortest, distance between two points, and the attenuating design at work in our history.

The zigzags stripes of CN Rail, like the Spiral Tunnels of CP, represent our evolution: a model for reducing tension in a world moving from tribal nationalism to a more comprehensive awareness.

On the human journey the zigzag, the spiral and Canada itself help us envisage un Bon Voyage. .