Canadian Valleys

Canadian Valleys David Watts 20 July 2003

Valleys are not something that comes to mind when we think of Canada. We have them, to be sure, but they are not a major focus, compared to our mountains and our rivers.

We have songs about the Ottawa and Red River Valleys. But the Ottawa Valley suggests far more than geography, as the historic boundary between French and English provinces.

The so-called Red River Valley is hardly worthy of the name. It is really a plain the River floods every few years, a flashback to the huge lake that once covered most of Manitoba.

The Annapolis Valley evokes Acadia and apples, the Mackenzie Valley pipelines and first nations, the Fraser Valley dairy products and Vancouver commuters. These are local.

Canada’s most developed valley is not called a valley at all but the St. Lawrence lowland. Our largest valley-like formation visible from space is called the Rocky Mountain trench.

Our most prominent valleys derive from mountains and rivers. The valleys themselves are secondary. Canada is a land of mountains, rivers, forests and plains, not valleys.

We use valleys as a metaphor more than as a feature on a map. We have the expression “peaks and valleys.” One of our best novels is Buckler’s The Mountain and the Valley.

And the phrase “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low.”

That is about elation and depression. It’s the way we look at valleys here. What are the lows, the depressions Canada has passed through to reach her present point of awareness?

Three stand out: one in the days of New France, one in our relations with Britain and the United States, one in the relationship between French and English speaking Canadians.

Our valley in New France days was the challenge of survival in a new world. First it was survival of the elements—less than half the original parties made it through the winter.

Then it was survival of raids by first nations. Though the French had good relations with their Huron neighbours, arm sales led to their almost being decimated by the Iroquois.

Then there was economic survival in the cavalier, almost callous way France seemed to forget her North American colony. Out of the need to pay bills between St. Lawrence freezeups we evolved the first issue of paper money in set denominations in the world.

There was also an issue of spiritual survival. Many original settlers, including the Pilgrim Mothers who founded Montreal, came with ideals of a people devoted to spiritual values.

The fall of old France to the Revolution came as a shock. For generations after leaders in New France saw their society as a faithful remnant, a survivor, of the old order.

When Quebec fell to Britain in 1759 it seemed at first as though they might not make it. But a combination of British laissez faire and French determination won the day.

The second valley in our history was the struggle to maintain a distinct identity in the face of an Americanizing tide. This spanned two centuries, and began with the French.

Having survived with their lives and homes, French Canadians wondered if they could withstand the economic and political pull of the English speaking colonies to the south.

They did not join the Revolution and had to face an American army that came to liberate them. British troops helped in their defense and in another invasion in the War of 1812.

After the American Revolution the French speaking Canadians were joined by English speaking refugees from the US who came to Canada to continue to live under the Crown.

Now there were two groups of Euro-Canadians living side by side, allied only in their determination not to be absorbed. For half a century they barely tolerated each other.

In the mid 19th century a party of French and English reformers realized their future lay not in conflict and competition but in cooperation based on a common set of principles. They set out to recruit other allies in a new arrangement that became Confederation.

Britain supported the arrangement as a chance to cut North American defence costs. It seemed less likely the US would attack a semi-independent Canada than a British colony.

The fear of American expansion northward continued until the end of the 19th century. The colonies in Red River and British Columbia both resisted American overtures.

Then the focus of our fears shifted from a military takeover to that of a cultural and economic one. American interests already owned much of the Canadian economy. It seemed as though our magazines and other media might also become American satellites.

English and French speaking Canadians shared this concern but saw it in different terms. Anglophones talked of Identity, and how long we could survive as an independent entity.

Quebeckers had less of an identity issue but obsessed about assimilation, whether 3 mil-lion francophones could survive amidst 200 million English speaking North Americans.

Meanwhile the consumers of both cultures cast wistful eyes south of the border at American movie stars, American destinations, American fashions and entertainment.

Then in the 1970’s we woke up. We took our eyes off the screen and looked around us.

Our dollar fell, our exports rose. Instead of heading south for time off, we went north.

We discovered our artists and athletes, history and heroes. We quit comparing ourselves with others and began we see what we have going for us. We came home to ourselves.

The third Canadian valley, which we are now just coming out of, has been the uncertainty of relations between French and English speaking Canadians.

Canada was divided at the Ottawa River into Upper and Lower parts to provide separate institutions for the two groups. Forty-eight years later it was rejoined unsuccessfully.

Confederation in 1867 provided separate institutions for French and English populations in culturally sensitive areas with an overall administration for the country

Yet it was in areas of federal jurisdiction that our internal relations underwent the greatest strain. Many French speaking Quebecois felt excluded from the settlement of the west after the execution of Louis Riel and the elimination of their language rights in Manitoba.

In the First World War and to a lesser extent in the Second, attempts by English speaking war enthusiasts to conscript their francophone fellow citizens, divided the country deeply.

These grievances, along with a sense of second class economic citizenship in their own province, came to a head in 1975 in the election of a separatist government in Quebec.

A referendum to make Quebec a sovereign state won 40% of the vote in 1981. In 1995 the vote for separation failed by less than 1%.

At one of the pro-Canada rallies held the week before the vote TV cameras caught an old man in a military beret standing by himself. The reporter asked him why he was there.

With tears in his eyes, he replied simply, “I don’t want to lose my country.”

He spoke for many of us. The man had fought for his country. Now there was no talk of fighting. For years we had debated the Quebec Question. Now there was no will to argue.

We could only stand in the valley and hope our fellow citizens would not chose to leave. And they didn’t. By less than 1% the Quebec people declined to cross the separation line.

Eight years later they chose a new government pledged to renew the Canadian federation.

As we have crossed into the new millennium, something has happened. What Laurier promised us a hundred years ago is happening now, in the 21st century.

We know who we are. We are glad to be here. Even our beer commercials celebrate it.

All of a sudden, we know what it means to be “the true north strong and free.”

All the crises, the conflicts, uncertainties and indecisions have played their part to bring us to the place we stand: We are the Canadian people. We have come through the valleys.

We have lived on the edge of wilderness and have not been swallowed up. The wilds have made us strong.

We have been to the brink of buyout and takeovers and have not been taken in. There is no price for which we will sell our soul.

We have stared down the chasm of divorce and have not been undone. We have embraced our differences.

We are the Canadian people. We have been through the valley—the shadow of darkness, of unknowing, of death—and fear it no more.

Now we are entering on the banquet, and come to the table.

The hall in which we gather is Earth, home of all nations.

The dome above us is the Cosmos, our source.

Our communion is the comm-unity of humankind

And Canada’s coming through the valleys has prepared the way for the world to come.