July 01, 2015

Canada: Home of the beaver

It is, once again, Canada Day: the 148th anniversary of Confederation in 1867. We're definitely on the homestretch to our sesquicentennial in 2017.

As I write this—true to form—it's raining. So far, it looks like it's shaping up to be the rainy, drizzly kind of Canada Day rather than the bright warm kind that is punctuated during the day by a brief but heavy downpour. (I've never known a July 1 where it didn't rain in Ottawa at some time.) Either Way, of course, it won't affect the spirits of the massive block party happening on or near Parliament Hill.

Pauline Johnson (1861-1913) was a Canadian poet of English and Mohawk descent. She was born on the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ontario. As an adult she had a profitable stage and literary career; however, as much of her fame rested on her performances, her reputation declined considerably after her death, although in recent years her significance has been re-evaluated.

Today, Johnson's claim to fame arguably rests on one poem in particular, although in a different form that should be nonetheless recognizable to many Canadians, particularly those who spent time in the Scouting movement. The Canadian folk song, "Land of the Silver Birch" has, after all, been sung in the round by many a Cub, Scout, or Girl Guide around a late-night campfire.

The lyrics are perhaps more romantic than nationalistic, as they idealize living in the wild at harmony with nature. (As Johnson loved canoeing and the outdoors, however, it may betrue to her own experience.) Also, the repeated refrain of "Boom diddy-ah da" tends to rob the lyrics of some of their dignity. Nonetheless, "Land of the Silver Birch" also serves as a gentle reminder that the Canadian notion of two founding peoples—English and French—is really a myth. There were peoples here before us, and all of us are equally Canadians: as another of Pauline Johnson's verses put it, "one common Brotherhood / In peace and love, with purpose understood."