IN SEARCH OF A CANADIAN IDENTITY
By Sharon A. McLeay MA
When I was a child the only messages I paid attention to came from the flickering screen in our living room. I daydreamed about sharing adventures with Lassie, breaking horses on the Ponderosa with Hoss and little Joe, and singing with Annette Funicello on the Mickey Mouse Club. I thought I wanted to be American.
But when I reached high school I turned to more solid family origins to define myself. My classmates had surnames like Fitzgerald, Halla, Edwards, Stan and Straub. We were the children of second and third generation immigrants mashed together at a north end Hamilton high school that looked like a factory. We spoke of our heritage as if it legitimized our existence. No one wanted to be “just” Canadian. We aimed for more exotic beginnings that featured English scones in the oven, the skirl of bagpipes in the alleys, Irish fists in the school yard, German secrets whispered in verse, Celtic spoons, and Slavic folk songs.
We looked to belong, to be part of a national personality we could call our own. This is an instinctual desire programmed into our DNA since man’s beginnings. If we hadn’t grouped together in the prehistoric days, we would have been nothing but juicy bits of meat running around unprotected. A hazy Canadian culture wasn’t much help to a 16-year-old, struggling to define herself. Echoing a René Lévesque lament, I felt I didn’t have a Canadian culture to embrace. The irony was that by sharing our European roots and customs in high school, we helped to shape the national culture none of us thought existed.
I recall when I used to visit my boyfriend’s house, just this side of Burlington Street’s industrial belt, the sturdy four-storied red brick houses revived the tale of the old woman who lived in a shoe. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, children and grandchildren hung from every window yelling at other relatives and friends digging gardens, tending grape vines and chasing toddlers. The stairs in these homes were an obstacle course of tomatoes in bushel baskets, pickled cucumbers, abandoned baseball gloves and dollies. From sunken porches, you could hear the bottles of homemade root beer and ale popping their caps and the rumble of illegal stills in basements.
Every morning the corner market displayed boxes of peppers, onions, and tomatoes that looked too perfect to be real. The air smelled of pizza, pasta, garlic and wine, and above the rumble of nearby trains, you could hear Rigoletto, Elvis Presley, and young hands stumbling over Bach and Beethoven. This Italian corner of Hamilton was noisy, messy, unruly, chaotic even, and I loved it. It wasn’t the street where I grew up, but I never felt lonely, bored, hungry, thirsty or out of place.
Memories like these bring me strength as I watch the anger, hatred and division unmaking the America I knew as a child. They speak to me of the openness, curiosity, understanding and tolerance that echo through our everyday lives. Of the values that inspire people from around the world to overcome insurmountable obstacles so they too can call themselves Canadian.
LISTEN MY CHILDREN
By Sharon McLeay
Listen my children. I am going to tell you a story so that when I am gone and you find yourselves standing at the intersection of safety and independence you will know what to do. You will not feel lost.
I am a young woman on a GO Train travelling home. Every day I make this journey between Hamilton and Toronto, between conscience and art, like the Stephen character in the book I am reading, James Joyce’s The Artist as a Young Man. Each day I become more deeply involved in Stephen’s struggle to become an authentic artist, detached from family, church, and community expectations.
At the Hamilton end of the train there is a fiancé, a rather dull, but handsome young man who is devoted to rescuing me from my hellish family life. We are to marry in the Catholic Church where I have taken all of its sacraments and to undergo marriage preparation classes. Afterwards he will do what all steel town boys do; get a job at Stelco or Dofasco working shifts in the hottest place on earth while I, I, I am not sure.
This pause troubles me on the reverse ride to Toronto where I revel in independence and my first creative spark ignites at university. For so long I want to live in this in between space. This seat on a piece of steel moving at 80 kilometers an hour. Like Stephen I want to cast off family, church, fiancé and hide away in the quaint little room I once rented on Church Street, just steps away from Yonge Street, the center of life, and around the corner from Allen Gardens, nicknamed “Murder Gardens.”
But the need to fit in is too strong. I hesitate, like a stutter on the tracks beneath me, until it is too late to choose art. It costs me dearly. Now many years hence I am just beginning to get close to the emotional, intellectual and artistic integration Stephen attained and I sensed I needed so many years ago.
My children do not waste your lives ignoring that voice inside, the one that knows better than you. Listen and you will be a thousand times wiser than your Grandmother.
A Canadian Meta Tale