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The Unity Rally- Canada's Woodstock
It was October 1995 right before the Quebec Referendum, and the future of our country hung in the balance. Like millions of Canadians, I sat at home watching TV to see what would happen. The news had more suspense than the 1972 Canada-Russia Hockey series where Paul Henderson scored the winning goal. We're up, we're down, were up, we're down; we're a country, we're not. QuTbeckers had been invited to vote either "Oui" to separate from Canada, or "Non." Then, as the "Non" side began to lead, I began to cheer, just as if Canada had scored. Like many Canadians, when the polls started showing QuTbec might actually go this time, I found myself scared that my country was about to disappear and frustrated because there was absolutely nothing I could do to stop it.
Then my friend Donna called to tell me a big Unity Rally would be held on Friday, October 27, in Montreal, and Canada's airlines were offering a seat sale so anyone could go. Five minutes later, without any sort of plan, I dropped everything and booked a flight to Montreal. Thousands of other Canadians spontaneously did the same. Like them, I suspect I had a million good reasons not to fly to Montreal that day. But I also suspected that all of those reasons would have sounded pretty hollow the following Tuesday if the people of QuTbec had voted "Oui" and I had stayed home.
When I told people I was going on the "Save the Country Express," I expected to be teased. After all, it's pretty hokey to fly three thousand miles just to wave a flag and sing the National Anthem. But to my surprise, even my most cynical friends thanked me and said they wished they were going. My dad asked me to hug a QuTbecker for him.
In the departure lounge at the Vancouver Airport, I wondered how many of us were heading to Montreal in a heartfelt attempt to show the people of La Belle Province, that despite what they may have heard, we really did care about what they decided.
Standing in line, I discovered a man I knew from work, Chris, right behind me. "Why are you going to Montreal?" I asked.
"To say no," said Chris, who was bringing his son and daughter along to do the same.
Once on board, the woman next to me told me she and her husband had been watching TV wishing they could go, but couldn't afford the airfare. Then some politician appeared on the screen and said the rally was a stupid idea, and who cares what English Canadians have to say. A minute later, she was on the phone to a travel agent. The woman explained she was a Franco-Ontarian, and even though she and her husband were broke, they agreed that when they were ninety, she'd be able to tell her grandchildren that she did her best to help keep Canada together.
Then there was the schoolteacher from Bonneville, a small town in Alberta. He was carrying a big flag signed by every single kid in Bonneville. There were a couple of teenagers from Winnipeg, who had never been to Montreal, and didn't know where they were going to sleep when they got there. They didn't have much money, and they couldn't tell me why, but they just had to get to this rally.
A flight attendant told me that about half the 170 passengers on this regular business flight to Toronto were headed to the rally. This was not one of the special Unity Charters that the airline had set up; there were no organized groups on board. No one I met had spoken to anyone, except maybe their significant other, before deciding to do their bit to help save their country.
Once in Montreal, I spotted Much Music vee-jay Terry David Mulligan, covering the event for Much Music. At that moment, I realized this was Canada's Woodstock. I half expected the organizers to broadcast warnings that "There's some bad maple syrup out there!"
The Woodstock image was confirmed when I saw a vendor selling souvenir T-shirts depicting a happy face with long hair, dark sunglasses and a bandanna covered with peace symbols along with the slogan: "Keep Canada Together."
The next morning, Donna and I headed out early to Place du Canada to beat the crowds. The Rally was to start at noon, but when we arrived at 10:30 a.m., the streets were already packed. Still, we managed to get a great spot right next to the speaker's platform. At 11:05, I heard the first of the numerous spontaneous renditions of O Canada that would sweep the crowd that day. Each was endowed with the same depth of feeling as when we sang it back in the original 1972 Canada Cup series against the Russians.
At about 11:15, a tiny elderly woman started forcing her way to the front of the crowd, using her elbows with the practiced skill of a professional hockey goon. She quickly attached herself to my left arm to keep from falling over, and held on tightly for most of the next two hours. She was from Richelieu, a half-hour outside Montreal, and I later learned her name was Marie-Josephte. She tugged on my arm occasionally to point out local celebrities like Jean Charest's kids, and a local Montreal M.P.
As she filled me in on local colour, a man on the other side of the railing began tossing flags to the crowd--real, full sized flags. The next thing I knew I had a QuTbec flag in my hands. Not sure what to do with it, I slung it over my shoulder, and suddenly, there I was, wearing a Vancouver Canucks jersey (which I'd worn to show where I was from) with a fleur de lis cap. My transformation to Captain Canuck was complete when Donna stuck a paper Canadian flag in my ponytail holder. Then Marie-Josephte pulled on my arm and handed me a small QuTbec flag, indicating I should put it in my hair, too.
Under normal circumstance I would have felt ridiculous--but there was nothing about this event even remotely related to "normal." I was surrounded by people of all ages who had drawn maple leafs and fleurs de lis on their faces, plastered their skin with "Non" stickers and dressed themselves in various combinations of Canadian flags. Meanwhile, the biggest flag I had ever seen was moving through the rally like a living creature. In this crowd - I was positively inconspicuous.
When Jean Charest began speaking, Marie-Josephte started tugging frantically on my arm again. When I turned, she pushed my other arm toward a man in a snazzy business suit. As I said, "Hi, I'm from Vancouver," I realized I was shaking hands with Frank McKenna.
"I'm out from New Brunswick," he said. "Glad to have you here." Marie-Josephte tugged again, then beamed and shouted: "You came all the way from Vancouver. Now you will be on TV with the Premier of New Brunswick!"
I tried to be cynical and witty or at least hip and ironic about my feelings as I looked out at the mass of people, but the truth is, like Woodstock, it really was a love-in. We came for the people of QuTbec to tell them we care, but we also came for ourselves, because for one brief moment, it felt like we might be able to make a difference.
As the crowd began dispersing, Marie-Josephte pushed a slip of paper into my hand. It had her address on it. She thanked me for coming and told me to write her. Then she grasped my hand and we hugged each other.
After she left, Donna and I walked away in our Canucks jerseys--or at least tried to. Every few minutes we were stopped by someone asking if we were really from Vancouver, and then after a moment where they appeared to get lumps in their throats, they'd thank us for making the effort, thank us for helping. Then we'd wish them well on Monday-Referendum Day. "You came from Vancouver?" they'd ask--some with English accents, some with French, "Thank you so much."
I was told later that the TV newscasts focused on the speeches-but the truth is-no one cared about the speeches. As powerful as the words may have been, they weren't as poignant as the man holding the municipal flag of the city of Yellowknife, the woman with the cardboard sign that read "Edmonton, Alberta loves QuTbec," or all the people from across the country who, like myself, had never waved a flag in their lives and were now proudly holding a fleur de lis and a maple leaf to show their support for a united Canada.
The only statement that really mattered was that people had come from all over Canada to participate in something no one could have imagined, a powerful and spontaneous outpouring of genuine Canadian patriotism. No one who was there will ever forget it. The biggest cheer came when a speaker announced the crowd was estimated at 150,000. I strongly suspect if the politicians hadn't interrupted, we would have just sung "O Canada" all afternoon.
The Unity Rally-Canada's Woodstock
¬ 2002 Mark Leiren-Young
A Canadian's Story
One day when I was seventeen my best friend Shelley invited me to her home after school to meet her grandmother. A slim, fragile-looking, elderly lady greeted us warmly, and in a thick accent offered us some freshly baked cookies. With genuine interest, she asked us many questions about our personal lives and listened intently to our answers. Her piercing blue eyes sparkled as we talked, and her smile radiated a lifetime of inner strength and integrity. She captivated me.
She noted how fortunate we were to have such beautiful clothes, nice furniture and time to spend with our friends. We were astonished at her appreciation of all the little things that we took for granted. Privately, Shelley explained her grandmother had grown up in the Ukraine, where life had been very difficult.
Grandma expressed great pleasure in seeing all her children and grandchildren able to go to school. When she learned I was approaching my eighteenth birthday, she was thrilled and exclaimed how excited I must be at the thought of voting for the first time. Frankly, I had thought of all sorts of good things I would be able to do when I was eighteen, but voting wasn't one of them.
A little saddened at my cynicism, Grandma asked in her broken English if I would like to hear the story of her journey to Canada. Much to Shelley's dismay, I agreed and she began.
"Grandpa, myself and our six children, lived in extremely modest conditions in the Ukraine. Everyone in the family who was old enough had to work. Our two eldest children were eight and ten, and did odd jobs for people who paid them with food rather than money.
The other four children were too young to work, so they helped me with the household chores. The government did not want the people to be independent and think for themselves, and to ensure this, they prevented us from attending any religious services and forced us to worship the government. They also banned reading and writing, closed all the schools and destroyed all the books that disagreed with their oppressive philosophy. Anyone caught not complying with the new, closed-minded edict was put in prison. In spite of these severe consequences, those who knew how to read and write secretly taught those who did not. Many people managed to hide some of their beloved classic books before they could be destroyed.
"Many villagers dreamed of immigrating to Canada where they believed people were allowed to make choices and work hard to make a life for themselves. Although we were prevented from leaving with threats of imprisonment, many people attempted to flee because they were starving in the homeland. Grandpa and I and our six children were among those who made plans to escape.
"Our village was twenty miles from the border. We would have to walk to it and sneak past the border guards. There, we would meet people to whom we had paid our life's savings to help us travel across the land to the ocean and across the ocean to Canada.
"Crossing the border was extremely dangerous, because the guards were ordered to shoot anyone caught trying to pass illegally. For this part of the journey, we were on our own.
"Late at night, taking only what we could carry, we left our home and quietly stole out of the village. Because three of our children were still quite small, it took us five days to reach the border. When we arrived, we hid in the trees on the edge of a mile-wide open area that ran along it. We planned to wait until dark before trying to cross.
"As the sun began to set, my husband and I carried the three smallest children while our other three joined hands. We could see the border and began to run across that mile-wide open area toward freedom. Just as we reached the borderline a bright spotlight flashed on and caught in its glare the two older boys running with their younger brother, who was literally suspended in midair between them. A loud voice boomed over a bullhorn ordering, "Halt, immediately!" but my sons paid no attention and continued to run.
"Gunshots rang out and continued even after we had crossed into the neutral country on the other side. The light still followed us and suddenly found me as I ran carrying the baby. When our eldest son John saw this, he let go of his two brothers and yelled for them to run. Then John began to draw the guards' attention by jumping, yelling and waving his hands. The bright light settled on him as the rest of us finally reached the protective barrier of the trees on the other side of the border. As we turned back to look, several shots rang out. As we watched, John, my ten-year-old son, fell to the ground and lay still.
"Thankfully the guards left without checking, because our son lay outside their jurisdiction. Your grandpa then crawled out and dragged John back to where we were huddled in the trees. My child had been hit by one of the bullets and died there in my arms. We wept in agony, but our hearts were filled with pride for his heroism. If not for his selfless actions, the baby and I would have certainly been shot. He gave his life that night so the rest of us might live.
"After we buried John, with heavy hearts we continued on and eventually found our way to Canada, and so to freedom."
When Shelly's Grandma finished her story, I had tears in my eyes.
"Since arriving in Canada I have enjoyed my freedom immensely," she continued.
"I take great pleasure in every single choice I make, including the time I took an evening job scrubbing floors so that Shelley's father could go to University." As she clutched at her heart, the dear lady then expressed great pride in her second oldest son, who was eight during the family's flight to freedom. Out of gratitude for their new life in Canada, and the horror of seeing his brother shot down so long ago, he had enlisted in order to defend his new country with his life.
Grandma confided that she valued her right to vote as very dear to her heart and had never missed her chance to have "her say." She told me then she viewed voting as not only a right and a privilege, but also a responsibility. By voting she believed she could ensure that Canada would be run by good people, who would never have someone shot and killed for making a choice.
My life changed profoundly that day, as I looked through the window that this special woman had opened into a different world. I made my own commitment on the spot to seize every opportunity I was ever given to vote. And, I began to understand in some small way, the passion that motivates our Canadian soldiers, who volunteer to defend our country.
When Grandma finished her story, Shelley, who had become very quiet, softly asked, "Who was the baby you were carrying when you ran across the border, Grandma?" As Grandma caressed her cheek, she replied, "The baby was your father, my dear."
¬1995 Pat Fowler
¬2002. All rights reserved. Reprinted from
Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul by Janet Matthews, Raymond Aaron, Jack Canfield, Mark Victor Hansen. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, without the written permission of the publisher. Publisher: Health Communications, Inc., 3201 SW 15th Street,
Deerfield Beach, FL 33442.