Will Ferguson’s first book in three years, following on the back-to-back successes of How to Be a Canadian (over 110,000 copies sold) and Happiness™ (Winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour).
Will Ferguson has spent the past three years criss-crossing Canada and back again. In a helicopter above the barrenlands of the sub-Arctic, in a canoe with his four-year-old son, aboard seaplanes and along the Underground Railroad, Will’s travels have taken him from Cape Spear on the coast of Newfoundland to the sun-dappled streets of Olde Victoria.
In his last book, Will told us how to be Canadian; now in this book, he will tell us what it means to be Canadian. And what Will finds out along the way is that Canada in its development and in its current state is really a series of outposts — not only geographically but culturally.
Will’s journey takes him to far-flung isolated communities as well as deep into Canada’s urban centres. From the “million-acre farm” that is P.E.I. to the tobacco belt of southern Ontario, from the architectural mess that is Montreal to the glorious jumble that is St. John’s, from a renegade republic in northwestern New Brunswick to a tundra buggy in the polar bear migration paths of Hudson Bay, Will explodes the myths of who we are.
Funny, poignant and insightful, Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw is a provocative tribute to our quirky and fascinating country.
Excerpt from Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw
In one particular seedy St. John’s pub, I was adopted by a work crew from Portugal Cove who took an immediate, almost antagonistic liking to me. “You’re from Alberta, you say? I have a cousin in Fort McMurray, maybe you know him.” (Everybody in Newfoundland has a cousin in Fort McMurray.) The crew from Portugal Cove tormented me with screech and second-hand smoke as they regaled me with tales of how their families were so poor “back when” that all they could afford to eat were lobsters. This was not the first time I had heard this. Apparently half the population of Newfoundland has subsisted on lobster at some point or other.
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About the Author
The author/co-author of eight books of non-fiction and one novel, Will Ferguson is one of Canada’s best-selling writers. His first book, Why I Hate Canadians was a bestseller and established him as an iconoclastic writer; his most recent, How to Be a Canadian, co-authored with his brother Ian, has been a Globe and Mail bestseller for over eighty weeks. His other books of non-fiction include Bastards and Boneheads and Canadian History for Dummies. His first novel, Happiness™ , won the 2002 Leacock Medal for Humour and the 2002 Canadian Authors Association Award for Fiction. It is now published in twenty-nine countries and twenty-three languages. Will lives in Calgary with his wife, Terumi, and their sons, Alex and Alister.
Read an Excerpt
It’s rare to remember exactly where you were when an idea first occurred to you–or at least, it’s rare for me. I usually wander through life gathering notions and hunches the way trouser pockets gather bits of lint; I’m not really sure how they got there, but there they are. In this case, though, I can recall vividly where I was when it dawned on me that Canada is not a country but a collection of outposts: it was while I drove through a night of heavy rain, into the realm of a legendary republic, a sleeping child and drowsy spouse beside me.
We’d been on the road for hours, heading into northern New Brunswick. The wipers sloshed back and forth, barely able to keep the windshield clear. Bucket-throws of water washed across our view. At midnight, we crossed over into dangerous territory. The Republic of Madawaska. A self-proclaimed independent state, Madawaska is wedged between the provinces of Quebec and New Brunswick and the state of Maine. The population is francophone, but the people are neither Québécois nor Acadian; they are les Brayons. And Madawaska is their heartland: La République.
Northrop Frye, scholar and soul-searcher, noted that what set Canada apart in the western hemisphere was our lack of a distinguishable frontier – a line that advanced purposefully across the map like an isobar separating one world from another, with “settlement” on one side and “vanishing wilderness” on the other. In this, our experiences diverged drastically from those of the United States. The American “frontier thesis” – a heavily symbolic narrative of progress and order steamrolling over the chaos of an untamed land–may be historically suspect, but its psychological impact on American society cannot be underestimated. By contrast, historian Donald Creighton advanced for Canada a “metropolitan thesis,” in which the flow of ideas and goods fanned outward from various urban centres to small scattered pockets of civilization–to outposts, in effect. In a country as sparsely populated and as vast as Canada, it could hardly have been otherwise, and this reality of who we are is played out before our eyes from the window of any given airplane on any given night. Beyond the luminous glow of the major cities, the metropolis melts away into a yawning darkness, an empty space punctuated only by intermittent clusters of light.
The effect upon the Canadian psyche, Frye argued, was something he called the “garrison mentality”: a sense of dread and loneliness bred into us from cowering behind palisaded walls, far from “home” in a land as savage as it was indifferent. The existential heebie-jeebies, as it were. (Our obsessive love of enclosed shopping malls can be seen as a continuation of this nervous tic, though personally I blame the weather.)
But garrison is too dark a word. “Garrison” suggests gnawing despair and impending attack. I prefer the term “outpost,” because it includes a wider range of possibilities. Outposts are not only geographic; they can be linguistic, political, cultural – even philosophical. I think of French Quebec and English Victoria, but also of the populist ideals embodied in Calgary’s unflagging optimism; I think of the exiled Acadians and the outcast Loyalists, of First Nations, once shattered, now regrouping. I think of failed utopias and deluded colonization schemes. Of fortunes lost and fortunes found. I think of mythical kingdoms and gold mountains. I think of the descendants of the Underground Railroad and the Gaelic communities of Cape Breton, and of the Cree in my hometown and the Mennonite colony nearby.
Outposts can become enclaves–the Anglos in Montreal or the Lebanese in Charlottetown–and enclaves can disappear. Such was the case of Vancouver’s black community in Hogan’s Alley, or of Halifax’s Africville. Or of the “thirteen lost tribes” of Canada’s Jewish Colonization Society that once existed in farming communes and hamlets between Winnipeg and the Rockies. Where are the remittance men of Windermere, British Columbia? Where are the French counts of Whitewood, Saskatchewan? The Acadians of Grand Pré? But beyond these tales of the defeated and the dispossessed, Canada’s outposts represent small triumphs of survival. Mini-epics of continuity. The French fact is a compelling example of this.
Communities overlap. Orbits collide. And outposts spin off from one another, as well. In Fort McMurray, Alberta, a tar sands town dedicated to wringing wealth from the earth, I once found myself in the colony of a colony, an outpost of an outpost. You’ve heard of Chinatown and Little Italy. In the tar sands of Alberta, a freewheeling “Newfoundland West” has taken hold. Fort McMurray’s lively (read: rowdy) ex-pat community (read: highly paid rig workers) has transformed this remote, landlocked city into one of the largest Newfoundland communities outside of St. John’s. Newfoundland, in turn, can be considered an outpost of Ireland . . . and on it goes.
Do you remember that old Roger Whittaker song “Canada Is,” with its rah-rah boosterism and its shopping list of locales? (Canada is the Rocky Mountains, Canada is Prince Edward Island. . . . ) Well, that song now seems profound. Canada is a sum of its regions. It is the outports and the outposts, the side streets and the stubborn enclaves, the city cul-de-sacs and the far-flung towns. That’s what Canada is.
The presence of outposts is evident in other immigrant nations, but in Canada it has become something of a defining trait. Whereas the United States had a frontier, and countries like Argentina and France and England have the Capital, one clear, overpowering, political, social and cultural center – Buenos Aires, Paris and London being the national Death Stars of their respective countries – Canada has no single central city. It has scattered metropolises of various sizes, regional outposts with their own spheres of influence. There is no London, and that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Canada’s increasingly eclectic, multicultural urban reality only highlights this patchwork character of ours. Far from being homogenizing agents, Canadian cities have increasingly come to resemble jigsaw puzzles jumbled together from dozens of different boxes, in which the various disparate pieces still somehow, sort of, almost fit.
I have spent the last three years travelling among the outposts and enclaves of Canada. Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw recounts some of these travels. It is, I freely admit, a highly subjective, site-specific look at our country. I begin at the Pacific and then work my way east, from the southern end of Vancouver Island to the northern tip of Newfoundland. A more typical approach would have been to start in the east and proceed westward, following the route of European expansion. But that would give the impression of purpose, of events unfolding according to some grand master plan. Going against the sun creates a very different effect. Moving from west to east, you peel back the layers of history as you go. The trips I took are not presented here in strict chronological order, which is why my son Alex is three years old in one chapter and an infant in the next. I apologize if you find this confusing. And yes, this is one of those fake “Canadian apologies,” where you say it but don’t really mean it.
When the explorer Samuel Hearne first attempted to walk from Hudson Bay to the Arctic Ocean in 1769, he knew he was about to enter what was for him, terra incognita, an “unknown country.” In preparation for his trek, Hearne sketched out the shoreline on a deerskin parchment, but he left the interior blank; he would fill things in as he went, adding details as he travelled. In a similar fashion, I wanted to fill in the broad outline of my own map of Canada, to add small but telling details to the cartography I carry inside me. True, unlike Hearne, I didn’t have to eat raw caribou hearts to survive, or cross arctic ice in a raging blizzard – but I was almost mugged by a gang of moose, and I did get a really bad blister on one toe. (When writing a travel memoir, it is always important to stress the hardships one has faced.)
I would have kept travelling if I could have, but that wasn’t possible. At some point you need to stop moving and try to put what you’ve seen into perspective. This book, then, is an attempt at coming to terms with this country, my own incomplete version of “Canada Is.” Canada is a Moose Jaw morning, Canada is a Sleeping Giant, Canada is the St. John’s harbour. . . .
I hope you enjoy it. And if you don’t, I apologize.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Canada Is
Chapter One: The Sudden Disappearance of Victoria
Chapter Two: Leaving the Fort
Chapter Three: Beauty Tips from Moose Jaw
Chapter Four: Polar Bear Season
Chapter Five: Sleeping Giant
Chapter Six: The Road to Dawn
Chapter Seven: The Lost Kingdom
Chapter Eight: The Republic of Madawaska
Chapter Nine: “Saint John’s Is Gnawing on My Bones”
Chapter Ten: At L’Anse aux Meadows