Canada struggles to define its own vastness
Troubled by an economic slump far worse than that below the border in the United States, Canada is struggling to pull out of its recession - and at the same time resolve a historic identity crisis.Skip to next paragraph
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It is this search for identity - and for an equally elusive national unity - that most preoccupies Canada today. In fact, for more than a century since it became a nation in 1867, the quest for identity and unity have been the biggest challenges facing Canadians.
As troubles come and go - like the current economic slump with its high unemployment and business failures, and the blistering debate over who will be Canada's next prime minister - this search for identity and unity has remained constant.
But the search may be coming to fruition. Pierre Berton, easily the top popularizer of Canadian history, suggests that Canadians ''are now for the first time beginning to see our country whole. . . . It is our land . . . nobody else's; and, as we are beginning to realize, it is like no other.''
Many Canadians, traditionally hesitant about calling themselves a nation because they had yet to unify the whole, now are experiencing a bit of heady enthusiasm for, even pride in, their land.
Canada - stretching 3,200 miles from Atlantic Newfoundland to Pacific Yukon - is the world's second-largest country. But a mere twelfth of its 3.85 million square miles is used or even modestly developed. What is left is northern wilderness - ''the great lone land'' about which British travelers wrote 100 years ago. It is a lone land, an untrammeled vastness at once menacing and inspiring, boring and exciting.
This sheer vastness is both ''an asset and a liability,'' says Toronto editor Douglas Creighton. Rich with minerals, water, and other resources, the frontier just sits waiting for a finder.
So much remains for exploration and development that ''it boggles our thoughts,'' says Calgary businessman Robert Buchanan. The immediate problem for him and for most other Canadians is simply to get through the current recession in the Canadian economy - but beyond that the frontier beckons.
Canada's lakes and rivers, for example, account for more than half of the world's freshwater reserves. That mighty potential awaits development. Most Canadians live far from this resource.
In some ways, inhabited Canada is like a horizontal Chile, a thin belt no wider than 200 miles stretching immediately north of the border with the US. All of Canada's modern, well-run cities are within this belt, and all but a million of Canada's 24 million people live there.
Canadians are understandably a geographically preoccupied people.
Gazing north to the untapped frontier, they are ''haunted by our inability'' to do much with the rich potential of this northland, observes Vic Humphreys, editor of Oilweek magazine in Calgary.
But gazing south to the powerful US, Canadians are dwarfed by another giant, and find themselves haunted by that rich southern land whose political, economic , and social tentacles seem to reach out to envelop them.
Yet Canadians are very much like their fellow North Americans in the US. Except for French-speaking Quebec, Canadians speak English. Their heritage, their culture is British, similar in many ways to that below the border, and their life styles are so similar that at first glance the visitor hardly notices a difference.