THE trepidation with which Canada is observing the 125th anniversary of its dominion is evident throughout the current spate of books recalling the country's past and speculating on its precarious future. Much of the worry rests on the outcome of the October 1992 referendum, which would allow Quebec to form a separate nation.
Despite her affinity for Canada, Welsh travel writer Jan Morris is less concerned with the issue of separation than most Canadians. Indeed, she finds the idea of a politically and historically unified Canada misleading. Morris is impressed that "Canada is one country whose parts are greater than the whole...."
To the world, Canada may be the Great White North: a vast, sparsely inhabited immensity of trees and tundra. But to Morris, Canada is a patchwork quilt of cities. "O Canada" reads like the diary of a traveler with an unlimited railway pass. When, in the late 1980s, she was given the chance to write about the country for the Toronto magazine Saturday Night, she elected the urban view. The Canada that appears in this collection of her essays is one of vivid metropolitan particulars.
Commentators are fond of suggesting that Morris writes like a resident of the places she visits. That is not entirely true. Morris makes no pretense to an insider's understanding of the subtle rhythms of a locale. She writes like the visitor she is, someone able to dispense with the duties of daily life, all the better to concentrate on the nodes of distinction each area offers. It is unlikely that many residents of Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, St. John's, St. Andrew, Saskatoon, Edmonton, Banff,
and Yellowknife - the cities whose portraits make up this collection - would know every site that comes under her gaze. City life is never as minutely cataloged by its inhabitants as it is by attentive outsiders.
Morris seldom lets her obvious affection for Canada impinge upon her pointed observations, most of which are variations on the theme of "the long, slow, tuneless, humourless, saltless monotony of Canadian orthodoxy!" As she predicts in her introductory remarks, some readers will find her comments brusque and irreverent.
For example, she proposes that the pomp and vulgarity of English society in Montreal may have been siphoned off to Toronto. And Ottawa, she advises, has paid the penalty of progress and succumbed to a panoply of architectural cliches.
But for plucky St. John's, Newfoundland, the accolades fall thick and fast. The town's stalwart frontier character beguiles Morris. That lapse aside, her reactions to Yellowknife, capital to a third of Canada, are predictable. She is abashed at the presence of "Yappies" (young arctic upwardly mobile professionals), yet elated at the rich cultural presence of indigenous peoples.
When her essay on Vancouver first appeared, it drew a vehement response, despite Morris's pleas that all she did was to call the city nice. Desperately nice.
No one will mistake these essays for a comprehensive documentary. Yet for her remarks on Vancouver, and other derogatory descriptions of middle-class, middle-income, middle-brow Canadian life, Morris will surely be accused of having missed the forest for the bourgeoise.
Still, amid the sentiment and the sententiousness, Morris evokes a version of Canada worth attending. It is not Canada at the brink of several crises of sovereignty, but the perniciously persistent fiction of Canada as a utopia of the ordinary.
If Morris is occasionally aggravating in her comments, perhaps it is because she realizes that the dilemmas of contemporary Canada are such that the country can no longer operate with such a faulty self-image.