Delivered July 1, 2007 at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Halifax
The July 1st holiday was established in Canada in 1879, under the name Dominion Day. But it wasn’t until the 1950’s that regular celebrations entered cultural practice. In 1982 the name was changed to Canada Day. Canada Day is a celebration of our country, but even more it is a celebration of our nation. Well, what is a nation?
A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.
According to Stalin, that is! Lucky for Canada, Stalin’s not in charge of defining our nation. Nor is any other one person or group. "Nation" is a tricky word. It can be defined by common language, culture, religion, or by voluntary choice. We do not rely upon common language or culture as a standard. Canada is a land of many peoples from the First Nations to the most recent immigrants, and the many generations of immigrants in between. We are unquestionably a "voluntary choice" kind of nation.
We have even chosen to define a nation within a nation. A motion passed last year by the Canadian House of Commons "recognizes that the Quebecois form a nation within a united Canada." Canada is a nation of many immigrants. Like me. I immigrated as a spouse from the States, which as far as immigrant experiences go is about as gentle and easy as things can possibly get. And which is still really pretty difficult. My husband and I originally planned to move to Montreal, and had been looking at houses there for a couple weeks before coming to Nova Scotia to visit his mother who lives in Bridgewater. While we were here John’s best friend from childhood, Jim MacCleave, took us around the South Shore. We drove into Lunenburg on a snowy day to get lunch at Magnolia’s. Everything was white and peaceful, with colorful Victorian houses peeking out under snow hats and a calm harbour. Magnolia’s serves this crazy good creole peanut soup and, well, there you go. And here we are.
We hadn’t been in Nova Scotia very long when I got pregnant. We didn’t know many people. I joined an on-line due date club for community and support. This group of expectant mommies spanned the US and Canada. We’ve been chatting on a nearly daily basis for over three years now. We’ve celebrated births together, mourned deaths, and helped each other out through divorce and medical emergencies. We talk about our kid’s development, the cute things they often say and the aggravating things they occasionally do.
Recently one of the mothers in my group, Raquel, wrote with big news. She had been minding her own business at the bus stop in the (large, American) city where she lives, when a woman she did not know walked right up to her and her son and started talking to him. The stranger got right up in the boy's face and touched the top of his head. Rachel didn’t know how to react. This never happens to her. I had no idea what to say to her, because it never doesn’t happen to me! I can’t leave the house without a dozen people talking to Charlie. Many of the other mums in our group responded with a pithy anecdote about a time when some complete stranger dared to speak to their child or (gasp) touched their child, and I got a jolly good reality check about how, er, communal my community really is. Living in Lunenburg is like being in a constant conversation that ebbs and flows throughout our days. Strangers talk to Charlie at every turn. They pat his cheeks and compliment his shoes. "Hello, Charlie!" says Crispin at the Lunenburg Save-Easy. "That's some big bunch of broccoli you have!" "How are you today, Charlie?" asks Flora at the post office. "Package for you in the back!" I keep an eye on Charlie to gauge his comfort level with strangers, but as long as he’s okay then I’m thrilled for him to be engaged in the world around us.
It seems like I lived here a long time without a very strong sense of connection, sort of like an odd, extended vacation. Community snuck up on me from behind. I had some unexpected and delightful company this week. My best friend from seminary came to visit en route from a ministry in New York to one in Florida. (I guess she’s taking the really scenic route.) Together we explored just how many people I have gotten to know in town.
Thursday morning we walked down the hill to the farmer’s market, like Charlie and I do every Thursday morning. We stopped along the way to say hello to Nilanjana and her children, Keya and Rohun. We chatted about a reading I'd gone to with local author Ami McKay. Fantastic writer, and truly conversant with Nova Scotia history. I highly recommend her novel, The Birth House. Nilanjana is the librarian for the mobile unit that serves rural Lunenburg county. We can never resist the opportunity to talk about books. Rohun and Keya are ten and fifteen, but they both love to play with Charlie and will entertain him for the many hours that it takes us moms to chew over our latest reads.
At the market we first bought bread and cheese from Isabelle, an African-born French citizen. She once asked me to wear my clerical collar to the market to "prove" that I’m a minister. I actually have a clerical collar but when I went to put it on I found that it doesn’t fit me anymore, so I took it along and whirled it around on the end of a baguette. She considered that sufficient proof. Isabelle helps me with my French. Then we went over to see Svenja, a horticulturalist from Germany. Naomi and I wandered up to her flower stall. Without saying a word, Svenja reached behind an impressive display of tumbling wildflowers and pulled out a neat pile of very small pants. I reached into the basket of my stroller for an equally small, somewhat less neat pile of pants and we exchanged them. Svenja and her husband Hans live three blocks away from us and have a son Charlie’s age. We take turns watching the boys on weekday mornings. Inside or out, Charlie and Jonas both seem to extraordinarily dirty and wet when they play together, and end up going through several outfits apiece.
There was a quick hello from Katja another German mum in town, and then we went to buy coffee from Deborah and Steve. Deborah’s both a fair trade, organic coffee distributor and a documentary filmmaker. I took a few minutes to talk with her about the possibility of putting together a committee to get Lunenburg certified as a Fair Trade Town. And perhaps challenging Nova Scotia to become a Fair Trade Province. And, perhaps, making a film about the process. In our free time.
We got lemon tarts from the Julian’s vendor. She colludes with me in calling a bran muffin a "cupcake". Charlie loves getting his cupcake at the market! Our last stop at the market was with Kevin, my organic beef and egg supplier. He hadn’t been at the market when we arrived. When I teased him about being late, he solemnly informed me that he’d been held up by bears in the meadow. They were scaring the cows, so he had to chase them off before he could load the coolers of frozen meat in the truck.
On our way home we said hello to a very elderly gentleman whittling on his front porch, and he hailed us over. "You the folks at 211?" he asked. I said yes and he replied, "Oh, I used to mow the lawn there. That was when Gunk Tanner lived there, eh? Liked his shortwave radios. Fell to death on the basement stairs going to get a beer in the fridge down there. Yep, that was Gunk all right. Have a good day now."
Lunenburg is no idyll, and I haven’t always been a great neighbor myself. We make mistakes and try again. Participating in community is the key, not that we do it perfectly. One day I had my son at the park down the street. A man there was swinging on the swings, back and forth in great arcs that shook the base of the structure. I got all worked up and mama bear-ish and oh I’m gonna protect our parks from this troublemaker--I marched up to him and said, "The sign says the swings are for people twelve and under. How old are you?" He turned to me slowly and just said, "You’re not from Lunenburg." The conversation went downhill from there.
No, I’m not from Lunenburg, and everybody knows it. The man turned out to be the park supervisor for the town, by the way. He was doing a safety check on the equipment. I'll never know what it would have been like to move to Montreal, but it was very… American of me to think I could fit in easily in Nova Scotia. I’ve had a steep learning curve. There are will always be people here who don't want CFAs around, and I've run into plenty of them. But there are far more people who've welcomed me with smiles and the casual "dear" of Nova Scotia, who accept me and my family in their community despite our strange ways.
I know Lunenburg is not Canada nor is it representative—although in such a diverse nation, no place can be said to be representative. This particular corner is it’s own flavour of Canada. I have traveled around a bit, though and there are a few elements of Canadian culture that have struck me to be true everywhere. More than anything I’ve noticed that people really do say "sorry" if you bump into them. It charms me to no end. It can literally mean "sorry" of course, but I’ve noticed it can also mean, "I’m opening a conversation with you and I’d like to make it a friendly one from the start."
Whose Canada is it? I guess I would say that it’s everyone’s who has a stake it it. Citizens of the country, non-citizens who live here. The Cambodian teenager who lives in a tin shack and sews socks for Walmart sold in Canada has a stake in Canada. The fisherman sailing into Lunenburg Harbour with his catch. The American who looks north for models of justice. Canada is more than a country. It is a nation. "Country" is the government. "Nation" is the people. Being democratic means that we have an imperfectly realized ideal of the people sharing the governance of the country. Being a nation means that we, the Canadian people, create caring community together, that we then might extend to the world.
The English word "nation" is derived from the term nātĭō (stem nātiōn-), meaning the action of being born. A people who are born, constantly regiving birth to ourselves, creating ourselves, this is a nation. We can choose to do so mindfully and in joy. So at root, nation is a social construction. I was discussing this with a friend of mine from Alberta who observed that "nation" is really just a wider cosmos of the family. What we create in ourselves, we create in our family. What we create in our family, we create in our nation. What we create in our nation is what we create in our world, our universe. All my neighbors together construct a reality for my child, and I am profoundly grateful for it.
The spiritual practice of being with each other, of creating something together that promotes freedom, well-being, consensual relations with other is a profound one. We are growing. We are creating space for others to grow. We enjoy bounty as we learn to balance. I celebrate the Canada that we are, but far more I celebrate the Canada that we may become. Like our nation, "Canada Day" is still taking form. Taking a holiday to celebrate a sense of who we are and how we are growing is timeless.
The official ceremony inaugurating the new Canadian flag was held on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on February 15, 1965,
Maurice Bourget, Speaker of the Senate, said : "The flag is the symbol of the nation's unity, for it, beyond any doubt, represents all the citizens of Canada without distinction of race, language, belief or opinion."
From the seed of a maple a great tree grows
Gracing us with sweet syrup and sweet air
From the seeds of our being a great nation grows
Gracing the world with gifts of sweet justice
Breathe in the air of Canadian forests
Breathe out, release fear.
Breathe in community holding you in a network of care
Breathe out, release strife
Breathe in connection
Breathe out anxiety
Breathe your heart boundless
Breathe and know that we are many people and one people,
Many nations and one world.