Monday, September 23, 2019

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Vertigo Under the Sky

Jackie Flanagan published Alberta Views, a left-of-centre magazine dealing with Alberta issues. I started by asking her about Calgary. "What kind of town is it?"

"Funny you call Calgary a town. In some ways it’s the centre of the country.”

And so right away a note was struck that I would hear again and again in Alberta.

I said, “So do you think the disdain people feel about Albertans is unfair?”

“Yes.”

“What do you think about Kyoto?”

“A little early to say. We are a cold country. We are a cold country. Compare us to a tropical country? Ridiculous. I’m pretty left-wing and I’m an environmentalist. But I’m not sure about Kyoto.”

“Are you typical?”

“I’m a typical Albertan – against Chretien.”

So she wouldn’t vote for the Liberals, I thought. Jackie told me that like most Albertans she felt a very strong resistance to the federal government, to what she perceived as the interests of Ontario. “What is outside our borders.”

“`Outside our borders.’ That’s a nationalist kind of statement.”

She nodded, smiling.

“So it’s not just a thing of feeling aggrieved or left out.”

“I don’t think Albertans feel aggrieved. They feel, `Screw you!’ They don’t want constraints put on them.” And she added, going back to her thought about Kyoto: “The oil industry is high-risk. They take chances.”

She meant the oil industry needed to be encouraged because it put its money on the line. I didn’t pursue this idea. She said, “`Don’t get in our way,’ is the attitude.”

“So Albertans don’t feel particularly Canadian.”

“I think it’s true that Alberta doesn’t have a collective Canadian ethos. I do. I think that in Alberta there’s far more of a rugged individualism. There’s a focus on the individual instead of the collective.”

“Is that the influence of the Americans who came in in the fifties?” I knew that Americans from oil states like Texas had transformed Alberta in the 1950s, establishing oil companies and revolutionizing Alberta’s culture.

“I think it comes not just because of the influence of the States. Many people have come from communist countries.”

“Communist countries?”

“From Eastern Europe. Edmonton is half Ukrainian.”

“When did they come to Alberta?”

“Many of the original settlers came at the turn of the century.”

“So they weren’t communist.”

“No – but they don’t want government interference. They watched what was going on.” And then, seeming to contradict herself, she said: “They had a sense of community. There’s a huge volunteer spirit in Calgary. It’s like with the ranching. That matters here. And ranching is the same kind of rugged individualism.”

A bit surprised at her conservatism, I said, "Why did you start the magazine?"

“I started the magazine because I was so worried about what Klein was doing to the infrastructure. You have to create a place. I witnessed that. My parents witnessed that. When Klein came to power, all we had was extreme right wing perspectives. People weren’t alerted – that’s why I started the magazine." But her comments about Klein also contained admiration. “Funding to health care has been restored. And he’s been able to eliminate the deficit.”

And almost at once, the issue so mattered to her, we came back to Albertans’ provincialism or exceptionalism.

“Albertans first. Many Albertans see themselves as Albertans first. By the time the polls close we already know what the result of the federal election is, you feel very futile.”

I thought: She doesn’t vote Liberal; does she support Reform? I said, “What do you think of the Canadian Alliance?”

“Stockwell Day was such a joke it’s a bit of an embarrassment.”

“Who is the typical supporter?”

“The typical supporter is a bit of a rube.” But Jackie wasn’t happy just with that. “People supported Reform because the country needed reform. There is an enormous respect for Preston Manning. He’s the son of Ernest Manning, you know, who’s an almost legendary figure in Alberta. And they command respect.”

“But members of the party voted in Stockwell Day.”

“Well, the people that were the movers and shakers in the party. They thought Stockwell Day was sexy. They thought he had charisma. The guy who pushed him was the same guy who got Klein in first as mayor. He got Day in. He strategized.”

I asked her to tell me about religion. I wanted to know how religion was connected to Reform, to Preston and Ernest Manning and Social Credit. Jackie’s response was thoughtful. She said (and I would hear something similar again and again as I travelled through Alberta, so that along with its closeness to country values, I came to see the social battlelines enforced by religion as nearly the main factor determining the province’s culture), she said: “Even if the subsequent generations lost the values of their grandparents, I think the residue of those values remains. With the Mannings and William Eberhart. He had a back-to-the Bible hour. He became a kind of charismatic hero. They ruled for thirty-five years. Now, StatsCan says that Alberta is the least religious province in the country. Even so, there’s things that remain from the religious past.”

I asked her, “How are things in Alberta with the Natives?”

“Better than in most places.” Again, this defensiveness. She continued, “Klein is an honorary chief. He has tremendous sympathy toward the problems of First Nations people. There are some very successful people. The Cardinals. There’s a Cardinal MLA.” She laughed. “It’s all Cardinals.”

She didn’t see this as a problem. But just when I was thinking she was an apologist for the tokenism and paternalism she had described, she said, “There are people that are racist in Alberta. Terrible problems. I flew up to Cold Lake. I had a chance to talk to people on the reserve. They’ve got a good school for elementary kids. Also all the problems. Alcoholism and so on.”

“Is there any militancy?”

“There’s no militancy among Alberta’s Natives.”

“Why?”

“Treaty 6 or 7 covers most of Alberta. The Native people in Alberta know what their relationship is to the government.” She said this flatly. But then, as if seeing implications in the statement she hadn’t intended, she said something that I later thought went to the core of Alberta’s culture: “With agricultural roots – small town, like Alberta is – you’re gonna find a certain toughness. The climate is so harsh. I can remember my mother, who was born in Saskatchewan, saying you couldn’t be devil-may-care. The climate will kill you. When you live with that, you get tough.” She added, “My husband” – a rich man, the man who paid for the magazine – “I hear the way he talks to the kids.” She meant that he talked tough to them. “In Vancouver the kids smoke pot when they’re thirteen. And it seems that’s fine. It’s not fine with me.”

She smiled, a bluff, hearty woman with a weather-worn face, wearing dark clothes. And I thought: She wants to fight. She was an Albertan, and she saw me as someone from morally soft Vancouver. She said, “Here there’s a connection between the city and the rough work in the country. My husband can gut a deer. We’re really just one generation away from it. Calgary is just one generation away from the country. As a consequence I guess we have that country feeling that people are responsible for what they do.”

Downtown Calgary is gloomy, cavernous. And I got lost. I drove around and around, getting trapped on one-way streets which, like the one-way streets of Houston Texas, a city I had lived in for five years and which Calgary reminded me of, made it easy to go far from where you wanted to go. The publisher had mentioned names of people I should talk to. She had given me phone numbers and addresses. But on those one-way streets I couldn’t find the addresses; and when I tried to phone people I got nowhere, getting answering machines or busy signals. Finally I gave in and just looked, trying to be a tourist.

Even on this sunny September day Calgary felt raw. New young trees, their thin trunks and lacy branches making them look fragile, grew in the shadows of the huge downtown buildings; when the cold wind bent their trunks, the impression of fragility intensified. Yet just as Houston’s had, the big, new downtown impressed me. It went on and on. COMPAQ, ING and other corporate names were spelled out in giant letters on the tops of buildings which in their size and number made Vancouver’s downtown seem small. Once again I noticed the elevated walkways for the cold weather. A couple of years before, coming into Calgary for the first time, I had stopped at a closed-off street, a sort of outdoor mall or fair in which hamburgers were being sold. It was cold and grey out, but I was hungry. I bought a hamburger and sat at a table to eat it; rain started to fall on the table and on my hamburger; a Native man, his voice slurred, his eyes sick-looking, asked me for money. Other men and women in a similar condition started to walk toward me. I looked for a way out. I saw a glassed-in walkway overhead, a doorway leading to an elevator. I went up the elevator and came out on the walkway. Only a few people walked with me, through the walkway into a well-stocked department store. All were white, all wore the same dark-coloured parkas and pants and shoes; none of them spoke. In their silence and almost puritanical sameness of dress and demeanor they seemed to me like ghosts. In Calgary a vertical separation of classes had been enforced by the hard weather, the two classes of Calgary seeming to be in intimate proximity to each other, but in fact worlds apart.

I drove and drove through the big new downtown, trying to just look. But I started to feel panicky.

I had come here from Vancouver because I had seen a documentary on Vision TV about Everett Soop, a brilliant Native cartoonist who had lived and died on the huge Blood reserve down near Alberta’s southern border. The documentary had excited me. It made me want to learn more about Soop. I wanted to talk to people who had known him and people who could provide a context for his life. The publisher had given me some names; others – Hugh Dempsey, for instance, the curator of the Glenbow Museum and an early supporter of Soop – I thought of by myself. I wanted to write about Alberta and the other prairie provinces, and in particular about Native-white relations on the prairies, and I thought Calgary would be a good place to start.

But my efforts had come to nothing. And now, feeling worry rise in me, wondering if this long-planned trip had already fallen apart, I tried to leave Calgary. And I couldn’t. Again on those endless one-way streets I got lost. I drove in a state of increasing anxiety and anger, trying to study the map that lay on my knees, trying to find a way out.

And then all at once I did. Macleod Trail turned into Highway 2; and within minutes I was on the prairie, the city in the rearview mirror a bunched-up cluster of buildings, something that again reminded me of Houston and the freeways that circled that city. It felt good to drive without having to look for an address, and I drove fast on the flat straight highway, finding in the moment-to-moment intensity of the driving an escape from worry.

I stopped in Nanton. Three woman were working at one end of the long narrow cafe in the old hotel; a cheerful, happy, slightly silly man (like the other man in the cafe he wore a cap) said to the women: “What would you do if you won a million bucks?”

The oldest of the three, her cheeks creased, said, “I’d quit this place.”

“Yeah, but then I bet you’d get bored and want to come back to work.”

“I wouldn’t work here – but I might come down and gloat at you guys.”

It was the idle talk of people at home in the little patch of ground in which they would probably die. They occasionally turned and looked at me – what was I doing here?

I finished my coffee and went out and walked around for a bit on Nanton’s wide streets. I noticed old houses, tall, turn-of-the-century buildings. A grain elevator stood against the sky, close to the highway. Everywhere I could sense the past. But this past, like a ghost, felt insubstantial: it didn’t amount to anything: it was unusable, like an old car in a backyard. For the first time I felt what I would feel again and again on the prairies: how quickly things aged here, so that a building from the 1950s was already museumlike, while a building from before World War Two was a revenant, something that had outlived its time but still remained, Lazarus-like, stiff and silent and useless in the bright sun.

Still, even here in old Nanton I could sense Alberta’s economic vitality. I passed two grinning cowboys, their faces clean and young under their outlandish hats, so full of energy they were doing chin-ups on the opened door of a new, huge, fat-sided, shiny black Ford F-350 truck. A crow sat on a new green GAS STATION sign; beyond it, out in the prairie, two horses with beautiful manes pushed over their eyes by the wind stood head to head, comforting each other. This too reminded me of Houston: the ultra-modern in juxtaposition with a past that seemed to come from a fairy book.

That afternoon, driving fast on the flat, straight highway, the road sloping down to prairie on either side, the sun hard, the wind boiling in the grass, I felt vertigo, a sense of being unprotected. Unreasonable; and not like my anxiety going through mountain passes in BC, where I had worried about what could happen if the van broke down. This was an irrational sense that I was floating at too-high speed – the earth stretching down in every direction, the sky all around: a sense that I could fall into nothingness. I thought: if I lived here I would want to live closer to the Rockies: for the wall they provide. But I had left the Rockies behind; I was on the prairie now, in a different world.

Coming out of the mountains my angle of vision had abruptly changed from up and down to horizontal. The flatness and the size of the sky had seemed almost beyond comprehension. I thought this would stop. But it didn’t. And along with my growing worry, the size of the sky made me drive faster than I intended: on flat straight Highway 2 I would look at the speedometer and discover I was driving at 140 K an hour. The speed noise roared in my ears. I saw things in pieces: plastic sheets and wrappers blown against fences; a horse lying on its side. It looked dead. The wind coming off the Rockies blew and blew, making the van sway, making the grass along the highway seethe like water seethes when it boils hard – lifting and tumbling and twisting. I drove past a young Native man who was walking along the highway holding his hat. His zipped-up brown and green and white jacket – these boldly coloured jackets were popular on the prairies – billowed in the wind like a tent, flupping and puffing out on him as the wind streamed into it. He was walking into the wind, his eyes streaming; his jacket with its bright symmetrical colours looked like a costume for a pow wow.

I stopped at the gas station at the Peigan Reserve. It sat on a flat promontory overlooking a wide coulee and, beyond the coulee, rolling prairie hills. A view of sombre magnificence: breathtaking. It reminded me of my childhood dreams of the west. The man running the station, a big man with a broad Native face, was inside talking to a small white man with Dumbo-like red ears whose car had broken down. This man was dressed in runners, baggy jeans, a thin, too-tight western shirt with snap buttons, a couple of which had been partly ripped from their cloth. Where one button didn’t snap shut the man’s naked stomach was exposed. The man running the station was patient. “Might be the fuel pump,” he said.

"I thought it might a been that. You know, I did."

I asked about the rest room.

“It’s in the back there.” A soft voice.

I walked to the back of the garage past weights and a weight stand. This was a Native thing: young Native men, some of them, were trying to bulk up in an attempt to get out from under the intimidation of whites. They had learned this – and other things, I would discover: how to dress, how to walk and talk, how to "front" when facing whites – from American blacks. I imagined teenagers from the reserve coming to the station to work out. The restroom, though old, was clean. Outside, Native and white men were drinking coffee, one man looking out at the view. There was a kind of truce on the ground, then: and though I could feel racial constraint, the men spoke quietly to each other, their backs turned to the cold wind. And again, looking at them, noticing their quietness and constraint, how still they stood, their clothes so similar, I had the odd sense that I was looking at ghosts, outlines of people.

In Fort McLeod, in the cafe-bakery into which I stepped to get out of the cold wind, the old wooden boards creaked. A young neo-hippie couple stood behind the counter, the girl soft-faced, soft-eyed, the boy wearing a necklace (something I would see a number of times on the prairies; it denoted a kind of sophistication: the necklace usually of thick chunky metal with a stone or a pendant). Along with coffee I bought a bowl of good soup.

I sat near the cafe window; when I was finishing an older woman with underslept eyes walked over from the kitchen. She held up her coffee pot. "Want more?"

"Yes please."

As she poured, I said, “Is it always this windy?”

“More than it should be.”

“I guess people get used to it.”

“No. There’s people that have lived here all their lives who aren’t used to it.”

“It must get cold in winter – with the wind chill.”

“That’s when you stay in.”

Outside I watched a small thin woman in bright blue pants and a ski jacket staggering at the corner, almost blown over. I lay down on the bed in the back of the van and made notes, warm there with the sun coming in the back windows, feeling the van rocking in the wind. I thought about the windblown hawks on Highway 2, at the last moment veering away. I felt comfortable with the warmth; but even as I made my notes, my sense of worry shaded again into something close to panic. The world I wanted to explore had stayed closed off. I couldn’t enter it. I wanted to speak to someone who would lead me to Everett Soop but I didn’t know how.

3239 words, September 23, 2004

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Bruce Serafin

Bruce Serafin lived and wrote beautifully about Vancouver until he died in June 2007. His first book, Colin's Big Thing, was published in 2004. A posthumus collection of essays, Stardust was published in October 2007 by New Star.

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