By Richard Gwyn Columnist, Toronto Star, October 8, 2010
Recently, after taking part in a literary festival, I asked an organizer how to fill in the expense claim. She answered: “Our mileage rate is 50 cents a kilometre.”
Only if she had said “kilometrage rate” would I, or any Canadian, have had any difficult understanding what she meant. To us, it’s perfectly natural to mix and muddle two quite different systems of measurement.
This is my entry point into a theory about Canadian identity I’ve been developing and make public here in the hope it will earn me a Canada Council grant.
This is that Canada can only be understood as a bumblebee nation.
Bumblebees, so it’s said, cannot fly. Their wings are too short and stubby. Yet they in fact buzz about entirely efficiently, even can hover motionless while sucking out pollen. The reason is that bees don’t know that they cannot fly.
We, too, ought not to be able to fly. But we do, and on the whole not at all badly.
This is not the Canada Council responding; yet if it were, the grant would be approved.
Gwyn looks at this paradox of a nation with eyes steeped in the vagaries of time spent wandering and wondering about how "things work" historically, politically, culturally and even, it seems biologically.
So much of our research today, and for the recent past , is based on the biology that we are unpacking. Neuroscience studies of the differences between the male and female brains often grab more headlines than the cultural differences of our behaviour, attitudes, beliefs and perceptions.
Move over, beaver; bumblebee enter stage right!
Buzzing without wings and accessing the pollen necessary for cross-pollination, cross fertilization, and new life. Facilitating new plants, while coping effectively with gravity, turbulence, and interlopers.
Based, however, as Gwyn claims, on a document and a cultural mix that are not supposed to work for the simple reason that they are not like any other.
Is Gwyn wisely pointing to the notion that planning can and often does lead to precisely the opposite of what we envisioned by those planning? Is he attempting to "send-up" those ancestors who took themselves and their documents extremely seriously, literally and studiously, based on what they knew then.
Would we write a different document? Would we be happy pretending the U.S. Securities and Exchange is a surrogate for Canada? Would that be a step down a slippery slope into merging with the elephant on the south side of the North American "bed?" Bumblebees are very efficient at collecting their pollen, but I think they would make lousy travellers to Mexico for the winter. I would prefer the Canada goose, even though our southern neighbours curse the droppings.
Appearing to be a culturally diverse, welcoming, tolerant and open society, Canada likes to headline figures that support such an image, without actually doing the hard work of making those adjectives authentic. Internal tensions that just won't dissipate may be providing the energy for that buzzing that we like to do around those flowers that seem so succulent. New cultures and perspectives may be the fuel stoking the heart of the little buzzers. And, if so, will we be pollinating new plants for use in new ways to provide new energies for new ventures, including clean air, water and access to both for all?
If Gwyn is even close to being right, then we certainly do not need those 65 F-35 Fighter Jets...we already have sufficient "wings" to fly wherever there is pollen and we would only contemplate war with anyone at our own peril.
Arthur Lower would be happy with Gwyn's testimony about mixing and muddling. Some of us might prefer a more "canary-like" image, signalling the disappearance of oxygen in the coal mine.