Killarney Provincial Park - Watching the dawn fog lift off the white granite cliff across from our campsite last week, I was suddenly struck by that old saying "Canada is cursed with too much geography and not enough history.' As the sunlight bounced off rock, water and pine to reflect a new day on the isolated lake, it occurred to me that this park has been a rugged monument to the open and gentle Canadian identity. It's such a blessing, I thought, to live in a country with a national identity inspired by a 2-billion year history of Canadian Shield geography instead of a history cursed by national glorification of military or economic might, blood ties or ideological and religious tradition.
It's no surprise that a place like Killarney has mesmerized a legion of painters and photographers since the avant-garde heyday of A.Y. Jackson and the Group of Seven during the 1920s. Turquoise and navy blue waters create both a prism and a mirror for the light that plays off white and pink granite mountains and shorelines dominated by mischievous white pines that jut out like rabbit ears from behind properly erect hemlock and maples.
Stone, water and light - for artists, it's Venice without civilization.
But Killarney is more than a pretty place. It has charisma, the kind of charm that allows people to see themselves reflected in its gaze. That's why Canada is so unusual and so lucky to have discovered its identity in a place with an ancient history, whose vastness is open to including all, not just those who share a common recent history.
The Group of Seven - like many people who looked back in anger at the first world war and the carnage in Europe, and others who recoiled from the U.S.'s vulgar, brash, commercialized culture during the roaring 1920s - captured Killarney with bold strokes because they saw it as the beacon for a bold northern nation.
They evoked this distinctive spirit in the same decade when rustic cottages by northern lakes became the norm. The structures replaced the fashion of summering at the seashore, and summer camps that featured backwoods tenting and canoeing replaced the polish of a European tour for affluent youth.
The way this generation linked place with national identity was more avant-garde than the Group of Seven's art. It transcended the bloody equation between nationality and national exploits. When the painters depicted wilderness places as sacred, they were in line with "primitive" and pagan religions, and at odds with dominant world religions that feature deserts as places where divine secrets are revealed.
Hinduism is rare among world religions in that it honours wilderness. Just as generations of Hindus practise yoga as a physical routine enabling them to glimpse the essence of life, generations of Canadians practice canoeing as a form of meditation in motion that takes them "inward-bound" and unites them with forces of deep meaning.
This sense of Canada remains powerful in the general culture, as our animal totems and mascots reveal. Instead of revering predatory animals such as eagles (the Yanks) and lions (the Brits), icons of majesty that are red in tooth and claw, the Canucks go for symbols of the gang of working stiffs (beavers), the court jester (the loon), the irreverent and perennially off-balance (the white pine) and the late-comer (the maple, sign of the mature or old-growth forest).
But politically this view of Canada has no purchase. Few Canadian politicians have any sense of place as something that deserves protection. That's why we have such a problem with sprawl, which is not tolerated in Europe, where the countryside is a political sacred cow.
It's also why Canadian representatives are such keeners for an anonymous and placeless world economy. For instance, Sergio Marchi, Canada's ambassador to the World Trade Organization, opposes European efforts to protect foods with place names (such as Dijon mustard and Parmesan cheese) by denying use of the place name brand to producers in other countries.
"The very concept of geographical indication runs contrary to the whole liberalization" that free trade is about, says Marchi. I guess he won't mind if the Europeans invite tourists to see their generic Canadian Shield and Rockies, since geographical indications run contrary to liberalization, eh?
Thanks to our politicians, we do next to nothing to promote access to the values that wilderness havens such as Killarney generate. My camping mates, Debbie Field from Foodshare, and her partner, David Kraft, couldn't stop preaching about a wilderness bonus, their scheme to provide all youth with a forest experience as a way of teaching them about nature, teamwork, self-reliance, patience, risk management and spirituality. The concept is way too wild for our politicians.