Canadianness comes not from imitating customs, but from developing one's own connection to the country
The year that I was fifteen, my family and I arrived in Oslo on the Easter weekend. The friends we were staying with introduced us to a sport I had never tried: cross-country skiing. We drove south in search of snow. The Norwegian hills resembled the Gatineau Hills north of Ottawa, though they had more lakes and ice fishers. On a remote plateau surrounded by fir trees, I clipped on cross-country skis for the first time and glided out into the winter landscape. By the end of the afternoon, we were sweating, our shins and ankles drenched by sticky, melting snow; I decided that I had found my sport. The next winter, when I was in grade 11, my stepfather and I laid out a cross-country ski trail around our farm in the Ottawa Valley. I would come home from school and snap on my skis in order to make three, four or five circuits of the loop through the woods and fields before darkness fell.
Like many converts, I was eager to share my new enthusiasm. I rounded up two accomplices from my French class, met an older student who had tried out for the Canadian junior team, and launched my high school’s first cross-country ski club. The lads from the hockey and football teams regarded the tight suits we wore when training behind the school, or competing at races in the Gatineau Hills, as less than masculine. I didn’t care: even after coming 160th or 170th out of 250 competitors, I felt fulfilled. The kick-and-glide rhythm of the Nordic skiing technique on a well-groomed trail became the supreme expression of my physical being. The raptness with which I learned to shift my weight to fly over the snow, the miracle of being able to go outside at thirty degrees below zero in a garment no heavier than a track suit and, within ten minutes, feel warm and insulated against the cold, made me aware of, and pleased with, my body in a way that was a novelty to me, as a skinny, bookish teenager.
Cross-country skiing absorbed me into my landscape. Bushwhacking to break a new trail, I would glimpse a rabbit thumping its big back foot, a snowy owl perched on a fencepost in a swirling blizzard, and feel viscerally connected to winter. As an immigrant who was growing up in a farming region, I was aware of the sense of apartness thrust on me by my foreign birth, non-standard accent and lack of my classmates’ multi-generational Ottawa Valley heritage. Cross-country skiing offered me the reassurance sought by the immigrant who is excluded from his locality’s history: a viable alternate route to belonging. Other farm boys had snowmobiles; I had cross-country skis. Like many immigrants, I felt Canadian not when I imitated the customs of old-stock citizens, but rather when I developed my own connection to the country. I learned that it was an immigrant, Herman “Jackrabbit” Smith-Johannsen—at that time still skiing in his eleventh decade of life—who had popularized cross-country skiing in Quebec, from where it had spread to other parts of Canada. I enshrined the Jackrabbit as one of my heroes.
As long as winter lasted, cross-country snow was right outside my door. Between my late teens and my late thirties, I spent more than a dozen years outside Canada. Whenever I returned for a winter visit, I slid out into the snow and found that, though my muscles ached, my kick-and-glide rhythm remained intact, a form of instant injection into the landscape. In Montreal, where I lived during my residences in Canada over those decades, I would board the Number 11 bus with my skis and poles, ride to the top of Mount Royal, then ski back down to avenue du Parc. In the city, as in the Ottawa Valley, cross-country skiing was a natural response to my surroundings. I expected to renew this relationship when I moved back to Canada in my late thirties to settle in southern Ontario. Yet here the climate was more fickle, snow yielding to rain even in January; society was more regimented. When I entered a Guelph Transit bus carrying a new pair of ski poles, still encased in plastic, the driver radioed the police that a man had brought a weapon on board. Two police constables boarded the bus and asked me if I had been drinking. As winters in the Great Lakes region grew milder, the ski-and-cycling shop in downtown Guelph discontinued its line of ski equipment. Friends encouraged me to go up north for ski weekends. This defeated my purpose. I didn’t want to make an expedition to go skiing: I expected cross-country snow as part of my habitat.
One weekend when it snowed, I drove to a provincial conservation area. I skied for a couple of hours, then went into the interpretive centre to use the washroom. As I stepped inside in my ski suit, I was met with jeers: “Whoah! A Canadiana!” “Hey, dude, you like snow?” A class of fifteen-year-olds had been bussed in from Toronto on a school trip. Having refused to leave the interpretive centre for their scheduled hike in the woods, they clicked their cellphones. Nearly all of the kids appeared to be of South Asian or East Asian ancestry; their flawless Toronto accents suggested that, unlike me, they had been born here. Like me, though, they had found their Canada by eschewing imitation of old-stock citizens. I, in the Ottawa Valley, had prized skis over snowmobiles; they, growing up in a city that received little snow, identified with a narrative of urban primacy that thrived on a dismissal of rustic life and winter. They saw a white man in a ski suit as a folkloric relic. Had I tried to tell them that I was their age when I had discovered cross-country skiing—they still had time!—my words likely would have made as little impact as those of the teacher who was trying to persuade them to hike through the woods. Emerging from the washroom to a fresh round of jeers, I retorted: “Yeah, I like snow!” I walked outside into the cold, clipped on my skis and plunged back into the Canada that had made me feel as though I belonged.