In the farmer’s market, a quintessentially Canadian setting, much of Canada is not visible.
In the downtown core of my southwestern Ontario city, the visit to the market is a Saturday morning ritual.There is no parking at the market, only bicycle racks outside the front door. The walk to the market building passes two-storey red-brick houses that recall the British engineers dispatched to Canada during the War of 1812, who remained in the colony after the war ended and fanned out across Upper Canada, constructing houses in this style wherever they worked. As I cycle to the market, the houses remind me of the red-brick house where I grew up, six hours’ drive away in Ontario’s easternmost reaches; farmers in those rural areas did not hold a market, yet the consistency of architecture over this geographical expanse confirms the coherence of a culture. Many of the family-owned businesses near the market operate out of buildings that date back more than a century. The repertoire of architectural styles, creative variations on a cluster of consistent themes, offers aesthetic pleasure and corroboration of cultural wholeness, reiterating the history that underlies even the most casual Saturday morning outing.
As I enter the market, I keep one eye on the cheese, honey, maple syrup and organic meat and vegetables, and the other on the yoga-trimmed middle-aged figures in the aisles. I’m here to buy provisions to take home in my cloth shopping bag, but also to be recognized as part of the community. I feel at home here. These people fit into the category that the French, with cynical aptness, characterize as bobo—bourgeois bohemians. Some of them are my friends; others I recognize from the audience at music festivals, literary readings, political speeches. As a student of my city and its neighbourhoods, I know these people’s preferences. Consumers of culture, they volunteer for progressive causes and vote for one of the three political parties—Liberal, NDP or Green—that regularly claim between half and two-thirds of Canadians’ votes, yet, over most of the last decade, have been incapable of forming a federal government. Echoes of this impotence rupture the Saturday morning amiability: next to a stall that offers gluten-free wheatgrass is a table where angry older men solicit signatures against the tar sands (which no one here calls “oil sands”); the guitarist outside the door strums venerable protest ballads. Yet the most disconcerting feature of the market is not these expressions of frustration, but the fact that in this most quintessentially Canadian setting, much of Canada is not visible.
The market is where I find my friends and feel my history and values reinforced; yet how can I not be troubled that everyone here is white? Some weekends I hear French or German spoken, but never Cantonese or Punjabi. The “ethnic” food stalls are Italian or Polish. True, an Eritrean family has opened a stall, a neighbour arrives with her adopted African-American son, and last weekend one of my former students showed up in the company of a Chinese-Canadian man; but the market remains overwhelmingly, unrepresentatively white. There are women in starched Mennonite bonnets, but none in hijabs. I know from experience that among the people who surround me are agnostics, atheists, crystal-worshippers, lapsed Catholics and members of the United Church of Canada, but few practising Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus or Evangelical Protestants. Those people are at the mall.
In the suburbs on the edge of the city, the visit to the mall is a Saturday afternoon ritual. A few people take the bus, but most drive to the vast parking lots. The drive passes ranks of identical new houses that are rammed up against each other. The sameness obliterates awareness of history, nullifying the possibility of a shared culture. Traits that undergird the present with a tangible past are dispersed by the cult of material consumption. Even the contours of many customers’ bodies are influenced by this cult. Amid the dank-grease stench of the food court, franchises serve food that is global in provenance yet ersatz: national dishes are pumped up with additives, purged of unfamiliar elements and paired with huge soft drinks. The shops are transnational chains; a few insert a maple leaf—like a fig leaf of respectability turned red with embarrassment— into their familiar logos. People of all ages and ethnic backgrounds carry throwaway plastic shopping bags that announce the brands on which they spend their money. The shoppers illustrate every stage of immigrant adaptation, from Somali women in traditional robes to South Asian-descended teenagers in shorts and T-shirts and sixth-generation Scottish-Canadian men from the Legion Hall. The teenagers greet their friends; adults pass without speaking. I know from my reading on local issues that many of these adults volunteer with their religious or ethnic communities; they vote Conservative, sometimes Liberal, often not at all. Tables set out along the mall’s main corridor urge passersby to sign up for loyalty cards or buy an apple to support the cadets. Here the scourge of life is taxes: advertising vaunts the allure of not paying sales tax; cubicles promise to process your income tax so that you pay the minimum.
At the mall, I may be spotted by my students, but I do not meet my friends. I sometimes forget where I am. The mall, though diverse, is severed from history. All of Canada is here, but Canadian culture and identity are absent. In Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal, the contrast between the market and the mall would be less stark: the market would be more ethnically mixed; the mall might serve better food. Yet the dilemma posed by the difference between them is present everywhere. Who still assumes that to become Canadian implies integration into a recognizable arc of history, as immigrant families like mine did in the 1960s? If some more recent immigrants are uncertain of where they are, of whether this place means anything beyond freedom to shop, this may be because those of us who got here earlier are no longer sure, either.