He asked me with a mixture of incredulity and quizzicality: “If it is that cold, why would anyone want to play outside?” Jeff was an inquisitive 13-year-old boy who lived in a Haitian shantytown where I worked as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer with the United Nations. He asked me about what Canada was like. It was Christmas Eve, 1995 and we were quietly awaiting the start of midnight mass in Mirebalais, Haiti.
It is a discussion that I have often pondered over the years as I have watched my son grow into a 13-year-old. I wonder about what makes this country, and especially its inhabitants, so unique. To better understand, I need only look at my own journey.
I am a mixture of Canadiana: I was born in Ottawa and grew up in Sherbrooke, Montréal and Toronto to a father of Francophone ancestry from Sudbury who could trace our lineage to the first Blais to arrive in Canada in 1669 in Île d’Orléans and a first-generation-born Canadian mother whose English parents arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax and moved to Montréal following the First World War. So my father was Franco-Ontarian while my mother was Anglo-Québécoise. Like many French-Canadian families, we had various ancestors of aboriginal lineage, so much so that my sister even obtained her First Nations status. Once divorced, my mother converted to Judaism and with her new husband, she kept a kosher home. For a time, we even celebrated Easter, Passover, Christmas and Hanukkah, all in the same year.
As I grew up in Toronto prior to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, I could only attend English-language schools and lost my first language. My paternal grandmother, who lived in Sudbury, only spoke French and I always wanted to be able to converse with her. At age 18, I opted to attend McGill to reconquer my French. Upon graduation, I joined the RCMP. Before my centenarian grandmother passed, I eventually held many conversations with her in our common language.
My career in the RCMP took me to St-Georges-de-Beauce, Québec City, Montréal, Portage la Prairie, Winnipeg, Ottawa and then Halifax, where I am now the Chief of Halifax Regional Police. But along the way I had the incredibly good fortune to live in four different provinces; each one being distinct in its own unique way. I also worked as a Canadian peacekeeper on three occasions in Haiti. I learned up close the importance of the term ‘rule of law’. I married my McGill sweetheart, a woman of mixed Acadian and Quebec roots, and accepted her daughters as mine. We had our own child, a son who, unlike me and thanks to the Charter, is able to attend schools in his first language and is perfectly bilingual.
It has taken me the better part of 50 years to comprehend what makes us Canadians different from others; not better, not worse, just different. And it is those differences that are to be celebrated. Some call that multiculturalism, others diversity. I call that Canada.
I maintained contact with Jeff over the years since that conversation. He is well, with children of his own. When I hear my own son ask questions, I am often transported to that quiet moment that allowed me to commence my journey to better understand what being Canadian is all about.