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An essay by Rupert Brooke

Montreal And Ottawa

Title:     Montreal And Ottawa
Author: Rupert Brooke [More Titles by Brooke]

My American friends were full of kindly scorn when I announced that I was going to Canada. 'A country without a soul!' they cried, and pressed books upon me, to befriend me through that Philistine bleakness. Their commiseration unnerved me, but I was heartened by a feeling that I was, in a sense, going home, and by the romance of journeying. There was romance in the long grim American train, in the great lake we passed in the blackest of nights, and could just see glinting behind dark trees; in the negro car-attendant; in the boy who perpetually cried: 'Pea-nuts! Candy!' up and down the long carriages; in the lofty box they put me in to sleep; and in the fat old lady who had the berth under mine, and snored shrilly the whole night through. There was almost romance, even, in the fact that after all there was no restaurant-car on the train; and, having walked all day in the country, I dined off an orange. I suppose an Englishman in another country, if he is simple enough, is continually and alternately struck by two thoughts: 'How like England this is!' and 'How unlike England this is!' When I had woken next morning, and, lying on my back, had got inside my clothes with a series of fish-like jumps, I found myself looking with startled eyes out of the window at the largest river I had ever seen. It was blue, and sunlit, and it curved spaciously. But beyond that we ran into the squalider parts of a city. It became immediately obvious that we were not in New York or Boston or any of the more orderly, the rather foreign, cities of America. There was something in the untidiness of those grimy houses, the smoky disorder of the backyards, that ran a thrill of nostalgia through me. I recognised the English way of doing things--with a difference that I could not define till later.

Determined to be in all ways the complete tourist, I took a rough preliminary survey of Montreal in an 'observation-car.' It was a large motor-wagonette, from which everything in Montreal could be seen in two hours. We were a most fortuitous band of twenty, who had elected so to see it. Our guide addressed us from the front through a small megaphone, telling us what everything was, what we were to be interested in, what to overlook, what to admire. He seemed the exact type of a spiritual pastor and master, shepherding his stolid and perplexed flock on a regulated path through the dust and clatter of the world. And the great hollow device out of which our instruction proceeded was so perfectly a blind mouth. I had never understood _Lycidas_ before. We were sheepish enough, and fairly hungry. However, we were excellently fed. "On the right, ladies and gentlemen, is the Bank of Montreal; on the left the Presbyterian Church of St Andrew's; on the right, again, the well-designed residence of Sir Blank Blank; further on, on the same side, the Art Museum...." The outcome of it all was a vague general impression that Montreal consists of banks and churches. The people of this city spend much of their time in laying up their riches in this world or the next. Indeed, the British part of Montreal is dominated by the Scotch race; there is a Scotch spirit sensible in the whole place-- in the rather narrow, rather gloomy streets, the solid, square, grey, aggressively prosperous buildings, the general greyness of the city, the air of dour prosperity. Even the Canadian habit of loading the streets with heavy telephone wires, supported by frequent black poles, seemed to increase the atmospheric resemblance to Glasgow.

But besides all this there is a kind of restraint in the air, due, perhaps, to a state of affairs which, more than any other, startles the ordinary ignorant English visitor. The average man in England has an idea of Canada as a young-eyed daughter State, composed of millions of wheat-growers and backwoodsmen of British race. It surprises him to learn that more than a quarter of the population is of French descent, that many of them cannot speak English, that they control a province, form the majority in the biggest city in Canada, and are a perpetual complication in the national politics. Even a stranger who knows this is startled at the complete separateness of the two races. Inter-marriage is very rare. They do not meet socially; only on business, and that not often. In the same city these two communities dwell side by side, with different traditions, different languages, different ideals, without sympathy or comprehension. The French in Canada are entirely devoted to-- some say under the thumb of--the Roman Catholic Church. They seem like a piece of the Middle Ages, dumped after a trans-secular journey into a quite uncompromising example of our commercial time. Some of their leaders are said to have dreams of a French Republic--or theocracy--on the banks of the St Lawrence. How this, or any other, solution of the problem is to come about, no man knows. Racial difficulties are the most enduring of all. The French and British in Canada seem to have behaved with quite extraordinary generosity and kindliness towards each other. No one is to blame. But it is not in human nature that two communities should live side by side, pretending they are one, without some irritation and mutual loss of strength. There is no open strife. But 'incidents,' and the memory of incidents, bear continual witness to the truth of the situation. And racial disagreement is at the bottom, often unconsciously, of many political and social movements. Sir Wilfrid Laurier performed a miracle. But no one of French birth will ever again be Premier of Canada.

Montreal and Eastern Canada suffer from that kind of ill-health which afflicts men who are cases of 'double personality'--debility and spiritual paralysis. The 'progressive' British-Canadian man of commerce is comically desperate of peasants who _will not_ understand that increase of imports and volume of trade and numbers of millionaires are the measures of a city's greatness; and to his eye the Roman Catholic Church, with her invaluable ally Ignorance, keeps up her incessant war against the general good of the community of which she is part. So things remain.

I made my investigations in Montreal. I have to report that the Discobolus [Footnote: See Samuel Butler's poem, "Oh God! oh Montreal!" --Ed.] is very well, and, nowadays, looks the whole world in the face, almost quite unabashed. West of Montreal, the country seems to take on a rather more English appearance. There is still a French admixture. But the little houses are not purely Gallic, as they are along the Lower St Lawrence; and once or twice I detected real hedges.

Ottawa came as a relief after Montreal. There is no such sense of strain and tightness in the atmosphere. The British, if not greatly in the majority, are in the ascendency; also, the city seems conscious of other than financial standards, and quietly, with dignity, aware of her own purpose. The Canadians, like the Americans, chose to have for their capital a city which did not lead in population or in wealth. This is particularly fortunate in Canada, an extremely individualistic country, whose inhabitants are only just beginning to be faintly conscious of their nationality. Here, at least, Canada is more than the Canadian. A man desiring to praise Ottawa would begin to do so without statistics of wealth and the growth of population; and this can be said of no other city in Canada except Quebec. Not that there are not immense lumber- mills and the rest in Ottawa. But the Government farm, and the Parliament buildings, are more important. Also, although the 'spoils' system obtains a good deal in this country, the nucleus of the Civil Service is much the same as in England; so there is an atmosphere of Civil Servants about Ottawa, an atmosphere of safeness and honour and massive buildings and well-shaded walks. After all, there is in the qualities of Civility and Service much beauty, of a kind which would adorn Canada.

Parliament Buildings stand finely on a headland of cliff some 160 feet above the river. There are gardens about them; and beneath, the wooded rocks go steeply down to the water. It is a position of natural boldness and significance. The buildings were put up in the middle of last century, an unfortunate period. But they have dignity, especially of line; and when evening hides their colour, and the western sky and the river take on the lovely hues of a Canadian sunset, and the lights begin to come out in the city, they seem to have the majesty and calm of a natural crown of the river-headland. The Government have bought the ground along the cliff for half a mile on either side, and propose to build all their offices there. So, in the end, if they build well, the river-front at Ottawa will be a noble sight. And--just to show that it is Canada, and not Utopia--the line of national buildings will always be broken by an expensive and superb hotel the Canadian Pacific Railway has been allowed to erect on the twin and neighbouring promontory to that of the Houses of Parliament.

The streets of Ottawa are very quiet, and shaded with trees. The houses are mostly of that cool, homely, wooden kind, with verandahs, on which, or on the steps, the whole family may sit in the evening and observe the passers-by. This is possible for both the rich and the poor, who live nearer each other in Ottawa than in most cities. In general there is an air of civilisation, which extends even over the country round. But in the country you see little signs, a patch of swamp, or thickets of still untouched primaeval wood, which remind you that Europeans have not long had this land. I was taken in a motor-car some twenty miles or more over the execrable roads round here, to a lovely little lake in the hills north-west of Ottawa. We went by little French villages and fields at first, and then through rocky, tangled woods of birch and poplar, rich with milk-weed and blue cornflowers, and the aromatic thimbleberry blossom, and that romantic, light, purple-red flower which is called fireweed, because it is the first vegetation to spring up in the prairie after a fire has passed over, and so might be adopted as the emblematic flower of a sense of humour. They told me, casually, that there was nothing but a few villages between me and the North Pole. It is probably true of several commonly frequented places in this country. But it gives a thrill to hear it.

But what Ottawa leaves in the mind is a certain graciousness--dim, for it expresses a barely materialised national spirit--and the sight of kindly English-looking faces, and the rather lovely sound of the soft Canadian accent, in the streets.

[The end]
Rupert Brooke's essay: Montreal And Ottawa