Canadian flag by the Trans-Canada Highway at Pigeon Mountain, Alberta

Is there really a Canada, or is it all a cantrip? Lines on maps can trip you up; best take a trip across so you can see.

Not that cantrip as a word is related to Canada or to trip. It refers to hocus-pocus, a witch’s spell, a charm, a trick, a mischievous device. But such captious catnip can come from maps and capitals. And since we are today celebrating 151 years of a country called Canada, let us just look and see whether it be not a trick of optics.

Let’s take a trip first through the history of Canada. Before any Europeans arrived, there were already plenty of people here, of more cultures and languages than Europe counts, all across what we now call North America (such a fancy trick, that, to name a continent after – apparently – a cartographer who would otherwise be forgotten). There’s South America, too, but that’s connected by only a little jungle snake of land. Vikings landed from Iceland via Greenland, found people here already, and didn’t stay all that long. After that, various Europeans landed in various places and invaded; in Canada, it was mainly people from France. Even after the English came and won a fight, there weren’t so many English-speakers. It wasn’t until people in colonies to the south decided to split off from the colonizing power and not everyone there agreed with it that the English-speaking population here swelled – from people who wanted to maintain their English monarch and so moved north.

And yet somehow here we are, a country with scores of languages and cultures that were here first but have no power, and a language and culture that was here first of the Europeans and has a minority of power, and then this language from a small island that just spread everywhere, the one I’m writing and you’re reading. And yet more languages and cultures keep arriving, and every time, there are people who say that the previous arrivals were good but these ones are bad. Every damn time. But the ones that were here in the first place they have little good to say about. That seems sort of like the trick where you whip off the tablecloth and leave the plates intact – only in this case you whip off the food with the tablecloth.

But, it seems, you can’t rip Canada apart. It has legal existence and it has armed forces and government agencies to keep it that way and to help keep it separate from any other country, including the one that shares an arbitrary border with it. It’s a band of land strung out north of the USA with a whole lot of emptier turf stretching poleward. It was joined by two long ribbons of steel, but not too many people cross it by rail anymore. Those who transit it on land tend to use the highway. So let’s take a geographical Canadian trip on that asphalt cantrip, the Trans-Canada Highway, a route that turns corners at intersections and jumps water and splits in two. It’s not so much a road as a collection of roads, like giving everyone on an assembly line the same name badge.

We’ll start at the eastern end, in a province that wasn’t even part of the country until 1949: Newfoundland (if you’re unsure of how to say that, know that some guys from Poland and Croatia I once worked on a TV show pilot with put in a title spelling it “New Fun Land”) – ahem, now it’s Newfoundland and Labrador, because there’s oil in Labrador (which is the golden arm – la bras d’or – reaching up the mainland, a lot of rocks and trees and not too many people; one of its more populous places is a town that lives in a single large building so they don’t have to go outside in the winter). The easternmost point of North America is in Newfoundland, though how we can say it’s the easternmost part of the continent I don’t know, given that it’s on an island. I mean, do we want to say that the westernmost point of Europe is farther west than the easternmost point of North America? After all, St. Pierre and Miquelon, two islands owned by France, are off the central south coast of Newfoundland (and then there are those Caribbean possessions… such complication). And the tip of the country is near a city, St. John’s, that seems named to confuse: make sure you don’t say St. John; that’s in New Brunswick.

Well, Newfoundland has always been the odd one, not just because its version of English is noticeably different but because it’s in a half-hour time zone, which has played the merry trick on every announcer on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation of having to say “Ten o’clock, ten-thirty in Newfoundland” or, more often, “half past the hour in Newfoundland.”

The Trans-Canada Highway starts at Mile 0 in St. John’s (of course Canada has used kilometres for more than 40 years now but never mind), a cozy town on rocky hills ringing a harbour. The road runs up and back down across the island of Newfoundland (over many rocks and past many trees, and watch out for the moose) and leaps off at the very scenic southwest end of it to land (when you drive off the ferry) in Nova Scotia. Most Canadians tend to picture the east end of Newfoundland as nearer the tip of Nova Scotia than the west end, but no: the closest point is from southwest Newfoundland to the eastern end of Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island. It’s not an optical illusion so much as a mental one.

In Nova Scotia the highway avoids the capital, Halifax, and cuts directly to New Brunswick, or across water to Prince Edward Island, depending on which way you go. Prince Edward Island is where the people who signed Canada into existence as a country did so (in Charlottetown, another provincial capital favoured on spelling tests), but Prince Edward Island didn’t join for six years after that, after even Manitoba and British Columbia out west. If you take the Trans-Canada from Nova Scotia to New Brunswick you get an experience like someone in a sci-fi movie who, due to a wrinkle in time, meets themself: it comes from Nova Scotia one way and from PEI the other way across the Confederation Bridge, a bridge that belatedly joined the province to the mainland, honouring its belated joining the country (expect a bridge to Newfoundland in a century or so at this rate – no, kidding, that’s a ridiculous distance for a bridge).

Many Americans have read and loved Anne of Green Gables without ever realizing Prince Edward Island is a province of Canada. Many Canadians have read it – or watched the TV show based on it – without stopping and thinking, Hmm, she arrives by train. That must be a very short rail line because PEI is wicked small. I don’t know how many Canadians have thought, Wow, such a small place and such a long name. Most of us, probably. Just by the way, name length of Canadian provinces has a correlation of –0.38 with population, or –0.4 if you use the French name for New Brunswick.

New Brunswick has two names because it has two official languages (every other province has only one – English everywhere, except French for Québec). The other name, obviously, is Nouveau Brunswick. Nobody in Canada ever thinks about where the original Brunswick is. Most people in Canada seldom think about New Brunswick either. But it’s full of Acadians, who are actually the same Francophone-culture people, originally, as the Cajuns of Lousiana. And their version of French is so interesting it keeps linguistics professors and grad students busy.

But the French in Québec shows up in introductory textbooks in linguistics. Yes, it does! The most popular general intro text in linguistics uses it as an example in phonology – maudite (‘damn’) is said a bit like English “mode-zit.” Oh, and most of the swearwords are all based on Roman Catholic liturgical furnishings. Imagine someone breaking something, stubbing their toe, or being cut off in traffic, and shouting “Chalice of tabernacle, host of ciborium!” Welcome to Québec, where the language itself may seem like a cantrip – at the very least, it can trip you up. The accent is about as similar to the accent you learned in school as the English accent in the southern US is to the English accent non-English-speakers are taught.

The Trans-Canada in Québec does not go through the capital of the province, also named Québec; it stays south of the river. If the English troops had also done so in 1759, Québec would still be part of France, or at least would not be subject to the English monarch. But no, they paddled across the Saint Lawrence River with cloth wrapped around their paddles to make them quieter. (We all learn that in school; it sounds like a neat trick, but it’s never been obvious to me why it works.)

You can just drive the road, naturally. Québec is the linchpin of Canada, the province that holds the two parts of English Canada together and is entirely different from either. Many of its residents haven’t even wanted it to be part of the country. The last time they had a referendum, the result was so close it was like pulling a rabbit out of a hat. But without Québec, Canada would have less culture – including less of its national food treasures, such as poutine and Epic Meal Time.

The east-west divide in Canada is a river you cross from north to south: the Ottawa River. Ottawa is on the south side of it, which is to say the western side. But if you take the Trans-Canada, after you zip across Montréal and through its western suburbs you cross the Ottawa River and stay in Québec, and then the provincial boundary just shows up as you’re driving the highway west of Rigaud. (As with many provincial boundaries, if you miss the sign you’ll still notice a sudden change in the road quality.) The Trans-Canada does go through Ottawa (though it does not go through Toronto, largest city in Canada and capital of Ontario). Ottawa is a pretty city, but aside from the Parliament, which sits in a picturesque location high above the river and an easy walk from anywhere central – and with less obvious security than the American embassy, the ugliest building in the city and just across the canal – everything is just small and quiet and pleasant. Even though it’s the second-coldest national capital in the world, going by average temperature. (Ulaanbaatar is the first.)

And then you have your choice of which way to take the Trans-Canada through northern Ontario, because it splits in two, but whichever way you take, you’re in for a very long drive. Ontario is almost 50% larger than Texas, and it’s not even the largest province in Canada (Québec is, but there are two territories that are even larger). You thought you’d hit the road and be in the next province by supper? Ha. Another wicked trick.

Unless you mean supper the next day, that is. After hour upon hour of rocks trees lakes trees rocks trees lakes trees rocks. And there is one point, after the split Trans-Canadas rejoin, that only one ribbon of highway connects eastern and western Canada – and it can get flooded out, in which case you have to go through the US. Even the city that everyone thinks of as being way northwest in Ontario – Thunder Bay, really two cities merged (Fort William and Port Arthur) – is a 7-hour drive to the next provincial border. Sucker.

As you approach the Manitoba border (finally!), look left. Somewhere off that way is a piece of the US only reachable from the rest of the US by land through Canada or by boat if they’ll let you. Just a little bit. Not the only bit of the US like that, either; south of Vancouver, on the west coast, there’s a bit of the US on the tip of a peninsula that can’t be reached without driving through Canada. (That doesn’t stop the US border people from arresting joggers on the beach if they happen not to notice the border sign that’s not there, though.)

When you get to Winnipeg, you are in a place so flat “you can watch your dog run away for three days,” as the saying goes. I don’t think you’ll watch it. Experience says you’ll be too busy with other things. It floods a lot in warm weather and is very cold and snowy in winter. Also there are mosquitoes. One summer evening driving into Winnipeg I heard a light rain on my windshield, which I eventually realized was just the sound of mosquitoes hitting it.

Manitoba was a province fairly early on, but just a little block of land at the time surrounded by territories. It has a lot of French speakers but is not bilingual. It also has a lot of First Nations – you know, the people who were here first? I mentioned them – but you won’t see much in their languages either. Actually, as you have driven the Trans-Canada, you have crossed incessantly through places First Nations live, and yet they have been made invisible. That’s rather less pleasant than I would call a cantrip. It’s not that they’re not still there. They are. Usually not in the places they would be if it weren’t for Europeans.

The Trans-Canada through Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta – from Winnipeg to Calgary, anyway – is famously boring because it goes through relentless open countryside. Personally, I find the road through northern Ontario more boring because you can’t ever see very far and it’s all the same close up, but whatever. You can be bored but this is where they grow a lot of the food you eat. The Trans-Canada passes through Regina, which is a regal name for a city built at a place that used to be called Pile-of-Bones (surprise!). The highest point in the city is a highway overpass. Saskatoon is more interesting but you would have to take the Yellowhead Highway to get to it, and we’re on the TC, OK?

Which also means we’re not going through Edmonton, the capital of Alberta. No, we’re going through Calgary by way of Medicine Hat. If a medicine hat sounds like some kind of cantrip, well, medicine here refers to what we would call magic, but not really of the quick trick kind.

When Alberta was made a province and Edmonton was made its capital, Calgarians thought they would get the provincial university, but the university was instead sited in Strathcona – a town just across the river from Edmonton, and soon thereafter incorporated into Edmonton. Calgary got its revenge by having nicer weather, better scenery, and more money (listen, I’ve lived in both cities). Much of that money comes from oil, which many Albertans view as theirs and theirs alone, not to be pushed around by the federal government, even though almost none of those Albertans have an oil well on their own property (most Albertans live in cities now) and an original proposal for provincial boundaries would have had Calgary and Regina in one province, Edmonton and Saskatoon in another, and all that Albertan looking down on impecunious Saskatchewan would just not have happened.

I grew up with the Trans-Canada Highway because I grew up using it to get to and from Calgary. In Alberta it’s Highway 1 (weirdly, it’s all sorts of other numbers in some other provinces), and the old two-lane version of it is Highway 1A, winding up and over and around and down the crenellated mountains west of Exshaw and meandering variously through the Morley reserve between Exshaw and Calgary. If you drive the twinned Highway 1 west of Calgary, you will crest a smooth and unimposing rise called Scott Lake Hill and, if you look as you go, will see a sign telling you that you are at 1410 metres above sea level. You are, in fact, at the highest point on the Trans-Canada Highway east of the Rocky Mountains. (Some people will tell you it’s the highest point, period, but all you need to do is keep driving west into BC and looking at the elevation signs to find that’s not true.) The odds are high that you will not realize you have crossed such a high point, though you will notice the view is a bit better for a moment. The distractions and sleight-of-land do not stop.

But the scenery ramps up. From here on, flat is not a thing you will get much of. Drive into the mountains (so long in coming – they look close for quite a while before you get to them) and through the relentless and often famous scenery of Banff National Park; after Lake Louise, you take a turn-off that involves no turning off. To go straight on the highway, you have to take an exit to the left; if you stay on the main road to the right, it crosses over and continues to the left to the Great Divide and into British Columbia.

The Trans-Canada through British Columbia is very scenic, featuring avalanche sheds, high bridges, and runaway lanes for trucks that have blown out their brakes. And every time you think you’ve gotten through the really heavy bit of the mountains, there’s another heavy bit you go through next. It can trip you out. In the heart of it all, you get to a desert-like area, with scrubs and shrubs, around Kamloops. And from there you can take the obvious big highway. Or you can take the Trans-Canada. Yeah, the nice fast highway (comparatively) is the Coquihalla. The Trans-Canada is the older one that winds through Hell’s Gate. Very… scenic. When the Canadian Pacific Railroad was put in, it started simultaneously in the east and west and the two met in central British Columbia, just two hours east of Kamloops if you take the Trans-Canada, because it took more time to get the tracks through this charming piece of expressionistic cliffiness just upstream from the last flats before the coast, than it did to span the hypnotic expanse of the endless prairies. Ha ha, gotcha again!

When you finally get out of the mountains, the highway dips so close to the US border your mobile phone may connect to a US tower and give you roaming charges. Cute trick. Then it takes you up through Vancouver and onto a ferry (the Google map shows the Trans-Canada maple-leaf symbol on the ferry route across the strait) and lands you at Nanaimo, which is famous for its bars. No, not the kind you drink beer in. If you don’t know what a Nanaimo bar is, go to your nearest Tim Hortons and ask for one. If you don’t have a Tim Hortons nearby, come visit Canada. Most of the best food from Canada was invented in Québec, but Nanaimo bars are an exception.

And, after a 99-kilometre drive south, at long last you get to… not the southernmost point in Canada – that’s Pelee Island, in Lake Erie – but anyway the southernmost part of western Canada: the capital of British Columbia. You started in a capital and you end in a capital. You started at Mile 0 in St. John’s, and, after driving well over 7000 kilometres (the shortest route actually goes through the US, but of course why would we do that, what with international boundaries and all that), you have arrived at… Mile 0 in Victoria. A cute hilly town with a harbour. It looks exactly nothing like St. John’s. And you’ve passed through a country so huge that the eastern end is closer to Europe (across the Atlantic) than to the western end. It has so much expanse and so much variety, it exists only thanks to technology (railroads, telgraphs, telephones, airlines, and of course car trips) – and to the magic of imagination and belief. Involving more than a few cantrips.

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