Tuesday, July 1, 2008

No Riding on the Grass

Culture comes in packages large and small. Sometimes it is the small package we most appreciate. And if the package is given and received without regard to cost, it is a gift to be savoured.

We arrived at the west lawn of Parliament Hill at 6:55 a.m. Our only neighbour at that early hour, a nurse from Ottawa, engaged us in discussions of her favourite city while Canadian Forces officers marked off precise lengths on the lawn in front of us. Others began arriving in small groups, one or two or three every few minutes, and by 7:30 a steady trickle of red and white-clad people began filling in the spaces on the rope line. By 8:30, we were at the front line of a sea of people extending back toward the gate and beyond, a solid mass of humanity, hundreds of thousands strong, six city blocks wide and two blocks deep.

On the pristine lawn in front of us, four police officers in black slacks with yellow stripes and green-gray shirts covered with black body armour rode their bicycles westward to prepare for the flag-raising ceremony. No riding on the grass! a man next to me shouted. The bicycle-mounted RCMP officer, a young woman, turned her head to look at the man, and flashed a beautiful smile. Everyone in the vicinity laughed, including the four RCMP officers, and they continued on their way across the grass.

In his introductory remarks on the 250th anniversary of parliamentary democracy in Nova Scotia, Dr. John Hamm, former Premier of Nova Scotia, spoke of the dangers facing Canada. To his mind, the greatest among these dangers was the possibility that hundreds of years of democratic tradition could be wiped out, not by enemies foreign or domestic, but by the apathy of this countrys own people. As Dr. Hamm noted, only twenty-five percent of young Canadians voted in the last election. If we do not exercise the privileges and traditions of our democratic heritage, he said, we are in danger of losing these most precious of the rights of man.

As we watched military units from four hundred years of Canadian history fill the lawn in front of us, another officer in black and gray-green walked by, greeted by a girl near the barricade. She rushed over to his side and he stopped just long enough for her father to snap a quick picture. The girl thanked him and they smiled as he continued on his way.

Canadians know well that their beloved RCMP last year tazered to death a defenceless man. Mounties have roughed up people who had committed no crime. RCMP officers, far from the Hollywood image, are human beings, no different from any of us.

This evening, as Diane Dufresne sang with spirit and energy, a young woman stopped an officer in black and gray-green. How do you salute? she asked. The officer raised his right arm, and palm out, drew his forearm back while simultaneously snapping his heels together. The woman tried, but her attempt was ragged. The RCMP officer demonstrated again, and the woman tried again. Though a big ragged, she mirrored the officer. You got it! he said for all around us to hear, and he moved on through the crowd.

They wear black and grey-green. And yet, even in this everyday attire, they carry themselves with the same dignity that they bear when dressed in formal riding boots, red serge jacket, and four-sided Stetson hat. The smile is the same. The bearing is the same. And the reaction of those they serve and protect is the same, too.

As Blue Rodeo and a dozen other artists on the huge stage led the million Canadians in front of them in a spirited rendition of the National Anthem, I did not even try to suppress my tears. Today, I realised, I was witness to gifts even greater than the gift of democracy. In this land of Peace Order and Good Government, a love affair continues. This love story began over 120 years ago. It is a love grounded in the founding principles of 1867 and the friendship of LaFontaine and Baldwin and four hundred years of Aboriginal-European cooperation. And just as the bond between francophone LaFontaine and anglophone Baldwin was the inevitable result of an identity as Siamese Twins, the affection Canadians show for their beloved Mounties is no aberration.

Tonight, watching the fireworks explode above the Peace Tower, I knew I was in Canada, where I belong. I knew this not because of the Governor Generals speech, nor the adrenalin rush of the Snowbirds thunderous flyover, nor the displays of pomp and pride. I knew I was in Canada because a woman on a bicycle had a sense of humour and a man with broad mustache had time for an adoring girl. I knew I was in Canada, because teaching a woman how to execute a perfect palm-out salute had the same importance as crowd control and security. I knew I was in Canada because this is the place where women and men, even in their imperfection, are granted respect and affection simply, even if they are on bicycles and not on horses. The affection and respect are not given because of the patch on their arm that says RCMP-GRC. The affection and respect are the result of a simple truth: These women and men, though drawn from every background and social sphere, have pledged to uphold not only the law, but the culture of a great land. And in this, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. The fleeting and insignificant acquires the durability of centuries and significance to subsume all thought and speech.

Today, the smiles of three Canadians meant more than fireworks, music, and ceremony. Today, I appreciated the small gift that is the greatest gift: spending time with people who have built a great and enduring culture. Today, I celebrated with Canada.

Pearson Moore
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada Day 2008

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