My book about Germany was inspired by a visit to the country, a visit of just a few days and yet it opened a whole new history and perspective on how Europe had evolved. Surely a summer in Canada would yield a great deal more for, as a friend said to me, if three days in Germany produced a book what would three months in Canada do? The answer was, well, nothing, it left me unable to formulate any great passages or prose and I have often wondered why. Maybe looking at the images of the place two years on would offer up a cause so I thought I’d share a few thoughts of some pictures I’d brought back, maybe that will start the process.
This is the town of Cold Lake, the town in which I was based. On the Eastern edge of Alberta it’s pretty much in the middle of the country. Its business is oil and fracking in particular. It also has a major airbase of some fame, but that’s for another day. Working on the oilfields pays well, very well, but not everybody can get in on the scene. It helps to be Canadian and it helps to be white. Of course that’s never stated, but hey, we all knew the rules. One of the regular highlights of the town was a car meet held a few times over the summer. Bring your ride and shoot the breeze at the A&W burger bar. A&W are like moms apple pie to the Canadians, heritage is its greatest asset. They are mostly good old boys and most will chat to ‘foreign workers’ but not all.
Ardmore. Well it’s there on the map of the state and on the ground as well. This, I think, was its biggest building, other than the ‘shops’ as the workshops that service the oil industry are known. Places where you buy stuff are called stores. I never knew this hotel or cafe to be open although I was assured they were still in business. Funny that, but I never pressed the question. A crossroads, a store and a hundred houses or so comprised the rest of the town.
Dusk at Cold Lake and the town had closed down. This truck was unloading something into a store, although there didn’t seem to be any great quantities involved. The electricity wires were safer in the air than under the barely made ally that ran down the back of the main street, aesthetics were not the major concern in Cold Lake.
I thought this place deserted, abandoned, as plain a building as can be imagined with only false optimism of better days to come preventing it from being a ruin altogether. But no, once or twice a week it comes to bawdy life as ladies divest themselves of their clothing for the entertainment of the menfolk. Strip clubs are popular in Canada, but never spoken off in polite circles. This was at Fort Kent, a town smaller still than Ardmore.
Across the road, literally, from the den of ill virtue was the church, and this was a wedding one Saturday morning. The bride was brought to the place by school bus, specially dressed for the occasion and driven by her father to whom, as I understood the situation, it belonged. The church is of mid European origin and the pastor,as well as much of the congregation, spoke in a tongue that was akin to German, but I recollect not what it is called. It is the custom for the bride to be the last to enter the church, alone, and she cut a strange figure, outside by herself, waiting for her cue.
A catholic church this time, at a town called Wabasca Desmarais. Oil once again brings men and women here, to this place from which no read leads except the one you came in on heading north, and the one you leave on, heading south. It’s the same road, you are at the top of a loop. There is, incredibly enough, a tourist office here and I remember the pretty girl, bored out of her skull, being bedazzled by a lonely traveler who had ventured this far. She recommended a motel, the only motel, but they knew the price of oil and the generous allowances of the usual visitors and charged accordingly. I demurred and pressed on.
A burger bar at Wabasca Desmarais, there was another, much posher, one that called itself a restaurant, but they, like the motel were not afraid of asking big numbers for the privilege of crossing the threshold. This was where we others ate, a big sky and lonely poles being the major features. And the sky is big, and there is space, lots of space with buildings like this tacked upon its surface. Nothing seems anchored to the landscape, only the legends carried by the lore of the first nations, all else is fluff and temporary.
Which brings us back to the community centre at Calling Lake. Built on a reserve, a stranger has the right to be in this public place, but we were warned never to stray from the ground that is recognised as being shared. We don’t know it over here but there is a terrible chasm that lies between the first nations and the settlers in the outback of Canada. It is a creation of distrust of the whites who in turn seem to fear the native population. It is a tragedy. Perhaps I was offered the chance to bridge it, I shall never know for sure, but by then I had recognised that this country, beautiful as she can be, was not my home.