Back to the Garden

A writer reflects on her Alberta roots

By Katherine Govier

When I think about being an Albertan, I think about gardening with Dad. He took it up when he was 85; he’d retired and he needed more to do. But his new hobby was not for the faint of heart. When his 36 tall, straight, yellow tulips were flattened by a hailstorm, he staked them. They all came back, and then they were flattened by a rainstorm.

He was not a flower gardener when he was younger and I lived at home. He was too busy. Now I had returned to live in Canmore part-time and it was something we could do together. Our styles were opposite: his was too neat, I thought, and he thought mine too messy. He wanted every plant standing at attention beside its name. He used a rubber mallet to pound in the labels, written on sticks vaguely like a doctor’s tongue depressors. We looked up the names anew every year and rewrote them. Neither of us could remember what the rain and snow had washed away.

He liked geraniums, which I said were common; he didn’t forget that and often ribbed me about it. He bought me stuff at the garden centre and snuck it onto his senior’s discount card. He used chemical spray—I did not. One day when he pulled into the driveway of our house in Canmore, he saw me pulling weeds under the flourishing row of Hansa roses that he envied. His footsteps scrunched over the cedar mulch. “You’ll never get rid of those dandelions, because you don’t get enough root.”

“I can’t get more root,” I said, turning on my haunches to his voice. “Don’t forget I’m gardening on coal: there’s a mine under here.”

“My mother used a screwdriver,” he said, looking down. And thus he gave me a forever-image of the Alberta line, featuring my grandmother, a tiny 20-year-old, exactly 100 years ago, prying up the long, obdurate roots of the most successful weed ever with her slothead, in the purple shadows of the mountains in Nanton, a curious, curly-haired blonde toddler picking up rocks beside her.

What is an Albertan? And am I one? Alberta is history to me, a landscape, a stubborn, lovely, ever-emerging home. It is—or was—my parents’ place. I left it to find a place of my own. Having lived my first 23 years in Edmonton and Calgary, I moved to Toronto to go to graduate school and stayed so I could publish. My years in The Big Smoke now add up to more years than those I spent in “The Chuck” and “Cowtown.” And isn’t Calgary smokier than Toronto these days? It’s all so confusing. I’m quite at home in Toronto, but I wouldn’t claim to be of the place.

When I think of being an Albertan I think of a full century, the 100 years for which I have images and family stories. In 1918 my grandfather lost the last of his series of general stores in prairie towns. His first two (Eyebrow, Moose Jaw) had to close because the farmers could not pay their bills. The third closed because of the car. Once you’d got a Ford Model T, you could drive the 25 miles from Nanton to Calgary to do your shopping. That was the end of Govier’s General Store. You might think that would mean there was a natural enmity between Goviers and cars. But no.

Alberta loved cars before it got rich from oil. But the ensuing decades of cheap “gaso,” as it was known in the trade, were pretty convenient. More now than ever, people live in this province as if it were one big town. They drive from Lethbridge to Calgary, Banff to Edmonton, Edmonton to Fort McMurray on all those terrific, straight roads with nothing like the traffic jams of Toronto’s 401.

We were all raised with reverence for the motor vehicle. The idea was to keep cars looking perfect, with the motor purring like a cat despite advanced age. But there is a joke website called “If Women Ran the World.” One scenario shows a car sales lot with banners dividing it into two sections: “Red Cars” and “Blue Cars.” This was what it was like with three girls in our household. Parked outside of the house were often three cars, none of which had any gas. In our driveway, it was possible to have a three-car accident, and we did.

I used a Ford to escape to the east, a red Econoline van. The first culture shock was discovering that when you drive around the Great Lakes you can’t actually get to them. In Ontario all beautiful recreational land is private. There were other surprises. When I got to Toronto I was so thrilled about the subways that I wrote poems in their praise. We used to think Toronto was “grey”; that was what we said in university. Then we went there and discovered the amazing ravines with their big old trees that run like rivers through the city and become feet-deep in fallen leaves in autumn. Toronto is not grey. The sky over it is.

Then some (Brit) wag in my Victorian lit class told me Alberta was the Texas of Canada. He had never been to Alberta, nor had he known any Texans. (I did, and I knew the difference.) But that did not stop him from announcing his bias any more than it stopped the Cambridge academic from asking me, 15 years later when I gave a reading at his university in England, if I thought I would grow up, stop writing “Canadian” literature, and begin to write “English” literature.

You see, I have not forgotten. It is awful to be defined by false clichés.

Redneck, rancher, red-meat-eater, bible-thumper. None apply. I don’t drive a 4×4 and I don’t shoot wild horses. I do love a good steak but I eat much less red meat than I used to. I’m an urbanite. I read books and go to the theatre and love dance and classical music. And yes, thank you, I’m from the prairies.

Some Brit wag in my Victorian lit class told me Alberta was the Texas of Canada. He had never been to Alberta, nor had he known any Texans.
(I did, and I knew the difference.)

Oh, that word “prairie.” To the uninitiated it spelled disdain. Easterners then believed Alberta was basically a flat parking lot full of rusty farm vehicles; to that view has been added, now, further north, heavy equipment. The durability of this particular blindness was explained to me by a senior journalist: Eastern Canadians are sensitive and afraid the world looks down on them as hewers of wood and drawers of water. To prove they are sophisticated, they must look down on others, and we, their Western compatriots, are the chosen.

And it’s a long way to look. Canada is wide. We have a continent here. You’d have to be walleyed to see it all at once. Alberta is a place unknown to many—however, they don’t know that they don’t know. They are content with their clichés. As are we.

“Only an Easterner could look at the land lying east of Calgary and call it dead dusty faded and boring… only a remarkable insensitivity to the habits of earth sustains the cliché of prairie monotony.” So wrote Myrna Kostash in her seminal 1972 article in Saturday Night “Through the Mysteries of Western Alienation.” This was even before the National Energy Program. I reread it recently. It’s beautiful. And alarmingly current. Albertans felt disaffected, misunderstood, aggrieved. Speaking to people in towns and cities, Kostash often saw raised the spectre of separation, of joining the US. Again today, we hear of many Albertans who see being part of Canada as a downside.

Even as the story changes, it remains the same. Canadians cannot see each other across our longitudes. There are certain fiery rebels against the situation but for the most part we no longer care. Writers, if they are determined to write about Alberta, seem to accept that they appeal mainly to Albertans. As for visual arts, we’re left out, says Alberta curator Mary-Beth Laviolette. “In the National Gallery our mountains are still represented by the Group of Seven—as if nobody else from the West ever did anything worthy of note—and when it comes to prairie landscape it’s a picture by someone from the East.”

Have our mountains been appropriated? It would be good if easterners could see and listen to and read our western statements of who we are. It has worked the other way around long enough. If we can’t imagine each other, then what is the hope for our country?

There is an element of choice in the place you belong to. It’s not imperative to be an Albertan just because you were born and grew up here.

Canadians province-hop a lot. Despite my hopping I have chosen Alberta—its stubborn roots and difficult soil, its being a place people like to speed through, its vast resources and just as vast resentment, a roadside attraction on the straight, flat highway from one side of the country to the other, its start and stop, its almost greatness.

When I announce this, people seem surprised, as if I have declined membership in some superior club. I don’t see it that way. Alberta is part of me, an emotional, organic strata of my being. It is sunlight and blue winter skies, mountains and powdery snow, open horizons, long-held friends, optimism and amazing public spaces both natural and man-made. It is excellent and still-affordable public education, sons and daughters who have built libraries, theatres, galleries. Add to them people from all over the world. I love it.

Yet we do make an odd crowd. We are polarized. We are unhappy. We are misunderstood.

We know what we aren’t. We aren’t what they think. But what are we? I can do the pipeline lament. I can laugh at the hypocrisy of pipeline opponents who drive their cars to the protests, take their equalization payments and scoff at Alberta’s complaints. I know climate change and its damage to the environment is real. Oil, those pools and underground strata of hydrocarbons, alternates between being the saviour of the world and the destroyer of it. But it’s a sad thing that oil has defined Alberta for three quarters of a century.

Are we trapped in this debate? Will it drag us into a new age of western alienation? Did we ever leave it? Do people stand up to shout that they are Ontarians? No. Newfoundlanders? Yes. Is a sense of historical grievance necessary for passionate adherence to your province? Do we pass that on to new Albertans? Four million of Canada’s 37 million live in Alberta, which has grown by 22 per cent since 2007, faster than any other province. Not only do immigrants come, but the number of born-Albertans is constantly being added to. New, native-born Albertans. If ancestry is important, then what about them? Do they hold history and nature close to their hearts?

Seven years ago I started a program for immigrant and refugee women called The Shoe Project. It’s a writing workshop for women who want to improve their written and spoken English, and we coach them to perform in theatres, where they tell their stories of arrival, as seen through a pair of shoes. Lucky me: I’ve met people who’ve come here through fire, to prosper, to escape persecution, to find adventure, to ensure their kids a future—for just about every reason you can imagine. It is humbling. I have come to hate the saying “We are all immigrants.” We are not. Immigrants are the people who did the immigrating, and it is a hard, lifelong task. But there is meaning in our fascination with the idea. We migrate across Canada, and we remake ourselves. We survive a busted economy and remake ourselves. We used to talk in Alberta about the “leavers,” who ran when things got tough, and the “stayers.” Let’s add another term. I’ve met and learned from so many of the “comers.”

Valerie Nadege Jamga Tchatchoua came to Calgary from Cameroon. French-speaking, she had wanted Quebec, but her husband preferred Calgary. She’s glad now, although it has not been easy. “I did not speak English, and did not understand that French is not a viable language here.” For much of the past five years she has been “stuck at home” with three children. She became depressed but fought back to health. Accepted as a skilled worker, she could not find work. She was required to start high school again, which she did at night. She is determined to get a bachelor’s degree here—“another,” as she has one from her country. She already owes $35,000 in student loans and although she was keen to go to University of Calgary for social work, she can’t afford it. Her husband is working but that isn’t enough for Valerie. “I have to be what I want to be. I don’t hide behind
my husband.”

She can laugh now about the shoes she imagined would handle snow—topsiders, basically. Although in Cameroon the temperature often reached +40°C, she handles winter well. “I like the snow,” she says. “In two days it’s gone.” As for Alberta’s natural beauties, that was a bonus. She didn’t know. When she got off the plane, “I see the mountains out there, and I say ‘What is that?’” Her brother came from Senegal and said, “Wow, Canada has everything.”

Well, maybe not quite. Valerie’s big concerns are with insufficient public transit and the cost of education. In Quebec there is more government support for education, her friends tell her. (Must be those equalization funds at work.) But she is a convert. She has learned English and her kids are English–French bilingual. “I start to feel I belong now. Alberta is a great province. Here the government gives many opportunities to learn, no matter what your age. In two years, we bought our own house. We don’t plan to leave.”

A stayer is Valerie. She knows Alberta has other provinces beat. Home ownership is possible here, but barely so in the Toronto or Vancouver areas. Quebec is phobic about immigrants. Calgary is now the third-most diverse city in the country. Here, the children of manual labourers are just as likely to become managers as they are to remain manual labourers. We have the US well beaten in the pursuit of the American Dream. Canada ranks number one among countries around the world for social mobility, says the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. And central Alberta, along with a small part of southern Ontario, is Canada’s “top social mobility springboard.”

But that’s not all people want. I’ve heard the stories of stateless Tibetans, a woman from the persecuted Hazara minority in Afghanistan, South Sudanese refugees, Chinese, Turks and so many others. In a word, they want freedom.

Another new friend I met through The Shoe Project is Roya Chalaki. She came from Iran to Canada just three years ago. She and her husband chose Alberta because it provides health insurance from the first day of arrival, and she was pregnant. The job search has been tough. Her husband, a mechanical engineer, still does not have work in his profession, but has gone to SAIT to study drafting. Their private sponsors have become good friends. “I like the community support,” says Roya. “It’s way more helpful than money.” She is puzzled by one thing, though, which is the way the country has allowed the oil industry to sink. “We are from a country where oil is national. We were surprised that there is not enough support nationally for the industry that is the engine of the whole country.”

Roya, who attended university wearing a chador, as the only woman in an all-male technology program, says, “For me, Alberta is feminine, because I got so much support from women, and I started to feel more strong and beautiful as a woman.” Beyond that, she says, “I think I still haven’t formed a clear identity as an Albertan. The act of immigration, for me, feels like putting all that behind me and starting to experience life as a unique [individual] rather than a collective one. For me, immigration is escaping from absolutes and specific ways of being imposed by family, society or religion. I can say that Alberta for me was like an open field without critics and with many people encouraging me to express myself and try new ways of being.”

She knows they are lucky to have come here. “Our friends’ experiences in the US and Australia show a big distinction between us and those other countries,” she says. “It’s not by luck or chance, either. People in Calgary really make you feel included, and they care.”

Here we are in one of the most liveable places in the world, in the most mobile society in the world, amidst fabulous nature, with people who care, kids growing up bilingual, and empowered women. What’s not to like? We even get to pass on our historical sense of grievance. All we need is to get past the fossil fuel wars with our neighbours.

The real story is that Alberta is what the rest of Canada promised to be, should be, and maybe even wants to be.

At this point I think again of Dad, and the dandelions, and the tough survivors. I go back to my garden, with its magnificent, hardy roses growing over the abandoned coal mine, and the miserable, indefatigable dandelions thriving amongst them. But you can’t say “back to the garden” in this province without evoking Fort Macleod native Joni Mitchell, so here it is—was she talking about Alberta? I think so.

We are stardust

Billion year old carbon

We are golden

Caught in the devil’s bargain

And we’ve got to get ourselves

back to the garden

 

Katherine Govier has published 10 novels. Born in Edmonton, she now divides her time between Toronto and Canmore.

 

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