“The holding of dances by the Indians”

This week, a woman named Sylvia, who tweets as @LawladyINM where she describes herself as “a Treaty 6 descendant” and “proud nehiyaw & Anishnabe woman,” shared this:

This 1921 letter is signed by Duncan Campbell Scott who was, at the time, the deputy superintendent of the department of Indian affairs, and reads like it was written by a decidedly less sympathetic version of Footloose’s Rev. Shaw Moore character. The letter appears to be addressed to an Indian Agent and is primarily concerned that there’s too much dancing going on. It begins:

It is observed with alarm that the holding of dances by the Indians on their reserves is on the increase, and that these practices tend to disorganize the efforts which the Department is putting forth to make them self-supporting.

Why would “dancing” be getting in the way of the department’s “efforts?” Because they were putting effort into the complete obliteration of Indigenous cultures and way of life. “Self-supporting” here means culturally indistinguishable from the dominant Christian European culture.

The letter goes on to say that dancing is an “excessive indulgence,” a “demoralizing amusement” to be suppressed. It will “unsettle [the Indians] for serious work” and “encourage them in sloth and idleness.” Scott also directs the agent not to let any residents leave the reserve “when their absence would result in their own farming and other interests being neglected.” The agent is further instructed to “obtain control and keep it.”

Writing about Sylvia’s tweet for the Georgia Straight, Charlie Smith describes Scott as “one of the most notorious racists in Canadian history,” but I think it’s a mistake to interpret this letter primarily as the directives of one exceptional racist. The text shamelessly points to what were explicit, well-understood, and popular policy objectives of the Government of Canada.

Indigenous cultural practices were not just discouraged, but completely outlawed. For example, potlatches were illegal until 1951. Until around the same time, reserves were often used as prisons, with Indigenous people prohibited from leaving without official permission. And Indigenous populations were often referred to as being like “children,” in need of care by the government of Canada, on behalf of Canadians.

Sylvia’s tweet was shared unusually widely for a piece of Canadian history. It earned 1,562 retweets as of this writing, with many people asking if they could share it outside of Twitter too, on their own Facebook walls or with real life groups. Sylvia replied to each request by granting permission, with a hint that for her this is hardly ancient history:


Quebec by Adam Miller

Today in Manhattan I saw a new painting called Quebec by an American named Adam Miller. The Montreal Gazette reported that the painting “was privately commissioned by Salvatore Guerrera, a Montreal patron of the arts” to coincide with Canada’s 150th and Montreal’s 375th anniversaries. Since it’s being shown in New York first before coming to Canada later this year, I figured I had a patriotic duty to go see it, similar to how I felt about seeing Come From Away or, on a much smaller scale, reporting the discovery of a rare bottle of Canadian Club.

Quebec by Adam Miller

The painting compresses time, placing “more than 100 political and historic figures that reference some of the most dramatic events of almost 500 years of history” all in a single moment. It depicts “the Battle of the Long Sault, the deaths of generals Wolfe and Montcalm, the Red River Rebellion, the October Crisis and the Oka Crisis” (jeez I haven’t written about any of those things yet) as well as a large number of prominent politicians and figures.

Miller, who “took a kind of crash course in Quebec history” in order to create the piece, inserted a self-portrait he calls “Confusion,” which is literally just him wearing a scarf, standing in the middle of his own Canadian history creation, looking overwhelmed. It me.

From Adam Miller’s website.

Quebec is being shown at the Booth Gallery near Times Square until July 1st, and it’s free, so if you happen to be in Manhattan before then just swing on by and look to the right as you walk in, you absolutely can’t miss it. (Thanks for the tip, Ruth-Ann!)

Quebec on display at the Booth Gallery

Before you go, or if you’re already staring at the photo of the painting trying to decode it, check out this helpful annotation of historical events and figures in the painting that the Gazette put together.

Hawaiian pizza and blogging weekly

At the start of the year, when I committed to blogging weekly about Canadian history, I didn’t really understand what I was getting myself into, nor did I plan to give myself any days off. I’ve defined a “week” as Monday to Sunday, which means that to keep my commitment I need to blog once during that window, and here I find myself on Sunday night at 11:52pm having not written anything. So here’s what I can do in 8 minutes.

Well, it’s not that I haven’t written anything. I’ve got lots of draft posts and stubs of ideas in progress. I just don’t feel like they’re ready to publish. When I started this blog I imagined that as I went about my hobby of reading Canadian history I’d just share casual facts I came across from time to time. But I’ve found it very hard to do that without really spending time to learn the context of those isolated facts, thus the unpublished drafts and stubs.

In the early days of blogging, bloggers would often write very short posts that consisted mostly of a quote from another source, maybe with some added context or commentary. I feel like Twitter mostly killed the utility of that practice, since today it’s usually possible to get the same effect just by tweeting a link to the original post, or by retweeting someone else.

But now it’s 11:57pm, and I need to hit publish very soon. So hey, did you know the apparent inventor of “Hawaiian” pizza was Canadian, and just died? So says The Star:

Panopoulos was born in Greece and emigrated to Canada in 1954 where he and his two brothers operated a number of restaurants.

He said he made the first Hawaiian pizza in 1962 at the Satellite Restaurant in Chatham, Ont. after deciding that chunks of canned pineapple might make a tasty topping.

Ok, 11:59pm, gotta publish now! I’m taking some time off next week to write some more substantive posts. (Yes, seriously.)

The Toronto chapter of the KKK

The above photo was taken 36 years ago this week in Toronto, on the front porch of a Riverdale house on Dundas East. It was brought to my attention by a Torontoist post that gives a brief overview of the KKK’s history not just in Toronto, but throughout Canada. And it stands out personally because I was born just two days later, about 6km away on Dundas West.

When the Klan set up shop in this house a few politicians condemned it with words, but “responsibility for eliminating the Klan fell to local community and church groups.” So on the day this photo was taken, “a group of about 300 protestors carrying signs and chanting ‘smash the Klan’ paraded past the Dundas St. E. home as eight members of the KKK, two in uniform, gathered on the porch to shout back. A line of police officers kept the groups separate as TV camera crews, photographers, and reporters looked on.” I like to think someone also yelled “stay out of Riverdale!” but if they did it’s lost to time.

Anyway, it worked. And while this group retreated only as far as Parkdale, another Toronto neighborhood, they “found they were no more welcome in the west end,” and eventually they “undid themselves.”

Read the full post at Torontoist to learn more.

I spent the morning in a sewer

This morning I visited the Pointe-à-Callière museum in Montreal. Pointe-à-Callière is special because it’s not just a museum, but an archeological dig. The modern building sits on top of the ruins of the earliest French settlements, which you can view through a glass floor or, in some cases, actually walk through.

A small river called Rivière St. Pierre used to run past where the modern Pointe-à-Callière building stands, creating a point of land where it drained into the Saint Lawrence. (A guy named Louis-Hector de Callière, who was the governor of New France, built a home on that point, which is where the name Pointe-à-Callière comes from.)

A long line of people waited to enter Pointe-à-Callière this morning (admission was free for “Museums Day”), forming a human river almost exactly where the actual river used to be.

The reason Rivière St. Pierre isn’t there anymore is that people started throwing all of their garbage and poo into it until it became so much like a sewer that they said, “hey, this river should be a sewer,” and they turned it into a sewer.

In 1832 Montreal built an “underground stone collector sewer” and channeled the river into it, the first such thing to be built anywhere in North America. It remained in use for more than 150 years, until 1989. Today, one of Pointe-à-Callière’s newest and coolest attractions is an exhibit where you can walk through a portion of said sewer, which is fun, because instead of being full of poo it is now full of cool lights and ambient music.

It was hard to convince myself I was walking through a 185-year-old structure and not some faux Disney recreation. As soon as I tricked my mind into recognizing how old these stones were, another mental trick made them seem very recent. Sure this sewer is 185 years old, but Europeans lived here for 190 years before building it, totaling the 375 years Montreal is celebrating this year. And Montreal didn’t exist as a settlement until another 107 years after a Frenchman first visited the island. And people had been living on this same land for thousands of years before that. A millennium here, a millennium there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real time.

Here’s another trick of time: the archeologists who excavated the sites below the museum left a section of dirt undisturbed and protected under a block of concrete so that “future archaeologists, with even more advanced tools, will be able to add to knowledge of the site.” In other words, the further we go into the future, the more we expect to know about the past.

The report the government doesn’t want you to read

The introduction of the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which documents the more than 100 year history of an Indian residential school system designed to achieve the Canadian government’s policy objective of cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples, includes this observation:

Too many Canadians know little or nothing about the deep historical roots of these conflicts. This lack of historical knowledge has serious consequences for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis peoples, and for Canada as a whole. In government circles, it makes for poor public policy decisions. In the public realm, it reinforces racist attitudes and fuels civic distrust between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians.

Last week, a bunch of powerful people in Canadian media tweeted that they were raising money for an “Appropriation Prize” to reward cultural appropriation, with Indigenous cultures specifically targeted. The Canadian media industry is small enough that the participants in this “fundraiser” represent a large chunk of the organizations you get your news from. There are also so few paid columnists in Canada that when one of them went on TV to tell Indigenous people they were over reacting, another one who responded was his mother, who tweeted this:

This is a staggering thing to say for at least three reasons. One, in the context of a genocide program (Kay objects to the use of the word “genocide,” so as a compromise let’s call it a “take children from their families and steal their personal items and beat them for speaking their own language and, when they die at unusually high rates, bury them in unmarked graves” program), asking “why don’t you talk about the good parts” is, to be very generous, facile.

Two, the TRC did report on positive experiences! As Melissa Martin points out, positive “stories are included throughout” the report volumes, and there’s even “a whole chapter called Warm Memories.” (!!) That is something Kay would know if she had read (or even skimmed the table of contents of) the report. Which brings us to number three:

It is a failure of a market economy that there are so many people willing and able to write opinion in Canada while the few who occupy those scarce positions can be so lazily ignorant.

I think paid opinion writers deserve to be held to a high standard when stating opinions. But, as noted by the passage of the TRC report I quoted above, being more informed than the general population wouldn’t even be that hard. Most Canadians know little to nothing about their country’s long history with residential schools, which is why, when the TRC released its final report, many argued that “every Canadian should read it.”

That phrase makes me think of the annual CBC Canada Reads competition, which, once a year, selects a book that “every Canadian should read.” If you’ve ever listened to Canada Reads and decided to read any of the books mentioned, it’s incredibly easy to do so. Even if you don’t physically travel to your nearest bookstore, you can order a copy online or, in many cases, download the audio book. (For reference, this year’s winner is available for about $12, or $10 as an audio book.)

Now let’s say you decide you want to read the TRC’s final report, if not the full 6 volumes then at least the summary.

The good news is, aside from the difficulty of the subject matter, it’s very readable. You don’t need to be a policy wonk, fluent in governmentese. I think most Canadians would find the writing compelling (and eye-opening, and shameful) if they got their hands on a copy.

That’s an unfortunately big if. Professionally, I work in website and software development, which means I spend a lot of time thinking about how to design “user experiences” that maximize the number of people who do the thing I need them to do. And it turns out, people will bail in huge numbers at every extra step you require of them. Even a couple extra seconds to load a webpage causes a surprisingly high number of people to say “never mind” and leave before the page has even loaded.

So if you want to get someone to do something, you have to make it as easy and as “frictionless” as possible. And based on this I’m tempted to conclude the government doesn’t actually want people to read about the TRC.

The most prominent banner image on the official TRC website is a promotion for an event that’s coming up in… 2015. Below that is a button that says “TRC FINAL REPORT” which takes you to a list of 14 links without any explanation of where to start or how they relate to each other. Each link opens a PDF of somewhere between 100 and 1000 pages.

If you’re tenacious enough to have made it this far, and you’re able to find the link to the summary, you are now the proud owner of a 536 page PDF. If instead you decide to really go for it and start with Volume 1, it’s split across 2 PDFs totaling 1884 pages.

Everyone’s reading habits are different, but I doubt there are many people who are willing to read that many pages of a PDF on their computer screen. You’re now hoping that a prospective reader has the ability to print this many pages themselves (still inconvenient and expensive), or the technical knowhow to get the PDF onto an e-reader, which, even then, won’t be a very pleasant reading experience formatted as-is.

To get reasonably readable formatting, you have to be savvy enough to know that the e-reader format you really want is called EPUB, and you need some other volunteer to have already taken pity on you and converted the report into EPUB so that when you go looking for it you’ll find it. Thankfully, Andrew Kurjata has done that for you. Now you can read the TRC summary report on your e-reader, assuming you have one, and have made it this far, and know how to get an EPUB file onto your e-reader.

Or maybe you’ve already given up on reading it electronically and just want it in book form already. Well, the TRC website won’t help you out, so again, you’re going to need to be dogged. If you search Amazon or Indigo you can find some copies, both new and used, for around $25, twice as much as a regular paperback.

Of course, some libraries also have copies. If you’re lucky enough to live near one that does, this could be a good option for you. For me, for something like this, I tend to read slowly (getting distracted by family and life) and want to take notes, so a library copy isn’t a great option. For others the library probably is a great option, but that still means this book is less accessible than all the other books vying for attention.

The point is that if your objective is for as many people as possible to read the report, this is asking way too much. The “user experience design” of getting and reading the report is so poor that the fact that few Canadians have done so feels “by design.”

Instead, if I were in charge of making sure as many Canadians read the report as possible, here are some of the simple things I’d do. The government could easily do this at minimal cost:

  • Create a simple, clear website with links to download professionally formatted versions of the summary report in all major e-reader formats.
  • Send a free print copy of the report to anyone who requests one through a form on the same website.
  • Place the electronic version of the report in major e-reader stores (Kobo, Kindle) for free or $1, depending on what each store allows, so that it’s easily discoverable there.
  • Produce an audio book of the report and podcast it for free, chapter-by-chapter, through iTunes and other major podcast directories for convenience and discoverability. Make it available in full through Audible for as little as the Audible store allows.

If you want to go wild you could even run a modest social and search marketing campaign to make sure people know the reports are available. It would cost a fraction of what the government is accustomed to spending on self-promoting TV campaigns for topics of much less importance. Together, all these steps would guarentee at least some increase in how many Canadians read the report, and begin to chip away at the “racist attitudes” and “civic distrust between Aboriginal peoples and other Canadians,” including major figures in Canadian media.

The only problem with this plan is, more people might actually read the report. Those people might learn about “the deep historical roots” of current inequities and conflicts. Public policy might have to start changing, shifting from one of assimilation to decolonization. So for now, the report stays where it is.


I'd love to let you know when this site is updated. What's your email?

As much as I believe the report should be easier to read in order to maximize how many people actually do so, it’s far from impossible. If you do want to read it, this is a good place to start.

“I guess we’ll never speak to this little girl again”

I’ve mentioned before that I’m reading the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which documents the history and fallout of Canada’s Indian residential school system. For more than 100 years, as a matter of government policy, children were taken from their homes and placed into this system designed to annihilate Indigenous languages and cultures, in part by alienating Indigenous children from their families and communities.

These schools were tragically, though not totally, successful. As I’ve read the report, some stories have stood out. I previously wrote about how children were cruelly accused of stealing clothing they’d been forced to wear after their own clothing had been stolen. Here’s another story that made me need to stop and take a break.

This is what Mary Courchene, a former Indian residential schools student, told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission about what it was like to return home after living in a residential school:

And I looked at my dad, I looked at my mom, I looked at my dad again. You know what? I hated them. I just absolutely hated my own parents. Not because I thought they abandoned me; I hated their brown faces. I hated them because they were Indians…. So I, I looked at my dad and I challenged him and I said, ‘From now on we speak only English in this house,’ I said to my dad. And you know when we, when, in a traditional home where I was raised, the first thing that we all were always taught was to respect your Elders and never to, you know, to challenge them. And here I was, eleven years old, and I challenged … my dad looked at me and I, and I thought he was going to cry. In fact his eyes filled up with tears. He turned to my mom and he says, … “Then I guess we’ll never speak to this little girl again. I don’t know her.’

From page 154 of the Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Top photos: Mary Courchene (from therac.ca), and the Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School in Saskatchewan, one of the two residential schools she attended. The tents in the foreground of this 1885 photo are there because “parents of Indian children had to camp outside the gates of the residential schools in order to visit their children.

Let’s invade France in swimming tanks

I’ve often failed to appreciate just how logistically difficult war is, and how much creativity is required as constantly changing technology presents new possibilities and makes old strategies obsolete.

For example, if you want to invade heavily-fortified Nazi Europe from the water, that’s really hard! You need special boats to transport all your troops and equipment, absurdly detailed plans and coordination, and even then you can’t exactly just show up on shore and expect to walk onto land. Canadians learned devastating lessons about seaborne invasions during the Dieppe Raid in August 1942. Five thousand Canadians made up the vast majority of the invading force that day. 907 were killed, and another 2,532 were wounded or captured.

Dieppe made it clear, Mark Zuehlke writes in Juno Beach, “that infantry landing on a beach alone were easy prey.” For the massive Normandy invasion on D-Day two years later, planners wanted tanks to “set down on the beach alongside each infantry brigade to immediately destroy the beach fortifications with direct fire from the tanks’ main guns.”

Easier said than done. A similar objective at Dieppe had “failed miserably,” in part because “it was simply too easy for antitank guns mounted in fortified positions to pick off tanks trundling down the ramps of [their landing crafts] like ducks in a row.”

So, here’s an actually crazy idea: what if you had “a tank capable of swimming ashore under its own power.” Remarkably, the British invented something called a Duplex Drive tank, aka DD tank, aka Donald Duck tank. Here’s how it worked, according to Zuehlke:

The DD Tank was rendered buoyant by means of a collapsable canvass screen fitted to the hull just above the running gear. Attached to the screen were thirty-two regularly spaced tubes of four-inch diameter. When injected with compressed air, the tubes expanded like sausages, pulling the attached screen upright, with the result that the tank became completely encircled by a canvass ring steadied not only by the inflated tubes but also by eight metal braces bracketed to the hull. The screen provided sufficient displacement to keep the tank afloat even in relatively rough seas.

Having a hard time picturing this? Me too! But I have Google and I found pictures. Here is what a DD tank looked like with the canvass screen lowered:

And here is what it looked like when the screen was raised and held in place by those metal braces and tubes of compressed air:

Having a hard time picturing this floating? Me too! Let’s go to the tape:

And, from that same video, a clip of the tank driving out of the water:

You might be thinking to yourself, “wow! that looks precarious!” You would be correct.

“Although the DDs were seaworthy, they were easily swamped,” writes Zuehlke, making me question whether I really know what “seaworthy” means. “The slightest damage to the screens by enemy fire or battering by heavy surf could cause the tank to founder and sink like a stone before the crew could safely bail out.” Tank crew were therefore trained and equipped with the same kind of evacuation equipment used in submarines.

In practice, the results were mixed. The tanks were supposed to be launched 7000 yards off shore and approach inconspicuously, sitting low in the water. But the waves were much higher than anticipated, so one of the two Canadian regiments equipped with DDs, the Fort Gary Horse, brought its tanks “to within a few hundred feet of shore and let them swim from there.” The other regiment though, the 1st Hussars, launched their tanks 3000 yards from shore. Of the 29 Canadian-crewed tanks launched, 27 reached the beach.

That makes the Canadian use of DD tanks at Juno Beach significantly more successful than the American experience that same morning at Omaha Beach, where the use of the tanks is generally regarded to have been a complete disaster. The Americans stuck more closely to the plan and launched their DDs far from shore. In rough water, the majority were lost before reaching land.

How many birthdays does the Queen have?

I almost wish I’d never seen this tweet.

If I’d never seen it then I’d never have dumbly decided it was a good idea to try to understand it. But I did, and am now going to attempt to unpack this nonsense, while probably getting some legal nuances wrong here and there.

Elizabeth II is a real human person who was born on April 21, 1926. She celebrated her 91st birthday last Friday, which is when Philippe Lagassé, an Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa, wrote the above tweet.

But Elizabeth II is the Queen of Canada. So what the hell could it mean that the Queen of Canada has a different birthday than Elizabeth II?

It gets worse. The Queen of New Zealand’s birthday is June 5th.

To be clear (lol), Elizabeth II is also the Queen of New Zealand. What is going on?

As best I can understand it, based on a blog post also by Lagassé, “the Sovereign (ie Queen or King) is a legal person… [a] fictional legal personality.” Specific Kings and Queens live and die, but the Sovereign, as a legal entity, “is perpetual and never dies.”

“The woman we call Queen Elizabeth II,”  Lagassé writes, “is the physical representation of the legal personality known as the Queen of Canada.”

This is handy, because it means that when you swear an oath to the Queen, you are technically swearing that oath to the Sovereign, not to the mortal human. When Elizabeth II dies and Canada gets a new King, that King will become “the physical representation” of that same, continuous legal personalty of the Sovereign. That way all of the oaths, commissions, contracts, etc. made while Elizabeth II was Queen will still be equally in force under the new King.

But if that means the second sentence of Lagassé’s tweet (“The Queen of Canada’s birthday is 22 May”) refers to a “fictional legal personality” as opposed to the “natural person” who was born on April 21st, how can a perpetual fictional legal personality even have a birthday?

Easy. Canada just straight up passed a law that says when the monarch’s birthday is. Also — and this is hilarious — the law is a royal proclamation, so it is written as if Elizabeth herself is declaring when her birthday will be celebrated, while acknowledging that it is not actually her birthday:

WHEREAS Our birthday falling on the twenty-first day of April it is thought fit to appoint the first Monday immediately preceding the twenty-fifth day of May as the day upon which Our birthday is to be officially celebrated in Canada in 1957 and each year thereafter.

That means the birthday of the Queen of Canada falls on a slightly different date each year (the last Monday before May 25th), and that that has only been the case since 1957. Throughout the years prior to 1957 the Queen of Canada has had many different birthdays, going back to the first one in 1845.

If you are now thinking, “oh, the last Monday before May 25, that’s Victoria Day, celebrating Queen Victoria’s birthday,” you are half right. Because everything about this has to be so difficult, yes, Victoria Day is also the last Monday before May 25th, and yes, Victoria Day does celebrate a former Queen’s actual birthday, and yes, that is the reason why this date was chosen for the birthday of the Queen of Canada. And yet, just as the Queen of Canada is technically a different legal personality from Elizabeth II the natural person, the Queen of Canada’s birthday is technically a different holiday that just happens to fall on the same day as Victoria Day.

Fine. So why does the Queen of New Zealand have yet another birthday? Lagassé explains:

[Elizabeth II] personifies and represents a number of legally distinct and independent legal personalities, such as the Queen of the United Kingdom and Queen of Australia. When we say that Canada and the United Kingdom have the same Queen, then, what we really mean is that the same natural person, Elizabeth II, personifies and represents two entirely independent and distinct legally personalities.

And apparently each realm has gotten into the habit of declaring distinct birthdays for these distinct legal personalities. By my count the Queen is able to celebrate about 7 birthdays a year.

By the way, that 1957 proclamation also says that Canadian subjects of the Queen are “required to take notice” of this birthday “and to govern themselves accordingly.” I am just going to assume you have been doing so and that, technicalities aside, the appropriate way to take notice of the Queen’s birthday, at least in the part of Canada I’m from, is to purchase a two-four of beer and jump in a lake.

Somewhere in the middle of nowhere: Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11

In the afternoon of September 11, 2001, The Toronto Star published a rare “extra” edition of the paper with the huge headline “America Under Attack.” I’d been watching live television of the attacks all morning, but it hadn’t occurred to me, not knowing how to process what I was seeing, that that was specifically what was happening. America was under attack.

I thought about that headline, and other memories from that day, while watching Come From Away on Broadway last week. The unlikely musical, written by a Canadian couple, tells the story of the many Americans who were unable to land in the United States when U.S. airspace was suddenly closed, and instead ended up in the town of Gander, Newfoundland.

A Playbill insert explains that in order to create Come From Away, “writers Irene Sankoff and David Hein collected hundreds of hours of interviews with locals in Newfoundland, as well as the passengers who were stranded there during that fateful week.” The resulting dialog felt very true, and it was easy to believe that many lines had been lifted verbatim from real people.

I was deeply moved by Come From Away in ways I found surprising, though you should perhaps take that with a grain of Atlantic sea salt for a couple of reasons. One, since the show has no intermission, I ordered a double cocktail before settling into my seat and felt sobriety slip away throughout the performance. (The two thematic cocktails available at the theater [sic] bar were called The Islander and Kiss The Cod. I ordered The Islander, which, having apparently been created by a bartender unfamiliar with the subject matter, was a fruity tropical beverage. Wrong island!)

The other reason I got a bit emotional was more personal, even though I have no personal connection to the 9/11 attacks. More on that later.

Planes lined up in Gander, September 2001. In an era with many fewer amateur photographers, in a small town without major media, amazingly this is one of the only photos I could find of this scene. (Source)

It’s easy to forget how much the world has changed since 2001, as indicated, for example, by the existence of that extra print edition of The Star. Many people didn’t have cell phones, and the phones that existed didn’t have web access. News websites existed but were not as robust as they are today. As the attacks unfolded, people looked to television and newsprint for updates, and used pay phones and other landlines to get in touch with friends and family.

Unless you were on a plane, in which case chances are you had little to no idea what was going on or ability to contact the outside world. Some pilots chose to downplay or mislead their passengers about the events unfolding in the U.S., while other pilots were kept in the dark themselves, unclear on why they’d suddenly been diverted and told to land.

As soon as the FAA closed U.S. airspace, the Canadian government ordered Canadian airports to receive those flights that suddenly had nowhere else to land. During the emergency, “planes were entering Canadian airspace at a rate of one to two planes per minute.” In the confusion and panic of that morning, there were many false reports of additional hijackings and bombs, and no one knew if these flights were safe. As the mayor character in Come From Away grimly but accurately notes, as many planes as possible were to land in his town rather than at busier airports in more populous areas to ensure fewer people were being placed at risk.

Gander was only one of seventeen Canadian airports to accept diverted flights, but it stands out for the staggering ratio of passengers to population. Fewer than 10,000 people called Gander home when about 38 planes carrying around 6,500 people suddenly showed up. (The fact that I can’t confidently be more specific than “about 38 planes,” regarding a relatively recent event taking place within a highly regulated and heavily monitored environment, should give you reason to question any historical facts you think you know. I’ve seen reports of 37, 38, and 39 planes, possibly due to inconsistent accounting of civilian vs. military aircraft. Different government agencies and officials also disagree on the total number of diverted planes that landed throughout Canada that day as part of what was called “Operation Yellow Ribbon,” reporting a range of between 224 and 250 planes!)

The musical portrays many of the logistical problems that had to be dealt with: where to shelter all these people, how to transport them in the middle of a bus driver strike, what to feed them, how to clothe and care for them, not to mention what to do about animals in the cargo-holds. The audience also relives, through the characters of Gander, what it was like to first hear the news of the attacks, and then witnesses, through the passengers, what it might have felt like to have heard very little while trapped on planes for up to 28 hours, only to have a day’s worth of terror dumped on them all at once.

Those scenes gave me chills, but they’re still not the thing that, aside from The Islander, made me the most emotional.

Come From Away is one of the best, most nuanced, and likable artistic expressions of Canadian culture I’ve ever seen. Stereotypes like Tim Hortons, Shoppers Drug Mart, and Rogers Cable news, so often used to depict Canadianness cheaply and unthinkingly, are placed in a meaningful context that actually provides a sense of how people in Gander live. Later, a “Heave Away” sing-a-long (complete with an Ugly Stick!) is followed by a reenactment of a screech-in ceremony which must seem at once charming and insane to American audiences.

And yet, the play isn’t even about Canada, and that’s what surprised and hit me. Ultimately, the protagonists are the stranded Americans, “the plane people” as locals call them. The celebratory climax is when they get to leave Canada and finally return home. The Canadian writers understood the show is fundamentally about America under attack. By weaving an affectionate and funny love letter about the people of Newfoundland into a story about another country’s tragedy and pain, Come From Away is insightful about and respectful of both countries at once.

It’s a story about Americans, written by Canadians, for Americans. And I got to see it as a Canadian living in America, surrounded by a mostly American audience, which made me feel a whole bunch of things at once.

As people walked passed me out of the theater [sic], I overheard “that was amazing,” “that was incredible,” and “do Canadians know about this?!” One ten-year-old girl was saying to her father, “it was like it was a whole, and we were one half of the whole.” She might have been talking about the performers and the audience. She might have been talking about the Canadians and their American guests.

Importantly, Come From Away doesn’t ignore the sadness and ugliness of that day and the days that followed. A medley of monotheistic prayers, emphasizing unity and understanding, is immediately followed by an angry mob verbally attacking muslim passengers. The hospitality and compassion at the heart of the show is made more important and powerful because it’s mixed in with the reality of fear and anti-muslim sentiment.

On October 2nd, 2001, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published a letter of gratitude from an American family recounting their involuntary stop in Newfoundland. It concluded: “This experience will stay with us during this time and continue to remind us that we have more friends than enemies in this world.”