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2005-12-13 Canada makes lasting impression

I don't think it is too much of an overstatement to say that Canada really has it all.

 

After a five-week coast-to-coast concert tour of this great country, I think it is the vastness and variety which has made the most lasting impression on me. British Columbia alone is four times the size of the UK, and you could fit eighteen Irelands into Alberta - by no means one of Canada's largest provinces. Admittedly the hectic concert schedule permitted little or no time off at all, so most of our sight-seeing was done from cars or planes.

 

When you visit this part of the world, it is not hard to imagine why the 2010 Winter Olympics are to be held in British Columbia's Whistler and Vancouver. We drove through the jaw-droppingly spectacular landscapes of the Coastal Mountains, flew across the Canadian Rockies and many National Parks with their lofty ice-capped peaks and shimmering azure lakes, paused in the lake-studded fertile fruit-growing Okanagan Valley, briefly witnessed the flatter-than-flat prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, and marvelled at the forest-clad coastal mountain scenery of the east coast maritime provinces.

If you were to fly from Vancouver to St John's (Newfoundland), the journey would take almost 8 hours, and the time-zone difference is 4½ hours. That is hardly surprising, bearing in mind that Canada is the world's second largest country.

 

The cultural differences within this vast nation are as varied as its staggering scenery. Strong British/ colonial influences are very evident in cities such as Victoria on Vancouver Island, but also in the Canadian capital Ottawa. A very strong "First Nations" culture, as well as reminders of the early pioneers and Gold Rush days, are particularly obvious in provinces such as Saskatchewan.

 

In Québec, and other areas, an almost siege mentality prevails with regard to French, meaning that often only French is spoken, and at times you feel you ought to don a stripy blue T-shirt, a beret, and an onion necklace. In Cape Breton on Nova Scotia, you can enjoy fiddle-playing and step-dancing or square-dancing, in kitchens or in community halls, as part of the Ceilidh Trail. Then of course there is the rich Inuit culture in Canada's Arctic territories, such as Nunavut. On this trip however, I didn't see Nunavut (pun intended)!

Canada's cities are as varied as its remarkable scenery and culture. Glittering cosmopolitan Vancouver is constantly top of the list of the world's most desirable places to live, despite a high annual rainfall level. The beautiful "Garden City" of Victoria is like a slice of England, wrapped in British Columbian majesty.

 

The Okanagan Valley cities of Kelowna and Kamloops might perhaps benefit from a town planner, as they sprawl chaotically outwards, amidst otherwise breathtaking valley scenery. Ottawa boasts some stunning downtown architecture, the Government buildings and Notre-Dame Cathedral in particular. Toronto, with its impressive lakeside skyline and needle-like CN Tower, its buzzing downtown, and noticeably high tolerance levels, has everything every great metropolis ought to have. We ended our concert tour in Nova Scotia and Cape Breton  -where the sea and fiddle rule - and it is this part of Canada which perhaps strikes the most resonant chord with any Celt.

 

Pier 21 in Halifax is Canada's answer to Ellis Island in New York. Between 1928 and 1971 alone, one million immigrants passed through Pier 21. The Nova Scotian capital, with its vast natural harbour and navy base, may not appear immediately beautiful, but is without question one of the most fascinating cities in Canada. Tim Horton is to Canada what "Starbucks" is to the US - all too prevalent. But in Halifax, the effects of globalisation seem somewhat camouflaged, or even thankfully absent. Instead, Halifax offers its own unique and often quirky selection of eating and drinking establishments, "The Economy Shoe-Store" for example.

 

As I wandered through the North End neighbourhood of Halifax, where most of the African-Canadians reside or at least hang-out, I passed four churches, in a row - a Baptist Congregational Church, St.George's Anglican Church, St.Vladimir's Russian Orthodox Church, and St.Patrick's Roman Catholic Church.

 

As well as Nova Scotia's rich First Nation Mi'Kmaq heritage, this part of Canada was settled by French and later by Scottish immigrants. On another, altogether better level, Halifax could hardly be more "globalised". Halifax was Canada's principal gateway for immigrants - a gateway to a vast, varied, and attractively tolerant nation.