My Canada: Sleepy Toronto

As Canada prepares to celebrate its 150th birthday on July 1, I’m taking a look back at my 44-odd years in the country. This is the fifth of seven parts.

My advanced studies in all things Canadian really took off after my transfer to Toronto from Montreal in 1976.

I was flying solo again in a UPI bureau, this one a couple of crappy rooms above a Canadian Imperial Back of Commerce branch at the southeast corner of Queen and Yonge streets.

Canadians claim Yonge as the longest street in the world since, north of Toronto, it becomes Highway 11, which runs for 1,178 miles (1,896 kilometres in Canadian) before smacking into the U.S. border at Baudette, Minnesota.

The street is named for Sir George Yonge (1731-1812), a British secretary of war after the American Revolution. Despite the weird spelling, I learned his name, and the street, were pronounced “young.”

My greatest pronunciation challenge in Canada was Newfoundland, until a nice lady at a visitor center on The Rock told me it rhymes with “understand” – so the trick to getting it right is saying “understand, Newfoundland.”

Anyway, I didn’t last much longer at UPI. I was tired of working for a wire service and wanted another crack at a newspaper. (My first reporting job was with the Livermore Herald & News in northern California.)

Pal Joey was then at the Toronto Sun, the first tabloid paper in a major Canadian city. He arranged an interview for me and I started as a city desk reporter on New Year’s Day 1977.

The first time I met Linda she was working as the secretary to the sports editor. She asked me where I was from.

“America,” I replied.

“No you’re not,” she said.

“Yes, I am.”

“There’s no such place.”

“Huh?

“We both come from North America,” she said. “But the country you come from is the United States.”

She deserved a Bronx cheer for that. Instead, by the end of July, we were living together in the lovely Moore Park neighborhood and were married a year later.

By the time I moved to the Big Smoke, Toronto had surpassed Montreal as Canada’s largest city. But it was still a sleepy, provincial place, where the sidewalks were folded up after business hours and on weekends.

Linda and I had a nice home, a new dog – a black standard poodle we named Yaz – and good friends.

I switched from news reporting to covering baseball, the 1978 Toronto Blue Jays, spending much of that time in U.S. cities from Boston to Anaheim.

And while I had no desire to move back to my native land, by the end of the baseball season I’d soured on the Sun and my wanderlust had returned.

On April 1, 1980, we left Toronto in a new 14-foot Mini Cruiser motorhome I’d bought in New York. The plan, if there was one, was to ramble west across Canada. No final destination. No return date.

My Canadian education on the road trip included:

  • Spending a day with a couple of Ojibway men tapping trees and making maple syrup on Parry Island, Ontario.
  • Spending a night on Manitoulin Island where “howling wolves (were) sending shivers down the spines of townsfolk,” as the Gore Bay Recorder reported. The upshot: A few dead sheep and 150 wolves shot.
  • Hearing news of the failed U.S. operation – eight Americans dead – to free the hostages in Iran. Yet Linda and I were more interested in Yaz chasing three bears up a tree during a hike that day in Riding Mountain National Park in Manitoba.
  • Chatting with the mayor of Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, about his old pal, John Diefenbaker, who had died the previous summer.
  • Going to a rodeo, the Ponoka Stampede, near Edmonton.
  • Sitting around a campfire in Jasper National Park with three couples who told us they lived and worked in the oilfields near Fort McMurray, the first time I heard about that growing boom town and the tar sands.
  • Hearing the news that Quebecers had voted “no” in a referendum to separate from Canada. Since we were on the other side of the Rockies, in B.C., its own separate nation, nobody seemed to care one way or the other.
  • Looking for a hermit on the west coast of Vancouver Island and finding a lovely old man named Bill Billing, who told us about growing up in Cornwall, England, and his years as a policeman in Shanghai.
  • Crossing into Washington state and confusing the hell out of the pistol-packing U.S. border guard. American man? Canadian woman? New York plates?Where’s your home?” he asked. “Here,” I said. “Or New York, or Toronto. Take your pick.” He finally waved us through.
  • Stopping at a supermarket in Bellingham, Washington, for groceries, beer and wine. The lady at the checkout asked Linda for ID. Then she asked me. I laughed. She said she was just following orders. Maybe Americans and Canadians aren’t that different.

I know what it is to be an American. But what is the Canadian identity? In my experience, people tend to see themselves first as Newfoundlanders, Maritimers, Quebecers, Ontarians, westerners, northerners.

All, outside the 416 area code, can be united in despising Toronto. And all can come together to cheer an Olympic gold medal in hockey, or mourn a Canadian death on a distant battlefield.

And while Canadians travel with the Maple Leaf on their backpack to proudly proclaim, “we’re not American,” it’s possible to live in this country watching exclusively American TV programs and Hollywood movies, and consuming U.S. news media.

Meanwhile, Linda and I completed our six-month trip by driving down the coast to Los Angeles, visiting the canyons of Arizona and Utah, Yellowstone National Park, crossing the northern states all the way to Maine – and going home to Toronto.

We would go back to Maine and live there briefly, boomerang back to Toronto, move to Clarkson in Mississauga, and have two daughters.

I’d go back to United Press, then Canadian Press, before uprooting my family, venturing into the hinterlands of northwestern Ontario.

Tomorrow: A country retreat

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