Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Searching meditation on Canada's past, future
By Bruce Hutchison
Oxford University Press, 325 pages, $22
EVERY once in a while, it is a tonic to immerse one's self in pure Canadiana.
And one can't get more Canadian than this account of a cross-Canada trip, undertaken in 1955, by the late Canadian journalist Bruce Hutchison.
Hutchison's account of his travels across Canada, from Newfoundland to British Columbia, was originally published in 1957, won a Governor General's Award for Creative Non-fiction and is now reissued by Oxford University Press as part of a series of significant titles of Canadian literature, thought and scholarship.
Hutchison served as editor of the Victoria Times and editorial director of the Vancouver Sun; his column regularly appeared in the Winnipeg Free Press, for which he worked early in his career.
This entertaining narrative is a pleasure to read.
Hutchison depicts the impact on Canadian life and environment of what he calls the "Canadian revolution" -- the transition from an agricultural to an industrial economy, a process that was well underway by the mid-20th century.
Hutchison comments on the tendency of industrial civilization to promote uniformity and conformity, and wonders if Canada's particular regional cultures -- especially Quebec and the Maritimes -- will survive industrialization.
In these speculations he anticipates the work of the Canadian philosopher George Grant, who wrote about the homogenizing influence of technology.
Hutchison identifies a collective Canadian consciousness, an ancestral memory, which he evokes in the prose poems that precede every chapter. He writes stirringly, for example, about the lonely sound of a freight-train's whistle in a prairie night.
Readers of the Winnipeg Free Press will be particularly interested in Hutchison's comments about Winnipeg, which he describes as "the hub and crossroads of Canada, the beating pulse, the very heart, halfway between the oceans."
He mixes praise and criticism. He says that Winnipeg is "our strongest and most coherent Canadian community." It is, moreover, "Canada's most democratic town."
However, he says that he detests "the outside look, the flat terrain and cruel climate of Winnipeg." Indeed, "not many Canadians are strong enough to sustain its climate."
For Hutchison, Winnipeg is one of Canada's least provincial cities. As a centre of the grain trade, it must be aware of political and economic conditions throughout the globe.
Finally, Hutchison articulates a tension in the Canadian mind that shaped Canadian society well into the 20th century -- the tension between history and geography. History links Canada to Britain, while geography draws it to America. Canada is defined by this "mixture of memory and environment."
This book is more than a period piece, more than a travelogue. It is a searching, beautifully rendered meditation on Canada's past and future.
Hutchison penetrates to the essence of what it means to be Canadian, probably as well as has ever been done. This is Canadiana at its best.
Graeme Voyer is a Winnipeg writer.
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 19, 2013 J8