A Lesson in Humility

In Columns, Features, Pieces to Peter's Puzzling World by Peter Webster

We vacationed in the region of British Columbia called the west Kootenays. Geographically, it’s part of the Columbia River system, and is across the border from eastern Washington and northern Idaho.

The Kootenays are a series of steep, narrow and winding north-south valleys, scooped and scoured out of granite mountains, westerly reaches of the Rockies by ancient glaciers. The valleys have long fjord-like lakes—you can see across them, but not from one end to the other; the mountains rise sharp and timbered, and the higher peaks have year-around ice-caps.

People live tucked into the narrow bottom lands in small towns and snug little farms. It’s very green. Up until the mid Twentieth Century, travel was by railroad between the lakes, and by stern-wheel steamboats on the lakes. It was very isolated.

Miners were the first settlers. Mines need wood: loggers and sawmills came next. Being Canada, though, meant it wasn’t like the lawless mining camps in the States, though; things were relatively calm and peaceful. The mines, of course, f ailed

after a while.

Early in the last century, a groups known as Dukhobors arrived. The Dukhobors came from Tzarist Russia; they’re a pacifist, vegetarian sect. Canada offered them a home. Dukhobors established farming communities in the fertile valleys.

I like them: their gardening skills and earthy cooking are legendary. They’re hospitable and friendly. Many of their old log cabins and barns are still in use and well-kept.

We visited with friends—Canadians, ex-English, ex-Americans, even ex-South African and German, and toured.

One drive was very special. My son was conceived while his mom and I lived in a little Dukhobor cabin up on Sproule Creek about six miles from the main town of Nelson. There was a little orchard by the cabin and in late summer bears and deer would come for apples (that’s the only time I’ve ever seen a wild bear).

Beth and I drove to the cabin; it’s still in use. I had some of my son’s ashes and, with a prayer, returned the ashes to creek, near to where he’d begun. Great Spirit, thank you for what you’ve given, and thank you for what you’ve taken…

During World War Two, both America and Canada rounded up tens of thousands of people of Japanese ancestery (as little as 1/16th Japanese ancestry) and interned them in interior “relocation camps.”

Whenever I hear of some of the outlandish solutions to the “immigration invasion,” I remember those camps. The governments viewed them as untrustworthy: spies and saboteurs. They lost everything.

Interesting: not a single case of Japanese espionage or sabotage was documented in North America.

In America, 120,000 people—women, men, the young, the old—were stuffed into hastily-built camps in remote desert locations, and guarded by soldiers and barbed wire. We’d call it “ethnic cleansing,” today.

Twelve thousand Canadian-Japanese families along the west coast were forcibly packed up and relocated. Many were sent to the Kootenays. Fifteen hundred went to the decrepit mining and logging town of New Denver, alongside Slocan Lake. New Denver wasn’t quite a ghost town, but the boom days were long past.

The location was remote enough that guarding them was minimal. The families moved into abandoned cabins, tents, and hastily-built shacks made of green lumber. They lived alongside Euro-Canadians. Friendships developed. At the end of the war some of the relocated families remained.

Today, New Denver is rejuvenated, but several of the old Japanese cabins have been preserved as part of a memorial commemorating that shabby period. The way the two communities learned to live together is a monument to commonalities rather than differences. Even during the animosities of war-time, people learned to respect and care for each other.

During the Viet Nam War, the Kootenays attracted hundreds of U.S. draft resisters. Many are still there. That area has a history of accepting and integrating refugees. There’s something special and calming about the region. It was emotionally healthy for me to be in that atmosphere, because I need reminders of similarities instead of differences.

It’s always good to get across the border and realize that other people lead very similar lives but without hysteria and fear. Crime is lower. People aren’t as likely to lock their doors or their cars. Canadians escaped the gun slinging, winner-take-all-myths of the U.S., and see the world differently.

Everything is very familiar, like language and brands, cars, clothes, conversational references, but it’s also different enough, so the effect is to slightly tweak our perceptions, shift us from one angle to another. Light falls at a different angle: colors shift, shades and highlights change, planes and depths become different. We see the world—our world—from another point of view.

In the case of visiting Canada, this means seeing America and American society from outside. It isn’t always comfortable to do this, because things get shaken up.

We’re constantly made aware of differences between “us” and “them,” Christians and Muslims, good guys and bad guys, white skin and black skin. There’s nothing like an enemy or enemies, out there somewhere, to get a nation to take it’s mind off of domestic problems.

It’s as if America is under siege. It’s been like that throughout my entire life-time. But what I see when I go to Canada is a country very similar to this one—only they don’t believe anyone is out to get them. That means people behave in a more relaxed and open manner.

Every time I go to British Columbia, I wonder why America can’t be—more like Canada. It’s not just a good place to visit, it’s a lesson in humility.