I have been trying to come up with a phrase for Canada: words that convey its flavour, derivative as that must be for a country so vast. But each trip has a flavour to it, a certain distinctive tanginess to the cities and the people and Canada had been escaping me for a while. On the bus to Tofino, I settled on a word instead: lines. There was something safe about Canada, vast and yet simple (uncomplicated is perhaps a more precise word). Lines seemed to encompass it all. The long yellow lines on the roads that ravage the country, part of this deep-set driving culture (I am appalled by the lack of pavements in certain parts of the country); the figurative line encased in the numerous cautious danger warnings (CAREFUL: this creek can drown you during high tide; CAREFUL: high, dangerous waves on this beach can drown you OR crush you with moving logs; CAREFUL: cars drive fast on this highway); the simplicity of a line seemed to also encompass the ease of the lifestyle here, the mapping out of each corner, the apps one can download to navigate it.
I can’t remember how Mella and I got properly talking, only that she slept on the lower bunk in my hostel room. Already, Tofino is challenging my definition of ‘lines’: the idea sits less well upon its bumpy hills, its cragged beach edges that are like lost or abandoned slivers of paradise. (Although – the path to Tonquin beach is through the jungle and is a boardwalk, with ropes on either side. I laugh, thinking of the equivalent in McLeod Ganj.) Mella has lived four years up north in a First Nation’s community, teaching. She speaks of 24-hour days and 24-hour nights, of small communities where everyone knows you, of the challenges faced by one’s cultural history and the social problems one’s identity can carry. She speaks with love – I have never heard an outsider (or indeed, any of my Canadian family) speak about this land with such reverence or belonging. She would do anything to come live here (she had to leave her job and go back to England after the funds for her position were relocated) and has worked towards a degree to find a way to come here. As being a writer is my goal, this is hers. We talk for hours, a Canada I have never known seeping in through her perspective. She introduces me to Henry Roy Vickers and Coastal First Nation’s art, the red, white and black forms of animals I have seen all over. Even these I had labelled as simplistic: outlines, filled with a single colour. Now she turns to show me the tattoo on her back, an eagle drawn in the Coastal First Nation’s art style, regal and rich in history. She offers me another word to my ‘lines’, used in passing to describe the images to me. Skeletal: art that seeks to pull the bones of the animal and place it on display. I find the word perfect for her perspective. A skeletal Canada, hidden under the muscle and fat of modernity, one you had to dig to reach, and yet responsible for the structure of the whole.