Someone ought to do a psychological study of involuntarily stunted wanderlust. I haven't left the geographical boundaries of Europe since February 2020 and the lust had become great. Having given up on visiting the United States, I turned my sights to Canada which, on 7 September, finally opened up to double-vaccinated Brits.
I'd already chanced my luck by booking a flight to Vancouver (the 7 September date was 'tentative') but by 10 September it had been bookended with a return flight from Toronto and a myriad of internal connections via plane, train and automobile (and one ferry). My adrenaline surged at the logistical challenge of seeing as much as possible of Canada in the space of two weeks. Finally, I would be free again.
Relatively free, that is. As I made my arrangements, parts of Canada – despite high vaccination rates – appeared to be on the cusp of a fourth wave, while certain Provinces declared 'public health emergencies' in advance of my arrival. This language sounded more dramatic than the reality. It basically meant the introduction of so-called vaccine passports: the requirement to show proof of vaccination in order to access restaurants, museums and other attractions.
All this was yet to confront me as I endured a day of torrential rain in Vancouver, a city I'd first visited in 2006 and still didn't much care for following my second. Visitors rave about its mountains and parks, but those would be the non-city parts, and it is urban landscapes which engage me. 'Raincouver's' urban centres are either insipid or surprisingly squalid for such a major tourist centre.
As with the US cities of the Pacific North West, the dispossessed are difficult to ignore in Vancouver. East of Gastown, the anodyne tourist area, are blocks of dystopian squalor. Outside the Vancouver Police Museum (where Errol Flynn was briefly autopsied before being whisked south) I saw one gentleman dusting a manhole cover with a leaf. A block away, the city's law enforcement agents were aggressively moving on homeless people, of which there are many.
Victoria was much more to my taste, a smaller but more elegant city on Vancouver Island (Vancouver, confusingly, is on mainland British Columbia). Getting there engaged my love of borders. A bus took me from the Pacific Railway terminus to Tsawwassen, the tip of a peninsula shared with Point Roberts, which is part of the United States. A ferry then cruised through Norwegian-like fjords to Swartz Bay. For no clear reason, US territorial waters spike through this part of North America, so for 20 minutes I took satisfaction from being in US territory despite the travel ban.
In Victoria, I was free to indulge in my usual activity but on a gratifyingly broader canvas. The legislature (or parliament) of British Columbia was the first of four Provincial assemblies I managed to take in during my two-week trip, tours cheerfully facilitated by staff of what the Canadians call 'legislative libraries'. BC's was particularly grand, boasting a marble lobby topped with a dome. When I told the staff that it was more impressive than anything at Westminster, they didn't believe me.
I reached Edmonton, the provincial capital of Alberta, just as polls in the Canadian federal election closed. After finding something to eat in the city's fascinatingly bleak downtown area, I got back to my hotel room prepared for a late night a la General Elections in the UK. But given the time difference (most of the important 'ridings' are further east), it was all over by 11.30pm. The outcome was almost exactly that of two years ago, but Justin Trudeau did his best to appear triumphant as he paraded his photogenic family before press photographers. The pundits on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation coverage phoned in some platitudes and then I went to bed.
Edmonton improved south of the river, but I was still struck by the contrast between oil-rich Alberta's two major cities: downtown Calgary was as clean, safe and interesting as Edmonton's was dirty, edgy and humdrum. As it happened, I spent most of my two days in Calgary further west in the splendid national parks that straddle the Alberta/British Columbia border. The weather was kind and I soaked up the mountains, lakes and rivers – the perfect contrast to my usual urban explorations.
Winnipeg, my next stop, reacquainted me with the thrill of discovering a new city, particularly one that's yet to hit the fashionable travel pages. Manitoba's largest city and provincial capital isn't what it was, but that was part of its charm. A friend alerted me to its Scottish provenance, and indeed I'd soon tracked down a couple of rather cringy Scots memorials along its well-developed riverside. The Earl of Selkirk is venerated here as founder of the Red River Settlement; the Manitoba Museum even includes a panel on Lord James Douglas-Hamilton, the former MSP and the 5th Earl's descendent.
My guide at the Manitoba Legislature alluded to the empty plinth outside the main entrance. Last June, a statue of Queen Victoria was covered with red-and-white paint amid a wave of anti-racism protests. More recently, on Canada Day (1 July 2021), it was toppled during a protest regarding the historic deaths of Indigenous children in what were known as 'residential schools'. Victoria's head was later recovered from the Assiniboine River but without its crown. A statue of the current Queen near Manitoba's Government House was also toppled. Both are now in storage awaiting re-erection, most likely at an alternative location.
Everywhere in Canada, I saw the maple leaf flag at half-mast, the Canadian government's acknowledgement of the residential schools controversy. The row has also prompted further re-evaluation of Sir John A Macdonald, the Glasgow-born first Prime Minister of (confederated) Canada. On previous visits to Toronto, I'd seen his statue outside the Ontario Legislature, but it's now obscured by a wooden box. An attached notice from the Speaker observes that although 'we cannot change the history we have inherited, we can shape the history we wish to leave behind'.
As yet uncovered, however, are Sir John's modest presbyterian grave in Kingston, an early Canadian capital east of Toronto, and his handsome house, Bellevue, in the same city. It was a reminder of Canada's Anglo-Scottish provenance, as well as its complicated colonial history.
On my first, rain-soaked day in the country, I'd tracked down two statues in one of Vancouver's sprawling parks. One hailed 'Victoria the Good' while another quoted Lord Stanley, a late 19th-century Governor-General. 'To the use and enjoyment of people of all colours, creeds and customs', he had proclaimed in dedicating his eponymous park, 'for all time'.
David Torrance is a writer and historian