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Canada Day in Ottawa-Gatineau

MY FIRST CANADA DAY! Bonjour! Bonne fête du Canada! Please pardon my French, for I’m from New York City, where we pretend to all speak the same language. Forgive me, too, for passing up, at eight in the morning, a street vendor’s proffer of a paper plateful of poutine. The celebration is not yet underway. The cobblestone courtyards of the Byward Market are quiet. But the barricades are being set up along the motorcade route and the tide of red shirts and red caps has started coming in: families with folding chairs and coolers vetting vantage points, bright young bénévoles (I’m learning already) bearing fistfuls of little Canadian flags, and vendors at their stations, griddles already smoking.
“Canada Day, eh?” one says to me, as if to mock my New Yorker’s expectations of Canadian brogue. I smile, wave my little flag and explain that I had planned a bicycle ride along the Rideau Canal and am worried that fries and curds might not be the right fuel for the journey.

I hope I’m also forgiven for the assumption, shared by many of my countrymen, that July 1 is “Canada’s July 4th.” It’s difficult for us to understand that a country’s birth and its identity may come about by some means other than revolution. And we’re nonplussed by the fact that you consider yourselves independent while still maintaining ties to the monarchy against which we rebelled. I mean, here it is, Independence Day in the nation’s capital and the guest of honor — excuse me, honour — is the Queen of England!

I consider these things as I ride along the canal, past the moored boats, joggers and dog walkers, the morning cool and the water calm. I am thinking to call this account, “An American on Canada Day,” but then, with my perspective already improving, I realize that Canadians, too, are Americans, and that the only reason we in the United States claim the title for ourselves is that we were the first American nation. But then, of course, we were not the first Americans by a long shot. So I’m thinking that the best any North American nation can do on its birthday is celebrate not what sets it apart from the other nations on the continent, but to celebrate the diverse cultures, nature and history that we share.

By the time I reach Mooney’s Bay, an artificial widening of the Rideau River created during the construction of the canal, the Canada Day regatta is underway. Crowds on the shore cheer the skeetering phalanxes of sprint canoes and kayaks, watercraft that both young American nations adopted from the original Americans. We have in common the exploration and settlement of vast wilderness lands, the logging of great forests, the mining of seemingly inexhaustible resources, often at the expense of those whose lands we settled and whose resources we claimed. (The only ones, really, who couldn’t declare victory after the War of 1812 were the native Americans.)

After the ride I stroll among the downtown crowds, the atmosphere reminiscent of small-town America on July 4, when revellers flock to street fairs and picnic on village greens. I think again about that poutine but, lured by the jazz playing in Confederation Park, opt instead for a blanket on the green and some Amish sausage, and then move on to Major’s Hill Park for some barbequed chicken (a July 4 staple as well). Window shopping in the Byward Market later leads to a smorgasbord of cheeses, fruits, confit and cured meats that I eat while strolling among the farmstands stacked with blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, carrots, beets, squash and radishes, a Technicolor local harvest. (In an effort to eat Canadian the night before, I had enjoyed king crab, barbequed bison and wild boar at Sweetgrass Aboriginal Bistro.)

At noon, already full, I take a spot along the crowded barricades, anticipating, as any U.S.-American would, the parade, looking forward to the horse platoons, marching bands, drum majorettes, motorized floats and waving politicians that come out every July 4. I hear cannon fire. A squadron of military jets flies in tight formation overhead. A wave of shouts and cheers rushes toward me. And then, proceeding slowly down the cleared route, a black limousine. From the window of the limo a small white-gloved hand waves to more cheers. And then it passes. And nothing follows — no horses, no bands, no floats. The crowds that had vied all morning for bivouacs along the barricades simply break camp and move on. Obviously, I still don’t understand everything about my neighbors [neighbours! — ed.].

There’s much more to see and do, though, so I join the happy throng strolling across the Alexandra Bridge to Quebec. On the other side of the Ottawa River, in the city of Gatineau, the celebrations in Jacques-Cartier Park seem a bit more rustic and uninhibited, featuring costumed colonials, lumberjacks and a photo-op with a giant beaver. By a large white teepee at a recreated encampment, an Algonquin woman in a wolf mask holds children rapt with an ancient story. Inspired, I walk to the nearby Canadian Museum of Civilization where, on a stage surrounded by great totem poles, I watch a performance of Eastern European dance. Another celebration of the confederation of American cultures.

Back across the bridge, I take refuge from the crowds in the National Gallery of Canada, where I find my way to the lower gallery and discover breathtaking works gathered together as “Indigenous Art.” Annie Kilabuk’s extraordinary 1981 wool wall hanging Umiaktuqtu (Boating) and Levi Qumaluk’s 1983 stonecut print Husband and Wife Make a Kayak are in every way as “modern” as, say, Louise Bourgeois’ wondrous bronze Maman, an enormous spider that stands as a fearful sentry and maternal protector outside the gallery.

When I emerge, the crowds are thick and rowdy. Street musicians play Asian cymbals, Australian didgeridoos and Scottish bagpipes. Yet down Elgin Street, one of Canada’s most imposing musical presences sits silently — the bronze likeness of Oscar Peterson at the piano, unveiled just the day before by Queen Elizabeth II. She did not, as most people (including myself) will, pose for a photo sitting on the piano bench next to him.

I make it back to my hotel, the Château Laurier, and escape the noise of the streets. Entering the pastel oasis of Zoé’s Lounge (named for Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s wife, Zoé Lafontaine), I take part in the afternoon tea service, a tradition pretty much lost in the United States but here served with elegant vitality, proper china, caddies of fine teas and triple-tiered silver trays stacked with light buttered sandwiches, scones, delicate iced confections and plenty of jam and clotted cream. A perfect afternoon nap follows, and I wake rested and ready for the fireworks that mark the birth of the nation.

From on high at the Château Laurier, as I watch blue smoke trail across the sky and the pyrotechnics cast reflections on the river, I remember that in three more days I’ll be home to do all this again. And that the only thing I’ve missed was a plate of poutine. Maybe next year.