Leave the Beach, hate the world?

Venture out of the Beach and you might end up hating a whack of Canadian cities. That is what happened to me. As a result of a recent cross-country adventure, I hate Vancouver for its seawall, Winnipeg for the Countess of Dufferin, and Montreal for dating back to New France. And that is not the half of it. I developed these feelings during a VIA-Rail, ocean-to-ocean, cross-Canada train journey to promote my latest book, 50 Canadians Who Changed the World.

True, we had a fantastic time, my artist-photographer wife and I. We took the train back and forth from Union Station in downtown Toronto, first to the Pacific Ocean and then to the Atlantic, making stops along the way. This was a once-in-a-lifetime, white-linen-table-cloth train trip. We stayed in the historic railway hotels and spent time rambling around each city in which we stopped . . . and that is what gave rise to these negative feelings.

Let’s start with the Seawall that encircles Stanley Park. We arrived in Vancouver during a sunny spell and went walking along that wall. Yes, here in the Beach we have the boardwalk in the Beach, and you can spot me there on almost any day, walking or cycling. But in “Van,” you can go for a much longer excursion, and you see freighters standing out to sea, and beyond the horizon, well, that way lies the magic of the Orient. Doesn’t everybody who lives in not-Vancouver hate the Seawall?

And what about the SkyTrain? It whizzed past as we rolled into the city and I felt my gorge rise. The SkyTrain is a light rapid transit system (LRT) that features 70 km of track, spectacular views of the city, and 95% on-time reliability. It is precisely what we need in Toronto, but cannot have because of what we did to ourselves at the last municipal election.

The third reason I hate Vancouver, where once the University of British Columbia awarded me an MFA, is its natural setting: the Coast Range overlooking the city, the highway wending north to Whistler, and the scattering of accessible Gulf Islands between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. On New Year’s Day, as I recall, you can go downhill skiing on nearby Grouse Mountain and still arrive home for an early dinner. That is not right.

As for Calgary, well, consider mayor Naheed Nenshi. We arrived just as Calgarians elected this brilliant, crack-free, charismatic figure to a second four-year term. Meanwhile, Toronto was struggling to rid itself of a certain mortifying individual who shall remain nameless. Nenshi alone is reason to hate Calgary. So I won’t go on about the city’s proximity to the Rockies, and how Banff is ninety minutes away.

Or no, maybe I will. We stayed at the Fairmont Banff Springs, surely the flagship of Canada’s railway hotels, what with its empty, 32-metre pool. Oh, and we took a gondola ride to the top of Sulphur Mountain. It’s pricey, $35 a head, but when you reach the top, you discover stunning views of the town and surrounding snow-capped mountain ranges. Hiking a skyhigh boardwalk to a stone-built weather observatory erected in 1903 is like walking into your own IMAX movie, complete with 3D mountain goats, only they’re alive. Of course I was grinding my teeth.

By this time, of course, I had learned to hate Winnipeg for its sense of history. We had encountered the glorious Countess of Dufferin at the Winnipeg Railway Museum. Built in 1872, and named after the wife of the Earl of Dufferin, Canada’s third governor-general, she was the first locomotive to operate in the Canadian prairies. She arrived in Canada in 1877 and served for more than 30 years.

Then, from our window on the ninth floor of the Fort Garry Hotel — which has been celebrating its 100th anniversary — we had a clear view of the original stone gate to Upper Fort Garry, built in the 1850s by the HBC. Down on the ground, we learned that this location has history dating back to the 1730s, and that Winnipeg is turning that Gate into the entrance to an interpretive centre. This infuriated me, because we live in a city bent on eradicating its history.

As for Saskatoon, I hate it for the Delta Bessborough, a castle-like hotel that ended up on the cover of Clouds, Joni Mitchell’s ground-breaking second album. Completed in 1933, “the Bezz” still qualifies as grand. We had to tolerate a view over the gorgeous, five-acre gardens and the South Saskatchewan River, both of which reminded us that we really don’t know life at all.

Ottawa? I hate the Chateau Laurier, where at the front desk you can borrow an iPad that will guide you through the history of this landmark edifice. Built in 1912, and named after Sir Wilfrid Laurier, it has entertained everyone from George Bernard Shaw to Winston Churchill and Pablo Picasso. Halifax? I hate the ferry ride to Dartmouth, the colourful area known as Hydrostone, which is not unlike the Beach, and Point Pleasant Park, where I marked the culmination of our journey by stepping into the Atlantic.

Much as I hate these various cities, I hate Montreal more. I hate it, first, because of Old Montreal, which dates back to the 1600s. After checking into the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, we made our way down the hill and wandered along the narrow brick streets to Creperie Suzette on Rue Saint-Paul, where I trotted out my rusty French and we had a superb meal and washed it down with dry red wine. From our window, we watched as a light snow began to fall. Oh, I hated that.

Meanwhile, I was trying to cope with a flood of memory. Not only was I born in Montreal and raised nearby, but my father grew up downtown, and he bequeathed me all his memories, many of which dated back to the 1930s, so I could see him selling newspapers out front of Windsor Station. And then, for me, there was living in the McGill Ghetto and working at Sun Life, and slipping out one afternoon to Place Ville Marie to see Pierre Elliott Trudeau engulfed by screaming fans. In Montreal, every square and street corner calls forth some memory. And that, as you can imagine, I really, really hate.


To celebrate Beacher Ken McGoogan’s latest book, 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, VIA-Rail and HarperCollins Canada are holding a contest. Five winners will receive a free copy of the book, and one will collect  a $5,000 travel voucher. Enter at 50Canadians.ca.

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