Canada is an unassuming place. But, it is wonderful nonetheless. You might know nothing about it before you arrive, but it won’t be long before you are singing along to The Tragically Hip, bemoaning the latest false dawn for the Habs or the Leafs, pining for a weekend in a canoe, and pondering the many applications of maple syrup. Canada is a large yet small country. Massive in scale, but small in voice. Deeply layered with history, but unexplored by most. It has much to offer, yet despite being a welcoming, modern, liberal, and deeply interesting country, it struggles for attention in the face of its southern neighbour. But give Canada just a little of your time and you will find yourself hooked.
I arrived in Montreal at the tail end of the summer of 2015 to undertake an MA in history at McGill University. I was there to study interactions between indigenous and colonial Americans in the eighteenth century, although I covered plenty of other areas throughout the year. The academic cultural adjustment was significant, although manageable, with marks spread out over a number of criteria, not just one or two big essays, and a more substantial theoretical focus. Nonetheless, it was an interesting and rewarding challenge to adjust.
McGill pushed me to attempt things I hadn’t done before, like studying literature and researching in my second language (Spanish), and broadened my academic horizons. I took on old topics through new approaches, like indigenous history through the history of money, and new topics through new approaches, like mining and environmental history. Above all though, it allowed me study my specialty up close and with great support and insight from my supervisor, Dr Jason Opal.
Although I was there to study, I was also there to see and experience Canada, and what a place it is to see. Montreal is a magnificent city. The old town and port are historic areas of global significance, but beyond that Montreal has an unbelievable cultural life that most global cities would find hard to match. Montreal has hundreds and hundreds of great restaurants covering most cuisines, and wonderful bars ranging from the straightforward brewpub through to speakeasies, arcade bars, board game pubs, and most things in between. There are museums, galleries, historic monuments, and everything else you’d expect from a cultural hub in abundance, but best of all, and on a unique scale, is the number of festivals. Folk, indie, francophone, jazz, motorsport, comedy; there are literally dozens of them and they’re often free. In fact, most things in Montreal are fantastically affordable. This all lends itself to an atmosphere of fun, good living, and general enjoyment all year round.
I didn’t just limit myself to Montreal, however. Over two long holidays, and with a few day trips in between, I managed to visit six of the ten provinces, and see another three. Quebec City is wonderfully historic and romantic, and a great day trip from Montreal in winter or summer, so I did both! Ottawa, the national capital, was beautiful when I visited in the middle of Canada’s autumnal peak on another day trip.
Yet the two highlights of my year were the long train based holidays I took. The first was to the Maritime Provinces in spring. A 22-hour train journey out of Montreal, and jutting out into the North Atlantic, the Maritimes (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island) are rich in history and culture, but also grit, character, and charm, all polished off with stunning natural beauty. The Maritimes are small by Canadian standards, although still big and empty, and are characterised by the warmth of small communities.
The second trip, this time involving four nights on a train, was from Toronto to Vancouver, with an interval in the Rocky Mountains and a grand finale of sea kayaking off Vancouver Island in search of orcas. The trip was Canada at its vastest, emptiest, and most spectacular, yet also at its most intimate. I met brilliant and friendly Canadians from all walks of life on the train, and felt like I’d gained a small but meaningful insight into Canadian society, and I saw the spectacle of Western Canada’s breath-taking wildernesses. Jasper National Park, in the Rockies, is huge, relatively untouched by humans, stunningly beautiful, and teeming with wildlife. The temperate rainforest of the west coast and their surrounding waters are more softly-spoken in their beauty, but all the more jam-packed with animals. Across the two places I was lucky enough to see orcas, humpback whales, a bear, big horn sheep, bald eagles, marmots, sea lions, seals, and elk.
The US steals the headlines, and it always will. But, Canada is something else. It has scale. It has personality. It has history. It has culture. It has wonderful people. I was there a whole year and yet there are as many new things on my list of places to visit and books to read as there were when I arrived. From grasping the vastness of the True North, to realising the realities of the two solitudes, and absorbing a whole new national history and cultural cannon on the way, there wasn’t a single moment I spent in Canada even momentarily thinking about being somewhere else. All that’s left to say is that if you’re even considering studying in Canada and applying for the Canada Memorial Foundation scholarship, go for it!
Canada Memorial Foundation Scholar 2015