“Go to hell!” he hissed. “I don’t wanna listen to you, got my own problems. Get lost.” I could hardly understand what he was yelling in his jumbled mixture of broken English and Quebec French. But his intentions were clear. He didn’t want to talk to me. Nice, helpful guy.
I was travelling in western Quebec on the Dumoine River, which flows into the Ottawa River northeast of Algonquin Park, and had landed my canoe on a small, sandy beach. A wood-canvas canoe with some tripping gear indicated that another paddler was already there and I wanted to talk to that person. I hoped to find someone who could give me inside information on the river, interesting tidbits not mentioned on maps and in trip reports; maybe a local fisherman or a trapper who knew all the secret spots that make these places such a delight to explore.
But the young man I encountered on that beach was in a truly foul mood, refusing to listen to me, raving and ranting about that stupid outsider bothering him here in his very own country on his very own river. I tried to explain in my best French that all I wanted was a bit of advice.
Suddenly he stopped his yelling, looked at me intently, and said: “So you’re not English then?” Apparently he had heard from my Dutch accent that I was not one of those damned born-and?bred English Canadians whose cursed ancestors, almost 250 years ago, had conquered his beloved Quebec on the Plains of Abraham, forever changing the lives of his people.
“No,” I said, “not English; I come from Holland. But I’m Canadian, yes, just like you.” I obviously shouldn’t have said that. He started yelling again.
“I am not one of your damned Canadians. I am Quebecois and I don’t want to be insulted by anybody who has no idea at all about what it is to be oppressed in your own country. Obviously something was bothering him.
After a while he calmed down a bit and glumly explained that his temperamental outburst was triggered by my approaching him in that hated English instead of French, the official language of his province. Besides, he was in no mood right now to be nice to anybody because he had just found out that the video camera he was using to record some river locations for a documentary had been damaged by humidity. His so?called waterproof camera case had leaked and water had destroyed the delicate instrument beyond immediate repair.
There we were. One fervent Quebec separatist who wanted to kick all Canadians out of his land. And one import Canadian?by?choice who was just looking for somebody to talk to. There obviously was a problem. It didn’t look good.
But maybe the fact that there were only the two of us on that beach made the sky clear up somehow; he apologized for his outburst and we shook hands. After some explaining and discussion we decided to help each other. He would give me as much information as possible on the river he knew so well, and I would lend him one of my cameras and some slide film that I had brought along to photograph this exceptional river, so that he at least had some record of what he wanted to film on another trip. In short, we sat down together, talked, communicated, developed a dialogue, even started to trust each other.
We travelled as a team for about a week, paddling, portaging, running rapids, swatting black flies, camping, swimming, photographing. And talking! Talking about ourselves, our backgrounds, dreams, love of canoeing, nature, photography, filming, travel, people. We talked about the Canadian Shield, fur trade, voyageurs, cultural diversity, and many other things that make Canada special.
And we talked at length about the huge problems facing this country: the economic domination by the USA (and probably in the future the political domination as well, once their water runs out in the next century), the consequences of a Quebec separation, the rights of our Native population, our quickly diminishing natural resources. We fully agreed there are no easy answers here; the problems are too deep to be solved by easy answers. There will always be differences.
But at least we talked, exchanged ideas, tried to understand conflicting points of view. We laughed and yelled and cried and cursed, learning to recognize each other’s diverse demands and aspirations, getting a lot closer to appreciating what makes us tick. In the end my tripping partner still passionately thought separation could work although I tried to convince him it might mean the end of both Canada and Quebec. But there was one thing we both wholeheartedly agreed upon: those politicians in Quebec City and Ottawa should all go on a canoe trip together and solve their problems on the water. They might even develop some mutual respect!
When we finally reached the Ottawa River, each went his own way. He turned east to go back home, and I went west upriver to continue my hunt for canoeing photographs. We looked at each other with a new understanding.
“Good luck,” I said. “Good luck, my Quebec friend.”
“Bonne chance,” he grinned. “Bonne chance, mon ami canadien.”