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Archetypal Canada: a reflection

Canadian Shield Photo, Ontario, Canada

I think I need to explain the idea behind this journal. I suppose the title: the centre and the periphery makes it self-explanatory to some degree: it's about juxtaposition, it's about contrast, it's about diversity. But there is more to it than just that. After all I could have picked any two places, one small and one big, or one at the east and one at the west extreme of the country. I think that Ottawa and Sioux Lookout work rather well together though.

One is the the capital city of Canada, with a metro population of over a one and a half million people, one is a tiny municipality with about five thousand people.

But they are both in Ontario: Ottawa lies at the eastern edge of that largest (and arguably, the most archetypical Canadian) province, across the river from its sister Quebecois city of Gatineau. Sioux Lookout is in north-western Ontario, near (at least by Canadian Shield standards) to the Manitoba border.

Ottawa is multi-ethnic and international, with one in five people who live there born outside Canada, and only 1.5% indigenous Canadian. One in three inhabitants of Sioux Lookout are of Aboriginal origin. Ottawa is a central administration hub, and yet Sioux Lookout is a major public services town for the First Nations' reserves in a vast area of north-western Ontario.

I have been wondering – and I still wonder – which of the two is the face of the 'real Canada'? Majority of people in that vast country live in urban centres, mostly of the eastern seaboard. The Francophone/Anglophone dynamic that is such a defining feature of eastern Canada, and is so well represented by the simmering conflict between Toronto and Montreal is also represented by the unity in division of Ottawa and Gatineau.

And yet, huge areas of land in Canada lie on the Canadian Shield, a semi-circle of post-glacial, rocky land covered in thin soil, full of lakes, rocks and boreal forest (and further north, the tundra). Logging and mining, hunting for moose and fishing for trout, Indian trappers and Mounties are all part of the Canadian archetype, as much – no, much more than – the multi-ethnic metropolis of the industrial east, Ottawa is representative of the people, but Sioux Lookout, and all that is around it, stands for the land of large area of Canada, and for much of its soul.

And when I say large, it really is enormous. It takes 30 hours by train to travel from Ottawa to Sioux Lookout (via Toronto). In the straight line, it's over 800 miles (or over 1,300km), and you still have not even left Ontario! There is nothing like taking a train through the boundless expanse of the Canadian Shield to get a feeling for the actual size of the place, the landscape, the feel of the country as it passes you by in a mesmerising rhythm beaten by the wheels of the train.

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