Canadians Try to Rediscover Spirit That Sets Them Apart: Writers Warn of Rot Eating Away at Culture's Core

Article excerpt

OTTAWA - Set like jewels in the airy precincts of the National Gallery of Canada, wall after wall of paintings portray the landscape of the Canadian soul: tough, distant, magnificent.

Today that soul is in fragments, Canadian historian Joe Armstrong says. His new book, "Farewell the Peaceful Kingdom," depicts a nation fragmented by multiculturalism to the point that it has lost sight of its heritage and become a victim-led, grievance-based society.

Canadians are not as concerned about values as Americans are; they hardly adddress them, says Mr. Armstrong, who has visited all 50 U.S. states and motorcycled through most of them.

"The difference between United States history and Canadian history is we've not had the seminal events that have forced you in America to address values," he says. "The American Revolution, the Civil War, the civil rights movement, the Korean War, these were generic to the American psyche."

Plus, America's spiritual components are lacking in its northern neighbor, he says. "Canadian society is nonreligious. Its coins don't say `In God We Trust.' "

There was a time when Canada knew its identity, he says, a time mirrored in the dramatic, primordial landscapes displayed underneath the milky blue glass of the National Gallery.

Several rooms at the granite-and-glass museum overlooking the Ottawa River are devoted to the "Group of 7," a cadre of 1920s-era Toronto artists who painted the grandeurs of northern Ontario, the Maritimes, the shores of the St. Lawrence River, the arctic and the Canadian Rockies. Their inspiration was Tom Thomson, a painter whose images of "The Jack Pine" and "Northern River" inspired millions to admire Canada's barren northern reaches.

More than 70 years later, Canadians may need another Group of 7 as they grope for a common ground and a new vision, says Franklyn Griffiths, a University of Toronto professor and author of the recent book "Strong and Free: Canada and the New Sovereignty."

According to a 1995 poll commissioned by Maclean's magazine, a third of Canadians believe that their country as they know it will not exist by the end of the decade.

"Our culture is in deep trouble," Mr. Griffiths says. "Several of the theaters in our city are up against the wall. Same with ballet. Funding for movies is a problem. The upper 90 percent of screen time here is controlled by the United States. There is not a strong, indigenous Canadian movie industry."

One exception is "Picture of Light," which was a hit at the 1994 Toronto Film Festival. Toronto filmmaker Peter Mettler created this odyssey during two 3,000-mile trips to Churchill, Manitoba, where temperatures can drop to 158 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. The film focuses on the phenomenon of the aurora borealis - bands of light caused by ions traveling along the planet's magnetic field lines.

Ironically, Mr. Griffiths says, the United States intrudes on Canadian territory even there. He cites instances in 1969 and 1985 when U.S. icebreakers entered Canadian waters without asking permission from Ottawa.The U.S. view was that waterways constituting the Northwest Passage are international straits.

Because of general disinterest, "most of the people here have no idea of our northern identity," Mr. Griffiths says. "That was part of a shared awareness of ourselves as a northern country that's no longer here.

"It used to be we had a really rough environment; we had to care for each other. Canadians are now more isolated from the elements. Not many Canadians want to travel north; most go south. Most Canadians have never been more than 400 miles north of the Trans-Canada Highway. …