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A Timeless Record of a Quintessentially Canadian Experience

As a result of my recent trip to Peterborough & the Kawarthas, and exposure to the works of Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie, I’ve been reflecting lately on the immigrant experience in Canada.

I was born in Toronto, but moved to England with my British parents when I was five years old. We returned by ship seven years later  on the S.S. Maasdam. Although I’d already been here, my memory is of having arrived in Canada as if for the first time.  I’ll never forget the experience of coming up on deck early one morning with my father and sighting land –  a collection of tiny, sun-lit Canadian islands.  Everything seemed bathed in gold.  

Moving to a new country is an emotion-charged experience, one that, while different in each case, shares certain common characteristics.  According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, people who immigrate typically go through the following stages:

Stage 1: Happiness and fascination.

Just before or shortly after arriving in Canada you may:

Have high hopes and expect great things
Feel this is a very exciting time
Feel everything is new and interesting
Feel confident and that they can easily cope with problems and stress
Tend to focus on what is similar between Canada and the culture and country you come from

Stage 2: Disappointment, confusing feelings, frustration and irritation.

During the first six months you may:

Feel happy about the challenges you have overcome
Feel frustrated, confused and disappointed
Feel very positive one day and very negative the next
Focus on the differences between yourself and Canadians
Miss your family and feel no connection to Canada
Have difficulty going to work or looking for work
Feel loneliness for your country and loved ones
Feel guilty about leaving family members behind

Stage 3: Gradual adjustment or recovery.

During this stage of adjustment you may:

Feel more in control of your life as you gain a better understanding of Canada
Feel more confident in your language skills
Gradually get involved in the community
Have a better understanding of how to adapt to life in Canada
Have a better sense of what you need to do to get what you want in Canada

Stage 4: Acceptance and adjustment.

During this stage of adjustment you will likely:

Feel more comfortable in Canada
Have made some friends and be more involved in your new community
Understand better how things are done in Canada
Be studying, planning to return to school or working at better jobs
Generally feel content about having come to Canada

 

Pretty well all of these feelings and experiences are captured, often beautifully, in the works of Parr Traill and Moodie who, together with their husbands, immigrated to Canada in 1832.

Catharine’s books, notably The Backwoods of Canada, reflect a positive approach to the adventure of coming to this country; a resolute acceptance of fate combined with a practical, can-do attitude. In the face of mounting debt, a house full of kids and a husband incapacitated by depression,  she cheerfully and determinedly took care of business, and, on top of all of this, continued to write. Her children’s books carry much the same positive message, encouraging ‘plucky and dignified’ survival.  

Susanna on the other hand was less the optimist. Her book Roughing it in the Bush, gives us a fuller more realistic picture of life in the backwoods of Upper Canada during the 1830s. As Michael Peterman puts it in his marvelously illustrated book Sisters in Two Worlds, “At first, [she] looked at her backwoods surroundings “with jaundiced eyes.” She felt alienated by ‘the cheerless waste,” which she found “murky’ and “reeking.”

Times were particularly tough. A harsh climate, malaria fever, economic depression, political unrest, all combined to make life very difficult.  However, as Peterman tells it: “With all those around her suffering from the ague and with no servant available, Susanna managed to see to her family’s needs, despite her own weakness…Among the many things that Susanna learned in the bush was how to draw on her physical strength in ways she had never before thought possible.”

In showing how pioneer women cared for each other, shared the joys and burdens of motherhood, dealt with poverty and tamed the elements,  Roughing it in the Bush serves, among other things, as an inspiring primer for dealing with and overcoming hardship. This and its honesty, no doubt, explain why it speaks to readers today in ways, ironically, it did’t to Moodie’s contemporaries. As she puts it in a letter to her publisher Richard Bentley:

“It is difficult to write a work of fiction, placing the scene in Canada, without rousing up the whole country against me…Will they ever forgive me for writing Roughing It? They know that it was the truth, but have I not been a mark for every vulgar editor of a village journal, through the length and breadth of the land to hurl a stone at, and point out as the enemy of Canada…”

(quote from in Sisters in Two Worlds)

Far from being Canada’s enemy, Susanna Moodie is its representative.  As Margaret Atwood puts it in the afterword to The Journals of Susanna Moodie, she has “become the spirit of the land she once hated,” an extraordinary woman whose honesty, talent and determination enabled her to create a timeless record of a quintessentially Canadian experience. 

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