I was stunned. "In 31 years? Why?"
He shrugged and said, "It doesn't interest me. I'm from Ontario, and that's all I need to know."
At the time, I thought this fellow was a unique example of a narrow-minded Canadian know-nothing. But as it turned out, this kind of rigid, defensive provincialism is as ingrained in the Canadian way of life as hockey is. In 1907, Henri Bourassa, a journalist, spoke of the provincial nature of the nation: "There is Ontario patriotism, Quebec patriotism or western patriotism, each based on the hope that it may swallow up the others, but there is no Canadian patriotism."
A few years ago, a well-respected and experienced Canadian diplomat named Bruce Rankin upset many of his countrymen when he said that Canadians were among the most "negative, parochial and balkanized people" in the world. Though most everyone agreed that he shouldn't have said this publicly, almost no one disagreed with the substance of his remark.
A Montreal novelist, Hugh Hood, wrote some time ago, "Imagine a Committee on un-Canadian Activities. You can't. Un-Canadianism is almost the very definition of Canadianism."
Though the railroad was intended to bind a nation together, things haven't worked out that way. Relations among the various provinces border on open hostility. The Canadian Parliament approved a new constitution in 1981, with provisions meant to open up the country. But there are still strong provincial laws that put up a network of rules and regulations that make it difficult for newcomers from other parts of Canada to move in, even temporarily.
The trainman's cavalier lack of curiosity about anywhere in Canada but his home province is more the rule than the exception, too. Coo later told me that 75% of the people who ride the Canadian are "offshore tourists," meaning they are not from Canada. Germans, Englishmen. Japanese and Americans outnumber Canadians on their own best passenger train.
After the train left Winnipeg and we were thundering across the prairie, I was having a drink in the bar car, and I told the conductor from the new crew about my conversation with the trainman. The conductor nodded knowingly. "I have a theory," he said, "that if we gave every kid in Canada a free ride coast-to-coast on this train at a given age—say 12 or 13—we would change the nature of this country. As it is, half the people in Canada don't know anything and don't want to know anything and never will know anything about this country except their own province."
What a pity.
Crossing the Canadian prairie is an experience one can't forget. There is a supernatural quality to the emptiness of this place, known as the Great Lone Land, a term first made famous in 1872 as the title of a book by William Francis Butler, an Englishman who had explored the region. He wrote, "The great ocean itself does not present more infinite variety than does this prairie ocean of which we speak.... No ocean of water in the world can vie with its gorgeous sunsets; no solitude can equal the loneliness of a night-shadowed prairie: one feels the stillness and hears the silence, the wail of the prowling wolf makes the voice of solitude audible, the stars look down through infinite silence upon a silence almost as intense. This ocean has no past—time has been nought to it; and men have come and gone, leaving behind them no track, no vestige, of their presence."