What makes Canada, Canada

Aerial photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where the storage buildings of valuables stolen from Jewish prisoners were called "Canada" warehouses.
Aerial photo of Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp where the storage buildings of valuables stolen from Jewish prisoners were called "Canada" warehouses.

Seventy years ago, Hitler and his henchmen murdered civilian populations across occupied Europe: Jews, Roma, homosexuals, communists and thousands of other so-called enemies of the Third Reich. But before they did, they stripped them of every single personal possession – from heirlooms to clothing to gold fillings – and stockpiled them for exploitation by the Nazi regime. In an ironic twist of fate, I learned recently, the warehouses at Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp had an odd nickname.

“The Polish prisoners called the warehouses ‘Canada,’” our guide at the concentration camp museum told us, “after the faraway place they’d once heard contained riches and freedom.”

Resist to live

Jan Palach memorial at Wenceslas Square in Prague.
Jan Palach memorial at Wenceslas Square in Prague.

On Jan. 19, 1969, a university student, named Jan Palach, died in a hospital in Prague. Three days earlier he had gone to Wenceslas Square, near a statue of the 10th century duke of Bohemia (and the “Good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame). There, in front of his history classmates and the authorities, he set himself on fire in protest against the Soviet Union’s occupation of his homeland. His suicide was a final act of defiance against the latest in a long line of occupiers of his country – the Czech Republic.

“It was [his] last appeal for resistance,” author Petr Cornej wrote.

Week of space shots

I think after the assassination of JFK, it’s the most significant “Where were you when…?” event in our lifetimes. It was the time – as baby-boom teenagers and their parents – we stayed glued to our TV sets all night on July 20, 1969, to watch U.S. astronauts land their Apollo 11 module on the moon and then watched former test pilot Neil Armstrong take those famous steps and speak to the world.

“That’s one small step for a man,” he said. “One giant leap for mankind.”

Yuri Gagarin remarked in space "  God"
Yuri Gagarin remarked in space, "I don't see any God up here."

In truth, however, the race for space began 50 years ago this week when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human being to be catapulted into Earth orbit aboard Vostok 1, a space capsule about as big as the Russian-built Lada.

Pre-Christmas dedication

Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King pins wings on the uniform of an early graduate of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during a symbolic ceremony on Parliament Hill. King made sure the plan became an entirely made-in-Canada phenomenon.
Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King pins wings on the uniform of an early graduate of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during a symbolic ceremony on Parliament Hill. King made sure the plan became an entirely made-in-Canada phenomenon.

December 17 is an anniversary. It’s not the kind of anniversary Canadians notice much anymore. Indeed, the number of those who acknowledge it, dwindles each year. And yet, it’s the day back in 1939 that some historians suggest marked this country’s true declaration of independence. Then Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King signed an international agreement that day.

“I suppose no more significant agreement has ever been signed by the Government of Canada,” King wrote in his diary that evening. It also happened to be his 65th birthday, so it was doubly auspicious, he thought.

Never in November

Grave of J. Robertson, VC, at Farm.
Grave of James Robertson, VC, who served with the 27th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He died Nov. 6, 1917, during the Battle of Passchendaele in Belgium. He was 35.

They tell me if things go a certain way, one day soon I’ll have this day to myself. I’ll be able to rise, take a leisurely breakfast and then do the right thing. They tell me if their plan is accepted, I’ll have all day to pay my respects to Canada’s veterans. That plan will mean I’ll have a statutory holiday on Nov. 11, on Remembrance Day. At least, that’s what the sponsor of a private member’s bill, MPP Lisa MacLeod, believes.

“There’s been an outpouring of support for Canadian soldiers, our war veterans and our war dead,” she told CBC a few days ago.

Youth Day

Moderating one of several candidates' debates (photo by Vanessa Brown).
Moderating one of several candidates' debates (photo by Vanessa Brown).

This was perhaps his only opportunity to address the electorate in a debate for the 2010 municipal election. His competitors for councillor in the ward were in the public hall in person. But municipal candidate Joe Amarelo could not be present. A family emergency had forced him to miss the event. He did, nevertheless, have an impact on the meeting. A statement he’d written was read.

“I see unresolved issues in our town, including vandalism,” Amarelo’s statement read. “It’s important to … create a dialogue. Why not have a Youth Day?”

From small town ideas

Lancaster in front of Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta.
Lancaster in front of Bomber Command Museum of Canada in Nanton, Alberta.

I had hardly oriented myself to the place. Wood smoke from the recent B.C. fires had left Nanton, Alberta – a small prairie town south of Calgary – in a palpable haze. Nevertheless, aviation enthusiast Karl Kjarsgaard, who lives and volunteers there, had something he wanted to show me. Inside the newly renamed Bomber Command Museum of Canada, he led me to a storage area above the workshop. He opened a cardboard box and pulled out a metal bar about 18 inches long.

“This aluminum ingot has Canadian blood in it,” he said. “There’s 1,400 pounds of melted down aluminum in this box… and some of it is about to become famous.”

Getting life from a stone

The restored Frauenkirche church in Dresden in August 2010.
The restored Frauenkirche church in Dresden in August 2010.

I remember the day some business friends and I needed a room in which to meet. A financial advisor friend offered his offices. As I sat down in his boardroom, I spotted a large picture frame on the wall. It contained several images of the former post office in my town. It was typical of that turn-of-the-century, Edwardian construction – tall central tower, large windows, red bricks. When I asked what had happened to it, someone said they’d torn it down.

“Any chance they’d ever rebuild something like that?” I asked naively.

“No will. No way,” fellow board members told me.

When walls come tumbling down

GARAGE_FROMBACKYARD1I’d been planning the demolition of my garage for a long time. Built sometime in the middle of the last century, my fast disintegrating, single-car enclosure – I had come to realize – had outlived its usefulness and had to go. So, over the weekend, I hired a friend and his future son-in-law to help me bring the old building down. But what the destruction of my old garage revealed as it came down was a great deal more than I expected. For example, as we three demolition types took a break last Saturday afternoon, I asked my longtime next-door neighbour, Ronnie Egan, when she thought the garage had been built.

Celebrity, thy name is Uxbridge

You probably missed it. You can be forgiven because I missed it too. But last Monday the Internet was all a twitter (yes, pun intended) about a birthday event. It’s one that your teeny-bopper kids (or grandkids) probably noticed. It appears that music heart-throb Justin Bieber celebrated his 16th birthday by visiting the Son of a Gun Tattoo and Barbershop in Toronto. There he had a tattoo of a seagull inked onto his left hip.

“That’s a bad area,” the tattoo artist told MTV News. “Justin was nervous, but then he got into it and it was done. It’s very tiny.”