Sunday, November 09, 2008

Reader's Diary #412- Chris Robertson: To The Top Canada

I used to be really into cycling. I'm also the guy behind the Canadian Book Challenge. So you'd think a book that combines cycling with patriotism would be right up my alley.

But, there's a picture of Chris and his son on the back in Canada sweatshirts and red and white face paint. The face paint scares me a little. Remember the Seinfeld episode where Puddy dons the New Jersey Devils paint?

I've considered myself a fan of many things, but I don't know if I could ever bring that level of enthusiasm.

But Robertson does and that's just one of the reasons he chose to, and was able to, complete a bicycle trek from the Southern most tip of Canada (in Point Pelee, Ontario) to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories on the Arctic Ocean. It's not, as the title would suggest, the actual top of Canada. Chris would have still have had quite the long trek ahead of him if he were to cycle to the tip of Ellesmere Island, more than 2000km away. In any case, he did travel 6520km and for that fact alone he deserves some respect.

So why did he do it? Affected by the thin margin of the Quebec referendum in 1995 (For the Americans in the audience, it's when Quebecois asked themselves, "Should I stay or should I go?" and just little over half chose to stay.), Chris "decided he would do everything in his power to build a stronger Canada..." Everything in his power consisted of a bike ride (that oddly left out Quebec, the province that triggered it all) across and up the country, popping into schools along the way and chanting beer slogans with the kids ("I am Canadian!") and asking almost everyone he met, "What will you do to make Canada a better country than when you found it?"

More than a few times I questioned if the Canadian unity bit was a noble cause or just a silly add-on. Certainly Chris didn't see anything silly about it. At one point a convoy of military trucks pass him and honk their horns in support. He writes, "I felt solidarity with the troops because our mission was the same-- to protect Canada!" And if you need additional proof that he fancied himself a National hero, he feels slighted when his request to speak at a school is turned down down, saying, "I wondered if Terry Fox, Jean Chretien, or the Queen would need advance notice to speak at the school."

Usually I found these delusions of grandeur amusing, and on such occasions I had to read them aloud to my wife. But at other times, I found it frustrating how narrow his scope of patriotism was. Most offensive was his way of suggesting that those who didn't donate rooms or food to him were not concerned for the welfare of the country. In one passage he writes about the Delta hotel:
"I politely asked if they could donate a room in support of my Canadian Unity mission. They couldn't because they were 'almost' full. Given a choice between maximizing profit and showing pride in your country, they chose profit."

At that point he had done a little press, but it's entirely conceivable they had missed it. For all those people at the Delta knew, he could have been just some scammer trying to get a free room. Or maybe they had heard of him. Maybe they thought riding one's bike wouldn't help anything. How dare he make assumptions about how much or how little they care about their country? It really bothered me how he implied that anyone without Chris Robertson's brand of flag-waving patriotism didn't really love Canada.

Despite my objections, I'm hesitant to say his message was silly or pointless. I certainly didn't remember anything about him or any of the media attention from back in 1997 (I found the book at a yardsale), and I'm cynical about what was accomplished. But we are still in one piece, so maybe he played a part. As for his question, it's plausible that one of those students could have taken it to heart, noticed Chris's great distance traveled, and drew motivation from that. In the future, a Prime Minister might say "I had a dream and watching Chris Robertson cycle to the Arctic Ocean made me believe it was possible." On that day, I'll gladly be proven wrong.

Though I'd have enjoyed the book more without the boasting and "message," I enjoyed it as a Canadian biking journal. It was filled with Canadiana, from the locales and people, weather and wildlife, and I really felt like I experienced a large chunk of the country as only a man on a bike can. It may not have inspired me to paint a maple leaf on my face, but it did inspire me to get on the bike again.


Allison said...

Wow. That takes dedication. I was just remarking the other day how I'm too lazy to even drive out of Ontario.

I never understood the facepaint at sporting events. Actually, its the body paint that throws me further. I guess when drinking anything seems like a good idea.

Remi said...

I love the drive along the north shore of Lake Superior. It's one of the best in the world. I just can't imagine biking it. And yet you do see the odd soul, with heavily packed bike, peddling up the monstrous hills or flying down the other side.

I have much respect for that part of it. I'm with you, though, in being leery of people too quick to wrap themselves up in flags and slogans. My Canada can't be reduced to a catch phrase.

John Mutford said...

Allison: It also takes a lot of time. Not many of us could manage to get that kind of time off work, even if we had the dedication.

As for the face painting at sporting events, I suspect there are two camps: one who does it out of "support" for their team (drunk or otherwise), and one which does it tongue in cheek, more out of making fun of the first camp.

Remi: I once drove from Winnipeg to Newfoundland and back and Northern Ontario was one of the more breathtakingly beautiful spots along the way, for sure.

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I congratulate myself when I ride my bike to the store, so I guess I shouldn't comment on the guy bragging, but I would find that part difficult to read through. I do love the idea of being taken back to those spectacular drives across the country though.

Framed said...

I would love to read this book for the "Canadiana." I'm enjoying your challenge because I'm learning so much about my birthplace. But I agree that our patriotism shouldn't be called into question because we show it in different ways. Interesting review.

Anonymous said...

Does the book make mention as to why he left out Quebec?

Here's to hoping Quebec and Pluto never have anything in common!

John Mutford said...

Barbara: When my kids are old enough to join me, I'd love to do provincial bike tours each summer.

Framed: You'd get that in spades. So many references, in fact, that I don't know how many a non-Canadian would get. Stompin Tom, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Tim Hortons, Air Canada, etc.

Wanda: It mentions that prior to the ride, and prior to the referendum, he and his son attended a rally in Montreal, but that's it. Maybe he felt that would excuse him from going there on his bike journey? Also, since the lowest point is in Ontario and he had to head west and up to get to Tuktoyaktuk, Quebec doesn't fit it. But since it did spark the whole excursion in the first place, I'd have thought he'd have begun there, dipped down into Point Pelee, and then headed up.

Anonymous said...

Hi John ... cousin again ... read "To the Top Canada" a few years ago ... love true-life adventure stuff and this book was a decent read. The author showed tremendous courage and fortitude in undertaking his noble quest ... however his propencity to "brag" from time-to-time kinda bugged me as did his wearing of his religion on his sleeve ... not that I have anything against people who have strong religious convictions, it's just that I kinda mistrust those who tend to be "showy" or "preachy" about it.
Cheers again!

John Mutford said...

Perry: The religion part didn't bother me too much. I suppose that if he thought it helped him towards his goal, then it was relevant-- but perhaps quoting passages was a bit much. I was taken aback by it the first time though. It had no mention of Christianity or religion on the cover at all.