“The First of the Unplucked Gems” – Notes on Nationhood & Music, Canada & The Hip, Part Five

Just above Finch Avenue, in the northeast quadrant of Toronto’s mathematical, latticed surface, Pharmacy Avenue bisects an atypically winding boulevard into Chester Le to the west and Huntingdale to the east. A not-uncommon occurrence, these transmutating partings betray some subterranean logic of the city, the world, whose axioms, suppositions, operations lie buried in basement offices’ neatly organized, cabineted stacks of metaphorically dusty forms, reports, documents. Architecturally, the two sides of the boulevard are not dissimilar: tree-lined roads and islets of grass unfold onto neat rows of townhomes with sloping, paved driveways and carport-protuberances. (The west side’s carports, admittedly, tend to stay closer together, islands of concrete-embraced square structures separated from neatly arranged rows of houses with which they are paired, betraying a more centralized, economical approach to their construction.) Enfolding relatively well-maintained public parks and schools, strip plazas, churches, and an occasional high-rise, the boulevards, coral-like, branch into smaller streets via four-way stop intersections, paragons of voluntarily-maintained orderliness that flabbergast my Yugoslav friends and relatives.

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Like most of the city’s, the area’s soundtrack in the mid-nineties was made up of grunge and hip-hop, electro pop and industrial rock, boy and girl “bands,” more or less “ethnic” music and a slew of British imports emerging from open windows on both sides of the boulevard. The music gave the neighbourhood and the city a cacophonous and dizzying yet unifying vibrancy – a kind of colourful, patchwork papier-mâché skin stretched over their reticulated, coelenteric skeleton.

When I lived on it, the Huntingdale side of the boulevard housed a mixture of retired, white couples – the kind the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently called “old stock” – and more recently arrived East and South-East Asian, Arabic, Eastern European immigrants living in and sharing houses – some detached, some semi-detached, some town – built in the nineteen-fifties, sixties, and seventies. We had a basketball hoop (its heavy plastic base sloshing with water with every bump and shake) in the driveway in front of our house where we, neighbourhood kids – at different times, boys and girls from Guyana, from Lebanon, Sudan, and Egypt, from the Philippines, Armenia, India and Pakistan, China and Hong Kong; Chinese Jamaican and Indo-Trini kids – gathered to play basketball.

The houses on the other side, on shimmying streets branching from Chester Le, were built during this same period and housed a similar mix of people. Additionally, this side of the boulevard – at one-sixty, one-eighty, two-sixty, and two-seventy five Chester Le – accommodated, accommodates Toronto Community Housing Corporation’s public housing properties built in nineteen seventy three and consisting of two hundred and ten single-family units with a total of about one thousand residents. The city of Toronto has designated the neighbourhood that houses this boulevard one of its thirteen Priority Areas. Chester Le’s population tended, tends to be younger than Huntingdale’s [1]. Its bodies and faces were, are noticeably darker, black, often of African or Afro-Caribbean heritage.

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(That night in Ottawa, sitting on our orange towel as Parkdale Park’s green filled with expectant bodies and faces, before the cheers and the applause, before the opening chords and “Bill Barilko disappeared that summer,” I was struck by the near-complete uniformity, whiteness of the audience. I mean, yes, we were in Ottawa, I suppose, and living in a city like Toronto trains you for a slightly different reality. Yet here we were, and there they were, and here, there we were; and, later that night, when Downie sang about the checkered floor and the Men They Couldn’t Hang, I again looked around me, at my neighbours and my wife, and I thought of Huntingdale and Chester Le Boulevards; and, anticipating, humming the opening chords of “Ahead by a Century,” surely to be performed during an encore, I thought of a mix-compact disk I had made years ago.)

There existed, in many ways, a suggestion of a gossamer barrier between the two sides of the boulevard. Those living on the west side penetrated it more frequently, on their way to and back from school, the park, or two-storied Bridlewood Mall with its public library branch (where the first book I borrowed after emigrating to Canada at the age of fourteen was Franz Kafka’s “Metamorphosis and Other Stories,” which I renewed a few times only to return it without having read it), its Price Chopper, Shoppers Drug Mart, and HMV where I often supplemented my Columbia House CD orders; its dollar and video store, a roster of smaller, independent and chain retailers, banks, and, at one time, K-Mart and BiWay, and Zellers where I, for a few years, worked as a sales clerk making some seven and a half dollars an hour. Those living on the east side penetrated the barrier less often.

Bridlewood Mall sat, sits east of Huntingdale, at the end of a gently curving section of the boulevard. A moated, concrete suburban castle, it was, is surrounded entirely by a large parking lot itself rimmed by tall, stadium-style floodlights that give the structure the aura of a benign correctional institution. The parking lot is perpetually dotted with creaky, spectral shopping carts navigating between which in an aubergine Oldsmobile with comfortable, grey, felt seats I learned how to drive.

In the mall’s communal spaces – like in the area’s elementary and high schools, churches, playgrounds, and basketball courts – we did not, at first glance, really know who lived on which side of the boulevard that led to it. In this way, we were given the privilege of unknowing. But, at the same time, we were given the septic luxury of being able to guess the likelihood of who lived where.

(That night, as various asynchronous recollections of Huntingdale, Chester Le, Bridlewood, and their sauntering bodies coalesced on a plateau of my memory accompanied by the cacophonous nineties’ soundtrack, The Hip silenced their instruments and Downie spoke briefly and powerfully of that which “we were trained our entire lives to ignore,” of the continuing crisis of Canada’s First Nations; of children, women, and men whose lives – because of a cluster of causes that prominently includes the iniquities of Canadian government’s Indian Act and the Reserve and the Residential School Systems – have been systematically ravaged. And as he spoke, another remembrance suddenly materialized, adding to and re-arranging my memory’s components.

Gord Downie Justin Trudeau Perry Bellegarde Valerie Galley

Downie at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly in Gatineau, QC, Dec. 2016 (Photo by Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

(In this memory, my sister and I sit on a slanting metal bench between the dollar store and the Shoppers Drug Mart. Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way” plays on the mall’s public address system. We just developed some photographs and my sister is excitedly talking about having met the members of Korn, showing me pictures she’d had taken with them when they visited HMV’s Yonge Street superstore, pictures of them arriving, driving along Yonge Street, through an excited throng of teenage bodies, on top of a tank. Around us, people, mostly women – some tired, some fresh-faced – plastic bags in hands, move from one retailer to another. We look up and, among the swaying bodies and turning heads, an Indigenous man is being escorted out of the mall by two burly security guards, their heads closely shaven, his a mess of thin but unruly hair. They walk by him, holding him by the arms, their bodies gently touching: three good friends out for a stroll. My sister and I look at each other and quickly return to our photographs.)

***

At some point in the early two thousands, after my family and I had moved from Huntingdale Boulevard and its Bridlewood Mall to a green, lune-shaped street adjacent to Parkway Mall some six or seven kilometres south of it, I travelled to Europe with a rucksack on my back, to sightsee and visit some friends I had made while spending a semester on an academic exchange at Stockholm University. As a thank-you-for-letting-me-sleep-in-your-home gift, I made each of them a mix-compact disc on the face of which I carefully outlined, with a black sharpie, and coloured, with a red one, a maple leaf.

The first track, the only non-Canadian entry, was the Oscar-nominated song written by Trey Parker and Marc Shaiman, “Blame Canada.” Then: “Ladylike” by Big Wreck, “Mary Mack” by Great Big Sea, “Standing in the Rain” by Billy Talent, “Melancholy Blue” by Serena Ryder, “Paper Shoes” by Hawksley Workman, “Brother Down” by Sam Roberts, “Crazyworld” by Rascalz, “Ahead By a Century” by The Tragically Hip, “King of Spain” by Moxy Früvous, “The Hockey Song” by Stompin’ Tom Connors, “Come On” by Tegan and Sara, “Home by Saturday” by Hayden, “Home for a Rest” by Spirit of the West, “Sweet Ones” by Sarah Slean, “Disarming” by Ember Swift, “Heaven Only Knows (Remix)” by K-Os, “Oh, What a World” by Rufus Wainwright, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, and “El Dorado” by Brass Munk.

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Trouble at the Henhouse (1996), Front Cover

That was one layer, one section of my park then. It was diagrammed, constructed with a mixture of instinct and concern for self-presentation that was, at least semi-consciously, knotted with a provisional answer to the question of national identity. Like the Canadian flag I drew on the stack of CDs I carried inside my backpack, it related a taste in music shaped by private and socio-historical contexts to the question of national identity informed by a number of factors: being an immigrant; being a white immigrant; being a white immigrant from Eastern Europe, from Yugoslavia, where race relations equated almost exclusively to the “problem” of Romani people; living and going to school in Scarborough and socializing with people who also lived and went to school there; Canada’s cultural, linguistic, and geographical proximity to the USA; the continual effort not to be co-opted by real and imagined mainstreams. All these and other factors, I would later – much later – realize, bear directly on the question of how one positions oneself in relation to the question of national identity in Canada.

Today, this section of the park – refreshed, torn down and rebuilt, reconstructed, expanded, segmented many a time – would, naturally, look different, with balance shifted consciously along several important axes. It’d probably be a two-, three-volume affair and it would include, at the very least, Buffy Sainte-Marie, A Tribe Called Red, and Tanya Tagaq.

Then, it was a nice park.

Today’s would be – is – better.

(To be Continued.)

[1] Qi, Hongyan (Ivy). “Designing for a Safer Public Housing Community: A Case Study of Chester Le, Toronto.” A Master’s Report Submitted to the School of Urban and Regional Planning, Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, April 2014. <https://qspace.library.queensu.ca/bitstream/1974/12153/1/Qi.Master%27sReport.pdf>

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