I mentioned in a previous post that our family had visited Canada this summer. Travel to a different country allows you to experience all sorts of new things. You come home changed by at least some of the experiences you had. Some changes will be subtle, others may be more dramatic.
Canada is a huge country so unless you spend months travelling across the country you are only going to get glimpses of the land and culture. Our holiday was for a total of twelve days and some of that was travel time. We spent two nights at the beginning of our holiday and one night at the end in Toronto which gave us two days of sightseeing in the city. The rest of our time we were staying in a lovely self catering house on the outskirts of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
I think the first impression you get visiting Canada from the UK is the sheer scale of the land. When you fly you quickly leave the UK behind you but you spend a good couple of hours flying over Canada before landing in Toronto. The next thing that hit me even as we came into land was that the landscape is pretty flat, that impressions is only strengthened as you drive through Ontario a bit. I live on the outskirts of Glasgow but I see hills from my windows and you can get to places with mountains pretty quickly too, maybe twenty minutes drive. On landing the next thing that hit me was the difference in the air temperature and humidity. It was warm, to be expected in July, and the air felt much drier than in Scotland. It’s rare I bother with sunscreen in Glasgow but it was used every day in Canada.
The hotel we stayed at in Toronto was near the airport. We had a suite, ideal with the four of us. I thought there would be a restaurant on site, there wasn’t but there was a free light meal available in the evenings. The food at the hotel was much saltier than we are used to and the quality wasn’t great but we managed. The hotel did a free shuttle bus between the hotel and airport though which was very useful as it turned out that the best was to get “downtown” was to go via an express train between the airport and the main train station in Toronto, Union Street. Our first full day we visited the CN Tower and the nearby Ripley’s aquarium. The views from the CN Tower are amazing and it was from there that we caught our first clear look at Lake Ontario. In the UK we are used to seeing across lakes and seeing them fully laid out before us, looking out across Lake Ontario is like looking out to sea. Our last day in Canada was also in Toronto and that day we took an open top city tour bus trip which meant we saw much more of the city and learnt all sorts of things about the city. One thing that stuck with me was the description from the guide of the two seasons in Toronto of winter and construction. He wasn’t kidding either, almost every street we turned down had something happening on it, road works or building works. I think that apart from the iconic and amazing CN Tower the building I will remember the most is one of the banks, the Royal Bank Plaza, in the financial district. There are two buildings and they are notable for the lovely bronze colour of the glass which covers them. The guide on the tour bus told us that the glass was particularity valuable because each pane was coated in gold and that’s what gave it the unusual finish. Apparently the gold coating acts as an insulator helping to keep the building at a more even temperature.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is an interesting place to stay. We had a lovely house set in its own land. The house had been a farmhouse at one stage in peach orchards. Many of the orchards in the area have gone now and everywhere you turn are vineyards. The main street in Niagara-on-the-Lake has a number of shops most of which seem to be aimed primarily at the many tourists in the area but there was one general store which is where we got food from apart from the times we ate out. The area makes an excellent base for exploring the Niagara parks area with its many tourist attractions and although there are a lot of tourists around the main street the area we were in was much quieter and very peaceful.
During July in much of Scotland it doesn’t get fully dark during the night and the sunset is late with a long twilight period. In Ontario the sun set earlier, twilight was briefer and the nights darker. There were no street lights where we stayed so we could really appreciate the darkness and the vast expanse of night sky that being in a flatter landscape gives. The nights were also much warmer than we are used to in Scotland.
As is my habit when we go away I took with me items that could be used for a portable altar. These included prayer cards with images of deities, my prayer beads and my small notebook containing some prayers that I don’t know off by heart. I use a cup or glass wherever I stay to make offerings and the offerings are poured out onto land a few hours after I make them, usually the next morning. My offerings are usually alcohol and being on a different continent led me to consider if pouring them out onto the land was acceptable. None of the deities I honour came from the Americas, they are all European. I was aware that I had no information on the beings of the land where I was staying. I know that in some areas alcohol is not an acceptable offering and I believe that in the traditions of some First Nations tribes pouring alcohol on the land is frowned upon but I don’t have enough knowledge to know if that is or was the case for Ontario. I did my best to respectfully make contact with the local land spirits. I got the sense that as these offerings were for deities I had “brought” with me that what I wanted to do was acceptable. I felt that it was acknowledged that I was a short term visitor and that I was showing respect as best as I could. I also got the sense that if I were on the land longer I would have been expected to make more effort to learn more of the First Nations people from that area. Not to do as they did but to understand more of what was considered respectful of that land.
The most dramatic and well known place to visit in the Niagara area is, of course, Niagara Falls. The tourist attractions in that area include the Journey behind the Falls, the Hornblower Cruises the Whirlpool Aero Car and the Butterfly Conservatory. The Journey behind the Falls gives you the opportunity to stand just beside the water pouring down, to feel the thunderous roar in your flesh and to walk in tunnels that go behind the falls with viewing sections where you can see the water streaming down in front of you. Seeing the falls from above along the pathway that runs beside the river is amazing but going behind you begin to get a sense of the power of the land and water in that place. The Hornblower Cruise gives you a very different perspective of the sheer scale of these falls. The American Falls and the Bride’s Fall are pretty spectacular but they are small in comparison with the mighty Horseshoe Falls. The cruise takes you along the river past the American and Bride’s falls and right towards the base of the Horseshoe Falls into the mist and spray. Being on the river looking up at the roaring water as it thunders down I was filled with exhilaration and awe at the power of this place. The spray bathed me, washed through me, filled me with joy and wonder. It was both a very physical and very spiritual experience.
One of the last major attractions we visited was the Butterfly Conservatory, a haven of delicate beauty. Hundreds of butterflies of several different species danced about us, some landing on us for a time allowing us to admire their beauty more closely before fluttering away again. As with most of the attractions we visited fairly early in the day when things were relatively quiet although by the time we were leaving the crowds had started to gather in that haven of tranquillity too.
The last place we visited in the Niagara area was the the Six Nations and Native Allies Commemorative Memorial in Queenston Heights park. This was important for us to visit as we had become more and more aware through our visit of the absence of information about the First Nations history in the area. Almost everything we saw was focused on white colonial history as if there had been nothing of significance before European colonisers arrived. Living as we do in a land rich in the ancient monuments built by our ancestors going back to neolithic times the absence of any mention of First Nation history until we found this one monument was striking and uncomfortable. Our British nation was behind the persecution of indigenous peoples in many countries. We who are the descendants owe it to ourselves to acknowledge that painful past and, in my opinion, do what we can to shine a light onto that history and honour those lives that have been forgotten for too long.
With grateful thanks to Neil Pitchford, Awen photos for the use of the images in this post.