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Fork in the Road: What do we treasure that’s Canadian, eh?

Food creators, artists, democratic traditions—we Canucks have plenty to nurture and protect
It doesn’t get much more far out or Canadian than this—Canada geese soaring through a solar eclipse in the nation’s capital.

There was something excellent—as weirdly Canadian and ironic as it was iconic—about watching an old Dragon’s Den re-run in our hotel room in Ottawa just as the federal budget was being released, and seeing two hopeful young Canadians, high school sweethearts Eloise and Jamari, pitch their sugar-free oat milk, Oat Canada. (Get it? O Canada?)

Not that hubby and I often watch the Den. Or visit Ottawa. But it is, after all, our nation’s capital—an intriguing, overlooked gem deserving of at least one good visit in any well-meaning Canadian’s lifetime. Nowhere else can you soak up so much of what makes Canada Canada and spend days, literally, in any of the many national museums showcasing Canada’s role in space and aviation; food; science; art; war and the many ways Canadians have fought against tyranny.

Better yet, you can get off your cynical social media butt and sit in on question period in the Senate and House of Commons. Real democracy in action is electric. Sure, it’s complicated (CPAC helps!), and sometimes boring, but it’s also critical to engage with it in a meaningful way. (See The Tyee’s interview with another great Canadian icon from Montreal, New Yorker writer, Adam Gopnik, on democracy.)

Our first and only previous trip to Ottawa was in 2000. For Canada Day. We figured it would be a grand party in the nation’s capital to launch a new millennium, and it was, including a giant Saint-Jean-Baptiste fete complete with light show and troubadours spilling over from Quebec, just across the Ottawa River. Magnifique.

This latest adventure was spurred on by something else from Quebec, and even more magnifique. And if Michael Audain and his wife, Yoshiko Karasawa—who chose Whistler for their wonderful Audain Art Museum to house their own collection and enrich Canadian art appreciation—are reading, they’ll understand.

It wasn’t the solar eclipse, which was 98.9 per cent total in Ottawa (good enough), but the huge Jean-Paul Riopelle retrospective at the National Gallery that drove us to hop on a plane to our nation’s capital, something we seldom do despite buying offsets, given our climate crisis. The exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of Riopelle—and stand by. It’s coming to Vancouver next year!

Since my high school days in a commercial art program that trained aspiring young art-sters like me for careers in art, I’ve been fascinated by Riopelle’s powerful, complex work. Paintings (6,000 of them!), sculptures, lithographs, more—all beyond words, all tackling ideas around nature; mystery; complications; human imagination. A refusal to take things at face value, or be boxed in. Like in his “Hommage à Maurice Richard”—a tribute to the brilliant Montreal Canadiens hockey player—he traced Richard’s goal-scoring hands with red-hot spray paint.

Yet ask most Canadians, even art lovers, and they don’t know who Riopelle is. My one-liner is, if Riopelle was from New York, not Montreal, he’d be more famous than Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko combined.

An overlooked Canadian gem of an artist with a backstory that delights and surprises—much like Michael Audain is an overlooked gem of a socialist-billionaire-philanthropist-art buff with an equally great backstory. For starters, he and Yoshi gifted a cool $100 million to the Vancouver Art Gallery in 2021, making Canadian history. Incidentally, that was 60 years after Audain was jailed in Mississippi as one of the white Freedom Riders supporting the Black Civil Rights movement. It earned him a citation from President Barack Obama, and it’s just one adventure.

Before his involvement with Polygon Homes and becoming one of Canada’s richest men, Audain formed the Nuclear Disarmament Club at UBC, hopped a freighter bound for Cuba to meet Fidel Castro, and worked for Mother Teresa. He’s dined with Charlie Chaplin and Ian Fleming and, by his own account, as housing policy advisor to former B.C. premier Dave Barrett, “tricked” him into 18 times more funding for public housing over the previous budget.

Read all about it, and more, in Alan Twigg’s excellent review of Audain’s memoir, One Man in His Time, available at your favourite public library, including Whistler’s.

Another overlooked Canadian gem in his own right who, amongst 101 other achievements, founded BC BookWorld and then gave—yes, gave—his publication away for free when it was time to move on, Twigg notes how Michael surprisingly dedicated the longest and final chapter of his memoir to his efforts to elevate Riopelle’s reputation. Something he’s done in spades. (At Whistler, you can often see the outstanding Riopelles in the Audain collection, plus the art museum previously hosted a different Riopelle show.)

In some perfect Ottawa decompression mode, when we got home we were lucky enough to experience the extraordinary Riopelle Symphonique, co-created by Blair Thomson and former Quebec prog rocker, Serge Firoi, with the VSO and Vancouver Bach Choir. Throughout, images of Riopelle’s art flash above the stage and, yes, it was presented by the Audain Foundation. Ditto the accompanying exhibition of Riopelle-inspired paintings by young Arts Umbrella students. Plus students and homeless youth connected to Covenant House presented their Riopelle-inspired musical compositions. Jean Paul, who struggled to buy paint in his early career, would have loved it.

Thinking about our nation’s capital and all its symbolism, and all these young people—or older people in the younger eras of their lives—and all our upcoming, new Canadians, like those running the great shawarma and Latino eateries in Ottawa, where we had our best meals; and thinking about our typically overlooked Canadian gems, like Riopelle and Audain, or even Twigg, who have given of themselves so generously and Canadianly, I can’t help but conclude that we need many more like them.

At the very least, all of us need to act as consciously and conscientiously as we can, as generously as we can, get involved as much as we can, to safeguard the very Canadian things that we treasure and ensure they’re healthy and intact for generations to come.

Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning journalist who can tell you that Eloise and Jamari succeeded with Oat Canada, and a solar eclipse is definitely eerie, especially when it gets cold.