Where in Canada: Douglas Gibson's Many Albertas

October 26, 2015

Douglas Gibson has spent most of his adult life as an editor and publisher in Canada. He coaxed modern classics out of some of Canada’s finest minds and took great joy in discovering wonderful stories. He first began to share some of his personal experiences in his 2011 memoir, Stories About Storytellers. After turning that book into a one-man show and travelling from coast-to-coast he became a literary tourist. He gathered many more stories about Canada and its writers as he travelled from place to place and recalled distant memories inspired by the places he was visiting. Gibson has gathered these literary travels and reminisces into a new memoir, Across Canada by Story, published by ECW Press this month. The book spans the entire country but to give you a taste we travel to Alberta in the following excerpt.

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Douglas Gibson has spent most of his adult life as an editor and publisher in Canada. He coaxed modern classics out of some of Canada’s finest minds and took great joy in discovering wonderful stories. He first began to share some of his personal experiences in his 2011 memoir, Stories About Storytellers. After turning that book into a one-man show and travelling from coast-to-coast he became a literary tourist. He gathered many more stories about Canada and its writers as he travelled from place to place and recalled distant memories inspired by the places he was visiting. Gibson has gathered these literary travels and reminisces into a new memoir, Across Canada by Story, published by ECW Press this month. The book spans the entire country but to give you a taste we travel to Alberta in the following excerpt.

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There are many Albertas, and Edmonton is just one of them — and a very atypical one, at that. For a start, in contrast with Calgary, the mountains are far away, hours along the road to Jasper. In Calgary, like so much of the province, the foothills and the mountains are the constant edge of the frame on the West, and provide an inspiring target as you drive into the setting sun.

Flying into Edmonton, however, the landscape is prairie turning into industrial machinery parks (“Cranes for rent”), then becoming suburban sprawl. Apart from the odd glimpse of a grain elevator or a nodding horsehead well, the only real point of interest is the deep North Saskatchewan Valley that separates downtown from the south side. The river, of course, was the setting for the original Fort Edmonton in the fur trade days (here he goes again!), and one of my best Edmonton memories involves walking through the construction site mud, the smell of new pine poles filling the air as men with hammers built the new Fort Edmonton tourist site along traditional lines. Down by the river it was a muddy, noisy, smelly, authentic eighteenth-century Western experience, and my Edmonton cousin, Graeme Young, and I half-expected the factor to come roaring out of the big house to chase us away from his fort with a musket.

In Edmonton, I had my very first experience with the “magic carpet treatment” that authors receive from literary festivals when we were met at the airport by the friendly volunteer Jean Crozier. She promptly whisked us in her car into the south side of town, past Old Strathcona, then across the famous fur trade valley to our downtown hotel. In less than an hour I was in a nearby mall, perched on one of those bar stools apparently reserved for TV talk shows (“Where do I put my feet?”) and trying to interest the passing crowd of shoppers (not to mention people nipping out from the office to get cash at the bank machine) in the prospect of coming to my show at the Edmonton Festival, in the Milner Library Theatre that evening. The amiable CBC host/interviewer got the name of my book wrong, but recovered swiftly after I happened to mention the right title in the course of my reply. The first of my Awful Warnings to Authors coming true to life — in my own life.

That evening the show went fine (although I was struck how perfectly Chaucer’s phrase “the craft so long to lerne” applied to stage craft). Afterwards I got to relax by sitting at a table in the foyer, smiling in a relieved way and signing books. They were supplied by Audreys, the fine store on Jasper Avenue run by my old friends Sharon and Steve Budnarchuk. Sharon had worked in sales at McClelland & Stewart, and yet despite her knowledge of the harsh realities she wasn’t afraid to get into the bookselling game with Steve. Long may they run!

Some of the books were signed for relatives (like Graeme’s son Scot) but others were for apparently sober civilians, who said kind things. Kindest of all was the festival’s head, David Cheoros, who wrote that onstage my “lifelong passion for these great writers is contagious.” I hope it comes out on every page here.

Then it was back to the hotel for a come-down session. If you wonder where the speakeasy or late night “booze-can” came from, consider this: any performer — any actor, or a dancer, or a musician — has to get “up” for a performance. But what goes up must come down. And after even a modest sixty- to ninety-minute show like mine, I am really “up,” and need to work at coming down if sleep is to be an option. That seems to apply across the board with performers, which is why they seek out late-night haunts, and why they often end up in trouble with the booze or other stuff that goes along with them. And this applies not only to hard-living jazz or rock musicians. My friend and neighbour Dianne Werner is a well-known concert pianist, and after a performance that ends around ten o’clock, she tells me, “I can forget about sleep till after three in the morning.” She says that after a grilling evening, professional chefs have the same problem. Adrenaline. Who knew?

That evening in Edmonton I “came down” with a group of relatives, mostly Robertsons originally from way up in the Peace River Country, where the father, Archie (my sponsor to Canada), had been the mayor of Fairview. It was good to catch up, though my cousin Fraser had been too busy with the harvest to come all the way south from the Peace to Edmonton. Another year, maybe.

Peace River Country, of course, is a whole other Alberta. During the Dirty Thirties it was held up as a land of milk and honey — or at least, rain — to prairie farmers who were “droughted out.” Barry Broadfoot’s Ten Lost Years tells many such stories, including the one about the family fleeing north by wagon until the mosquitoes kill the horses. The farmer remembers touching the horses’ flanks: “My hand would come away positively black and red. Black was the crushed bodies of the mosquitoes. Red, well you know what the red was . . .” The horses lay down and died, leaving him and his wife and kids to walk out with what they could carry. He ends the story bitterly: “We were way off the main road, miles off, shooting off to a place nobody goes and a storekeeper in Peace River told us, he was laughing, the fool, that if we had waited till winter some sleighs and lumberjacks, loggers, would have come along. Appears we were on a winter logging road and there was no farm land up that way at all. I lost two good horses and all my patience finding out, and now I kill every mosquito lands within half a mile of me. I’m pure hell on skeeters.”

Certainly, it’s a major surprise to travel hundreds of miles northwest of Edmonton through endless bush, in the comfort of a car, then near Grande Prairie to find yourself in . . . Manitoba! A fertile, green, open land of fields and grain elevators!

As I got to know the area from my father’s cousin’s family base in Fairview I was amazed to find that at Dunvegan, the old fur trade fort on the mighty Peace River, they’ve had a rich vegetable garden, all these miles north of Edmonton, ever since 1805. The area looms so large in Gibson family lore that when my parents toured Canada in 1981, they visited not only Banff and Calgary and Edmonton, but also Lethbridge in the south and Fairview in the north. Many Albertas, indeed.

Read the full chapter, "Alberta and the Mountains", including stories about authors Pauline Gedge and Mryna Kostash, here.

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Thank you to ECW Press, especially Samantha Dobson, for providing us with this excerpt of Across Canada by Story. Love reading books inspired by different places across Canada? Read more Where in Canada posts here.


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