Oh, Canada. Not our home and native land; but: so close. But also: so not.
Cross the northern border and things look and sound pretty much the same: the mountains, the trees, the rivers, the houses, the roads, the big-box buildings, the clothes, the faces, the accents, the billboards and slogans, the chirp of the walk/don’t walk monitors. And yet: The gas is more expensive, and priced in liters; the traffic lights act oddly (what, exactly, is one supposed to do at a flashing green?).
Canadians have different fast-food franchises, different chain stores, different potato chip flavors (ketchup; poutine; Montreal smoked meat). They spell “harbor” and “theater” differently; pronounce “been” as “bean” and “process” as “proe-cess” and “out” in a way that’s impossible to render on the page; call America “the States,” refer to bathrooms as “washrooms” and profanity as “coarse language”; have beavers and loons and children playing hockey on their currency.
Canada is like an isotope of the United States: just enough dissimilarities, in unpredictable places, that you feel you can’t really take anything for granted. It’s almost like America in a dream.
If you’re wondering how Canada got that way — well, that’s very American of you. Don’t feel bad, though; you’re not alone. And if you’re looking for answers, a very good place to start is Saint John, New Brunswick.
Saint John — indeed, all of New Brunswick — is, let us say, low profile, even by Canadian standards. A native once told me of a rather unflattering nickname that the rest of the country has bestowed upon the province; many people have confirmed the story since then. Most recently it was a very chipper woman at the tourism bureau in downtown Saint John, in the back of Barbour’s General Store, a 19th-century edifice towed there by barge.
“It is, indeed, the ‘drive-through province,’ ” she told me readily and with a big smile. “Most of the people who come in here are on their way to Nova Scotia or P.E.I. [Prince Edward Island] from Ontario or the States, and they stop here to spend the night.” No one seems to mind, though; they’re Canadian. Just about everything is fine with them.
If you wanted to describe Saint John in just one word, I would suggest: pleasant. The city starts at Market Square, down by the harbo(u)r, which has been restored and repurposed à la South Street Seaport in New York or Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and extends up a hill, the spine of which is King Street.
The side streets are lined with pretty Victorian buildings, all in brick, and have their share — but not too many, thankfully — of charming pubs and quirky shops, and as you weave through them, you will find yourself thinking: This is very pleasant. You will have this thought several times before you arrive at King’s Square, at the summit, about as pleasant a little city park as you can imagine. It’s green, it’s clean, there are wooden benches and metal tables and chairs, and a beautiful two-story bandstand in its center, intricate wrought-iron with a bell-shaped roof above and a fountain below.
It draws a lot of people — but again, not too many. The last time I was there, an Alice in Wonderland tea party was taking place on a particularly verdant stretch of lawn. Across one street is the City Market, also brick and Victorian and very large besides; opened in 1876, it is the country’s oldest indoor market, loud, lively, colorful and favored by locals every bit as much as tourists. Across another is the Imperial Theater, a 1913 vaudeville house where Harry Houdini once performed, and which has been restored to its former movie-palace splendor. It is said to be haunted.
Nearby, back in the park, stands a tall marker honoring Charles I. Gorman, a local speed-skater who might well have medaled in the 1924 and 1928 Olympics, rather than finish, as he did, in seventh place, had he not taken shrapnel in one of his legs during World War I. Much taller still (it even has a cupola) is a stone-and marble memorial to John Frederick Young, who was just 19 when, on Oct. 30, 1890, he drowned while trying — unsuccessfully — to save a younger boy from drowning in a nearby bay. Gorman’s marker features an engraving of the man skating along, blithely unaware of whether he’s winning or losing. Young’s features one of the teenager cradling the body of his dead friend and seemingly wondering how he’s going to stay afloat. Two monuments to men who tried and failed, but went down nobly.
I’ve never seen even one in America.
Two dates are of paramount importance in the history of Saint John. The second is June 20, 1877. A spark ignited some hay in one of the warehouses of what is now Market Square. That warehouse was wooden. They all were; the whole city was. One of the province’s big industries was timber. So little thought was given to wood that when ships docked in Saint John, they typically just tossed the solid mahogany they used for ballast out onto the docks, there for anyone who wanted to carry it off.
But no one took wood for granted on that day. The fire started around 2:30 in the afternoon, and though firefighters responded quickly, the flames moved even more quickly. In short order it consumed more than 1,600 structures — churches and hotels, banks and docked ships, and a lot of houses. Some 13,000 people were left homeless. Many slept in King’s Square and other parks (and even a skating rink) thereafter; others left Saint John, and even Canada. The city, though, was determined to rebuild quickly, and in brick. And it did. If you walk those side streets, you will note the date 1878 above many of the doors.
Not every last thing burned, though. The City Market, for instance, was spared because, for reasons lost to time, it was built the year before, at great expense, in brick. And on the north side of King Street, up Chipman Hill, you’ll find an early 19th-century mansion that was saved, according to legend, by its resident servants, who, seeing the flames approaching, hurriedly soaked in water every sheet, towel and curtain in the place and hung them all out the windows. It’s known as the Loyalist House.
Loyalist: There’s a term you don’t hear in America. That’s what they call Americans who, after the American Revolution, chose to remain British subjects, going so far as to flee to Canada, which at that point remained in British hands. I was taught in my American elementary school that they were called Tories. Drop that bit of knowledge on a Canadian, though, and you will get nothing in return but a puzzled look. “But they were Loyalists,” one man told me, and I knew further discussion would be pointless.
Loyalist is a term that carries a lot of significance in parts of Canada, but Saint John actually calls itself the Loyalist City, and with good reason: It was founded by, and for, American refugees.
The first batch — more than 2,000 of them — started stepping ashore on the first important date in Saint John’s history: May 18, 1783, a few months before the Treaty of Paris officially ended the war. More came the following month, and throughout the summer. They built defenses, a series of forts, to ward off the enemy, the Americans. A few of them still exist in some form.
It wasn’t paranoia. The United States invaded Canada just a generation later, during the War of 1812. There were naval engagements in the nearby Bay of Fundy, known for its dramatic tides that twice daily force the Saint John River to reverse course in spots, a phenomenon that draws a lot of sightseers.
The war interrupted construction of the Loyalist House, which had begun in 1810; it wasn’t finished until 1817. Its first owner, David Daniel Merritt, was a successful businessman with a large family. The Merritts had come up in 1783 from Rye, N.Y., near the present-day terminus of the Merritt Parkway, and brought their servants with them. They worshiped at the Trinity Anglican Church, which was built of wood, and which burned in 1877; it was rebuilt in stone and is filled with plaques memorializing parishioners, including one to Jonathan Sewall, who had been the Massachusetts attorney general from 1767 to 1775. The Loyalist House is now a museum, filled with mahogany furniture carved from the ships’ ballast discarded on the docks.
There are a number of museums in the city, including the large New Brunswick Museum down in Market Square, which has historical, natural and artistic exhibits; and a fine little museum that documents the city’s Jewish community, one of the lesser known in the country, even though it produced Louis B. Mayer. The Saint John Jewish Historical Museum is housed in what was once a splendid turn-of-the-century stone mansion, up the hill beyond King’s Square, on the other side of another park. A rather unusual one.
It’s a cemetery, the original city cemetery, laid out by those first Loyalist settlers. Between 1783 and 1848, this is where they buried their dead, a green square larger than the one that abuts it, with steep slopes and flat bottomland and, everywhere, stones. It had fallen into disrepair by the end of the 20th century and was restored by the Irving family, founders of the Irving Oil company and Saint John’s greatest benefactors. Today it’s a park, as popular as King’s Square; people come to sit on its benches and stroll its paths, hang out by the fountain with the sculpture of beavers frolicking in the middle.
Some of them, I’m sure, don’t even look at the old stones, everywhere lurching this way or that, covered in lichens, inscriptions faded, sometimes to the point of illegibility. But walk through and you will read of the lives that founded this city, merchants and seamen and soldiers. Some prospered; some did not. And some, it seems, never really acclimated to their new home. Many died young, a startling number by drowning. Some took care to list their places of birth: Peekskill, N.Y.; Norwalk, Conn.; Middletown Point, N.J. A plaque on a rock reads:
Within these Burial Grounds lie the remains of immigrants, rich and poor, who left their homes and arrived on our shores filled with courage and determination to establish for themselves and their children a way of life free from persecution and hostilities.
Persecution and hostilities, they mean, at the hands of their (erstwhile) fellow Americans. If you want to know why Canada is different from the United States of America: It was founded, and settled, for exactly that purpose. America has long since forgotten 1783 and 1812. Canada has not.
And yet, there are all those similarities, too; some of them uncomfortable. The Merritts’ servants, some of whom are said to haunt the Loyalist House to this day, were slaves — slaves in Rye, slaves in Saint John. Tour guides will readily tell you as much. But you have to ask.
And if you should take locals’ advice and drive the 45 minutes east to St. Martins, a picturesque town on the Bay of Fundy that has a lighthouse, two covered bridges and a series of dramatic caves that are revealed by the outgoing tide, you will pass, at some point along the way, a large cross and a sign:
Black Settlement Burial Ground 1831-1941
There were black Loyalists, too, escaped slaves who, in return for helping the British in 1776 and 1812, were relocated to Canada after those wars ended. There are no markers in the cemetery, just a little shed. But if you peek through its windows at the informational panels inside, you can read all about how, like their white counterparts, they were given plots of land; only theirs were much smaller, and rockier, and not granted until decades later, after many, discouraged, had emigrated to Africa.
WHERE TO STAY
Hilton Saint John, 1 Market Square; www3.hilton.com. Rooms from 139 Canadian dollars, or about $105.
Earle of Leinster, 96 Leinster Street; earleofleinster.com. A historic (built circa 1878) bed-and-breakfast in the Victorian uptown neighborhood. Rooms from $79 in the winter season, $99 in summer (breakfast included).
WHERE TO EAT
Taste of Egypt, 87 King Street; tasteofegyptrestaurant.com. Middle Eastern and North African dishes. Dinner entrees from $19 (falafel and beef burgers, $14).
Urban Deli, 68 King Street; urbandeli.ca. Excellent Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches ($11) on the lunch menu.
Pubs serving good food are plentiful in the vicinity of Market Square and King Street.