The Curse of Fistory’s Ghost describes a historical love triangle
between a coquettish Canada and two young ideologies. It explores several important themes, probably.
The Curse of Fistory’s Ghost
By Zachary Fillingham
If my understanding of Canadian history seems a bit crazy at times, it’s probably owing to a series of chats I had with my grandfather when I was young. His is an influence that has proven difficult to rinse clean. Maybe it was my age when he got to me. I was just a seven year old kid with a mind like a sponge ready to soak up any corruption on offer. This absorption was indiscriminate and permanent, and it littered my mental landscape with bottomless pits, none of which are clearly signed. Discovering the whereabouts of these pits, or rather the process of learning that Joe Clark was not actually born to an Ewok mother… Well, let’s just say it has been a process of repeated public shaming. So much so that I am now someone who will very rarely volunteer an opinion, whether at work or a bar, out of the fear that doing so will give my grandfather yet another chance to deep-six my social standing from beyond the grave.
There are however a few instances when my grandfather’s ramblings seem to have had a little method buried in the madness. I was reminded of one of these times recently upon seeing Prime Minister Harper proclaim on the evening news that the whole world wanted to be Canada. ‘Fair play,’ I thought to myself, it seems a little juvenile but I guess Canada is wonderful enough to inspire envy in the imagined musings of non-Canada humanity. But the Prime Minister didn’t stop there. He went on to say exactly why we’re deserving of this envy. Apparently the whole world wants to be Canada because we don’t have any of that awkward historical baggage most other Western countries have: the colonization thing. So stunning a revelation had the effect of splitting my mind in two: left side asked, ‘what about the people who used to live here?’ Right side shouted back, ‘tell no one!’
Alas, nothing to see here, just a Prime Minister stripping down history and re-gifting it to the world in a ‘feel good’ package. It’s not the first time a leader has dolled up history and shoved it to the curb to turn political tricks, nor would it be the last. It is an effective approach after all, since all it takes is the mere mention of Canadian greatness to make our collective matter vibrate at a frenzied intensity.
Not this guy though. It only pulls me back to one of my grandfather’s more delirious sermons.
This one took place on a Saturday afternoon. I’m positive of this because I remember that I was sitting on the living room rug watching Thundercats when the first volleys of a drunken assault hit the front door. After my grandfather managed to get it open, he walked in and turned off the television. “Come keep your grandpappy company” he slurred, now caught up to the gravity of the liquor in the kitchen cupboard.
Even at the tender age of seven, intoxication’s mysteries had all been revealed via the duplicitous nature of my grandfather’s alcoholism. Returning home from school was just as likely to encounter a doting old man who had been magically transported out of a Disneyland commercial as one who shouted cryptic obscenities before retching on himself. This time in particular I could tell from his eyes that he was already pretty drunk by the time he got home.
He gave the ice in his glass a swirl and beckoned for me to come and take a seat at the kitchen table. His lesson got right to the point: “you’ll never know what a whore this country of ours is so long as you don’t know squat about its history.” At this point he trailed off, seemingly deep in thought, before snapping his fingers and continuing with a childish grin on his face, “to begin with, history has a start and it has an end, and most importantly: Canada was sitting in a fuckin meadow picking the petals off of flowers for both of em.”
His explanation began on this confusing note and it never veered anywhere close to lucidity, yet somehow it still sticks in my mind. I have reproduced it to the best of my ability in the space below. I believe grandpa called it:
‘A True-Life History of Canada’
First there was nothing, and by nothing I mean there wasn’t any white people. History had not yet been born. This was a dark age when Canada’s forests, lakes, rivers, and mountains- and all edible and non-edible creatures therein- existed in permanent stasis; stopped in time. The paused waters of the Fraser River teemed with sockeye salmon, a few of which were hanging mid-jump in a feat of permanent levitation. All over the continent, Native Canadians were arranged into a macabre exhibit displaying a way of life that would eventually be destroyed, smiling at loved ones, stalking prey, staring into fires, looking up at the sky. Some edible creatures got the short end of the stick, like the majestic beaver with its head lodged between the jaws of a wolf. Others had better luck, like anything that stared down eternity with an oh-face.
During this long period of stasis, Canada was totally super-bored. Nothing worthy of note was going on between her shores, and she was painfully aware of how the other countries were ignoring her in spite of her natural endowments. Canada was convinced that she could one day become the kind of country that every other country wanted to be like, but whenever she got down to thinking about what to do about it her mind refused to cooperate. No matter how much she thought about it, she just couldn’t solve this nightmarish algebra problem: vast space, life, squishing sounds, death, swishing sounds, and beavers. What the hell did it all mean, anyways? It was just unconnected gibberish floating around in her head. How could she be expected to string it all together by herself?
Fortunately, she didn’t have to wait long for something to happen. The Europeans arrived with newborn history in tow. They swarmed into Canada’s interior, encountering all sorts of natural curiosities on the way, most of which were dutifully recorded in journals, letters, and books. Some used charcoal to sketch trees gently swaying in the wind, others stumbled across bear cubs while out for a piss and ended up dead. But the important thing was that water flowed, clouds moved, and all of the edible creatures were finally released from eternity, to which an unlucky few were immediately returned.
This was all plum for the Europeans, but Canada’s spiritual malaise remained. She felt like a joke, like her borders were drawn in crayon, and that she would never to garner the envy of the rest of the world. For this, she decided, she would need a strong and virile ideology to build her kingdom upon- one that was man enough to let all Canadians know that being Canadian is a privilege and as such you should shut the fuck up during the national anthem when you’re at a Leafs game, even if you’re gilded enough to be sitting in the platinum seats! At this point, my grandfather seemed to have struck a chord with his story. He proceeded to digress into typically stereotypical territory of how people didn’t used to be scared to love their country. He even touched down on a few uncomfortably sexist views on the nature of man and woman. When he was done, he apologized and said it’s time to skip to ‘the good part,’ because he feared that he’ll be too ‘tired’ to finish if not.
It was the 1960s and Canada had fallen hard for a strapping young ideology named the welfare state. The two of them got exactly what they needed from each other. The welfare state got a platform, and Canada got a point. Their outward passion for each other was enough to invoke jealousy in some of the other countries, who in turn comforted themselves with the notion that fires this bright don’t burn forever.
If they weren’t attending book fairs, student rallies, or open mic nights, Canada and the welfare state were lying in bed, slowly getting drunk while they argued the nature of art and existence. Canada had never been with someone so cerebral before, and she got swept up in all of his tastes and eccentricities, eventually absorbing them as her own. One of her favourite things about the welfare state was his habit of leaving poems under her pillow. No matter how many times she read his chicken scratch, its sloppiness never ceased to amuse her, and her feelings for him were so strong that she could overlook his awful pacing and terrible metaphors.
Hand-in-hand they frolicked towards a better tomorrow, each getting from the other exactly what they needed. And as the romance bloomed, it spritzed a minty-fresh mist of change over the masses. No longer did (most) people look down on single mothers or guys with long hair. Indeed, the needle on the compassion barometer began to shift away from the left-most extremity of ‘smite from the earth’ towards the more central ‘tolerate with contempt.’ Canadians got along well with the welfare state because he allowed them to self-identify as such without the hassle of constantly fighting wars. All of a sudden, everyone had something binding them together, a theoretical bridge that reached out to total strangers. Now, if John T. Canada’s Oxycontin addiction were to ever fly off the rails and unexpectedly cast him in the role of Blowjob Junkie #2, he could feel confident that the welfare state would be there to pull him out of the mire. The drunken, student, and drunken student masses were particularly enamoured with the welfare state’s sunny idealism and wanton disregard for practicality, traits which they found to be admirable in a concept. Mostly everyone looked up at Canada and the welfare state’s relationship with proud approval, and even though corporate efficiency collapsed and daytime intoxication boomed, for the first time ever Canadians knew exactly where they stood.
But of course, as is so often the case in romances between state and ideology, their grace period was terribly short. Cracks began to appear in the foundation of the relationship, and all of them snaked their way back to the welfare state. His grand project of human elevation- from poverty, ignorance, and hatred- was failing despite his best efforts. It seemed that the people of Canada had enough to do already without the pressure of having to build utopia. They were far more interested in getting a cushy government job or working an angle to claim baby bonuses for children that were existentially challenged. The welfare state’s dream was slowly hollowed out by cruel reality, sending him into the welcome arms of the socked spray-paint can. Soon he began to take out his own inadequacies on Canada. At his cruelest he would say that she was half the woman America was, and in one of the daily poems that he still insisted on leaving her, he used the metaphor of a child’s abandoned wagon to infer that she’d never be a real country anyways.
You don’t get to the top without fucking a lot of people over on the way, and in this the welfare state was no different from anyone else. The corporate elite had watched in horror as Canada fell in with this idealistic loafer. Their best efforts to check the relationship’s advance failed at every turn. The pie charts- lovingly drafted, the slide shows- assembled and organized for maximum effect, the lobby groups- wined and dined. All of it was to no avail. Eventually they concluded that they would have to fight fire with fire. If Canada was ever to be swept into their corner, they would need a handsome young ideology to get under her skin just like the welfare state had. However, there was one huge problem with this plan: corporate culture lacked the sex appeal, the ‘sass’ factor, that was needed to get Canada’s attention. Aesthetically speaking it was all jowls and rosacea. But it didn’t take long for them to come up with a solution. But eventually these hurdles were overcome thanks to the kind of innovation that the private sector is known for.
‘He’s got like, tons of dough; enough to buy Canada anything she wants.’ rasped a chunky businessman, smoking a cigarette at the base of a Toronto skyscraper. ‘Yeah but what’s he look like?’ asked his friend. ‘Noone knows,’ the fat one replied, ‘because he’s an invisible hand or some shit.’
And like that the invisible hand was borne into our world. He was in many ways the complete opposite of the welfare state, substituting ruthless efficiency for romantic idealism. His genius was pervasive and chilling- the type that could spin equations from piles of corpses just as easily as it could calculate the opportunity cost of quitting your job at the sandwich shop.
The invisible hand went straight for the jugular with Canada, preying on her anxieties vis-à-vis the rest of the world. And though Canada was nothing if not loyal, the welfare state had been leaving her some particularly debased poems as of late and she found herself receptive to the invisible hand’s line of reasoning.
“Why help people if it just keeps them from helping themselves? Doesn’t this just hurt them in the long run?”
“Makes sense, I guess” thought Canada.
“If we get bogged down by corporate taxes and social welfare policies, how will we compete with other countries that have the sense to forgo these quixotic ideals?”
“Sounds fair,” thought Canada, straining to remember what quixotic meant.
“After all, if you can’t be better than all of the other countries, why not be richer?”
And with that, the final wall fell and Canada let the invisible hand in.
The welfare state was promptly kicked out and the people of Canada found that there was a new change in the air, though this time it was more of an acrid mist. It didn’t take long for them to get into the new spirit of things however. Janet Smith from Medicine Hat wrote her MP suggesting that a lot of money could be saved if the mentally ill were freed from their expensive permanent institutions and allowed to establish their own societies in the forests of northern Ontario. In a bar in Saskatoon, Chad Jones proudly declared that the government should stop giving welfare cheques to immigrants, because they just come here to steal jobs and they weren’t real Canadians anyways- a remark that forced then-drinking buddy Eric Brown to rethink his relationship with Chad. ‘Those drug addicts should be put in camps,’ Mildred Sinclair thought to herself, unsure of whether to share her opinion with the members of her church group, one of whom she suspected of having a son that smoked grass.
The welfare state watched these changes from the sidelines, a prisoner of the permanent melancholy expected of such a hopeless romantic. He was sure that he was the only one for Canada, but far less sure about how to go about convincing her of it. After giving it a lot thought he eventually had the same epiphany that all ideologies do when considering how to beat out the competition: use violence. The decision didn’t sit well with his romantic sensibilities, but he fell back on the timeless rationality that desperate times call for desperate measures. In a fleeting compromise to himself, he decided to go with the most romantic forms of violence- the duel.
The invisible hand promptly accepted the challenge and a few Saturdays later they found themselves standing in a field bordered by strip malls on every side. The weather was pretty stellar that day, and the sun shone like a kid’s painting complete with exaggerated rays and a maniac grin. The weather was so beautiful that Canada missed much of the preliminary chest thumping and cock measuring as her attention was constantly harassed by the urge to pick flowers. Her suitors’ declarations floated by in truncated wisps, “rather die for Canada… than live for a 3-car garage,” and “didn’t fight in Korea to build a Socialist paradise in Canada.” And so on and so forth.
In the middle of the argument, a man walked up to them and politely asked where he could pick up his tax rebate cheque. No sooner had he made his inquiry than three other people walked up and asked the same thing. They were followed by another group, and another, and in no time flat the trickle of polite individuals had exploded into a deluge of rubes, all of them totally pissed off and wanting their rebate cheques ten minutes ago. Some of them clutched Wendy’s bags and sipped from massive cups, others sat in lawn furniture that they had the strange foresight to bring, a few yet nursed king cans in pursuit of suburban thrills. The mob continued to grow, fueled by cheque-seekers and curious stragglers who wanted to see what the fuss was about.
After waiting for the opportune combination of size, confusion, and restlessness, the invisible hand finally turned to address the crowd. “Fellow Canadians, I know that you have come to pick up your tax rebate cheques, but today we are faced with something far more important.” A collective murmur rose from the mob as people looked at each other in confusion over what could possibly be more important than their cheque. “The welfare state has hypnotized Canada with impossible ideas, intangibles that can never be achieved. His talk of utopia doesn’t come from the heart. It’s just an act that’s meant to take advantage of sweet young Canada, and we’re the ones being played as fools.” Heads nodded in agreement, and the invisible hand continued to drink up the mob’s attention and spit it back out as venom. “The welfare state’s lies and Canada’s regrettable female proclivity for romance have cost you all dearly. You have paid with your time, your sweat, and your hard-earned tax dollars. Do you even realize that all of the other countries are laughing at you behind your backs? They think you’re a joke! So yes, this is far more important than one tax rebate cheque. It’s your son’s cheque, your daughter’s cheque! It’s your grandkid’s cheque as well!”
The welfare state listened to all this with detached indifference until a troubling thought occurred to him. Where had this mob come from? Did the invisible hand send out a mailer beforehand? What if the hand wasn’t interested in dueling at all, and just wanted to rile up the mob so that they would do the dirty work? A guttural wail suddenly rose from the crowd as if to confirm his suspicions. He looked on in horror as one of the members of the front row began to foam at the mouth. The welfare state knew he was running out of time and that it was now or never if he was going to keep the mob from having their way with him. “Hey” he yelled, “I’m sorry, but I thought this was Canada… Do we let both sides have a say here or are those days over?” Hundreds of eyes were on him. “If your savior is willing to spill your blood to elevate his own star, then I guess I have no choice but to stoop to the same level.” The welfare state dropped the microphone, turned away from the crowd, and let out a thunderous, bird-like cawing sound that rang out across the land.
Silence descended. Everyone looked around in puzzled anticipation; who the hell could possibly answer the welfare state’s call? “Does he even have any friends?” a little boy asked his mother, but she was too engrossed in assuming the worse of her husband to even notice. The boy decided that the welfare state probably didn’t have any friends. Then he felt sorry for him because he didn’t have any friends either. He knew what it was like.
It only took a few minutes for the mob to get their answer, when an elderly disabled gentleman wheeled himself out of the woods and took a place beside the welfare state. One by one, the welfare state’s counter-horde arrived, long on socioeconomic diversity, short on battle strength. The ranks were full of infirmity, crossed eyes, twitching, methadone shakes, and monologues both insane and thought-provoking. As he assessed his troops, the welfare state couldn’t help but shake his head in disapproval; they weren’t the army he chose but they would have to do. “My people,” he called out to his ranks, “we are the Canadians that don’t appear in the brochure- the people who work hard and get no reward, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed. Follow me and we will win back her heart, for how could it be possible that the real Canadians don’t carry the day?” He turned to address the invisible hand, but as he did so he felt a sharp pain shoot through the side of his body. He looked down and saw a fist, covered in blood, attached by hairy arm to a man who looked like Tarzan might after 30 years of hard living. “Bahala Nabja?” said Tarzan inquisitively in his very own cross-dimensional dialect. The welfare state fell to his knees. He knew it was over.
The crowd had seen enough. Their primary goal, the rebate cheque, had turned out to be a ruse and their bonus goal, the lynching of the welfare state, had worked itself out. Bile drained from the part of their bodies that demands blood and back into the part that fuels permanent dissatisfaction. Wendy’s bags were discarded and watches were checked to see if there was still time to get home in time to catch Intervention. The welfare state watched through glazed eyes as his army sauntered back into the woods and upstanding Canadians filtered back into their SUVS. The weight of his own meaningless end was squishing him like a grape.
But he couldn’t go out like this, no, he simply refused. The welfare state pulled himself up, cleared his throat, and yelled “CANADAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA” in as dramatic a voice as possible. All remaining eyes fell on him. “I’ve got something to say before I go,” he said, wiping blood from the corner of his mouth. What followed was the Curse of Fistory’s Ghost:
If we’re to worship the basest of human instincts, how can we ever be proud of ourselves, let alone of Canada? Well here’s the catch: we can’t. So enjoy your wealth but be sure you lock your doors. As for where we came from and what we stand for? Better get used to bullshit, to ‘feel good’ history, because fantasy is your only option when reality is ugly, discounted, and ignored like…like…a child’s abandoned wagon.
The welfare state put on a brave face, but he knew he had terminally botched what should have been his swan song. He had been defeated, and only had oblivion to look forward to as the new Canada made her splash in the global schoolyard of nations. As the edge of his vision began to creep inward, he held on to one final comforting thought: everything comes back in style eventually. If the poncho can do it, why can’t I?