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True Americans live in Canada, too

All by my self I had noticed the difference. Coming down from Canada after motoring through New Brunswick, we were asked by the United States immigration officer, "Are you an American citizen?" But when we entered Canada on our visit, the Canadian border officer had asked, "Are you a citizen of the United States?" A trifling distinction, maybe, but all the same a difference.

I'd like President Bush, at least, to stop saying "the American people" when he means "the people of the United States." Isn't everybody from Tierra del Fuego north to Pond Inlet an American? It was in Canada many summers ago that I first contemplated this oddity.

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We tented out as far as Winnipeg, and then rode the sleeping-car train to Hudson Bay. Canada is big-big when permafrost is included. Somewhere beyond North Bay we needed something for our evening campfire supper. And as we broke camp to drive along, my good wife said: "Today's Wednesday, and stores up here close at noon. So pull up somewhere before noon, and I'll get something for supper."

After 800 miles we came to a store and it was two minutes to noon and she got to the front door just as the storekeeper was coming out. "Let me have something for supper," she said. He said, "I have just the thing."

She came back with a butcher's wax paper package, put it in our Coleman cooler, and said, "I don't know what I bought, but it's funny looking meat. The man said it was fresh today, and we'd like it, and to fry it in salt pork fat - and I don't need any wise cracks come supper time." It turned out to be caribou steak and it was delicious.

Canada, we were told, gives her original Americans privileges, and an Indian may take a caribou and sell it to a store to retail. Good to know on Wednesdays.

The Canadian National train from Winnipeg that serves the frozen north is a considerable consist that takes three sleeps to reach the end of the line at Churchill at Hudson Bay. Halfway back in our car, in a double seat, there was a handsome Cree Indian, tall, trim, and lithe, who spoke to nobody and stared vacantly ahead.

He wore the uniform of a lesser Canadian Army officer, and we guessed he was a queen's soldier going home on furlough. Beside him was a Gladstone bag that looked new. He didn't stir until the train approached Mile 857, when he stood, stretched, took his Gladstone, and went to our car's vestibule.

The train was slowing to make an unscheduled stop. It was well after dark and when it stopped, we saw the sign Mile 857 in the light from our window. When the trainman opened the vestibule door so our Indian might descend, we could hear dogs barking. The Cree village, they told us, was a mile from the tracks.

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At the same time we saw, by our car lights, the family of our soldier waiting for him. His mother and father, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, perhaps a few friends. He stepped down from the train. It was not an emotional welcome home. No hugs and kisses, no handshakes, no pats on the back. The one who might be the soldier's mother took the Gladstone bag, turned, and walked off with it into the Canadian night. The others followed, single file.

As the train gathered speed, the engineer tooted his whistle. An American family, separated but reunited, was walking home.

We never saw an igloo. Today Canada has the Eskimo living in neat prefabricated bungalows with playground swings in the front yard for the kiddies.

There are two remaining didacticisms from Churchill that relate to native Americans. I asked which of the two Churchill churches our original American preferred, and the man said, "Whichever is serving the next free supper." This may equate appetites with salvation, but the old saw tells us that taste is not to be disputed.

The other morality has to do with the white Arctic whale. Only an Eskimo may take one, so if you want a white Arctic whale you must go to Churchill and be an Eskimo. A whale factory at Churchill processes these creatures, and stinks. The memory of the stink is something a visitor never forgets.

My best story from subarctic Canada is about Ross MacIver and the man from New York he guided for bird shooting. Ross lives at Churchill, and the booking was made by the Bay Company, so Ross didn't even know the man's name.

Two weeks after the man went back to New York, Ross found out who he was. His picture was on the front page of the Globe and Mail of Toronto, and he'd just been arrested for the Lindbergh child kidnapping. His name was Bruno Hauptmann.

To hear recordings of John Gould telling stories, or to read a few of his essays that span his past 60 years of writing for the Monitor, log on to: www.csmonitor.com/gouldaudio


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