Mounting A Case For Canada


On a two-hour ride across Ontario last year, my driver was a 30-something Afghani who was raising his family in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. We chatted about our kids, his two decades in Canada — he’d arrived as a teen — and our shared love of Niagara wine. We discovered that our families’ Florida condos were within 10 minutes of each other.

It was the kind of conversation you might have in New York, but it was also delightfully Canadian: the discovery that despite radically different roots, two New World urbanites have a lot in common. And that is precisely the spirit Canada is celebrating during its yearlong 150th anniversary party, dubbed “Canada 150.”

The recent massacre at a Québec City mosque notwithstanding, Canada has long cherished its image as a country of immigrants. This sparsely populated land was the first nation in the world to adopt multiculturalism as official policy, in 1971, and has since embraced newcomers with a zeal rarely seen elsewhere — including, since its earliest days, Jews from across the diaspora.

The contributions of Canadian Jewry are among the highlights of “Canada 150” festivities taking place this year around the country — from coast to coast to coast, as our Arctic neighbors like to say. With pessimism and uncertainty roiling politics to the south and across the Pond, Canada’s joyous celebration couldn’t come at a better time, and it’s the reason Canada topped virtually every “where to go” list for 2017.

Why not start outdoors? This is Canada, after all; vast, dramatic wilderness is its defining feature, as much a part of its culture as museums and Mounties. All year long, Parks Canada is offering free admission to every Canadian park and historic site via a Discovery Card (apply online).

Exploring the mountains, lakes and glaciers of a still largely virgin continent, you’ll discover how Canadian geography has shaped everything from urban layouts (underground winter tunnels and Ottawa’s famous Rideau Canal Skateway, where locals commute downtown on ice) to immigration policy (there’s an awful lot of space, and resources, to cultivate).

For a Jewish take on the sesquicentennial, head to the newly vibrant capital for the Jewish community’s signature “Canada 150” exhibition: The Canadian Jewish Experience. Through photographs and artifacts, this downtown Ottawa show covers territory from Romanian Jewish immigration to Bora Laskin, Canada’s first Jewish Supreme Court Justice and Chief Justice.

Summer can be sleepy in government-centric Ottawa, but this year promises plenty of quirky “Canada 150” fun. Highlights include Inspiration Village, an outdoor concert series to be held in a popup art installation in Ottawa’s historic ByWard Market neighborhood; and Mosaïcanada 150/2017, where 40 large-scale, “living” sculptures will fill landscaped gardens and a walking path through Jacques-Cartier Park along the Ottawa River.

While Canada is a young nation, the French founded Montréal a staggering 375 years ago — and what many consider Canada’s coolest, most cosmopolitan city is mounting its own celebration in 2017.

Montreal’s urban core is a visually stimulating jolt of historic and modern architecture, combining European-style plazas, the strikingly cubist Habitat 67 apartment complex by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, modern art in the metro and grand 18th- and 19th-century structures.

The latter form the backdrop for Cité Mémoire, a year-long series of nightly projections onto the walls of Old Montreal that literally illuminate significant people, communities and events. They include the 1849 burning of parliament to the Jewish Children’s Transport Train of 1947, when nearly a thousand orphaned Holocaust survivors were adopted by Montreal families.

And in November, the late, great Canadian-Jewish musician and poet Leonard Cohen is the subject of a tribute exhibition at Montreal’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Cohen’s minor-key melancholy, rich with irony and resonant with the overtones of a religious upbringing, feels distinctively Jewish — but does it sound Canadian?

That’s a question Canadian composers are attempting to answer in “Canada Mosaic,” a year-long, country-wide concert series organized by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra that features two-minute commissions called “Sesquies” — short works intended to capture the spirit of Canadian music. Sesquies, naturally, refer to the sesquicentennial, and will be presented alongside everything from a Glenn Gould tribute to the Yukon’s Longest Night Ensemble.

Toronto, of course, is the city where Canada’s evolving, multicultural identity is most dynamic — and for “Canada 150,” the city explores its own piece of that mosaic with “Becoming Canadian in Toronto: Snapshots Through Time.” The exhibition at Market Gallery, near Toronto’s glittering modern waterfront, looks at the city’s changing demographics through key events, from the War of 1812 to the recent arrival of Syrian refugees.

In October, Toronto’s York University will host a sesquicentennial symposium entitled “No Better Home For The Jews…Than Canada?” It’s a provocative question, given the ongoing diversification of Canadian society and the uncertainty of other Jewish destinations.

But if you ask my Afghani driver, and his Québecois Jewish neighbors wintering in Ft. Lauderdale, Canada at 150 is a pretty good bet.