Baby Tanis helped plant the gardens by following along after Daddy and picking up the seeds he dropped. Oxford House, MB, 1930

Even Baby Tanis ‘helped’ plant the community garden. She followed behind her Daddy in the row and picked up the seeds he dropped. Oxford House, MB

The radish is the only vegetable to be red-ripe in Canadians’ gardens by the July 1st national holiday. It is annual proof that we have vanquished winter. The celebrations are varied and inventive, as long as the  flag with a red maple leaf on it waves about vigorously. This is supposed to happen only to maple leaves.

Usually the height of a radish’s success is to be carved into something resembling a rose that blossoms when set out on a tray of ice. Joy for a radish is to be nibbled as noisily as possible. Only once on record did the humble radish ever get any such glory.

For a moment on July 1, 1927 this sidekick at every summer feast reigned supreme.  It was our Ronald Reagan moment, when Americans chose Hollywood’s most gifted supporting actor to be their president. On Diamond Jubilee day, The ‘Spirit of Saint Louis’ landed and Parliament Hill in Ottawa groomed itself to greet its guest of honor, the American (of course) Charles Lindbergh. Canadians from sea to sea tuned in to a nationwide church service made simultaneous by the miracle of radio, with biblical passages selected by federal MPs.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the northwest, JACK, an Ontario farm boy cultivated into being a missionary, was brimming over with patriotism but wondering how he and his charges on the Cree reservation at Oxford House, MB could step up to it.

He represented both the Church and the Government to the Indians (as they were called in those days and still are in Canadian laws.) He was preacher, spiritual guide, custodian of treaty funds, medical officer, justice of the peace and teacher (if the real one fell sick, as happened, and had to leave the reserve.) It was a lot for a 29-year-old to do but not too much for one energized by good faith and Canada’s potential.

To mount a Diamond Jubilee in style, all he needed was a few practical tools:

A guest of honor with a connection to royalty

  • The old guide who led the Duke of Connaught from Norway House up to York Factory on one of his visits to Canada many years ago came to Mission House for dinner. He was a good mentor for the Indian men and boys who worked as guides and transporters for white people.

Education in Canadianism

  • Dominion Day had to be made relevant so the Indians felt included in this strange thing called ‘Confederation’. JACK told them the word ‘Canada’ was from the Iroquoian word ‘Kanata’, meaning ‘village’ and reminded them that they were already familiar with the word ‘Dominion’ from Psalms 72: v 8. He told them he dreamt of the day when they would be full citizens of the country and have a vote. (This did not happen until 1960.)

Pearsonian vision of Canada’s role

  • He told them the Jews had a vision of what God expected of them and, in the same way, Canadians were chosen to show how a nation may be built in peace, righteousness and sincerity, and show how people of varying religions and races may live together in one nation with tolerance and honor.  Lester Pearson was JACK’s history tutor at the University of Toronto

Proclaiming a Holiday

  • JACK gave the men a day off with pay from their work of building a fence around the community vegetable garden. When he arrived at Oxford House he immediately noticed the Indians never had enough food yet never grew anything to eat in their fertile black soil. As semi-nomadic hunters they  ate meat, berries and baked bannock. With JACK’s help they planted four gardens — one for the missionary, one for the teacher, one for the chief and one for the community.

Conspicuous Red Objects as Symbols

  • Gold ore, not diamonds, lay buried near Oxford House but JACK had an even better idea. The first vegetable of the season had ripened and what was the Indians’ surprise when JACK dug beautiful red radishes out of the soil and handed them out generously. Any real radish-lover can tell you how good they are when they don’t get too much sun and so aren’t too hot. An old friend of mine with poor eyesight discovered that if you want them to taste even better, you should eat the ones with worms in them. Not only that, they are a health food nut’s delight, full of good vitamins and minerals.

O Canada ! If JACK’s story had been revealed in time, what competition the Maple Leaf flag might have had when it was adopted!

This and many other colorful incidents from Canada’s past are recounted in Margaret’s family histories, A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void and its abridged e-book version Kathleen’s Cariole Ride.

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