Canadian Ferry Tails

If the universe treated me with the respect I deserve, it would permit me to return to a place I have never visited and again become a person I never was. The universe would allow me to escape to Abbotsford, British Columbia in the year 1977, where I would live comfortably as a forty-five year-old Canadian farmer using Dutch greenhouse technology to grow tomatoes in enormous hothouses not far from the Fraser River.

I picked 1977 for several reasons.  The same reasons caused me to choose to be forty-five years old. Those reasons revolve around nostalgia for an imaginary time when people in general, and Canadian farmers in particular, were gentle, compassionate, and intelligent. I was at my peak, physically, when I was that age, though that time would not come for me in this dimension until the year 1998. At least that’s what I choose to believe. Had I been a forty-five year old Canadian in 1977, I would have been slightly taller than I am now and considerably lighter. My waistline would have been roughly ten inches smaller and the muscles in my arms and legs would have been far stronger than they have ever been before (or since).

The rural farmland around Abbotsford in the mid-1970s was, in my mind’s eye, soft and sweet and loving. That farmland embraced farmers the way passionate lovers do, with a gentle fury that conveys both vulnerability and protective strength. That was a time before the stench of corruption in Washington, DC and all the U.S. state capitols made the air impossible to breathe south of the Canadian border. The miserable stench of Canada’s neighbour to the sound is what sparked Pierre Trudeau’s interest in building the Canadian Good Neighbour Wall. He started planning The Wall in May 1968, shortly after he took office as Canada’s Prime Minister and less than six months before Richard Nixon was elected President of the United States. Apparently, Trudeau had a premonition about the decay of the U.S.

Dedication ceremonies for that first portion of the Wall, built between Boundary Bay, British Columbia and Emerson, Manitoba, were held in May 1979, just before Trudeau completed his first sequence as Prime Minister and less than six months before Ronald Reagan won the White House. The main portion of the second half of the Wall—from Emerson to Saint Stephen, New Brunswick—was finished in April 1984 and was dedicated the next month near the end of Trudeau’s second slot as Prime Minister. And, coincidentally, less than six months after Reagan won a second term. A symbolic “End of the Wall” edifice, located on the shore of Lubec Narrows (the Canadian side, of course) was dedicated at the same time.

I would have watched the U.S. elections and the ugliness surrounding them with disgust and amusement. Canadian tomatoes were in exceptionally high demand in the United States in 1977, thanks to a crushing decline in California tomato crop yield for both processing tomatoes (by far the bulk of the market) and fresh market tomatoes. The vast majority of processing tomatoes that year would have come from Canada. Florida’s fresh market crop shifted to processors, so Canadian tomatoes took the mantle of top producer of consumer fresh market tomatoes that year, too.

By intertwining fiction with fact, my excursion into 1977 British Columbian life has taken me into the bowels of an extraordinarily successful tomato farming operation and beyond. Both of my key farm managers hailed originally from Portugal, where cork, wine, and sardines were the main commerce trade exports that year. Because the tomato operations were so lucrative, I could afford to explore other options, so I decided to give my managers freedom to imitate their home country’s successes. Growing cork in British Columbia seemed far-fetched at the time, so I focused on the wine. Though I am quite fond of sardines, I felt any attempt to replicate Portuguese success near the Pacific coast would be destined to fail. Wine, though! The reason British Columbian wines are so popular today can be traced to my 1977 investment in Grape Air, the air cargo company that outfits Boeing 747s for grape transport. The company began with just six jets in its fleet; today, the fleet numbers more than six hundred. Every plane leaves Lisbon full of grapes and arrives in Vancouver fifteen hours later; nine hours thereafter, following unloading and maintenance, it heads back for another load.

It was Grape Air that allowed me to retire into a life of stunning philanthropy. Thanks to generous donations made to Canadian medical research facilities, Canadian doctors have developed cures for virtually all diseases. And contributions to Médecins Sans Frontières led to the global elimination of malaria, measles, all forms of corona virus, and psoriasis. The Grape Air Foundation was the sole source of funds for creating and subsequent maintenance of the Trans-Canada Canal, about which I’ll write more in a moment.

Even though twenty-three years have passed since 1977, I remain forty-five years old and Canada remains largely bucolic and serene. The Canadian Good Neighbour Wall remains a protective shield against it hideous neighbour to the south; indeed, we no longer permit Canadian airwaves to be defiled with feculent lies broadcast by Fox News and its ilk.

Every year, I walk from Abbotsford to Boundary Bay, where I board the Trans-Canada Ferry, an impressive paddle wheeler that floats along the Trans-Canada Canal, a marine navigation channel dug as an additional discouragement to wanna-be Canadians from the land to the south who would love to escape their mundane existence by fleeing to Canada. The Trans-Canada Canal skirts the Canada-USA border just north of the Canadian Good Neighbour Wall. My trip from the Pacific to the Atlantic takes twenty-one days, including overnight stays at the ports of Sault Ste. Marie and Fort Frances, Ontario. The trip back to Abbotsford, by horse-drawn carriage, is a months-long affair. The horse’s tail, woven into a beautiful braid, is a glorious vision to behold, even when we’re among the rare desolate stretches of road. Every year, my trip home is the subject of articles in countless local newspapers in towns along the way and, on occasion, The Globe & Mail and the Toronto Star.

I think I’ve written quite enough about the ferry and about trailing the tail home. It’s time to return to reality, despite the fact that reality is an especially unattractive destination at the moment. Such is the life of a misfit.


About John Swinburn

"Love not what you are but what you may become."― Miguel de Cervantes "Intimacy is never wrong. It can be awkward, it can be unsettling, it can feel dangerous, it can seem out of place, but it’s never wrong."― John Swinburn
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