If you’re abroad for Australia Day, wanting to experience something other than your own culture, I hope you’re not in Canada and especially Banff in the Rocky Mountains where I go to write, because I’m not the only Australian here at the moment. Actually, there are so many of us, we may be able to claim sovereignty.
The first time I went to the Banff Centre 15 years ago, there was only one other Australian in residence, a flautist, and everyone kept telling me we should sit together at dinner. I didn’t want to, and I don’t think the flautist did either. I have nothing against the flute, or flautists, but I went to Banff to experience a different culture, not to spend time with Australians. Canadians were different enough to appeal, but not so different that we misunderstood one another, mostly anyways, eh. I mentioned my beanie, which the Canadians found delightful; it’s a hat or toque in Canada. You don’t buy lollies, except in Enid Blyton books; it’s candy. But more than all this, my Canadian friends looked blankly in response to my wry Australian humour, dressed up cynicism by another name, my default position in those days. This was what I first fell in love with about Canadians, at least the ones living here in Banff National Park, and the writers I came to know – they were living hopeful lives, where cynicism didn’t figure.
Nowadays when I go to Banff, the second question is invariably, “Where are you from?” meaning which city or town of Australia, asked in an Australian accent. The questioners are mostly young, and hope is written on their faces too – perhaps it’s the mountain air. They’re on a gap year full of adventure, with jobs on the ski hills, in the cafes or at the Banff Centre, their free days spent shredding away winter or hiking and biking away summer. They’re hard workers, a couple of employers have told me, and if you go to Wild Flour bakery café in Bear Street, you can order a flat white and someone will know what you mean. The coffee is good and on Australia Day they make lamingtons.
But heading towards this Australia Day, at home and in Canada, as in much of the world, we are living in dark times, our capacity to trust one another tested to its limit. Just before Christmas, three people were killed in the Lindt Café in Sydney. One of them, who took a shotgun into the café and held 17 people hostage, had fallen into a darkness most of us have no capacity to understand. In the days that followed, we ourselves teetered on a brink, with moments when the city, the nation, might have fallen into darkness too, retaliation fueled by hatred based on race or faith. The hashtag “I’ll ride with you” started after a Brisbane teacher saw a woman so frightened of vilification on that dark day she was removing her veil as she alighted from a train, so that no one would know her faith. The teacher stopped and offered to walk with the woman. “I’ll ride with you” took off on social media. What emerged was a very firm “No” to hatred.
These days I like being away for Australia Day at least partly because it reminds me powerfully that I am Australian, that while we might be wry and tough, even cynical, we are a people moving mostly towards the light. Those of us who came relatively recently have said sorry to the first Australians and started to look honestly at the past with its wrongheaded policies that did such harm. We’ve had brief moments under both Liberal and Labor Governments when we’ve understood that allowing more people like us, people seeking life in a new world, to come to Australia, brings much more than it takes away, that we’re all boat people.
I love about Australia that like Canada, we are moving towards light, even if sometimes it dims. And when I get home, I can swim in a glorious sea, walk at dawn in shirtsleeves to the rawks of sulphur-crested cockatoos, and spend time with friends, their wry humour and their hopefulness both a part of who I am.