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‘O Canada!’ a civil land
by Jake Highton
Jun 12, 2010 | 866 views | 0 0 comments | 11 11 recommendations | email to a friend | print
VANCOUVER, Canada — The Vancouver Public Library may be the best library in the world.

Entering its doors you surprisingly encounter a courtyard full of stores, ice cream and coffee parlors and food outlets with “sidewalk cafés.”

How civilized! I had never before seen such an alluring library setting.

The library itself is housed in a striking, ultramodern building, a rectangle set inside an ellipse with brown granite walls. But far more important: it turns inside out traditional libraries. Normally people are in the middle surrounded by books. Here books are in the middle surrounded by people.

 No wonder it has 8,000 daily users. Nor are kids neglected. A children’s library covers an entire floor.

My library mission was to get a “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” to check the author of the lines of poetry running through my head.

Happily, my backpack was not searched as I entered the sacred precincts. A gentleman at the information desk directed me to the second floor Literature and Social Science Department.

There I was again gobsmacked. The woman at the desk asked me no questions.

She did not ask if I was a Canadian citizen. (I am not.) She did not ask if I had a library card. (I did not.) She did not ask me for identification. She demanded no signature. No, she just handed me the book.

Surely this is a civilized country.

The author of the “missing lines”? Keats. The poem: “Ode to a Nightingale.” The opening lines:

“My heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense as though of hemlock I had drunk / Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains / One minute past and Lethe-wards had sunk.”

The New Yorker ran one of its wonderful cartoons on those lines. It was by Marc Handelman, drawn in 2001. A guy was talking to a friend on the phone who asked how he was. His reply: “Not too bad except that my heart aches and a drowsy numbness pains my sense as though of hemlock I had drunk. And you? Are you OK?”

Digital Age

After getting off the SkyTrain at Granville station, I was directed to the library by a young man with a Blackberry. He magically punched a few keys and, mirable dictu, pointed to yonder “tall brown building.”

Arthritis capital

Vancouver may be the arthritis capital of the world. The rain falls so often that half the older people seem to be bent over from the dampness. The constant rain depresses visitors.

I am told that Vancouver is a beautiful city. But how do Vancouverites know?

Vancouver has another serious problem: traffic jams. And not just rush-hour traffic but also regular bottlenecks. Indeed, the Vancouver Sun reports that all major Canadian cities have the same problem.

Tie-ups can only get worse. The population of Vancouver will hit 7 million by 2035. It’s now 4.5 million.

Abolish Parliament?

Maclean’s, Canada’s best magazine for news and opinion, ran an article recently urging the abolition of the Canadian Parliament.

Columnist Andrew Coyne said Parliament “does not matter,” arguing that debates never change minds and that the prime minister’s question periods are a national embarrassment.

“Parliament has become a vestigial ornament like the monarchy, beloved of nostalgists but quite without any practical purpose,” Coyne writes.

Jehovah’s Witnesses praised

My wife and I went to Vancouver for the wedding of one her granddaughters. The ceremony, held in Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Burnaby, B.C., was moving.

A church elder gave a talk, both serious and humorous, that was fitting for the occasion. It was also a “remarriage ceremony” for my wife and me.

This gnarled old cynic, this vitriolic critic of mankind, this snarling iconoclast, kept wiping his eyes — exposing him as a terrible sentimentalist.

I make no theological brief for Jehovah’s Witnesses, a pinched and unforgiving religion. But I have a soft spot for them. The Witnesses have been valiant battlers for

religious freedom in America.

The most important victory came in 1943 when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a law mandating compulsory flag-saluting in public schools. To the Witnesses, this was intolerable: saluting a graven image.

Justice Robert Jackson wrote powerfully for the court.

“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities,” Jackson wrote.  “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism or religion.”

Jake Highton teaches journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno. You can reach him at

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