Of Bobcaygeon and MogadishuWritten by Rowda Mohamud
Gord Downie, the lead singer of the Canadian band The Tragically Hip, passed away on October 17, 2017 due to cancer. The Tragically Hip are one of the most beloved music groups in Canada's history. Gord Downie sang and wrote most of The Hip's songs. Through tears Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke about Gord Downie by stating: “Gord was my friend, but Gord was everyone’s friend. He knew, as great as [Canadians] were, we needed to be better than we are. Our buddy Gord, who loved this country with everything he had, and not just loved it in a nebulous ‘oh, I love Canada way,’ he loved every hidden corner, every story, every aspect of this country that he celebrated his whole life.”
Somali Canadian writer Rowda Mohamud shared the following reflection on the impact a lyric from The Tragically Hip's song Bobcaygeon, written by Gord Downie, had on her as a newcomer to Canada, after having arrived as a refugee with her family in the 1990s. The song is named after the town of Bobcaygeon, Ontario in the Kawartha Lakes region.
The first year of living in Canada was probably the most challenging of my life. It is not easy starting over when everything is so different. Nothing can ever truly prepare you for life in this country, especially if all you know is from National Geographic.
The people staring for no reason. The people smiling for no reason.
The people being helpful for no reason. The people being unkind for no reason.
The books you have to read in school. Books by authors you’ve never heard about despite being so well-read. Books your new friends at school say are meant to make everyone become “more Canadian”. Books your new friends at school constantly mock because that’s what teenagers do, except you don’t. Because you actually want to know what hidden key to being Canadian lies in a story about a prairie farmer who goes out into a blizzard in his nightclothes because his wife wants to move to the city. You want to know what truth lies in teaching teenagers that love can send you mad into a snowstorm from which you will never return.
Nothing can prepare you for the abrupt realization that the standard French with which you arrived is not necessarily what the “locals” speak.
Nothing can prepare you for the realization that the fluent, “unaccented” English with which you arrived becomes such a great mask for fitting in, that everyone just assumes you belong. No one realizes that you’re completely new here. No one realizes that things don’t always make sense. And that it would be helpful of them to explain. Things like “kitty corner”. Or why you wearing a toque over a hijab is so hilarious. Or why your math teacher insists on yelling “and Bob’s your uncle” when instead he should be saying “Quod erat demonstrandum” like a normal person. No one bothers to explain why the same people who politely form queues at grocery checkouts and at bank machines, are the same ones shoving and pushing when the bus shows up. No one explains why the same man who elbowed you out of the way to get onto the bus then sheepishly offers his seat when he finds you huffing and puffing under all those layers of clothes.
Nothing can ever truly prepare you for the cold. The incessant discussions about the weather, which is never anything but cold. All the layers of clothing because of the cold. Never being warm enough. And then suddenly being so hot the minute you go indoors that you feel you will drown in your perspiration.
Nothing can ever truly prepare you for ice. Ice on the ground. Ice overhead which you should be watching. Dagger-like. Poised over you. The fear of tripping and falling. The fear of falling so badly that you break your leg and are doomed to walking with a limp like your mother’s third cousin’s aunt in Toronto.
Nothing can prepare you for how much you will end up hating the snow and the cold. Even when your new friends take you skating on the Rideau Canal. So you huff and puff but something inside you knows that this is the key to it all, being fine with the cold. So you try to turn your mind to the mystery of the snow.
No matter where you turn, whatever you look at, or whomever you try to understand, to find and capture the quintessential Canadian-ness you think you so badly need so you can deal with the cold, you always come back empty handed. You try to find spiritual wonder of snow as a creation of God. You try to deal with being constantly cold as another test from God. Your own personal test from God.
Then one day, on an “it’s so beyond cold that schools have been cancelled in Ottawa” type of day, you turn the radio on as you look out at the snow maliciously falling (because all it ever does is fall with malice upon your head, so you’ve come to believe). And you hear a song with a line about the constellations of Bobcaygeon revealing themselves one star at a time. And it feels like someone had finally offered you something of this country for your very own. Something you immediately recognize as the key to everything (or so you’ve come to believe). Because one of your earliest childhood memories was looking up at the night sky above Mogadishu and seeing the constellations appear, revealing themselves one star at a time. You have no idea who this man was or why he could describe what you’d seen half way across the world or where Bobcaygeon was but you wanted to go there.
Thank you Gord Downie.
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