I’m spending Christmas and New Years with my family in eastern Canada. In the snow and ice of a typical Canadian winter. The beauty of a Canadian winter is something to behold, particularly in the countryside where time is being spent. Snow and ice on tree boughs twinkle like diamonds and farmers’ fields lay quiet and expansive under their white shroud. Christmas lights on trees and homes are reflected on the glistening snow and ice. It all makes quite an impression.
Something else that is making an impression on me is the tiny town of Vankleek Hill, Ontario – the same town where I spent my childhood. It is apparent that this town’s people have a kindness and generosity of spirit not experienced elsewhere. Certainly, the expression about not being able to go home again wasn’t penned by anyone who grew up here.
Take for example the woman, the friend of my cousin, whom I just met while visiting at her lovely home: upon hearing that my winter parka had gone missing, she offered her daughter’s long and cozy winter coat. Her daughter, she explained, only needed it when she visited (much like in the current circumstance). At first I thought this too generous an offer to accept, but it was clear that she was genuine in her desire to be helpful. The coat is much appreciated and makes long walks on cold and snowy days possible and quite enjoyable.
A community member died recently. While at a gathering, I heard that one of the women was busy all morning making sandwiches for the mourners. When I said, “I didn’t know you were related to that family,” she clarified that she is not, but that a group of community members had done this beautiful thing as a matter of course, regardless of their relationship to the deceased.
Before this all starts to sound idyllic, it bears stating that there are misunderstandings and petty grievances here like there are anywhere. And in a town with less than 2000 residents, one also must get used to their business being a matter of public scrutiny more often than it would be in a larger community. But it certainly seems, as one travels from place to place in town, that the simple life being led by the majority of Vankleek Hillians, makes them a happier, more compassionate group.
Why might this be? Is there something that they are doing that makes them this way? Is it peculiar to this area, the province or this country?
Most of the people in this area are Scottish descendents who came here in the late 18th century when the land they had farmed for generations was “cleared” of its long-term resident farmers so that the presumed owners could practice increasingly profitable sheep farming.
Displaced from their homes, often without notice and violently, they made the long and arduous journey by ship to the growing colonies in the US and Canada in the hope of finding a better life. Upon their arrival, many discovered that there was land available, for free, from the fledgling Canadian government, on which they could settle and farm. Moreover, they could own the land – something that in Scotland had been denied them and their fore bearers.
For over 200 years the Scottish settlers and their descendents have farmed in eastern Canada. The area around Vankleek Hill is surrounded by farms owned by these Scots. The streets and surrounding villages bear their names and their dying language (Gaelic). They did indeed find what they were looking for in Canada, and rather than let a history of pain and dispossession consume them with anger, they have created an atmosphere full of care and respect – a better life for anyone who would live among them.