It’s July 1st, 2006 and the weather forecast says there is a possibility of rain, but my husband, two kids and I are determined to spend the afternoon and evening in downtown Ottawa. It’s not a quest for the claustrophobic; our land is vast and our population spread wide, but on this day, thousands of us flock to the capital for sweet beaver tails and savoury poutine.
It’s not the first Canada Day we’ve driven in from our Ottawa suburb, but it will be the first year we’ve stayed for the evening concert. I heard on the radio that a very special guitar will played throughout the performances, and I want to be there.
The guitar is made from sixty-four pieces of our Canadian history and heritage, items such as decking from the Bluenose II, metal from Maurice “Rocket” Richard’s Stanley Cup ring, a piece of Nancy Greene’s ski and reclaimed wood from the building where Louis Riel went to school. The instrument was built by Nova Scotian guitar craftsman George Rizsanyi, at the request of Canadian writer and broadcaster Jowi Taylor, who wanted to create a symbol of national unity that represented every province and territory. Named “The Six String Nation,” the guitar will be played publicly for the first time tonight.
My husband tosses four fold-up camp chairs into the back of the minivan, while I make sure we have all the other essentials: sunscreen, snacks, and water bottles, maple leaf shaped hats, and Canadian flag “tattoos.” Thirty-five minutes later we blend into the river of red and white filling the streets of the downtown core. We inch our way to Major Hill Park where there are activities, shows…and ice cream carts.
The rain starts later in the afternoon but, inspired by countless others, we duck into a pharmacy and buy supersized garbage bags that we turn into raincoats. By evening the rain has stopped and we head to the Hill to stake out our spot for the concert. The grass is wet but we have our camp chairs. We offer our extra garbage bags to those around us who don’t have chairs, so they can sit more comfortably on the wet lawn.
The concert begins and we are introduced to The Six String Nation guitar as it’s handed first to singer-songwriter Stephen Fearing. The thousands of us who have come to the Hill this warm July evening are quiet as the first rich ripples of music come through the giant speakers. There are hoots and whoops of appreciation. Stephen Fearing is playing his song “The Longest Road,” but with each strum of the guitar we are also listening to Paul Henderson’s hockey stick, Pierre Trudeau’s canoe paddle, a 300-year-old Golden Spruce, ancient rock, and wood from a sideboard belonging to Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first Prime Minister. Not one of the sixty-four pieces in the guitar is musical on its own: but together they fill the night sky with incredible sound.
It made me think of the pieces of Canada I’ve collected myself over the years: a piece of pinkish rock from the Canadian Shield; sand from a beach near Barry’s Bay; a napkin from a trip across Canada by rail; an acorn from the grounds of Stephen Leacock’s home in Orillia; two keys—one to my childhood home in Montreal and the other from my first apartment in Victoria; and many concert ticket stubs from the Montreal Forum. Some pieces of Canada live in my memories; my wedding in Quebec City, watching waves crash in Peggy’s Cove, and my first view of Lake Louise.
The Six String Nation guitar is passed throughout the evening to other artists and performers. When musician Colin James plays “Into the Mystic,” it sounds like sunlight bouncing on water. The lyrics “we were born before the wind…” wash over the thousands of us gently waving little paper Canadian flags.
Canada is often referred to as a mosaic, but I’ve never really liked that image because a mosaic is usually made of broken pieces and Canadians are strong. That night, as each musician brought forth something different but equally lovely from a guitar made of history, culture and the land itself, I saw Canada as a beautiful instrument that we all play.
We are not pieces of a mosaic. We are folk songs, throat singing, symphonies, rock, and opera. We are pop, classical, hip hop, R&B and jazz. I look around at the thousands of people waving Canadian flags and imagine that, just like me, they have all collected their own bits and pieces and memories of this county: the notes to their personal songs. Tonight I see Canada as a beautiful acoustic guitar; and Canadians themselves as the ultimate playlist.