Book Review: What Defines Us

canada flag

On February 15, 1965, the new Canadian flag was raised for the first time on Parliament Hill. Of more immediate relevancy to my family, it was also raised – later in the year – over the Sarnia city hall. That’s where we lived. On that summer day, Mom and Dad and their four little children, all dressed up from having been to church, walked over to the town hall where a crowd had gathered. Mom found it very moving to see the new flag raised.

There had been great controversy over the Maple Leaf flag. Some war veterans had fought under the Red Ensign, and they didn’t want to see it changed. Mom was asked by a reporter what she, a member of the University Women’s Club, thought of the new flag, and of the controversy. Mom gave her opinion: since our country wasn’t defined by war, there was no need to keep the former flag.

When I read author Nasreen Pejvack’s short story collection Paradise of the Downcasts, I was struck by the fact that one of Nasreen’s characters sees that same Maple Leaf flag, several decades after it was first used, and comes to a similar conclusion.

This character is looking for a place to land; the flag signals to her that Canada is that place. When she arrives, she settles happily into the regular life lived by most of her fellow citizens, but soon discovers there are aspects of this Maple Leaf paradise that aren’t all they should be.

Nasreen’s stories are fictional, but based on true events. Our character who followed the Maple Leaf to Canada is one of many ordinary Canadians whose lives we glimpse as the stories unfold; and it’s their very ordinariness that makes me sit up and take notice. In my experience, an ordinary Canadian life means that all is well: easy access to education and health care, and a certain level of prosperity. But this is not the experience of this cast of fellow citizens. They face challenges that I never faced, and the solutions are often out of their control.

There’s an underlying tone of cheer to the stories. The characters seem to enjoy getting to know each other; I, the reader, also enjoy it. These people find ways to help each other, while at the same time calling out that which works against our Maple Leaf paradise.

Canada has been defined by our current flag for the last 53 years. There’s a lot about our country to be proud of, but it’s too easy to get complacent. We sometimes need a reminder of things that we’ve forgotten about, or perhaps never even knew existed. Paradise of the Downcasts provides that reminder, helping us along the very important road of being actively involved in establishing what, as people of the Maple Leaf, defines us.



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