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The Christmas Tree Embargo

 

Christmas was firmly in the sights of Americans, and they could practically taste the after bite of rum in their eggnog. Only one problem arose to disturb their perfect season. Everyone had watched Scrooge and his humbug, and commiserated when the Grinch stole the Who's Christmas, in the form of presents and the feast, but few of those avid fans would realize that their own Grinchly neighbour was about to descend upon them. Few people, wrapped in the comforting glow of their television season, would realize that their Christmas was about to be turned completely upside down by Canada's refusal to send trees.

Red-faced farmers on the flat plains of the Dakotas stood in their fields and yelled upon god when they found out from CNN, like everyone else, that Canada wasn't allowing Christmas trees to cross the border. In Washington and Oregon, even the most avid environmentalist began to eye the national forests, and in Virginia, court proceedings were discussed to take Maine to task, since they thought Canada was an isolated county of that north east state. In Washington DC, sleepless politicians made late night desperate phone calls to first CNN, and then the Canadian embassy. Finally, appeals were made to the CIA and Homeland Security, a paranoid department created for exactly these types of threats.

Canada, a vast nation sleeping under a blanket of almost perpetual snow and a misleading history, was scarcely aware of the fuss. Only a few businesses, such as Christmas tree farms and trucking firms, were even aware that a few strokes of the pen in Ottawa had bereft them of their deserved Christmas cheer.

The petty bureaucrat in the transportation ministry, who had scrawled a few lines on the unread papers on his desk before rushing out to frigid golf courses to work on his promotion, knew nothing of the stir he had caused. In an almost inadvertent slip of his pen, Bob Bimbliy had signed away the right to transport lumber with its bark on. Although that new ruling affected county kitsch as much as Christmas trees, the holiday business felt the pinch. Immediately, the CIA contacted the RCMP, who agreed that it was an affair most crucial, if so many Americans were worried about it. With the same alacrity they showed when approaching airport regulations and their concern for secure borders, they began to illegally search mail and pound on people's doors in the dark hours of the night. They had learned their lessons well from the Nazis they'd hired just after the war with Germany.

It was the local Ottawa police, finally, having delegated the job to a junior member, who realized that Bob Bimbliy was responsible for the national shame and the US relations catastrophe.

Meanwhile, in the United States, secret border runs were made on Mexican forests, and extra Mexican border guards had to be brought in to combat what they saw as theft of their national heritage. When the US authorities pointed out that Mexico was situated on land stolen by the Spanish from the local Aboriginal nations, the first cross border shouting match in many decades began.

"Ustedes gringos que vienen a robar nuestros árboles! Chinga tu madre!"

"Listen here, Enrique, we have a right to those trees and we are going to take them just like we took New Mexico, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and California."

"Like you take the whole world."

In Colorado, state forests were being decimated as eager entrepreneurs crept in under the cover of darkness and stole fir branches, reasoning that the wreaths would sell in the millions. In Chicago and Cincinnati, public parks were declared off limits, while the Florida governor was in secret talks with Cuba for the first time in fifty years. In West Virginia and Delaware gun fights broke out in flower shops, which had been callous and unthinking enough to stock Norfolk Island Pine. Many businessmen, a coy gleam in their eye, flew to South America, following the traditional colonial path to the desired trees even into the Andes.

By the time constable Wiggam Simper brought in Bob Bimbliy, the US was in shambles. The many thousands of malls had no customers, and millions of citizens, for the first time in their lives, contemplated going overseas.

Germany began to produce passport stamps made specifically for Americans, such was their foresight in the time of crisis. Belgium made plaster replicas of trees, hoping to draw the flagging American dollar to their shores, and in faraway Thailand, Christmas was studied in tourism school, its secrets prodded for tourist dollars that might be made from so unsettled a holiday.

An artist in Akron, Ohio, working alone, if later reports were true, produced spin off plastic trees, mimicking, he claimed, in every detail, the originals. Once his rented premises were raided, and his internet page shut down and his body hauled away, the authorities reported that the crowd had no choice but to riot. His trees were the only ones for sale all over America, and given the situation, one could not expect people to be reasonable.

At first Bob Bimbliy refused to go to work, citing legislation enacted by the senate themselves that prevent any government worker from working more than three days out of ten, or two days consecutively. Although the authorities were stymied by such a law, especially when they realised it meant Bob had already worked his allotted 25 days for the year, a forgotten intern proposed how they might cope. "We can merely backdate his work allotment, to a time before the law came to pass, and then back pay him accordingly, and get him into the office for the ten minutes it takes him to sign the paper."

The intern was congratulated with a clap on the back and told that he would be receiving notice of an impending coat rack in his office. Backdating Bob's employment file by some thirty years before he was born, and then paying him the four hundred thousand for other fees that would have accrued if he had worked ten minutes some fifty years earlier, the crowd of gruff Ottawa police, muscle-bound RCMP looking for children to brutalize, and suit-clad CIA agents, pushed into parliament where Bob's office was ransacked for the crucial piece of paper that would bring Christmas back to America.

Parliament had outsourced their cleaning staff, like much of the country's government offices, so Bob's office had long been cleaned up by Viktoria Bendspeltive, whose English skills were poor although she had been an athlete, Neuro-surgeon, and Judge in her home country of Russia. Employing a thoroughness that has kept the Russian Soyuz in the air long after the American shuttle was grounded, Viktoria had cleaned up Bob's office and delivered such papers as were in his outgoing mail to the appropriate cylindrical slots of the mail offices.

Even while Bob was realizing what had happened to his spotless office, in the faraway desert of Oklahoma Christians were turning away from their massive churches and embracing local Aboriginal beliefs. The Vision Channel began a series on the Defection, as they called it, and many Aboriginal leaders were shot, as well as a few Arabs and Punjabis, mistakenly killed by avid Christians who were determined to see the Christmas season come back to America.

In Tarboro, North Carolina, a local radio station called upon a venerable radio announcer to ask for peace, such were the riots at tissue stores where green tissue paper could be bought to make a semblance of a tree. Utica, New York, decided to cede from the union, and began talks with Quebec, a province intrigued by the possibility of some thousands of Americans forced to learn an autocratic French under the truncheon of the language police. In Idaho, roadblocks were set up to stop all traffic. Even while people marched in the capital to protest Canada's entry in the UN--not realizing that Canada had joined since its inception--Idaho racists made their arguments about all transport being a conspiracy, although the details of their claim were vague.

CNN and Fox news began to carry tear-jerking stories of children without trees, surrounded by heaping piles of presents with nowhere to put them, and national public radio resuscitated old serials from a simpler time of fireplaces and witch burnings. Witches, they reminded everyone, had been burned primarily on fir and pine fires, a massacre of the innocents that left present day children bereft of witches, and more crucially trees.

Small dailies published their Christmas issue with green paper and white print, with clearly drawn lines on the paper for the making of trees. Many small magazines ran contests on tree making, encouraging those with the best trees that they might patent their design and earn back the many millions that had mistakenly gone to Bill Gates.

By the time Viktoria had been discovered, beaten and searched, and her children had been thoroughly frightened, many states had declared martial law. The madness was also seeping across the border. RCMP were stopping drivers and confiscating tree-shaped air fresheners, claiming that such representations were anti-American in such a time of crisis. In British Columbia, the economic impact of the loss of the tree market was beginning to tell on the lives of ordinary Vancouverites, and hundreds had to cancel bicycle maintenance classes and weekly colon cleanses. Placards were made up and proudly displayed from the windows and backs of SUVs and Hummers, asking vaguely for something to be done, and demanding free parking.

On the prairie, the American crisis was followed with interest, if lack of understanding. Treeless as they were, southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba knew little of the American lack, and as they capered on the frozen lakes and rivers, they began to sing songs in which the rhyme was based on the names of trees. Saskatchewan, in a rare show of solidarity, sent bundles of wheat to represent both camaraderie and trees, but the shipments were turned back at the border. The word camaraderie was found to be too close to comrade for the anti-communist border guards' liking. In Winnipeg, Manitoba, a massive sculpture of ice in the shape of a Christmas tree, with a conspicuous lack of presents at its base, began to be chipped out in front of the legislature. It was such an ambiguous image that many found in it what they wished, and more than a few Winnipeggers saw a statement on poverty, although the people from the wealthier parts of the city sent their children in the night with army surplus flame throwers. Alberta, remembering their immigrant history as one-time American citizens, mourned the American loss, and said they would also go without. Ignoring all legislation meant to prevent such arbitrary decisions, they immediately began to harvest the tall spruce and Douglas fir of their parks in order to assuage their grief with capital.

Western Ontario delighted in what riches might befall them when the borders opened, and the forests from Kenora to Sudbury and Cochrane were decimated of their smaller trees to prepare for the financial banquet. Southern Ontario, fed as they were by Toronto-only news, heard little of the American plight, and carried on with their art gallery lunches and their drinking in bars, treasuring the enlightened culture they fancied was distinctive and profound.

The Maritimes were blighted by their own losses, the fisheries having faded many years before, the timber gone, and mines closed. They looked at the American crisis as a child in a candy store might glance at the wares, knowing any feast to be had was not at their behest or invite. Frantic attempts to plant mere rootlets, purchased at great price from a government incentive project, were coddled and dreamed over. Maybe this time the Maritimes would be in the news, maybe this time they would get their big break, they said to themselves, forgetting the heyday of massacre and cod.

When it turned out that Viktoria had merely filed Bob's report after he'd left in a rush and forgotten it, the precious paper, which represented millions in the Canadian public coffers, was delivered to the FBI. They used the paper to solidify their power over the RCMP and members of every RCMP detachment were called upon to attend mandatory training sessions in frisking and body cavity searches. Standing stiff-legged at attention, the RCMP helped the FBI locate Bob in the prison where he'd been packing a parachute for nearly a week, and they forced him to sign the counter bill which released the border from its Christmas-less horror.

Around the United States broad rejoicing was heard. Twelve thousand cottage industries were lost overnight as the many hundreds of American entrepreneurs put a sign on the lawn and advertised a product which could never hope to supply Christmas to the dreaming millions. Instead, the American dollars flowed northward as the president negotiated a trade agreement with Canada which meant the trees sold for just under what it cost to grow them, cutting and shipping presumed to be a free service supplied by the selling country. With great flourish Canadian's trade minister stood with his prime minister and signed away millions of dollars of Canadian hopes with their golden pens, dooming millions to penury and flooding the borders with trees.

The failed mall security who worked at the borders, accustomed to harassing as they were, looked on in blank horror as they were only allowed to beat one trucker in twenty, and the trees were invulnerable to fingering. In the many cities of America, as each homeowner glanced through the security peephole in their door and joyfully accepted the Canadian government-subsidized tree, they were so full of excitement that they forgot to lock their doors against their equally paranoid neighbours. Thus, for the first time since the nation's founding, neighbours spent time with each other, discovered the simple pleasure that can come from an in-house target range and making crank phone calls.

The ecstatic Americans little realized that they'd crushed a million hopes in their ignored neighbours to the north. The Maritimers, in their eternal and well-grounded fatalism, saw that the Christmas tree market had gone the way of all the other schemes, Hibernia, the Bricklin, and toad sales. Lapsing back into their accustomed poverty, many Maritimers blamed the church, and others faraway Ottawa.

In rural Quebec, which had stood against the annexation of their country--as they saw it--with America, the reopening of the border was celebrated with recordings of hockey night in Canada and running the ice on the St Lawrence river. The urban Quebecois, from the racist reform party holdouts in west island Montreal to the autocratic separatists in old Quebec and Rivičre-du-Loup, felt that an opportunity had slipped away from them and they compensated by raising taxes and taking away the baby bonus which encouraged white Quebecois to have children.

In western Ontario, those who had proudly watched as their trees were shipped away and their landscape denuded, financial ruin soon followed. The disadvantageous bargain struck by Ottawa meant that what little money that was to filter to the northern communities lodged in Toronto, where high-priced Bay street lawyers ate it for luncheons and drank it over four martini evenings.

On the prairie, Manitoba and Saskatchewan had tried to hold themselves above the petty frivolity that was American Christmas. Caught in the quagmire of their many religions, celebrating nothing except the birthdays of strange religious leaders, the people on the prairie watched their tiny television sets as distant arguments over trees, which many of them had only seen in pictures, took precedence over pork belly futures and police brutality rates.

In Alberta, feeling more allied than ever with their American compatriots, whole forests were cleared by a hidden oil agenda, although the effort was ostensibly meant to send trees to the US. Processing the trees into black liquor at secret border plants, Albertans offered the trees as a burnable hydrocarbon. Before long the fallout of their thoughtful gift was seen pouring through the skies and choking the stratosphere with new pollutants. Everywhere the toxins declared that Albertan generosity was appreciated by the greedy American power plants.

British Columbia was a divided land over the issue. In the remote backwoods, where yahoos danced to the sour tune of whooping and potato cannons, the opening of the border was celebrated and loads of marijuana shaped like Christmas trees flowed across to Montana and Washington state. In the cities, where a night of clubbing frequently required several complete outfits and activists were so covered in piercings that they were often melted alive for the scrap silver, the call came to close the border. Standing alone against the rest of Canada, urban British Columbia declared Canada to be the only nation that could thwart the transnational evil of globalization. Drinking Starbucks coffee as they declared themselves against the free trade act, which had done so much to enrich American companies at the cost of the Canadian standard of living, only urban British Columbia stood against the reopened border.

The reaction from the rest of Canada was typical. Maritimers said they would no longer go to British Columbia to seek work, a threat that many knew to be empty, and Quebec longed for the simpler days of colonization. Many took to the deep snows of the north seeking out a glorified past and perishing of scurvy and rickets. The prairie people said they'd stand with their western counterparts, except Alberta, which promptly attacked Yoho national park, tearing down many of their signs and leaving hundreds of skiers stranded and directionless.

In interior British Columbia, however, the reaction was immediate and fierce. The yahoos gassed up their giant big-wheeled trucks for the first time in years and set out to attack Vancouver and, if they could find the causeway to Vancouver Island, Victoria as well. Stocking up on liquorice, swish, and wieners, they set out in a vast caravan for the western cities. Unfortunately, the distance from the logging roads and their beer supply told on their morale, and many turned back before they crested the passes which separated them from the prairie, their sense of direction allied with their timid and tenuous reasoning ability.

Only the January thaw, coming early and catching Boxing Day napping, ended the crisis. All over Canada and the US, the Christmas trees which had been so recently avidly desired were pitched over bridges and into alleys. Some communities heaped them and made huge public bonfires, using the opportunity to talk about Easter eggs and rabbit meat. In the rising Red River, trees were sent back north from Fargo and Grand Forks, tinsel weakly glistening from their tops and bobbing in the current until they washed up on the shore of the Winnipeg floodway. There prairie people poked at the mud encrusted representations of Christmas in confusion, their knowledge of their American neighbours still wanting.

In Alberta, the Jasper and Banff passes were closed, and since no one knew of Peace River country and the Crowsnest, cross country traffic was effectively closed. Only those intrepid souls who braved the border trickled through, and most of them suffered trauma for their temerity in trying the open border. Talks between Quebec and Utica broke down and even cigarettes, the sole income of cross-border reserves, slowed to a mere hundred packs a day. Many Montrealers, addicted to cheap cigarette smoke in their grocery store aisles, had to be hospitalized.

In Prince Edward Island, Anne's house was reassembled for the expected sudden rush of tourism, and on the Rock, moose were driven away from the streets of St John's with stones. Nova Scotia, secretly allying itself with Maine, found its ferry transport impossible in the north Atlantic storms, and their one-sided relationship broke down until summer and the possibility of a weak Canadian dollar repairing it. The residents of New Brunswick, the forgotten province, surrounded by suddenly sprouting forest of tiny trees began to dream of a return of the forestry industry, and even while Irving was mowing trees, New Brunswickers whiled away the sudden warmth by imagining that this latest windfall would be the big one.

Caught by a carbon tax that they could not afford to pay, Alberta dug up Dinosaur Provincial Park, hoping for tar below the world heritage site. In the greatly-criticized process, they inadvertently found a species of dinosaur that had remained previously undiscovered, and Alberta was once again on the map. Moving the disinterred bones to a site closer to Calgary, where the tar sands attempts didn't hide the fossil's natural beauty, Alberta touted this most recent addition to their tourism industry and contribution to science, even while the South Saskatchewan River ran arsenic from the mines over the southern grain fields of their neighbours.

British Columbia settled back into an uneasy truce between the backwoods, right-wing, fanatically religious, truck-driving yahoos and the overdressed, tofu-eating, cyclists of the cities. Drawing up a series of confusing signs which obscured where the cities actually were, the urban yuppies paraded their superiority even while their police watched the Coquihalla for the next migrant wave of tobacco chewing hicks whose huge trucks would drive right over the smart cars and rickshaws of Kitsilano.

In the far north, on the edge of the known world, a handful of Dené and Inuit watched on their televisions as the drama unfolded and then packed itself away in the remote southern corridors of power and abuse. Shaking their heads over the travails of the sun-eaters, they listened to the howling wind that rose when the televisions were shut off. Santa Claus was buried to his neck in snow, the reindeers had been eaten when the government food allowance was cut, and the elves, dressed only in green tights, had run away onto the ice, their frigid bodies splayed in horrible postures of despair. Christmas was as far away as summer, and gifts an ignorant joke.

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