- Historic Sites
For an American, there is an ironic clue to the history of our neighbor to the north; she became a nation because her people did not wish to be swallowed up by the United States Quant aux Canadiens français, ils ne voulaient pas seulement éviter être absorbés par les États-Unis; ils ne voulaient pas davantage être absorbés parleurs compatriotes “anglais”
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
Still another irony appeared immediately afterward: the arrival in Canada of loyalists who had opposed the Revolution and who now experienced the dubious honor of being the first people in the Christian era to be driven from their homeland solely for their political principles. Some were tarred and feathered, some whipped; many suffered the confiscation of their lands and homes. It is a common belief in the United States that the loyalists were rich, selfish, and privileged persons, traitors to democracy and exploiters of the poor. Perhaps some were; so were some of the slaveowners who supported the Revolution. But the lists of the loyalists who arrived on ships in New Brunswick show few rich men; rather they reveal a cross-section of the American population. With few exceptions, the loyalists opposed the Revolution on principle, and the principle was an honorable one.
The most accessible place for them to go was to what then remained of British North America. By ship and on foot they came in their thousands, settling in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, the eastern townships of Quebec, and in the wilderness that then was called Upper Canada and now is called Ontario. Their arrival made it almost inevitable that in the future a Canadian nation would exist; it also made it sure that this nation would be an uneasy political home.
For just as the French Canadians were determined to keep alive the French Fact in America, so the loyalists were determined to keep alive the British Fact. From the beginning they and the French were rivals, antipathetic in their political traditions, their memories, their religions, and their collective aims. But they did have certain common denominators. Both were political orphans. Both tended to overvalue, even to glorify, the lost causes for which they had suffered so much. Bereft of a capital in Paris, the French Canadians transferred their supreme loyalty to the Vatican. The former Americans became more British than the king. Just as every French-Canadian village was called after a saint, so nearly every new town or county in Ontario was called after a member of the Royal Family or a cabinet officer in His Majesty’s Government.
One more element in Canada’s future was introduced by this aftermath of the American Revolution: the nation was predestined to a double ambivalence. Religious differences made matrimony—the truest welding of all—as impossible as historical backgrounds made political unity. It is conceivable that these initial differences and antagonisms would have been irreconcilable had it not been for the appearance of still another defeated group, the Highlanders whose clans had been crushed in Bonnie Prince Charlie’s rebellion in 1745. They came to Canada as deportees or simply as men made landless by the cruel system of enclosures in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In the early days of British North America, these Highlanders did more than serve as a kind of cement between the French and the English. They were less conservative than either group because they were totally freed from their crippling past. Men like Simon McTavish, James McGill, and Alexander Mackenzie became dominant in the fur trade and in much of the business of Montreal. In Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island the Scots did less well financially because they lacked opportunities. But they turned eagerly to education, and for a century and a half the most important export from that region has been brains, both in education and in finance.
So there you have the nucleus of modern Canada, her “charter members,” as the social scientist Jean-Charles Falardeau has called them: three racial groups speaking three different languages (when the Highlanders arrived, few of them spoke English), each imbued with a sense of its own past and shocked by three total, if separate, defeats in war. Survival was the chief aim of them all, and at the close of the eighteenth century Canada was one of the most difficult lands for civilized men to survive in.
Though people did not know it then, even the fur trade was shortly to come to an end as a serious economic factor. As often happens in such cases, its sunset was magnificent. The Montrealers of the North West Company, in competition with the London-controlled Hudson’s Bay Company, now pressed their operations beyond Lake Athabasca. This is not the place to relate the story of those fantastic canoe voyages in which French-Canadian paddlers, generally led by a Scot who was a partner in the company, stroked at the average rate of forty to the minute sometimes for sixteen hours a day, portaged their canoes and loads at a dogtrot, and were expected to move a cargo of trade goods from Montreal to Fort William and to return with a load of furs (shipped by other voyageurs along the chain of rivers and lakes from the Athabasca country) in a single summer season. In 1789, Alexander Mackenzie led a party from Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca down the Slave River to Great Slave Lake, crossed the lake’s southwestern end, discovered the egress of the great river of the North which now is called after him, and in less than six weeks reached the Arctic Ocean. Four years later, thirteen years before Lewis and Clark, Mackenzie reached the Pacific coast overland. In 1807 Simon Fraser followed in his trail down the Fraser River to salt water. In 1811 the North West Company’s great geographer, David Thompson, discovered the Columbia and explored it to its mouth.∗ Mackenzie’s venture is recounted in “First by Land” in the October, 1957, AMERICAN HERITAGE ; “A Man to Match the Mountains,” in the October, 1960, issue, chronicles Thompson’s feat.