- Historic Sites
By Canoe To Empire
Paddling and portaging their way westward, pursuing the fur-bearing beaver in a trade where none but the hardiest could survive, the highhearted voyageurs and the enterprising Scots who led them opened Canada’s rich hinterland
October 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 6
Few lands have been fought over so bitterly as Canada in the eighteenth century; and yet, at the time it was considered by most people to be practically worthless. Voltaire’s dismissal of the St. Lawrence Valley as “a few acres of snow” is almost too well-known to repeat; it is less well-known that Montcalm, who now is a Canadian hero, loathed the country he fought to defend. The British never valued Canada for herself. Just before the peace conference which ended the Seven Years’ War there was strong pressure in England in favor of trading Canada back to France in return for Guadeloupe. This little Carib isle grew sugar which makes rum, and because many people like rum, rum will always have an economic future.
In early days few people liked the Land of Cain or the Land of Snows—as some called Canada—nor did many believe that it could possibly have an economic future worth mentioning. Had it not been for the strategic necessity of securing the St. Lawrence as a highroad into the Ohio territory, and also of protecting the northern flank of the rich thirteen colonies, Guadeloupe might easily have been England’s choice.
Nor would the British of that time have been absurd if they had made such a choice. Canada may have had, as Dr. Johnson remarked of Lapland and the Scottish Highlands, “prodigious wild and noble prospects,” but the Age of Reason saw nothing beautiful in wild and noble prospects, and certainly nothing useful. Least of all could the British recognize any economic future in a terrain shaggy with evergreens and horrid (to them the word meant “bristling”) with the rocky outcroppings of the Pre-Cambrian shield. In addition to all these disadvantages there was the Canadian climate.
Once more we cannot consider the British to have been stupid. The gold and practical metals of the shield were still locked there, hidden, awaiting a twentieth-century technology to make them available to men. Two centuries ago nobody understood the value of petroleum, and even if they had known that a lake of it existed under the Alberta plain, it would not have mattered. From the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company the English might have picked up some vague information about prairie soils, but they would have presumed them unfavorable to any large creatures except the buffalo which browsed and multiplied in the knee-high grass of a pasture a thousand miles wide. After fearful hardships in the early 1800’s, the Selkirk settlers managed to keep themselves alive in Manitoba, but for decades they were the most isolated farmers in North America. Railways had to be built, farm implements mechanized, grain elevators invented before wheat growing could become the huge industry it is today. As for the timber of the Canadian East, it never transcended a local use before Napoleon sealed off the Baltic ports from British shipping and made it profitable for Canadian businessmen to export timber for the masts and decks of the Royal Navy. Most of Canada, just like Siberia, had to await the age of technology before it could be developed.
Two centuries ago—and this the English understood when they toyed with the idea of exchanging Canada for Guadeloupe—the sole profitable Canadian enterprises were fur trading and the coastal fisheries. Of these, only the former was of real and continuing interest to the capitals of Europe.
Far different was the situation south of what is now the Canadian-American border. With climates ranging from temperate to subtropical, the American English soon developed an economy of considerable variety. Towns and cities flourished on the fertile lands between the sea and the Appalachians. The ports were all ice-free and in easy contact with Europe and the West Indies. By the middle of the eighteenth century a mature urban culture had grown in cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston, and its capacity to offer outlets to a variety of human resources and talents was soon proved by the kind of men it produced. The careers, interests, and abilities of men like Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Jay were of a kind that could not have been developed in the Canada of that time, any more than the careers and abilities of men like the explorers Peter Pond and Alexander Mackenzie could have been developed within the thirteen colonies. Sophistication is the product of universities and the variety of urban life; epic adventures, of a society much more primitive.
In the early days the Canadian experience was epic, and the price of such an experience is roughness and lack of education. As late as 1800, James McGill, the founder of the great university which bears his name, wrote to the governor of Lower Canada that not one boy in five in the Montreal area could write his own name. Reading and writing were of no use to a canoe man (nearly all the engagés in the fur trade signed with an X), and for a hundred and fifty years young French Canadians had been growing up along the St. Lawrence expecting to earn their livings on the rivers leading into the West.