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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
The last of the supremely great French discoverers, and surely one of the most interesting, was Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, Sieur de la Vérendrye. Born in Three Rivers in 1685 (the same year, incidentally, in which Handel and Johann Sebastian Bach were born) La Vérendrye first served in colonial wars, then went to Europe to fight in the War of the Spanish Succession. Some years after his final return, when already over forty, he took to the rivers. Armed with a monopoly for the far-western fur trade, La Vérendrye was at Grand Portage in 1731 with a party of some fifty men, including three of his sons. He worked out a route through the maze of small streams, lakes, and muskeg of the western shield, and in 1734 the first white man’s fort was built on the black earth of Manitoba. The vast central plain lay open to him. The Assiniboine and the South Saskatchewan rivers wound across it and led men of the La Vérendrye party into sight of a range that may possibly have been the Rockies, a century and a quarter after the first voyage above the rapids at Lachine.
Nothing in later years was as epic as the sustained efforts of these early Frenchmen. It could not be. In later years the white men were better armed, and though the Indians in the Canadian West could be dangerous, they seldom if ever displayed the appalling cruelty and military vigor of the eastern savages who tortured the Jesuit Brébeuf to death. After the Hurons killed Étienne Brublé, they ate him.
These facts are familiar: I repeat them only to underline the desperate nature of the early Canadian experience. There was no discharge from this war, at least not for the dedicated man. The isolation of the voyageurs, the knowledge that they were self-condemned to a life of hardship and danger before which, ultimately, their physical and moral powers were bound to fail—these thoughts haunted the bravest and boldest among them. They lacked the consolation of soldiers who risk their lives, for what they did was done without an audience, without the support of a disciplined regiment or army. They could not even communicate their experiences to civilized men, because civilized men lacked the knowledge and background to understand what they meant when they told them that the winter had descended before they could reach a base camp, or that such and such a number of portages had been made or rapids run in such and such a number of days.
Thoughts like these were in Radisson’s mind when he wrote a passage with the force of poetry:
What fairer bastion than a good tongue, especially when one sees his owne chimney smoak, or when we can kisse our owne wife or kisse our neighbour’s wife with ease and delight? It is a different thing when victuals are wanting, worke whole nights & dayes, lye down on the bare ground, & not always that hap, the breech in the water, the feare in the buttocks, to have the belly empty, the wearinesse in the bones, the drowsinesse in the body by the bad weather you are to suffer, having nothing to keep you from such calamity.
When New France fell and was ceded to England in 1763, the control of the Canadian fur trade passed from the French forever. English-speaking men, most of them Scottish Highlanders, now appeared in the trade, working with the experienced French-Canadian voyageurs who served under them in the North West Company as engagés. It was a partnership vital for the future of Canada, and the beginning of the Scottish influence in Canadian affairs.
For it was about this time that the Highland Scotch had finally reached the end of their long, brave, but self-damaging struggle for independence against the Anglo-Saxons of the south. The English had conquered them in 1745 and doomed the clansman’s way of life. At the best of times it had been a poor life in a poor country: it has been remarked more than once that only the Highlanders and the French Canadians had the necessary background of poverty to qualify them for a life on the Canadian rivers. Already the Hudson’s Bay Company, scouring the British Isles for men hardy, desperate, and disciplined enough to entice into the trade, had been recruiting Orkneymen from the rocks of ultima Thule, shipping them by the northern route into Hudson Bay and putting them to work there.
Simon McTavish, the master of the North West Company, lived in Montreal like a lord and had something of the temperament and style of a Highland chief of the better sort, though his Scottish ancestry was probably less exalted than he liked to pretend. All of these Highlanders—as distinct from the patient Orkneymen—had the intense personal pride of a race never noted for its emotional balance. This may have been one reason why they had so little sympathy for the slogans of the democratic revolution then brewing in the thirteen colonies. That revolution came out of the middle classes, and the Highlands had never had a middle class.