By Canoe To Empire


This final leap across two-fifths of Ontario, across Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and some or all of Alberta, all of it tending north, was a race against time even more intense than the run from Montreal to the head of Lake Superior. So close was the margin between the meeting with the Montreal canoes and the coming of frost that a delay of a few days might ruin a whole voyage. According to Alexander Mackenzie, the Athabaskan brigades generally left Rainy Lake on August 1 and had to reach Chipewyan inside two months.

What of the canoes and of the men themselves?

By the time the North West Company was established, the art of canoe handling had so matured on the rivers that the French Canadians were much more mobile than the men of the Hudson’s Bay Company. British as they were, the Bay men clung for a time to wooden bateaux. The Nor’westers used two types of canoe which they called the canot du maître and the canot du nord, the former for the run out of Montreal, the latter, which was lighter and carried less than a ton and a half of cargo, for the run west of Fort William where the streams were shallower and tracking more frequent. The canot du nord often carried a crew of no more than five men.

But the canot du maître was a considerable craft. It had a wide beam, a remarkably high strake, and high, curved bows. It was gaily painted and traveled with a pennant blowing out from its stern and often with the picture of an Indian’s head on its bows. A variety of pictures of these larger canoes survive, and one of them (see page 6) has a feature which perhaps was more interesting than the canoe itself.

This was no less a personage than Sir George Simpson, the “Big Bourgeois” of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the chief destroyer of the Nor’westers, and in his old age one of the richest men in Montreal. After the Bay Company absorbed the North West Company it not only employed the skilled Canadian voyageurs; even before that time it had adopted the classic Canadian canoes. In this picture Simpson sits in the middle wearing a top hat of massive proportions, as did many of the “bourgeois” (this was the old French name for the proprietor or company partner) while en voyage. The top hat was a mark of their quality and station. In Simpson’s canoe the paddlemen are seated as usual two abreast, and the bowman and steersman are in their usual places. But directly behind Simpson, who wears a grim expression on one of the most haughty faces in Canadian history, are a pair of undersized, wild-looking characters blowing bagpipes.

The presence of these pipers in Simpson’s canoe gives the “Big Bourgeois” an extra dimension. People who worked for him knew that he was the toughest employer there ever was in a notoriously tough trade. He pinched pennies, he was ruthless, he squeezed out of his servants the last ounce of work, he paid them as little as he possibly could. One knows that Simpson understood the value of every square foot of every canoe or York boat in the service of his company. And yet, there sits that pair of private pipers! The Scotch are a peculiar people, and never more so than when they try to out-English the English in cold calculation after they have gone into business and made a success of it. But the old wildness never quite leaves the pure Scot. Behind the granite features of George Simpson, underneath his brutal surface callousness, the primitive heat burned, and hence that pair of pipers. Without them, the canot du maître could have carried at least two hundred more pounds of trade goods. Yet Simpson sacrificed money for the pipers.

But there were no pipers, no luxuries, for the average engagés —the paid voyageurs of the fur-trading companies. Day after day from dawn to dusk, sometimes eighteen hours daily, they drove those loaded canoes back and forth across the continent. As they paddled they sang the old French songs and some others of their own making. In favoring currents they could swing the stroke easily, but in adverse currents or dead water their paddles bit hard. The average rate of stroking was forty to the minute, but often they stroked at the rate of one per second, in perfect time and with only a few stops in the course of the day. The stops were called “a pipe,” and their length depended on the state of the men. Travelers carried in canoes have testified that after twelve hours’ paddling, with only three stops of ten to fifteen minutes each, those incredible French Canadians refused to stop because they were still “fresh.” Their sense of competition with one another was Homeric. Duncan McGillivray once witnessed a race in Lake Winnipeg between Athabaska men and a rival brigade. The men paddled all out for forty-eight consecutive hours without once leaving their canoes! A steersman collapsed into sleep, fell overboard, and would have been drowned had not his own canoe gone back for him; his muscles were paralyzed by the shock of the frigid water and he was sinking under the weight of his clothes. In this race as the men stroked, the guides cut off hunks of pemmican and thrust them into the mouths of the paddlers.