Last week I quoted at length from the introduction to Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush by Pierre Berton. Here's more of the same. This was written in 1972 for the revised edition of the book.
The differing behaviour of the two military forces during the stampede - the American infantry companies and the Canadian Mounted police - gives a further insight into Canadian and American attitudes towards law, order, freedom and anarchy. The American style was to stand aside and let the civilians work out matters for themselves even at risk of inefficiency, chaos, and bloodshed. The Canadian style was to interfere at every step of the way in the interests of order, harmony and the protection of life and property.

During the entire stampede winter, with one brief exception, the United States military held themselves aloof from events in Skagway. The commissioner pocketed public funds; the deputy marshal worked hand in glove with gangsters; men were shot, robbed, and cheated; and the town was under the thrall of an engaging but unscrupulous confidence man who was even allowed to raise a personal army. Skagway was permitted to solve its own problems in the approved American frontier style. In the end, a vigilante committee was formed, the traditional shoot-out took place, and the dictator was violently removed from the scene. Only when the mob threatened to lynch one of the gang did the infantry step in to stop further bloodshed. But previous lynchings, hangings and whippings had taken place on both American trails without interference from the authorities.

On the Canadian side of the passes, conditions were totally different. Here the soldiers were also policemen, appointed from above in the British colonial tradition. Their job was to maintain order, for it has seemed to be a Canadian quality to opt for order before freedom. The Canadians accepted the benevolent dictatorship of the Mounted Police as a later generation accepted the strictures of the War Measures Act in Quebec. Safety and security, order and harmony - these are qualities that Canadians prize more highly than their neighbours, in spite of all the talk of "law and order" south of the border. It is no accident that we have more per capita money safely invested in banks and insurance than any other civilized nation; the influence of the Loyalists and the Scots (who control so many of our institutions, educational and financial) has made us a prudent race. "Welfare" is a word that has always smacked of authoritarianism to the American individualist; "security" was for years the object of propaganda attacks by American entrepreneurs. There was very little security in Skagway during the stampeded winter, but on the Canadian side, packs loaded with nuggets could be left for a fortnight on the trail without being touched and boats could travel for five hundred miles through unknown waters and be reasonably sure of reaching their destinations because the Mounties, like stern fathers, were on hand to protect the boatmen from themselves. The Americans were often irked by this paternalism. At the Whitehorse Rapids, when Steele laid down the law and refused to allow them to take their own boats through, some of them protested aloud. The scene, which is almost Biblical in its intensity, could scarcely occurred on the American side of the border, where every citizen considered he had the God-given right to drown himself if he wished.

. . . .

Dawson was also a gunless town, virtually devoid of violence. This is one of the several points of confusion about the Klondike that has bedeviled the American media. Writers and fact and fiction and of motion picture and television scripts have never been able to get it into their heads that the right to carry a gun, of which Americans are so proud, has never been recognized on our side of the border. It is hard for Americans to realize that the Klondike strike took place on Canadian soil (letters still arrive, as they did in my day, addressed "Dawson City, Alaska") and, when they do realize it, even harder for them to accept the fact that our customs and our traditions differ so markedly from their own.

Shortly after Klondike was published in the United States, an American company purchased the television rights and proceeded to launch a series supposedly based on the incidents in the book. The original idea was to have an American frontier marshal play the central figure - until I explained to the production people that Canadians did not elect or even appoint frontier marshals. An alternative suggestion was mooted: the central character would be a "frontier marshal type," elected by the miners of Dawson City to bring law and order to the Klondike. It became necessary then to explain that the Canadian government not only sent about forty Mounted Policemen to patrol the streets of Dawson but also prudently followed this up with a Yukon Field Force of more than two hundred soldiers. The television company finally decided to move the action out of Dawson and into Skagway, Alaska, where the myth of the American frontier could once again be acted out in all its familiar variations. The Canadian aspects of the tale were ignored but perhaps, in retrospect, that was for the best.
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From the You'll Be Criticized No Matter What You Do Department, a few readers took exception to my enjoyment of Pierre Berton. Don't worry. I know that all history is written with a point of view and never without bias. I don't believe any historian writes The Truth with a capital T - not even my hero Howard Zinn.

But being educated in US, I have no background in Canadian history, and I want to learn. I enjoy Berton's writing. He has a great talent for illuminating the little details that bring a scene to life. The writing simply sparkles on the page. I've also read that his scholarship was excellent and his basic facts and story lines are to be trusted. I don't need a medal for wanting to learn about the history of my new country, but damn, I don't need to be slammed for it, either.

Back when we were still in New York, Allan asked those early wmtc readers if there was a Canadian equivalent of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. This is a famous re-telling of American history from the points of view that were omitted from the Official Story - the history of slave rebellion, of native resistance, labour organizing, civil rights. It's an unraveling of propaganda, a witness to people's movements, and a testament to the power of what organized people can accomplish.

We never found out if there is a Canadian equivalent. Canada's place in the world being so different than the US's, perhaps its history is less in need of such an antidote. But every nation has its myths and propaganda. Does anyone know if there is a "Canadian Howard Zinn"?

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