11.05.2006

stampede

When we were in New York in September, out with our friends Alan With One L and Frederick, we got to talking about (big surprise) the differences between Canada and the US, and conjecturing on what those differences stem from. Alan asked if Canada had a "Wild West" in its history like the US did.

I thought of that conversation when I read this on the train this morning. From Pierre Berton's introduction to Klondike:
It has often been said (usually by Americans) that there is no great difference between those who live south of the forty-ninth parallel and those of us who live on the Canadian side; but the Klondike experience supplies a good deal of evidence to support the theory that our history and our geography have helped to make us a distinct people - not better and not worse - but different in style, background, attitude, and temperament from our neighbours.

Our national character has not been tempered in the crucible of violence, and our attitudes during the stampede [i.e., the gold rush] underline this historic truth. In all the Americas ours is the only country that did not separate violently from its European parents. We remained loyal and obedient, safe and relatively dispassionate, and we welcomed to our shores those other loyalists who opted for the status quo. If this lack of revolutionary passion has given us a reasonably tranquil history, it has also, no doubt, contributed to our well-known lack of daring. It is almost a Canadian axiom that we would rather be safe than sorry; alas, we are sometimes sorry that we are so safe.

Happily, we have had very little bloodshed in our history. Our rare insurrections have been fought on tiny stages blown up out of all proportion by the horrifying fact that they have occurred at all. Lynchings are foreign to us and so is gangsterism. The concept of barroom shoot-outs and duels in the sun have no part in our tradition either, possibly because we have had so few barrooms and so little sun. (It is awkward to reach efficiently for a six-gun while wearing a parka and two pairs of mittens.) When sudden, unreasoning violence does occur, as it did when Pierre Laporte was murdered in October, 1970, we tend to over-react. That was, after all, our first political assassination in more than a century and only the second in our history.

. . .

We have been lucky with our history. The American frontier was wrested violently from the Indians and that violence continued until the frontier was tamed. Our own experience came later. The Hudson's Bay Company, which held the hinterland in thrall for generations, and the Canadian Shield, which retarded the settlement of the plains in the days before the railroad, have been seen as drawbacks to progress. And yet this tardy exploitation of the North West is one of the reasons why we have no Wild West tradition. There was a time when we might have welcomed a more violent kind of frontier mythology, but that time is past.

Every television addict knows that the two mythologies differ markedly. The Americans elected their lawmen - county sheriffs and town marshals - whose gun-slinging exploits helped forge their western legends. Summary justice by groups of vigilantes or hastily deputized posses was part of that legend. If the American frontier was not as violent as the media suggest [my note: it was probably more so!], it was certainly violent compared with the Canadian frontier. There were no boot hills or hanging trees in our North West, and the idea that a community could take the law into its own hands or that a policeman might be elected by popular suffrage did not enter the heads of a people whose roots were stubbornly colonial and loyalist and whose heritage did not include anything as inflammatory as a Boston Tea Party. A variety of incidents on the Klondike trails bears this out, but the Klondike stampede was not the first occasion when the two traditions clashed on the soil of British North America.

In 1858, a newspaper report reaching California of the discovery of gold on the Fraser River caused an almost immediate stampede of some thirty thousand Americans to what was then the sparsely populated Hudson's Bay Company domain of New Caledonia. Almost instantly, all the institutions of the American mining camp were established on British soil: the gambling-houses, the sure-thing games, the dance halls and saloons, the crooked trading posts, and, above all, the quasi-legal institution of the "miners' meeting," which, though it embodied all the grassroots democracy of a Swiss canton, had helped to give the California camps their reputation for lawlessness. All the ingredients, then, were present for frontier violence. Indian revolution was not beyond the realm of possibility. And there was the clear danger that the territory itself might come under American sovereignty, as Oregon had when Yankee settlers poured in.

In the face of this threat, the British government moved with commendable celerity. Within a few weeks, New Caledonia had become a crown colony under James Douglas, Governor of Vancouver Island, and a force of soldiers and lawmakers had been dispatched to the Fraser gold-fields.

British justice arrived in the person of that bewhiskered giant, Matthew Baillie Begbie, who proceeded to enforce the law toughly but fairly for Canadian and American alike. Judge Begbie, who thought that democracy was akin to anarchy, established a territorial council whose authoritarianism came under bitter criticism, but he undoubtedly prevented bloodshed among both Indians and whites, saved British Columbia for Canada, and established a pattern that was clearly, followed by the Canadian government in 1897 and 1898.

. . . .

The second clash between the American and British traditions led to the formation of the North West Mounted Police and the founding of a Canadian frontier mythology that contrasted dramatically with the American. In the late 1860's, a veteran Indian fighter and lawman named John J. Healy (whom the reader will encounter throughout this book) moved up from Montana into what is now southern Alberta to build Fort Whoop-Up, the best known of the American "whiskey forts." Healy and his fellows were intent on making their fortunes by selling a hideous concoction of raw whiskey, red pepper, Jamaica ginger, and hot water to the Indians in exchange for furs. Small wonder that the forts - Robbers' Roost, Fort Stand-Off, Whiskey Gap, and others - were built of heavy logs and defended by cannon: under the influence of such a devil's brew, the Indians were perfectly prepared to massacre the men who sold it to them. It was the natives, however, who suffered a massacre. Some thirty-six Assiniboines were cruelly butchered in the Cypress Hills by Yankee frontiersmen who clung to the tradition that the only good redskin was a dead one.

This was not the tradition of the Canadian frontier. Our handling of the Indians was both callous and unthinking, but our philosophy never included purposeful genocide. For one thing, the Indians were far too valuable to the paternalistic Hudson's Bay Company to be slaughtered indiscriminately. The colonial government and its autonomous successors were equally paternalistic - towards whites as well as towards natives - and when news of the Cypress Hills affair reached Ottawa, the Mounted Police came into being with all the traditions of a colonial constabulary....
I've heard Canadians compare the historical treatment of First Nations people in Canada to that of Native Americans in the US. I'm not defending anything indefensible done in British North America or Canada, but perhaps Canadians don't realize that the US Army was sent west expressly to slaughter its residents. Berton is not prone to exaggeration: it was indeed "purposeful genocide". I've always felt that conjoined-twin legacies of slavery and genocide, upon which the US was founded, has much to do with where it stands today.

21 comments:

sister.susie said...

It is awkward to reach efficiently for a six-gun while wearing a parka and two pairs of mittens.

Ya gotta love that line. It's funny but true. The landscape is such a determining element in Canadian history and literature.

And even in 2006, in Winnipeg, the weather/landscape is revered as much as it is reviled. We might think we control our environment, but a power outtage in January that lasts for more than a few hours will show us all who's calling the shots.

Pierre Berton rocks.

lenny said...

While there was certainly a huge difference between the British/Canadian and American policies regarding First Nations, I think the difference was almost entirely due to different economic interests. The expansion of Canada was driven by the fur trade, and First Nations were the indispensable suppliers of the furs. It would have been pretty bad for business to slaughter them.
Klondike is one of my favourite Berton books along with The Arctic Grail. The best history of the fur trade I've read is Peter C. Neuman's
Company of Adventurers and Caesars of the Wilderness.

L-girl said...

, I think the difference was almost entirely due to different economic interests.

Of course! As all policies were.

The different countries have given the countries different legacies. That doesn't mean the original motives were high-minded in any way.

L-girl said...

Klondike is one of my favourite Berton books along with The Arctic Grail.

Oo, goody :)

I believe Peter Neuman is the author of the history of the Hudsons Bay Company?

L-girl said...

We might think we control our environment, but a power outtage in January that lasts for more than a few hours will show us all who's calling the shots.

Or, in the case of Hurricane Katrina, who was not calling the shots.

lenny said...

Together those books cover the histories of the Hudson's Bay Co. and the Northwest Co.

L-girl said...

Cool, thanks. Are you a regular wmtc reader? Just curious.

lenny said...

I'm a fairly regular reader, but I guess I don't read too well because I missed this line, "For one thing, the Indians were far too valuable to the paternalistic Hudson's Bay Company to be slaughtered indiscriminately" when I posted my initial comment.

L-girl said...

Heh. It was still worth pointing out. Plus it got you to leave a comment, which is good. :-)

M@ said...

The one time I talked to Pierre Berton (shortly before his death), he said more than once, "In the battle between history and geography, geography always wins." In the context, we were discussing why Canada was more American than British. But I think it explains a lot about both our similarities to our neighbours, and the differences. The differences are subtle, but they're there.

What I mean is, we might have had a similar historical reason (racism and colonialism) to treat the natives poor;y, but geographical constraints kept us on less hostile terms with them.

Obviously it's not an easy thing, to separate the historical and geographical factors, but it at least gives us a way to delve into these complex questions.

L-girl said...

The one time I talked to Pierre Berton (shortly before his death), he said more than once, "In the battle between history and geography, geography always wins."

Did he???

I say constantly (here, to myself, to Allan, to anyone) "Geography is destiny". The more I learn, the more I believe it. You've just given me a Pierre Berton Seal of Approval for my thoughts. Thank you!!

I'm glad you met and spoke with Berton. I wrote in - then deleted from - this post that I wish I had met him. I wish he had been alive when I decided to move to Canada. I would have written him a letter of appreciation.

So tell us where and how you came to speak with him. You may have told us before, but please repeat yourself?

James said...

I know you guys have been ragging on me for my off-topic posts ;) but I thought you'd like to know that WMTC got a great mention in a very well-known "racism-watch" type blog, Orcinus.

For those who don't know it, Orcinus is the home blog of David Neiwert, author of Strawberry Days (about the Japense internments in WWII), and In God's Country, on the "Patriot" movement.

Sara Robinson, the other contributor to Orcinus and a US expat living in Vancouver, has a nice post about Laura's "I'm not voting" post. She takes a different tack than Laura on the matter of expats voting, and makes a point I was thinking of making but never got around to.

Her post starts:

One of our favorite Canadian blogs is We Move To Canada, the continuing saga of an American family's experience as they emigrate to the True North Strong and Free. (And a necessary first stop for those of you murmuring to yourselves, "That's it. This is crazy. I'm moving to Canada. No, I really mean it this time….")

Yesterday, WMTC's L-Girl weighed in on the upcoming U.S. elections with a sentiment I've heard from many Americans who've lived here for a while, and have let Uncle Sam drop off their Christmas card list.

L-girl said...

I know you guys have been ragging on me for my off-topic posts ;)

*blush* I felt bad the second you showed up.

but I thought you'd like to know that WMTC got a great mention in a very well-known "racism-watch" type blog, Orcinus.

Now this is the kind of off-topic comment that is always very welcome! ;-)

Thanks for telling me! This didn't show up on my daily Technorati search or in my Statcounter. I'll go check it out.

M@ said...

So tell us where and how you came to speak with him. You may have told us before, but please repeat yourself?

Well, I declined to include this in my original comment because I was worried I'd told the story here before. But here goes.

A friend of mine (who shall remain anonymous!) is a photographer and occasionally did work for Frank magazine (back when it was relevant). I don't remember how he got involved, it was the kind of thing where a friend of his would throw him the work whenever he couldn't take it himself. It was a huge thrill for my friend, as our crowd were constant Frank readers in university.

The work was basically weaselling into big events under cover of some fake magazine credentials, and then taking pictures of Canada's A- and B-list celebrities in unflattering poses. The magazine would supply the amusing and insulting captions. Ah, Michael Bate, saviour of the Canadian satire.

So anyhow, my friend got the assignment to cover Pierre Berton's book launch for Marching As To War in the Military Club (I think) on University Street in Toronto, and he invited me along. I put on my best suit and we shammed our way in.

As we came in, the organizers were all over us -- somehow they had totally bought our cover story. They assured me that they would try to get me time with Pierre himself, though I protested that, hey, just being here was enough.

So we hit the room and mingled. I talked to some Wealthy Dowresses and drank the free scotch. My friend took pictures of John Turner, Andy Barrie, and I forget who else. Pierre Berton finally arrived, over an hour late.

He was already very unwell. His voice was very weak and he was having a lot of trouble walking. He gave about a quarter hour's talk and was done. I seem to remember not thinking much of what he said, too, but I don't remember why.

Anyhow, an organizer-woman soon came and said "you're next!" and I was ushered into a back room. A reporter from CFRB was interviewing, asking the predictable questions ("Do you think that schoolkids should know more about history? Gosh!") and Berton seemed almost asleep. So she wrapped up and I was plonked into the chair in front of the Great Man.

So I drew on all my Minor-in-History acumen. I don't even remember what we talked about (though I know I have the notes somewhere). I was worried the whole time that I was just boring or annoying him, so I kept asking questions about his approach to history -- he's regarded as a popular historian, and I was trying to get a sense of where he saw himself in the spectrum between academia and the saccharine simplistic view of history. We basically agreed that he was somewhere in the middle, but he had become more accepted by the academic end of things over the years.

Sensitive that I might be overstaying my welcome, I thanked him and he immediately kind of clammed up and readied himself to go. I thought I had come off as a total idiot. But my friend, who behind me had been taking pictures the whole time, assured me that Berton had seemed far more animated and interested while I had been talking to him.

And the pictures didn't turn out. Somehow he had screwed it up and all his medium-format portraits were useless! Argh.

But anyhow. I can always fall back on the fact that I had a chat with Pierre Berton, had not been exposed asa fraud, and he seemed interested in the conversation too. If only I could remember what the hell we had been talking about! Someday I'll come across those notes again, I guess.

L-girl said...

M@, I love this story, and it's not at all what I was expecting! There was a time when scamming my way into press events was a favourite pastime of mine.

I can really appreciate how you felt speaking to Berton and your concerns afterwards. Early in my writing career, I always worried if I came off as a professional or sounded like an idiot. Although I went to university, I'm a self-taught journalist, and I used to really wonder if I was "doing it right" - and my subjects were not famous people.

Fortunately for me, by the time I did interview some famous people, I was over that.

Allan has spoken to a lot of famous musicians. Although he's more shy and less outgoing than me, he always seemed (to my eyes) comfortable speaking with them. Maybe the discomfort is usually just inside us anyway.

Scott M. said...

It has been my experience that many people think they did a lousy job when "performing" for folks, be it one-on-one or on a stage. Usually one is not nearly as bad as one thinks.

However, when it is natural, and you're just sharing a coffee at an airport for example, you never feel nervous -- however, there's a chance that you did a worse "job" than you thought.

(This brought to you from the person who beats himself up for everything).

L-girl said...

It has been my experience that many people think they did a lousy job when "performing" for folks, be it one-on-one or on a stage. Usually one is not nearly as bad as one thinks.

This is very true. I remind myself and others of this all the time.

I believe strongly in doing things I'm afraid of. If I really want to do something, but the only thing stopping me is fear, then I try to do it.

If this involves anything that can be construed as performing, in any sense, I always feel I didn't do well. So I remind myself I probably did better than I thought - and, more importantly, I did it.

We're way off topic here, but I like how we got here. :)

M@ said...

Well I guess it was the dual fear: did I just totally seem like an idiot to a guy who absolutely is not an idiot; and did anyone notice that I'm not a journalist? I'm a not-at-all-taught journalist, so I don't even know what one does. I treated it as a chance to have a good conversation, and brought up issues that were of interest to me. (I suspect that that's a little different from the "empty vessel" approach that journalists these days appear to use.)

Anyhow, yeah, one thing I learned with the band is that you never admit you're having a bad show. I used to beat up on our lead singer about that all the time -- he would sometimes actually apologise to the audience. Not good. Especially when you're a punk band -- who can tell!?

That experience has enabled me to do any kind of public speaking, even when I have to wing it. It's a useful skill to have and one that, when I was in my teens, I did not think I would ever have. But I agree wholeheartedly that doing the things that you're afraid of is a really good idea.

Anyhow, I'm glad you liked my little tale of my evening with my good pal "The Bert." (Oh, we all called Pierre that, back in the day. :) )

L-girl said...

Very cool.

Of course, when you're first teaching yourself how to be X, you're not X yet, either. So in those days I was not a journalist: I was faking. Believe me, I was afraid people would notice.

So you were in a punk band, eh? Interesting combination, punk band + historical park volunteer and possible war re-enacter!

I also conquered the ubiquitous fear of public speaking. I'm really glad I did it. Once you've faced that demon, you are so much more confident in all things, I find.

Scott M. said...

For me, it was being thrown into a number of situations where I had to lead hundreds of Scout Leaders with no planning. As well being given "control" of events involving thousands with no preparation. Repeatedly.

Others had a lot greater confidence in me than I did.

I did learn, however, that people always think you did a better job than you did, and generally never know a slip-up unless it's really obvious. It's hard to remember that people don't know your plan in advance, but they don't.

Now, when I'm coaching a person who is attempting public speaking for the first time I try to make sure I tell them in advance that they will think they are doing horribly and that this is normal, but to remember no one will notice. I then heap praise on at the end. No criticism (at all) until at least the next day, and then only gingerly.

How did you conquer your fear of public speaking?

L-girl said...

I did learn, however, that people always think you did a better job than you did, and generally never know a slip-up unless it's really obvious.

This is so true. It's also true with writing.

And I have to say, when it comes to public speaking, for me, there really are no slip-ups. I don't memorize or read from a speech, I only use notes to guide me along, and I'm generally speaking from the heart about something deeply personal - so how can I make a mistake?

Now, when I'm coaching a person who is attempting public speaking for the first time I try to make sure I tell them in advance that they will think they are doing horribly and that this is normal, but to remember no one will notice. I then heap praise on at the end. No criticism (at all) until at least the next day, and then only gingerly.

Very smart. Excellent coaching!

How did you conquer your fear of public speaking?

From speaking about my recovery from rape.

This was through an anti-violence (domestic violence / sexual assault) advocacy and education program that I volunteered with in various capacities for many years. I'd be asked to be on a "survivor panel" speaking to (for example) medical school students, police academy trainees, or trainees for emergency room advocacy. A sympathetic crowd, to be sure - but still.

The other thing that helped a lot, and in a way helped prepare me for that, was teaching. That gave me a lot of confidence in the small-group setting.