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.

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