THE PEACE RIVER COUNTRY, PAST,
PRESENT AND FUTURE
AN ADDRESS BY RT. REV. E. F. ROBINS, D.D., PEACE
21st February, 1929
PRESIDENT EAYRS introduced the speaker, who said
I am pleased to know that a large map has been provided so that you may envision the Peace River Country about which I am to speak to you. I live at this point, where the Smoky River joins the Peace. I have been in that country for twenty years this year. If I speak in terms of the Diocese I must be forgiven, because I think in terms of the Diocese more generally. The Peace River watershed flows northward into the great Mackenzie River, and from my little home on the banks of the Peace River I look every day on the point of land where Mackenzie made his camp, shortly before the year 1800, and before he set out into the great north on his voyage to disvover the North West Passage. He was so greviously disappointed with the river which he did find -which now bears his noble name, Mackenzie-that he called the river Desolution, or Disappointment, because it had not revealed the great object of his journey. The rivers of all the country north of this point flow into the Arctic, while those south of that line flow into Hudson Bay; and the watershed of the Peace is practically comprised in about this area. Here is the Athabasca River; here is the Peace River; my home is practically due north of Revelstoke, B.C., and away south of me are the foothills of the Selkirk Range, which lie to the west of the Rocky Range. That will give you an idea of the distance west. When I am at home I am about 800 miles north of the latitude of the city of Toronto, and in the heart of the grain-growing country of the Peace River. We can grow grain 200 miles north of that. Last year approximately 1,000,000 acres of land were made over in the Peace River watershed to about 6,000 homesteaders-I have the exact figures up to 5,042 from two land offices.
People ask me if the country will bear such an amount of settlement. I anticipate it will bear it for at least another twenty years at that rate, and still we shall have some to spare. In saying that I am only speaking of the development of the land as a farmer's land. I cannot speak from the standpoint of lumbering, manufacturing or mining, for up to the present time the main development of the north has been agricultural.
I am asked to speak to the Empire Club of Canada. I like to repeat the name of your club, it seems to express so much, does it not-the Empire Club? (Applause.) I find that I am being introduced to audiences as the Apostle of the Peace River, and I shall be very grateful if such a name may ever be mine. I am to speak to you of the Peace River, Past, Present and Future.
The past was a history which had known no alteration from before the record of time until about the period when it came into my path of privilege and duty to go and give my life, as far as I could, for the need of the north which was just beginning to appear. I loved my vicarage in England, but I had not the heart to say to my young men and others in England who were dear to us"Go to Canada!" while I remained behind. So I felt that it was my duty also to go to Canada; and Canada gave me such a kind and generous welcome-which is maintained in this hour when I am speaking to the Empire Club of Canada-that I shall ever regard it as amongst the best and highest and most inestimable privileges of a life that has not been altogether uneventful.
Twenty years ago I found there only the Indian population. Any change that was to be had hardly begun to appear; and in speaking of the past the Indians must be entirely in my mind in regard to the population of that north country. In my Diocese, which covers approximately 200,000 square miles, embracing all the watersheds of the Athabasca and Peace Rivers, there was but the Indian population. It is made up of different tribes and languages-Cree, Beaver, Slavi, Chippewyan-and they were scattered about in different groups in that great north land of forests, lakes, mountains, and prairies. The size of my Diocese is comparable to an area running west from Montreal to London, Ontario, and going north from about this southern latitude up towards James Bay. In such an immensity of space you would expect to find a great variety of topography, and in every other respect, and it was so in that north country.
The highways of those days were the Indian trails, and the methods of travel could only be those of the Indian. There was no other possibility. In those early days we traversed the waters of these great rivers, and my wife did it all with me(Cheers)-and she bears the name of one of the greatest travellers in the north. She has had every kind of experience, for she used to travel with me 1,000 miles a year in those early days, camping in a fresh place for almost every meal. We learned the use of the axe in the remote days which seem to us so long ago, but which are easily within the last twenty years of life. We had to look for Indians to take with us, for no white man knew the way, and no one with any wisdom would have dreamt of attempting alone those mighty rapids of the Athabasca River. The Lord Bishop of Mackenzie River, who is seated with us today, will recollect the thrill of those rapids. Those rivers and remote northern trails could only be traversed with the aid of an Indian guide, to whom alone the country in those days was familiar.
The very names are associated with the Indians. Athabasca is a Cree word signifying the opening out of something in a waterway, the delta of a river, or a clump of bull rushes, or moss, growing in a watery place. There is no literature among the Indians, no books, or newspapers, and no possibility of recording their traditions and tribal deeds except in the memories of the old men who pass them on in due course to the others. Only since white men have come to reside there has it been possible to make official records. In their tribal records, summarized and passed down from one old man whose memory was more retentive and vigorous than the others, to another, is the story of the Peace River. Obviously this must have been before there was any boundary between Canada and the United States, and before uniting of the great varied population of those two lands under their common governments and controls. When the Indian roamed over the pathless ways of the prairies and crossed rivers and lakes and mountains there was a conflict so severe that it remained long in their memories. The southern men pressed the northern men back and back until it was impossible for northern men to retire any further. At a certain point on the Peace River there is an immense outcropping of gypsum. I passed up that river in 1912, and it took me three months away from civilization or contact with the outside world. I was very much impressed when I saw a great outcropping of gypsum on the southern banks of the Peace River, for the Peace is flowing west and east at that point. The northern men made their last stand because they could not cross the river. They gave in and made a pact that from that time a truce should be observed, and never be broken; and in the flowing, beautiful imagery of speech of which the Indian is a master he made his legal promise that this great white rock of gypsum which stands by the flowing waters which here pass on to the distance where the sun rises in the great space beyond---that this great white rock and the flowing waters should ever bear record to the fact that the Peace was made, and that the waters that flow by the white rock should be called the Waters of the Peace. That is the Indian origin of the name Peace River. (Applause.)
Very rarely in life do men attain, without complication of some sort, the object which they set out to reach. The explorer, whatever may lure him-whether in deep waters or forests or mountains-very rarely attains his object without bringing to pass something he never purposed. The inventor and the scientific researcher find it the same. In life there will always come an augmentation of things which you do not set out to bring into materialization. So when the Hudsons Bay Company began fur-trading among the Indians, and the missionaries began to enter into these remote distances, in the name of the Lord, to evangelize those Indians, those white men began to make little gardens around their homesteads, where-ever their posts might be. They sent back, over the distance, for seeds, and they were amazed to find how splendid the returns were in that frost-destined land of which I speak, away down here to Lake Athabasca or here on the Peace River, or anywhere in this north country, more particularly hundreds of miles to the south here. Then the idea began to suggest itself, whether it might not be possible that some day this might be called a white man's land, where successful agriculture might be established.
You know, gentlemen, that the primary honours for grain before all the world, in competition, for three years, belong to the Peace River. (Applause.)
The young homesteader who secured so signal a reputation I know well, and my friend Canon Vernon, who is sitting with us, shook hands with him last October when we were there together. I know his wife, and his family. He is just one homesteader among others, an outstanding instance of diligence that has made the most of that northern climate, that land of sunshine, and clear, translucent atmosphere, where the prevailing light in the hours of night-time is such that when the summer is with us it seems as if from that rich nitrogenous soil there is maintained so vigorous a growth, so fine a result, that a man of outstanding gifts in the art of agriculture, may well hope to put his products in competition with any others, whomsoever, from all the world, and retain some degree of anticipation that he will secure a signal reward. It has been done. (Applause.)
When the Klondike rush was on, men were anxious to make any short-cut to that land of gold. Many tried to reach it by the waterways of the Athabasca and the Peace, but it seems that few succeeded and many failed. Among the failures were some who, unable to go back or go forward, satisfied with the aspect of the country in which they found themselves, became squatters, and began to cultivate land, and here and there, intermittently, you will find in that north country those who set out to find the gold of Klondike but who today are finding gold through the medium of the plow and reaper, in golden grain, and putting it into sacks and sending it to feed multitudes outside, for they are agriculturists. (Hear, hear.)
I will speak of the flowers of the north, which grew, I suppose, from the time that our Heavenly Father, in His mighty creative power, formed the world, and they produced their seed and grew again, through all the centuries that have passed. So we found the presence of those wild flowers. As soon as the snow disappears, any time after April comes in, we find the beautiful prairie crocus, an anemone, which selects its own situations, preferring exposed aspects and rather sandy soil. You find the wood anemone. Then the violet, and the tiger lily, very beautiful in form and colour, and on through the summer a great profusion of wild roses. It is a very delightful experience in these days when white men are settled there, and the roads are graded and the cars are, as a rule, driven along the centre way,-we have not an enormous number of cars, and most of us drive on the same trail-to find wild roses and other flowers that may be seen on either hand. Then later there comes the little aster, the michaelmas daisy, and on sloping banks, perhaps considerable space covered entirely with the beauty of their delicate colour. Then leaving out many, but speaking of those more common and prevalent among which is the larkspur with its deep blue tint, at last you get the golden rod. Then winter begins again.
As to animals in this land, once the natural home of herds of wild buffalo, and destined yet to be the roaming ground of his protected descendent, we have the bear, and moose, and cariboo and the jumping deer, and of course the fox, and lynx, and coyote and wolf, and everywhere the rabbit. All the fur we get down north follows the rabbit; that is a common expression-"down north". Our rivers are flowing from the southern latitude down to the Arctic sea, and it is "down north". In that country you find perpetual migration of the fur following the rabbit, which ever seeks new ground; first in one district far off, and then another further and further until they return and occupy the old ground. Thus the migration ever proceeds, fur following the rabbit.
As to trees, I think there is no place where it is possible to make a journey, summer or winter, without finding forests. There will be lumber mills to a very large extent. Already there are some, but not of the capacity which will yet be demonstrated. We have spruce, poplar and jack pine mainly, and the graceful tamarac of hard enduring texture in swampy places.
Of birds we have the blackbird, duck, robin, house-wren, house-sparrow, martin, wood-pecker, chick-a-dee, the loon, the whisky jack and others. Song birds seem to follow the tide of domestic settlement.
I wonder if you have ever been served with wild swan? I have had swan only once, and it was on the banks of the Athabasca years ago, when the O.C. of the Mounted Police had been presented with a wild swan. We said, "That is a royal bird, we had better do honours to the occasion." Therefore the Major and his guests appeared in evening dress, and we put the bird on the table. Somebody remarked that the swan lived to great antiquity, even to a hundred years. (Laughter.)
When we sat down we tried to eat that swan, but we became convinced that that lady bird was like some other ladies of advancing years, and had under-estimated its age--(Laughter)--of a hundred years or something more. Last summer I was in a terrific thunder storm in June, the clouds were as ink, and the rain was coming down in a deluge. I saw, flying right into the storm cloud, a beautiful group of ten white swan, and in some way a gleam of light that made itself evident was shining on them. A more delightful sight I have rarely seen. I have also observed the eagle fighting its way into a storm, a majestic and impressive sight.
I cannot speak much of the minerals of the north. We are only in the exploring stage at present. I understand that this particular portion to the North East is being very much explored just now. Coal in enormous reserves are here, to the far South West, and coal of a splendid type. You are quite familiar now with the Alberta soft coal. There are unreserved supplies, and you can order as much as you please without exhausting it, and we shall yet have enough for Canada's need for an unthinkable period of time to come.
We have not commenced to develop our salt fields, and I think that may become an active industry. I have referred to gypsum. I have seen men washing for gold, and have seen the grains now and then. I do not care to say more than that. I think real prospecting for minerals may as yet be in rather an early stage.
As to the future, I believe the historic development of the land is entirely in the hands of the white population. There are thousands of homesteaders active now in the Peace River belt, and I have the records for all the sending of grain for the past few years. Let me give a comparison by way of illustration. In the year 1910 I was an exceedingly fortunate man. I was on one of my long journeys with a springless wagon, we never carried a spring, we should have broken it over rocks and stumps and rivers. We made camp night after night and passed on. I knew that I should have just the one team of horses, and could not replace it, and there would be no barn for them to shelter in, or hay for their sustenence. They got good pasture on the native grass of the north land, for the native forage plants are very satisfactory. I secured a sack of oats. An Ontario man who was settled above the banks of the Peace River sold them to me, and when he took $2.50 for them he remarked, "I would much rather have the grain, greatly as I need that money, but it is for you and your work, so I will let it go." Thus we had our one sack of oats to last for the entire journey and back again. You can imagine how extremely precious they were, as there was no hope of adding to the supply. Now contrast this.
The returns for grain show that from August 1, 1927, to November 30, 1928, the railways of the north country carried 14,234,895 bushels of grain. (Applause.) Of that there were 10,000,000 bushels of wheat, 3,400,000 oats, 513,000 bushels of barley. That gives you a vision of the tremendous changes taking place.
I told you at the beginning why I am there. From first to last it is as a missionary. The study of grain or other interesting products is only by the way, and I am speaking of them because you desire to know the country. My presence there is purely for missionary purposes, and therefore churches, thank God, are established throughout the distant parts of the land where people have settled. (Applause.)
We are confronted with a greater problem--immigration is revived. I told you of the large number who went into the north country last year. I apprehend there will be more this year, and they are going all through the vastness of that land. I do not want you to think of any little district, or to suppose that they adopt some given district and all populate it. They do not; they are at liberty to take any homestead they please, to go wherever they like, and they go where the aspect is best. As the other homesteaders have done, they will grow more and more grain, and produce gardens of vegetables and flowers, for we can produce on the Peace River most of the ordinary varieties of table vegetables and flowers that you can in this southern latitude.
I happened to be broadcasting, and mentioned, among other vegetables, that pumpkins could be grown in the north, and a young man from California told me last autumn in my garden by the Peace River that when his father heard it he said, "that is good enough for me, I am going there,"-(Laughter.) I asked him if he was going to stay. He replied that he was filing on land for himself and his father. He asked me about growing pumpkins; I told him I had pumpkin pie in August last, and that he could easily grow pumpkins, and all other kinds of vegetables, which were so delightful on the table. We ripen tomatoes out of doors. We take off our asparagus very quickly after the snow disappears. All through May we can get asparagus, and very delicious it is.
Of course you understand these things have come to be by experiment. We did not know what the land would yield, but we are always experimenting. I am experimenting with apples and plums. I have not produced any apples, but I once produced five plums, and with great ceremony we decided they should be eaten. We were very pleased when they were finished, because it was rather a distressing process. (Laughter.) I think I may get some crab-apples after a time. The first grower of asparagus I ever knew came and said he was not going to grow any more, and when I asked him how he cooked it he said he boiled it, but it was so awfully stringy he couldn't enjoy it, and as to those red berries, he had never tasted anything like them. (Laughter.) Well, I had to educate him about the time at which asparagus should be cut, and he does not give any away now.
Then there is the problem of nationality. It concerns the Empire Club. I cannot say that we have not people there of such nationality that we should prefer other nations. This Canada of ours is open to all nations--(Applause)--and all we ask of the people is that they shall keep our laws and respect and honour our institutions. There are people there whom we would not elect to have if we had our choice; but they are there, and they have a right to be. There are people everywhere whom you don't like. You remember "Punch's" description from "The Misanthrope's Mixed Bag":
"Grandmammas with Eton crops; Grandpapas who perform at 'hops'; People with hands like cold pork chops.
People who dance on escalators; People who swear at hard-worked waiters; Bishops with badly-buttoned gaiters."
We don't like that class of person!
And then recently, even in the home circle, the father who deplored:
"I have an elder son,
Who has a younger brother;
I never liked the one,
And can't abide the other."
Yet they get on together. And we in the North get on together.
I am thankful to say we are not troubled with a problem of such magnitude that we are particularly harassed about it, but only we do want to preserve a wise balance, so that the true British ideals of this Dominion and this nation of ours may be rightly observed and established. But as a missionary of the church I am not so troubled about it. I feel that all the cosmopolitan crowd is offering me, ever, a splendid opportunity for the very purpose that I am there to attain. (Applause.) Yet in looking at it from the national point of view, I do want to see the north country, and indeed all Canada, safeguarded for our own race, however mixed the making up of that race and nation may be. (Applause.)
But there is this danger when people of different nations come. Now, I want to respect this fact, that from the largest land office in my Diocese last year, the official record came to me that three-fourths of all who took up homesteads in 1928, through that land office, were either of British or American citizenship. (Hear, hear.) That was splendid; that is safe enough; we do not mind the twenty-five percent; we can handle them; they are needed, and they will do tasks which perhaps others are not so willing to perform. I do not mean that it is a danger that we need not be at all apprehensive of, for it is well recognized that when you get a very mixed body of people to come, -they have to fraternize. When the common needs of humanity arise, and the elementary things of life make themselves felt, it will be demonstrated that you are in this danger; whatever may be the nationality of these people whatever may be their morality, whatever may be their religion, when they mingle with other nations and other forms of morality they are apt to become slack. There comes a laxity. There comes that absence of definition. There is the danger of society being of amorphous aspect, and as a matter of fact, nothing in it which is vivid and defined. It is the most dangerous condition which I think we can anticipate.
Now, that is just where such a club as this is most required, to teach those cosmopolitan people, or the product of those cosmopolitans, those institutions, those splendid ideals, which belong to the Empire, and our Dominion and ourselves.
Take the question of marriage. When you get a mixed body of people, as you may in the great west and the north-I am safeguarding the subject by telling you I am not troubled by an undue present danger in the north; I am reasonably satisfied with things as they are, if we can maintain it so-but you may have the cult of the Slav and the Latin and the German and Hungarian and Semitic all mingled together. What will be the product? Those young people see each other; they fall in love; there is marriage. Doubtless there will be splendid men of business. They will be virile; they will be active; but what is to be the moral tone? What will be the moral and religious character, unless we to whom these ideals of the Christian faith must necessarily be preeminent as I anticipate they are in such a club as this-unless we, from our sense of duty and privilege, do our utmost, to put those principles, those foundation truths, and the whole structure which makes up the integrity and stability of our Empire and our people at the best, before the cosmopolitan body of whom I speak?
Finally, I would say, as we look towards the futureand I do not pretend to see it fully--the mighty water powers of the north have no--t yet been scientifically estimated, nor the latent potentialities of the land decided upon. They will give employment for multitudes of men. The railways are but commencing. The Canadian Pacific Railway, with its great force, is just going in, and the Canadian National has chosen to go in with it. I do not know what it all means. Of course we shall have our coast outlet. That must come; we could not expand otherwise, and we must grow. We cannot stand still. The north must necessarily develop, from whatever point of view you examine it. But after all, I feel, with those years of experience, something like the poet wrote in words you all know-
"Lead, kindly Light . . . . . . . . I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me."
I cannot project the future, and we have not come to the day of the old man in the north; there is no dreaming yet, and the dreaming is for the older men, the vision is for the younger men. If I dare to let my vision run, I see in it a people to be mightier and mightier yet, a people God-fearing and contented and loyal; a people of business, of industries, of commerce and agriculture, with lumbering and mines and fisheries, with all those potentialities which just wait for special development. And if with it all we can maintain-as, please God, we will-the splendid records of our Empire and our Nation, with our Flag above all, standing as it does for the highest ideals of the Christian faith, then we have a right to predict that in the future, by the grace of God, the Peace River Country will become a strong nation of people, safeguarded, dependable, and influentially prosperous. (Applause.)
Rev. Dr. Cody expressed the thanks of the Club to Bishop Robins.