THE OLD ROMANCE IN CANADA
AN ADDRESS BY JOHN NELSON, ESQ.
HEAD OF DEPARTMENT OF PUBLIC RELATIONS, SUN LIFE ASSURANCE COMPANY OF CANADA.
22nd November, 1928.
MR. CLAUDE A. C. JENNINGS, Vice-President of the Club, introduced the speaker, who was received with hearty applause, and said :-We have been rather preoccupied in Canada, of late, regarding our status, although even our leaders seem unable to agree upon a definition of it. In some sections we have been developing an exaggerated national self-consciousness, which magnifies our own merits and depreciates the part other nations have had in shaping our destiny. We have been more insistent possibly in demanding recognition for ourselves, than generous in granting it to others. That is, perhaps, natural in a nation just conscious of having reached man's estate. But, when a young man sets up housekeeping for himself, he often recalls or fully appreciates for the first time the debt that he owes to those of former generations. So today, instead of following the popular practice of dwelling on our own achievements, I prefer, if you will allow me, to recall some services rendered us by other racesservices too often forgotten by us-and to mention some debts due them which we should acknowledge, even if we cannot pay.
In doing so, I am conscious of no disloyalty to my native land. An undue pride in ourselves, and a low appreciation of other peoples does not make, as some vehement folk seem to think, for a robust and intelligent patriotism. Our good neighbours to the South are frequently embarrassed and crippled in their relations with foreign powers through the distorted ideas acquired on this false basis by some of their own people regarding the facts of history. He is no true friend of Canada who would wish to bring such an affliction upon this country. Our self-respect will never suffer by gratefully acknowledging our obligations. At a Pan-American conference some years ago, a South American statesman, who had been chided for not endorsing the enthusiastic claims of some of his colleagues, declared
"I am not wanting in affection and love for America. I am, rather, wanting in distrust and ingratitude toward Europe." That sentiment and that attitude, applied to Canada, is one that it would be well if we all adopted.
In casting up our national account, the first debt that we find is, curiously enough, to a continent of which we think as having come only recently into our orbit. I refer to Asia. In the fifteenth century India was already opulent, and caravans and caravels brought her riches, for trade via Asia Minor and the Mediterranean to the more primitive states of Europe. When that trade was cut off by Turkish conquests in Europe, it was the enterprise of Portuguese navigators that discovered the old fabled route to the Fast by the Cape of Good Hope. Their success fired the ambition of Columbus to seek another, and a Western route. The result was, as your great townsman, the late Goldwin Smith, once pointed out, that this continent was discovered by a man who staked everything on the belief that no such continent existed, and that the western way to India was open by the sea. Columbus died believing that San Salvador was an outpost of Asia. Similarly, the Cabots expected to find no land between Bristol and China, and literally tripped over Newfoundland. Francis the First spoke of the discoveries of Jacques Cartier as "the extremities of Asia toward the West." So that it was the existence of a rich and cultured Asia, and the quest for it, that unexpectedly resulted in the discovery of America and Canada.
Had no such motive existed, and had no such enterprise been shown by Spaniard or Portuguese, our discovery might have been deferred for many years, might have fallen to the sailors of other lands, and the whole course of history might have been altered. In such an event, the chairman of today's meeting, to adopt the language of Gilbert and Sullivan, "might have been a Roosian, or French, or Turk, or Proosian, or perhaps I-tal-i-an."
Somewhere in the national balance sheet, therefore, there is a substantial credit to the joint account of East Indian, Turk, Portuguese, and Spaniard.
For if Asia furnished the motive, southwestern Europe furnished the men. That should chasten the frantic boast and foolish word in which our claim of Nordic superiority is so often couched. It was not men of our race, but Latins, who gave Columbus and Verrazano and Magellan and other great pioneer navigators to the world and to these waters. Similarly in warfare, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, Greeks and other Mediterranean peoples were conquerors of the known world before our Teuton ancestors became dominant. It is the beginning of wisdom for us, therefore, as Canadians, and as a race, to walk humbly and to remember that among civilized races there are no inferior peoplesonly backward ones-and these are largely the result of time and circumstance. It possibly might temper the harshness of our immigration regulations to recognize in the unwelcome Oriental, the possible representative of a coming super-nation. Even the humble immigrant from Southern Europe still personifies to a degree the glory that once was Greece, or Portugal, or Spain.
We more readily recognize and concede our debt to England and to France. It has become trite to say that we derive from them our language, our laws, our literature, our freedom and our faith.
Occasionally we are rather cynically reminded that we inherited their feuds as well. This applies to the whole continent, as well as to Canada. The early French and English wars in North America; the revolutionary war; the war of 1812-all had their origins in or were the backwash of European quarrels. Even the American Civil War-nominally a domestic struggle -had some of its roots in a trade in the bodies of Africans introduced to America by Europeans, for it was the Spaniards who inaugurated the slave trade. During the Crimean war, British and French gunboats bombarded forts in Behring Sea. At the outbreak of the Great War, the sea raiders of the Hun threatened both our coasts. This new continent has seldom failed to share, directly or indirectly, the quarrels of the old.
Our fortunes have been involved with those of Europe and. of the Motherland in various forgotten ways. Had it not been for European wars, British Dominions in North America would doubtless have included Alaska, Washington and Oregon, and Louisiana-all three empires in extent. Britain was eager to buy Alaska from Russia, but the resentment of the latter country over the Crimean war led its ambassador in Washington to conduct hurried and almost feverish negotiations, which proved successful, for its sale to the United States.
Sir Alex. Mackenzie, after he had crossed this continent overland (the--first white man to make such journey, north of Mexico) laid before the Home Government the most imperial project in which Canada was ever involved. It contemplated a fusion, under the Government, of the Hudson's Bay Company, the North West Company and the South Sea Company, with vessels in both the Atlantic and the Pacific; with a chain of fur trading posts from Hudson's Bay to Vancouver Island, and with fur marts not only in London and Montreal, but in Canton. The whole gigantic project, as far as the Pacific was concerned, was to be dominated from a military and naval base at Nootka, on Vancouver Island, and with smaller stations at Astoria in Oregon, and on Queen Charlotte Islands. Britain was then too preoccupied in a death struggle with Napoleon to act upon the suggestion, and before she was in a position to do so, Lewis and Clark had descended the Columbia to its mouth, and fixed the destiny of Washington and Oregon under another flag.
Louisiana was lost through a characteristically shrewd move on the part of the United States. The American ambassador in London had expressed his uneasiness at the conduct of the French Intendant of Louisiana. The British Minister, with what seems like unnecessary candour, assured him he need have no anxiety, because war between England and France was about to break out, in which case the British would immediately take possession of Louisiana, and as the United States would then have Britain as a neighbour and friend, they need have no more apprehensions. The United States Minister in London at once notified his brother ambassador in Paris, who in turn promptly communicated information to the French government, and urged the sale of Louisiana to the United States, to prevent such a rich territory from falling into the hands of the dreaded English-an argument that proved quickly effective.
Remembering these circumstances, it is probably within the mark to say that the Motherland paid a larger price potentially on this continent to break the power of the little Corsican than even in Europe, where in addition to bearing the brunt of the fighting with the enemy, she had to finance her allies.
Interesting as were these epochal events, they are excelled in interest by what might have happened on this continent-but didn't. Had Britain adhered to her original purpose of moving the United Empire Loyalists to Australia instead of Canada, it is unlikely that this country would exist today as a political unit. Certainly Ontario would not have been under the flag which now hangs behind the President's chair.
Russia, but for Britain, would probably have been as powerfully entrenched on this continent as she is in Europe and Asia. During the very years that the Motherland was finding asylum in this province for the Loyalists, Russia was sending political convicts to penal settlements in Alaska, and using knout, gallows, and firing squad there, the same as in Siberia. She proposed to enslave the Japanese in Alaska, and the remains of huge barracks for that purpose may still be seen on Japonsky Island. She planned to wrest the whole west coast from the Spaniards, as far south as Mexico. The Crimean war, and the roar of guns from British battleships off her forts in Behring Sea, shattered that illusion, and before the war ended, she approached the United States for the sale of her great empire in America. Hence had it not been for one of Britain's wars in Europe-a war for which she is often criticized-Victoria and Vancouver might have been fortified outposts of the Bear, and California a soviet state. If such a condition had obtained, some worried Canadians who are now losing sleep over our status as a free and independent state in an equally free and powerful galaxy of nations, might have had something really substantial on which to base their fears.
I mention these to show how involved national bookkeeping can become, and how hard it sometimes is to determine on which side of the ledger the entry should be made.
If we have suffered because of European feuds, don't let us forget that we have benefited, and benefited enormously, from the same cause.
One of our most unctious boasts is that for more than a hundred years we have lived at peace with our neighbours, the invisible boundary line between us unmarked by a single fortress and unvexed by the bark of a single gun. That is a proper subject for gratification, but not for invidious comparison. I recently heard a Canadian Minister of the Crown refer to it as an object lesson to Europe. Our Prime Minister, speaking the other day in the capital of France, while wisely refraining from a similar comment, cited it as an example of how international difficulties could be composed without recourse to arms. But neither England nor France-our two Mother states-need such an object lesson. Although traditional, almost natural enemies, they have been at peace as long as we have. Even were that not so, it doesn't mean, as we sometimes seek to imply, some natural superiority over less enlightened and more warlike folk in Europe. It is due not to our moral virtues so much as to physical facts. Where countries are too small for the natural expansion of their people, as is often the case in Europe, war, at least under the old conceptions, was almost inevitable. Thus confined, countries become mutually menacing, and the laws of self-preservation cause the powerful to subdue the weak. But if we pause to recall the names of the treaties which determined the boundaries and extent of our North American nations, we are reminded that to some extent it was the fights in which these Europeans broke their bodies that made possible our long unbroken peace. Their valour, to a great degree, gave us these vast areas, which allow the energies of our people free exercise without impinging on the dominion of other states. Thanks to the possession of that spacious heritage, the combative and conquering traits of the Anglo-Saxon found a readier outlet on this continent in subduing the wilderness and overcoming the forces of nature than in fighting his fellow man. Had Europe been similarly circumstanced, Europe would probably have been similarly peaceful.
Several years before the Great War, and shortly before his death, Arnold White, the British naval writer, told me of a conversation he had with the Kaiser of Germany. He enjoyed the friendship of the Emperor and is said to have been the only Englishman permitted to put to sea in a German warship. They were breakfasting together, and the Kaiser said: " White, I never wake in the morning without wondering whether or not foreign troops have crossed my frontiers in the night." Such an attitude of mind, luminous as it is in explaining some causes of the war, would be inconceivable and even ludicrous on this continent. We have so much room that we can relinquish a piece of Labrador bigger than an old-world kingdom, without a belligerent headline in a single Canadian newspaper. But let us not forget that this almost illimitable heritage, held so easily by us in peace, was bought with the red blood of our race. And little of it was Canadian blood, though had our land been threatened in the last hundred years, we should, -quickly have disproved, as we did in the Great War the barbaric theory that the virility and courage of a race can be maintained only by frequent exercise in war. But instead of being smug about it let us gratefully attribute our peaceful state in large measure to forgotten generations of nameless heroes in the British Isles:
Who, century after century, held their farms, And looking out to watch the changing sky Heard, as we heard, the rumours and alarms Of war at hand, and danger pressing nigh;
Yet heard the news, and went discouraged home,
And brooded by the fire with heavy mind,
With such dumb loving of the Berkshire loam
As breaks the dumb hearts of the English kind,
Then sadly rose, and left their well-loved Downs,
And so by ship to sea, and knew no more
The fields of home, the byres, the market towns,
And the dear outline of the English shore;
But knew the misery of the soaking trench,
The freezing in the rigging, the despair
In the revolting second of the wrench
When the blind soul is flung upon the air.
And died (uncouthly most) in foreign lands
For some idea, but dimly understood,
Of an English city never built by hands
Which love of England prompted and made good.
It is that city "dimly understood" by them-that overseas state only vaguely visualized by them-of which we today are the privileged citizens. And it is due at least as much to their valour as to our vigilance or virtue that Canada is not only a wide land but a peaceful one.
Another, and priceless heritage from our own ancestors, is our instinct for freedom.
England did not always excel her continental rivals in war, nor navigation, nor culture. But in her fight for liberty, she never flagged and became the beacon light of Europe. Other mediaeval states achieved liberty before her and lost it. England never accepted chains.
That boon she transmitted to her overseas children. And if occasionally through the inexperience or ineptness of her rulers she was led astray in her treatment of her younger dominions, from the principles she had long practised, it was the lessons her daughters had learned from England herself that enabled them to maintain their rights.
After all, where such misunderstandings arose, it was often more an error of head than of heart. There is the best evidence of that fact. The two greatest factors in maintaining here the British tradition, and in preserving Canada's national identity have been the French Canadians and the United Empire Loyalists. One is the direct result of England's magnanimous treatment of the French at the Conquest; the other, resentment by the Loyalists over their harsh treatment by the Government of the new republic after the revolution. Britain's conduct is the more wonderful when we remember how daring a departure it was from the traditional and accepted method of that day in the treatment of conquered peoples. The action of the United States is the more surprising following a revolution where so much had been suffered in the name of justice and liberty. So when Canadians feel disposed to cavil over minor misunderstandings, it is well to recall that the most priceless and enlightened precedent of all history in the treatment of conquered enemies-a milestone in the recognition of human rights by the conqueror-was established on this continent, not by any New World power, but by that venerable old world nation that we still feel justified in calling the "Mother of Liberty."
In the story of Canada, one of the most significant things is the way in which varied, and often antagonistic forces have contributed and sometimes converged to mould our national form. Men of various races strove with one another for mastery, but often achieved more in their defeat than they could have secured by victory. Take the strange case of Radisson. Born in France, he came as a lad to Three Rivers. While hunting with two other boys in the woods, he was captured by the Iroquois. His companions were scalped. His own life was spared through the intervention of an old Indian and his wife who adopted him. There he lived the life of a savage, and linked the lore of the woods to the quicker intellect of the white. He finally escaped to Quebec and laid the foundation of the fur trade, for his were the first white paddles to break the waters of Lake Superior. When he brought a valuable cargo of furs to the Rock, as Quebec was called, most of it was confiscated by a covetous governor. Angry and disgusted, he turned his back on his country and, aided by the merchants in Boston, voyaged to Hudson's Bay. Later he went to London and told his story to Charles the Second, and to the picturesque cavalry leader of the Restoration, Prince Rupert. Together they founded the Hudson's Bay Company.
On the ship which took Radisson to the Bay, was a young street urchin of London, Henry Kelsey. One can picture the wonder and awe with which, on that voyage, the street-bred lad watched the great hunter and voyageur with his panther-like tread so suggestive of the carpetted aisles of the woods. When posts were established on the Bay, the boy deserted and went to live among the wild tribes who traded there. He soon became more expert than his savage tutors in the ways of the wilds. He pushed back and back from the Bay till one afternoon, when August was on all the hills, he came out on the prairies-the first white man to behold that marvellous sight-the great lumbering mass of buffalo darkening the plain. He later became a factor, and helped to establish the dominance of the great Company over that Empire of the North, which we often forget has been under British rule longer than any other part of Canada.
Thus fate, which so often mocks the plans of men, decreed that a Frenchman, trained by hostile Indians who preyed upon his country; rejected by his own countrymen; encouraged by New Englanders, enemies of New France; and finally in co-operation with Englishmen, traditional enemies of his race, with a street lad from London, should lay the foundations of British rule in a large and vital section of Canada, and thereby really make possible this Confederation.
The case of Radisson is typical of the colourful and seemingly contradictory factors which make up the Old Romance in Canada. Its stage is crowded with people of all nations-Latin and Teuton, Saxon and Gaul, Slav and even Mongol. They bear all kinds of symbols -paddle and pen, sword and crucifix. They belong to five centuries.
In the deeper background stands a high minded young prince of Portugal, Henry, who dedicated his life to the spread of geographical knowledge and sent out his navigators with the injunction, " Learn to do nobly." Then, inspired by their example, Columbus at the court of Ferdinand, trading an idea for the Queen's jewels. Queen Bess waving her hand from the window of her court at Greenwich, to acknowledge the Royal salute of Martin Frobisher, as he drifted down the Thames with three little vessels, bound for the unknown. Radisson in buckskin jacket and moccasins, talking before the fire in St. James' Palace of the Canadian wilderness, with Prince Rupert in lace and ruffles, and with sword on hip-the king of the coureurs de bois and the prince of cavaliers. Verendrye, lying sick of soul and body at Fort Reine, where Portage la Prairie now stands, while his sons, turned back broken hearted, after seeing the snow on the Rockies beyond which, they knew, lay that western sea which they had so long sought. Wolfe, quoting the Elegy as he entered the boat that was to carry him up to the Cove-and to his death. Champlain in his tepee in the heart of the Huron wilderness, foreseeing and predicting the Panama Canal. Breboeuf burning at the stake in the lake country, to save the souls of the savages. Dollard and his heroes dying at the Longue Saut to save the settlement. Mackenzie ringed with Indian foes, and uncertain whether he would see the sunrise, painting in enduring vermilion on the face of the rock at Bella Coola, the record of his journey. Simon Fraser, turned back in his descent of the river by hostile Indians, but not before he caught a glimpse of the sun shimmering on Boundary Bay and knew that the river to which he gave his name flowed into the Pacific. The little Parisian apothecary, Hebert, planting the first fruits and flowers and grain on the summit of the hill at Quebec. The Earl of Selkirk with his lonely comrades from Stornoway, harvesting the first meagre crop of wheat in the Red River valley-a crop which this year has expanded to the enormous proportions of half a billion bushels. The Irishman, D'Arcy McGee, pleading that Canadians might recover the sense that comprehends the sea, and predicting that the south seas would ultimately reflect Canadian sails as familiarly as did the Atlantic of his day. Howe, the Nova Scotian, far back on the Atlantic, hearing the future whistle of locomotives in the Rockies racing to the Western sea. Macdonald, the Scotch Canadian, fighting for a physically united Canada. Laurier, the French Canadian, striving for a spiritually united Canada-they are all on the mighty canvas which is the background of the Canadian stage.
These and a hundred others-what material for artist and poet, for novelist and historian. I make no apology for dropping into sentiment, when the mind runs back over the marvellous story of Canada-a story where the swift movement of events is almost as fascinating as that of the figures associated with them. He must have a sluggish soul who can recall it unmoved. The frail barques of the early navigators; the ox bow and Red River cart of the pioneer; the portage and the blazed trail; the lob-stick and tump line; the corduroy road; the clearing in the bush; the shack on the prairie; the grimy men and oxen in the logging field; the lone vista of the plains; and, then, the teeming city; the fast train and great steamship; the tractor; the flying machine-all spanned in the space of a few centuries.
Those who still retain their faith, cannot review that story without feeling that Providence or destiny has curiously overruled and directed the confused counsels of men to provide on the northern half of this continent a theatre too vast and spacious for petty enmities and insular prejudices, a stage worthy and capable of the noblest human endeavour. We shall best learn how to administer that trust if we fittingly recognize the varied factors which have combined to give it to our hands. If it does not teach us the lessons of gratitude, of humility, of goodwill, and of tolerance, we shall be very dull of wit and slow of comprehension.
There are two monuments in this Dominion, that span in the sentiments they express, the whole range of our spiritual development as a nation. Appropriately enough, they stand thousands of miles apart-one at the old historic gateway to this country and the other on the far frontiers of the Northland.
I used to think that the noblest inscription in the language was on the first-that on the shaft to the joint memory of Wolfe and Montcalm, on the Terrace at Quebec-" Valour gave them a common death, history a common fame, and posterity a common monument."
But now ,I prefer a humbler one on a huge promontory where the Peace and the Smoky Rivers converge, just at the old Peace River crossing, where the long trail winds off toward the Arctic. This bluff stands hundreds of feet high, and on the summit in the long summer twilight of the north may be readily descried a white shaft. It is the grave of Twelve Foot Davis. Davis was a pioneer miner of British Columbia and made a modest fortune out of a small twelve foot placer fraction which he staked in the Cariboo River bed. Hence his name. Later he became a trader and followed the rivers almost down to the Arctic. In late years he became almost blind and carried on his operations through the aid of a faithful Indian. But he remembered and loved this promontory with its lordly outlook far to the mountains of the west and to the north, the two points where his active life had been spent, and overlooking the river whose waters had so often borne him on his journeys. And so when old, blind and poor, he finally died on Lake Athabasca, he made a request that his body should be carried to this lofty point where his spirit might still enjoy the prospect. And there he
lies today, with the white shaft above him and on it these words : " He was the friend of every man, and never locked his cabin door." Somehow the epitaph at Quebec leaves one unsatisfied, for, while it honours two heroes, it recalls, if it does not glorify, the strife of a less happy day. But the inscription over Twelve Foot Davis may well stand as a motto for a happier and saner Canada. It expresses the hospitable spirit of the West-which has been the lure of Canada ever since the Conquest. It voices the spirit of the North-the magic word in the new romance now opening in Canada. It means toleration to those of other faiths and races. It means disarmed minds in our contacts with other nations. It implies gratitude to those, the fruit of whose labour we enjoy. It means hospitality to less fortunate people. It means that if we would attain real greatness in this country we must, like Twelve Foot Davis, never lock the doors of our intellects or of our hearts.