The Spirit of the Pioneers Today
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 9 Mar 1933, p. 108-117
Owen, The Right Reverend Derwyn T., Speaker
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Thinking of the qualities of the pioneer spirit which is responsible for the founding of a community like Toronto, which is responsible for the founding of communities all over this vast Dominion. Learning some lessons from the pioneers. Four pairs of things which together make the typical pioneer spirit. A veneration for the past yet the pioneer as the last man in the world who is always looking back to the past; a belief in the new. The typical pioneer as a man of great vision; the man who dreams but who works hard too. This pioneer as a very grim person but with a sense of humour. The pioneers as men with a great faith and belief, and a feeling of true self respect. Each of these four pairs of qualities are interspersed with discussion and illustrative anecdote.
Date of Original
9 Mar 1933
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Full Text
March 9, 1933

LIEUT.-COLONEL GEORGE A. DREW, the President, introduced the speaker.

THE RIGHT REVEREND DERWYN T. OWEN: Mr. President and Gentlemen of the Empire Club: I have been a very fortunate man in my life in many respects. One respect is that so far I have not -often known illness. Last January, when I was to have the great privilege of speaking to you, having come as a very new citizen to this City about the New Year, I had an attack of influenza. It was a very mild attack, to tell you the truth, but I had a very strict Doctor, and the combination of a very strict Doctor and a very mild attack of influenza is sometimes a very fortunate thing for a man who hasn't the opportunity to do much reading and there was some element of enjoyment in that few days I was laid aside. And as I sat here with the usual feeling that a man usually has before he makes a speech, I have been regretting that attack of influenza -it would have been so much easier to give this speech a few months ago when I was new and when I hadn't talked very much and we were beginning the new year together than today. It is perfectly appalling to think how many times I have spoken during the past few months. I used to keep a record but I have given up in despair. The making of speeches (I think I am misquoting a great writer) is the occupation of preachers. Certainly the public who listen to speakers take a great deal of punishment. And they take it with great courage.

I have a subject which I want to speak about, especially because this City of Toronto to which I have come as a citizen, is to celebrate in a year's time its one hundredth anniversary and your minds are to be led back during this hundredth year and especially, next year, to that little "beginnings of a city" beside the Bay-that strange, scattered little city of a hundred years ago.

I thought that it would be a good thing if we could think in these days when we are facing all kinds of old difficulties and a great many new difficulties, when it is pretty hard to see any direct path through the woods, when the wisest and the best of people find it difficult to know what is going to happen in a day's time, I thought it would be a good thing for us at this meeting to think of some of the qualities of the old pioneer spirit--that pioneer spirit which is responsible for the founding of a community like this community of Toronto, which is responsible for the founding of communities all over this vast Dominion.

Most of us know pioneers; we have had first hand contact with them. They are an interesting people. There is something very simple and straight about pioneers; there are some fine lessons you can learn from the pioneers.

It has been my good fortune-one of the many good fortunes I referred to a moment ago-to, have come in very close contact with pioneers. Ever since I was a small child I have been a profound admirer of them and of their spirit.

I want to speak to you about four things-four pairs of things-which together make the typical pioneer spirit -that kind of spirit which I say has been responsible for the creating of the Empire and for the establishment of our various communities in this vast Dominion.

When I was a small boy, the family of which I was one left the Old Country. My first recollections are the fading shores of the Isle of Wight and the silver sea around Southampton--the fading view of those old villages and those wonderful trees that stand like green clouds on the landscape--trees such as I have never seen anywhere except in England--that fading view, and then the sea and Canada, the ox waggon and the following of dim trails across the prairie, then the pioneer settlement and the pioneer driving in that waggon with those two oxen, Buck and Bright. And if you ever want to know how to travel, you travel behind oxen. You travel two miles an hour going away from home and three miles an hour coming back home. The lumbering waggon followed the faint trail across the prairie and that waggon carried the father and the mother and the children. And it carried some of the household goods--a Bible, a Book of Common Prayer, the plays of Shakespeare, a book called "Dear Old England"--the pioneer from that ancient Island carries a book that bears a title something like that wherever he goes.

It is a veneration for the past that is the first quality. He holds on to a great many things that are old. He carries in his waggon--in his saddle bag or in his motor car, now-some of the old things of the Old Land and however long he stays" he looks across the intervening miles of prairie and forest and mountain and sea to the Old Land. I think that is the reason that we have in this country and in the others of the overseas Dominions so many of the old names of the old country repeated in our towns and communities. It was because of homesickness-they were homesick for the old places. They loved the new place too, and the greatest honour they could do the new place and the greatest act of respect to it was to give the old name to the new town. Wherever I find the pioneer, I find that veneration for the old, that homesickness for the well known and the loved.

There is another quality which goes with it--the opposite quality. He is the last man in the world who is always looking back to the past. He believes in the new; he is always venturing out; he cannot be satisfied with merely the well tried and the routine and the conventional. He is quite sure, with Kipling, that there is something hidden behind the ranges, though he may build his shacks and his towns, though he may plough up the requisite number of acres for the quarter section, yet he has his eyes on that which is beyond the hills. There is the call of the new and the strange always on him. A strange combination is that pioneer with his veneration for the old, his love for the old and his belief in the old, but with a desire for that which is new and untried, always ready to give the new a trial to see what it is worth.

As Dean Inge has said in one of his essays--I don't know how he ties in the pioneer spirit, I have forgotten the one sure way of not resembling a pioneer is to treat the pioneer as if he were a divine oracle as if he were an infallible oracle. The pioneer never treats anyone as if he were an infallible oracle.

And so we have those two qualities--veneration for the past and belief in the future. I think that is the kind of thing we need now. We are, in a sense, surely at the parting of the ways-something has got to happen. We have got to find a way out arid I do not know of anything better than that old, old spirit, that spirit of veneration for what is tried and true in the past, to carry along in our ox waggon a Bible and a Shakespeare and the old things, and to turn the heads of our oxen out towards the wide horizons. That is the first thing I want to say.

The second group of things that I notice about the pioneer is that the typical pioneer is a man of great vision. He isn't only a practical man but he is a visionary. He dreams dreams, and as he works he looks at that crude community, that beginnings of a community, which you see all over this country beyond this little strip of country where we happen to live, these little communities built on the mountain side and on the prairies.

If you get near enough to these men you realize that these men, dressed in these rough clothes, are dreamers, poets, seers. What do you see, O, Pioneer, as you stand in the door of your rough shack? What do you see in the forests of Upper Canada, you who lived a, hundred years ago on the shores of Lake Ontario, or on the shores of Lake Simcoe, or Rice Lake or the Niagara River? I see communities growing up in these great forests; I see roads connecting one community to another; I see educational institutions for my children; I see all these coming.

He is the man who dreams dreams. But he does something else as he dreams dreams-he works hard too. There is only one way to get dreams to come true and that is to work. A friend of mine said that the first thing to do is to wake up. The second is to get right down to work in the mud with all the difficulties and all the problems right there, just as they are.

My dear friends, as we meet in this Empire Club under the auspices of that flag, we do realize that we need something of that same combination of the spirit of the visionary and the ordinary every day practical worker, and wherever you find the real pioneer, whether out there from where my friend I see sitting down there comes the Peace River District--or whether from the plains of Manitoba or Saskatchewan or Alberta, you will find the strange combination of those two things. He sees a long way beyond the immediate horizon, but as he dreams he is working hard, facing disaster often, but in the only spirit that disaster can be faced, with courage and good cheer, believing that through disaster we get to victory.

There are other pairs of things that I want to ask you to think of. This pioneer, from one point of view, is a very grim person. He believes that "dogged does it". His hands are seared with toil; his back is often bent. When you know him first, he doesn't have much of a light side to him" but when you know him better you realize that he has another quality which is a quality that I can't define at all. I only know it when I meet it as you do. That is the great thing called humour. He has a sense of humour--that wonderful sense, I believe, so characteristic of our race because we people of the Anglo Saxon race naturally think of the things in which we are strong and I believe one of the things that has carried us through our strange story is the sense of real humour which we have.

I met, a year ago last July, what I would call one of our typical pioneers--a Londoner born in Shepherds Bush. He had been away from London for thirty years and he lived beside a lonely lake, about fifteen hundred miles, I suppose it is, north and west of Edmonton--far away up the mountains there by a river called "The Rat". I had some dealings with that man and I lived with him for two or three days. When I think of him I think of the pioneers I have in my mind--I think of their seriousness, the vision, the poetry, the practical application" the grimness and the humour of them. He sits beside that lake--I have no doubt he is sitting there now, although I do not know what time it is in the Yukon, but he is sitting smoking his pipe at the midday meal--and I believe he is laughing still.

When the war broke out, he said that he didn't know about it until December. He marched one thousand miles so he could get to the nearest recruiting station and get in the war. When he finished the thousand miles and came in they turned him down because they said he had flat feet and would never stand the long marches. (Laughter.)

That is lighting his life now. He says if he lives to be ninety-five, he will never finish laughing at that.

So he spends his time in little walks of from five hundred to a thousand miles, taking in supplies for the Mounted Police, to the Hudson Bay and different places in the Arctic.

There are other qualifications and combinations which I want to ask you to think of-just two more. (May say that I had an accident within the last two or three days and I broke my wrist watch. It is very dangerous for people who speak in public to travel without a wrist b watch, but your President has come to my rescue and I am looking at the unfamiliar face of the wrist watch of the President of the Empire Club.)

There are two other qualities I want to ask you to think of and the spirit of which will carry us through these days, I have no doubt, for it carried us through bad days before-the old days were very hard days. The troubles and the problems which they had to meet in the early days of the settlement of tipper Canada were very complicated ones. Life was very hard and disaster was often there.

I have before me a sentence from the speech made by the new President of the United States that I want to quote: "Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance; we are stricken by no plague of locusts, compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid". We have much to be thankful for because they believed and were not afraid. There are true qualities that go side by side in the true pioneers. One is connected with man's most fundamental need.

I have been reading a book lately by Julian Huxley, called "Essays of a Biologist", and the opening words of the opening essay are these--may I read them to you? You know Julian Huxley. You know what he stands for and what he doesn't stand for. This is his question: "What is the most fundamental need of man? What a variety of answers would be giver, but I would hazard the belief that the majority, if the question were put before them, would agree that his deepest need is to discover something, some being oar power or force which is moulding the destinies of the world-something not himself but greater than himself with which he yet feels that he could harmonize his nature, in, which he could repose his doubts through faith and in which he could achieve confidence and hope".

I find in the men of the pioneer spirit that they have got hold of that. They have got hold of that thing which makes sense out of life and to me, the only thing which really makes sense out of life-that there is some thing, some power, some person, that brings coherence and unity and meaning to life. Out there in the waste places, out there on the frontiers of civilization you find that-that simple faith that life is going somewhere, that hard work produces certain results; that there is meaning, unity, purpose, power and love, running through life. Down deep in the heart of the pioneer, struggling with the elements, struggling with disaster, loneliness and homesickness, there is that fundamental faith in the sanity of things and beauty and goodness and truth which many of us call "God".

There is another thing about this man whom I have known for so long, whose example to me has been the benediction of my life. This pioneer man has a true self respect. He has won through his own failures, through his own inconsistency, and through what is worse than inconsistencies, he has won through that great and noble thing called "true self respect". He believes in himself. He has that true pride which is one of the marks of the, real man.

Now, Gentlemen of the Empire Club, those are the four things I had in mind to say today. It is the pioneer spirit that has carried our fathers through; that is carrying them through today and the pioneer spirit that will carry us through the difficulties, and the paradoxes and the uncertainties of the present-a real respect for the past, a real belief in the future, a real vision which looks beyond the immediate dreams and sees a wonderful city growing out of the forest. I think that there is a monument all through Upper Canada and all through Ontario, erected by the old pioneers. Metaphorically, I take my hat off every time I see that monument and I see it very often in many parts of Ontario. When I see the old stump fences, when I think of what it meant to those people to tear those stumps out of the forest, when I think of the hard work it meant, then I bow my head in veneration before the pioneers who build the foundations of this country.

Then there is the combination of real seriousness with that wonderful intangible mysterious thing called humour, that has run through the story of our race; that humour that has nothing in it that is malicious; that humour that runs very close to tears--laughter and tears run very near each other. There is a great deal of pity in that true Anglo-Saxon humour--the humour of Dickens, of Hardy and of Meredith--the humour, too, of H. G. Wells, and--I believe you will excuse me if I say something that I believe in very thoroughly--I believe there has come into the moving pictures of our time an artist of the true traditions of English humour. That is the figure of the pathetic, wistful little man from London -Charlie Chaplin-with his humour, near to tears. That is the kind of thing that has supported our people through the long story, and in the face of all disasters and difficulties. This is the kind of thing that lightens the way of the pioneer--the humour of the Cockney that comes from all those wonderful characters of Charles Dickens! And the combination, last of all, of a belief in God and self respect.

And we stand in spirit before this man and we say to him: "How do dreams come true? How can we build a city here beside the lake? How can we build a city on a swamp? How can we get a road across that morass? What do you do when the children are down with scarlet fever and there is no Doctor within fifty miles? What do you do when the fire comes roaring out of the forest, across the prairies, and disaster stocks and all your efforts go for nothing? What do you do, O, Pioneer?" The pioneer says: "Hold to the past, believe in the future, try again, have faith, look up at the stars, work in the mud, bow down before that eternal power which wraps us all round with His glory, believe in yourself and cultivate a sense of humour." I think that is what he would say today and a great deal more besides. (Applause.)

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The Spirit of the Pioneers Today

Thinking of the qualities of the pioneer spirit which is responsible for the founding of a community like Toronto, which is responsible for the founding of communities all over this vast Dominion. Learning some lessons from the pioneers. Four pairs of things which together make the typical pioneer spirit. A veneration for the past yet the pioneer as the last man in the world who is always looking back to the past; a belief in the new. The typical pioneer as a man of great vision; the man who dreams but who works hard too. This pioneer as a very grim person but with a sense of humour. The pioneers as men with a great faith and belief, and a feeling of true self respect. Each of these four pairs of qualities are interspersed with discussion and illustrative anecdote.