Footloose in the Far West

Beverley Baxter June 25 1955

Footloose in the Far West

Beverley Baxter June 25 1955

Footloose in the Far West


Beverley Baxter

WHEN THE editor of Maclean’s asked me, as your London correspondent, to write a special feature on the Canadian north for the special issue of last November I felt that, as was the case with the Light Brigade, someone had blundered but it was not for me to reason why.

By a Herculean effort I wrote an article which got me to the extreme north points of Cobalt and Haileybury, Ont.-—which would have been impossible except that I had sold pianos there during the first peace. That was as far north as I could reach.

Now I am ordered to go west, to the beautifully named Province of Alberta and the sibilant cacophony of Saskatchewan. Incidentally, Saskatchewan is quite beyond the powers of the English to pronounce. They can take Ontario in their stride, and Alberta without even clearing their throats, but nine times out of ten they say Manito-bah and Saskatchewichewan.

Memory can be an awful liar but when my younger sister was christened Alberta I think it was because the province had also been born and christened that year. My mother was a terrific royalist and somehow we got the idea that the Prince Consort had something to do with it despite the fact that he had been dead for a very long time.

However, it would be quite wrong to imagine that Toronto was greatly concerned about these happenings in the last great west. To the normal Torontonian the west was a distant land where emigrants went to farm, where remittance men drank themselves to a lazy death, where the Mounties got their man and where cowboys rode steers instead of horses.

Every now and then a venturesome westerner would come east and drop in on us in Toronto, but we found him rather too breezy and certainly too friendly. Those were the gracious days of Toronto and we could not accommodate ourselves to the westerners’ spacious ways.

Forgive me for another personal allusion but it is part of the story of how I became conscious of the mystic provinces beyond the Great Lakes. Before the five Baxter children were born my parents adopted a small boy whose first name was Percy. As the years went on he developed a restless and, I am afraid, a reckless temperament. Something happened. Something went wrong.

He was perhaps nineteen and, in the circumstances, there was only one way out. My father bought him a ticket which would take him as far as Edmonton. My brother was twelve and I was eight, and when we returned home after seeing Percy off at the Union Station we burst into tears and fairly howled to the moon.

My mother listened to us and then decided to intervene.

“If you don’t stop making that noise,” Continued on page 40

London Letter


she said, “I’ll send you out west too.”

That finished us. My brother Charles had eight cents and I had five. We decided that it was not enough to emigrate on, so we crossed the road to the corner candy shop of Mr. T. Snowball and we spent our entire fortune on candy balls which were eight for one cent.

But the sad exit of stepbrother Percy had fired the imagination of brother Charlie and myself. At that time the Canadian Pacific Railway, that supreme triumph of private enterprise, was busy bringing men and women from Europe to live in and build the Canadian west. Say, if you like, that the CPR was out to make money. Under private enterprise there is no halfway safety area between loss and profit. Either you lose or you win, and the CPR was determined not to lose.

Charlie discovered that the trains to the west stopped at the Union Station in Toronto—at least I think it was

called the Union Station even at the turn of the century.

It was a grim but fascinating sight There in the long carriages were men and women crowded into the available space, some of them asleep, others staring into space, two or three gazing with dull curiosity at the meaningless station at which they had stopped on their long, long trail to the west.

Young as I was I can remember that the sight of these homeless people seemed both sad and exciting. Probably my thoughts did not go deeper than that for I have no recollection that either Charlie er I had any curiosity about the reasons that had brought them from over there to over here.

Yet by the instrument of fate 1 was to visit the countries from which they had come, before I would see our own Canadian west. We need not linger on the year 1914, nor philosophize as to its impact on human destiny. War is the maker and breaker of human destinies. I sometimes think that war is cruelly fastidious for it takes the young and the best. In my own unit I had a sapper named Garfield Weston, from Toronto, who had lied about his age in order to enlist. Truly war is a bountiful jade. He joined up to fight and later in the Thirties he returned to Britain and conquered that country’s biscuit industry.

But you will agree that all this has nothing to do with Alberta and Saskatchewan except that I have no doubt that Garfield Weston has also invaded those provinces by this time.

My first glimpse of the west was in

1924 when I journeyed to Vancouver to marry a young lady whom I had not seen for two years. And, true to form, the men I saw at the station in Calgary looked as if they had just dismounted from their horses. Long legs, slim waists, ten-gallon hats . . . They looked like a poster to induce men to seek their careers on the ranches.

That was long before the hidden oceans of oil had been tapped. But Alberta was not without a sense of adventure. Ten years later it was to try out Social Credit, a pleasing policy whereby everybody got some money at the beginning of the year and the government would spend the next twelve months getting it back.

Since then I have been to the far west many times but Alberta has retained to an amazing degree its quality of high adventure. There is real drama in the sight of men in the rough lonely oil fields, drilling far far down to a buried sea. They told me, and they ought to know, that a million years ago Alberta was covered by a saltwater ocean and they were recovering the sunken spoils.

The Laughter Hid Nostalgia

Just how they calculated a million years I do not know. But how vast is man’s imagination and tenacity! It was exciting as dusk fell to see the red flames from a burning well. By comparison life in the city seemed a drab repetitious routine.

The last time I was in Edmonton the president of the Canadian Club drove me to the foothills of the Rockies. The coloring was exquisite and the vastness of it all was humbling to the spirit.

No wonder the Prince of Wales lost his heart to it. He had a restless soul that chafed under the discipline that fate had imposed upon him. Like other men he felt the freedom and the sense of manhood that the ranch country breeds.

But if the horse has given way to the internal-combustion engine the legend survives. Whenever Fve been in Calgary or Edmonton the cinemas have seemed to be offering nothing but westerns. It is true that the audience laughed when the hero would shoot up a whole saloon full of bandits, but behind the laughter was a secret nostalgia.

Nor does the visitor want for hospitality. It was either in Calgary or Edmonton that I was entertained most kindly in a home where Pilot Officer Eden (Sir Anthony’s son) had been a constant guest. He had been training there and his kindly hosts shared his father’s grief when he went to his death in action in the Far East. It nearly broke Anthony Eden’s heart. His marriage was going wrong, his favorite son had been killed. He listened without a word when I told him about the homes out west where they had entertained

his son. When I rose to say good night he still sat there as if he were alone in the room.

Now, as my western story nears its close, I must move to Regina. We were on a lecture tour and had flown over the Rockies from Vancouver. The war was on and I spent the entire day meeting committees, being regaled with hospitality and not having five minutes’ rest.

My speech was in a church, and going up the steps I was so tired that when I began my address the words conveyed nothing to me, whatever they may have done to the audience. Afterward there was a reception at somebody’s place. We were to fly to Toronto that night for a speech was scheduled there next day. Almost dead to the world I lay down on the bed for a few minutes’ rest, when there was a knock at the door and the horrified voice of my manager said, “There’s a snow storm and all flights have been canceled.”

O blessed snow! O blessed prairies! Heaven reward the unpredictable prairies! And so to sleep.

On another visit to Regina a strange thing happened. On the train from Winnipeg 1 sat beside a most lively fellow whose conversation was full of humanity and humor. As we neared the station I got up and went to shake hands. For some reason he did not take my hand but his manner was still friendly. Obviously a curious fellow.

In the hotel I was asked if after my lecture I would look in on a convention of blind people. There near the front of the audience was my friend of the train.

Tragedy, yes. But the spirit of those brave people and the kindliness of the officials were inspiring. Truly there is much courage and much goodness in the human heart.

And who among us is too old to feel a thrill when visiting the headquarters of the Mounties in Regina? Tradition has its place in the new world as in the old. Not even the Brigade of Guards is smarter than the men of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, even if their traditional enemy—the bad Redskin has almost disappeared.

And lest we seem ungracious to Saskatoon, how good it is to see a new community planning beauty spots in this materialistic age. Unlike our beloved Toronto, they do not sacrifice everything to the needs of the present.

Nothing in this London Letter adds to your knowledge of Alberta and Saskatchewan. But Sir James Barrie said that we were given memories so that we can have roses in December.

Thus I have returned for an hour to my roamings in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and in the process have seen again the blue magic of the foothills to the Rockies and the almost delirious delight of that snow storm that meant a night’s rest, and spared Toronto of a speech. ★