The incomparable St. Lawrence

Unruffled by centuries of violence and now barely creased by the seaway diggers, our broad avenue to the Atlantic majestically declines to be changed by the peoples whose destiny it has shaped


The incomparable St. Lawrence

Unruffled by centuries of violence and now barely creased by the seaway diggers, our broad avenue to the Atlantic majestically declines to be changed by the peoples whose destiny it has shaped


The incomparable St. Lawrence


Unruffled by centuries of violence and now barely creased by the seaway diggers, our broad avenue to the Atlantic majestically declines to be changed by the peoples whose destiny it has shaped


Last spring, standing by the greasy taffrail of a freighter drawing out from Quebec for its voyage down-river to the sea, I began thinking how different my life would have been if I had never known the St. Lawrence.

Like millions of other Canadians I had sailed up and down the river in all navigable weathers, I had crossed all of its bridges and on most of its ferries, I had walked on it in winter, steamed in the humidity of its Thousand Islands in July, had flown over it, and times without number I had driven a variety of cars along its roads. But it was not this tourist's knowledge I had in mind when I said to a ship’s officer: “If I had never lived beside this river, I'd have no idea what kind of a man I’d be now, or what kind of a career I might have had.”

L am a New Canadian; in other words I am a Nova Scotian from the Atlantic shore who came twenty-four years ago to live in the country my Nova Scotian great-grandparents called Canada. The St. Lawrence has formed the character of that country as emphatically as the Rhine has formed the character of Ger-

many. When I arrived in Montreal in 1935 1 needed a job and I wanted to becoim a writer. Canada gave me the job I could find neither at home nor in the Unitec States, and in the course of learnin~ how to become a writer, I discovered it wa~ n~ccssarv to learn something about the Canadians. \ovo Scotians 1 could take for granted as a native does his own people. Thc Em~lish character had been revealed in thousands of books, and Americans paradec before the world in the pages of most of the magazines on our newsstands and or every movie screen in the country. But the Canadians had no public charactet whatever except the utterly false one of a frontier personality. I wanted to know them. Their lives, their manners, their point of view quite baffled me. What kinc of people were these who lived with such remarkable self-confidence that their elit seemed disconcertingly mature, all the more so because it never occurred to therr to explain themselves? At first I saw them as a Scot or an Irishman coming to London sees the English. and soon 1 found them getting into my hair. I grudged the admission that thc

Laurentian population was the core of the country to which my own province had belonged ever since 1 867. I was angered, as a Scot is by the same behavior amon~ the English toward his own country. by their total mdi fierence to the Maritimes and their easy sense of superiority toward the west. Then I found myself liking them, as most Scots like the English once they have lived for a while in London. Then I discovered myself saying that Montreal was my home, and that I did not wish to live anywhere else. And it was about this time, in search of my new-found self, that I began to hunt out the character of the so-called Canadian nation. Soon it appeared that the secret of this character was intimately, profoundly, connected with the St. Lawrence River. It is a river, as everyone knows, like flO other on earth, and its sources lie far from its cities. They are to be found more than 2,200 miles from the sea in the streams that feed Lake Superior. The St. Lawrence course includes nearl ninetylIve thousand square miles deep lakes, all live of them called "great." together

with the little streams which connect Superior

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to Huron, Huron to Erie and Erie to Ontario. Below Quebec the St. Lawrence becomes so immensely wide that it can hardly be called a river at all, but is what in Scotland is called a firth of the sea. The water is brackish around the Ile d’Orléans; it is salt and teeming with ocean fish many hours’ steaming above Father Point where the vessels drop their pilots. The St. Lawrence does not so much empty into the sea as merge with it, and the ocean tide, pressing up against its current, makes its throb felt as far inland as Trois Rivières. The nearest of North America’s great rivers to Europe, the easiest of access to explorers and navies, the St. Lawrence has been for those reasons by far the most important stream in the Western world. But it is not a farmer’s river, not really. It is utterly unlike the Hwang-Ho or the Mississippi. It was, and is, an avenue to settlement and empire.

Years ago. trying to describe the lower St. Lawrence in my novel Two Solitudes, I wrote a kind of bravura passage which still seems to me valid as far as it goes:

“Nowhere has nature wasted herself as she has done here. There is enough water in the St. Lawrence alone to irrigate half of Europe, but the river pours right out of the continent into the sea. No amount of water can irrigate stones, and most of Quebec is solid rock. It is as though millions of years back in geologic time a sword had been plunged through the rock from the Atlantic to the Great Lakes and savagely wrenched out again, and the pure water of the continental reservoir, unmuddied and almost useless to farmers, drains untouchabiy away. In summer the clouds pass over it in soft, cumulus, pacific towers, endlessly forming and dissolving to make a welter of movement about the sun. In winter when there is no storm the sky is generally empty, blue and glittering over the ice and snow, and the sun stares out of it like a cyclopean eye.”

An exaggeration, of course, for in the narrow bottoms where the river had flooded throughout the centuries the land was fabulously rich when the first French settlers came. I went on to speak of the old Quebec farms hugging the shores between the rocklands and the stream; of the roads on either side of the river like a pair of village main streets, each close to a thousand miles long if you count some of the mileage in Ontario; of the manner in which the land was divided in early days between seigneurs and their sons, then between tenants and their sons, with the result that the fences of Quebec along the lower river remind you of the course of a gigantic steeplechase, running in long rectangles inland because a river frontage was so important in the time when the river was the sole means of communication.

And finally i spoke of Montreal where the Canadian races and religions meet without really mingling, the pulse of their encounter throbbing from east to west across the whole land.

As Two Solitudes was a novel of Que-

bec I did not speak of the upper riv at all. There, of course, the whole i of the land is different. The river its« is bluer in summer, more gay and shi ing. younger looking somehow, and the it has been wonderfully kind to farmei and kinder still in the parts of the wate way between Lakes Erie and Ontario.

But I was talking about the life tl river has imposed on the Canadi: people, and the character it has forme

The St. Lawrence, as everyone know has been the most fought-over strea in the North American continent, ar its present population has grown out i the very sediment of history. The orit nal French who came over from No mandy and Brittany are French certaii ly; but it is anyone’s guess how muc Indian and Scottish Highland blood mingled with the basic Breton and No man strains. Heaven knows how many lt; the Scottish soldiers who stormed Qiu bee in 1759 stayed in Canada and di appeared into the French-Canadian rao They spoke a primitive language; i their own country their national dre: and traditional way of life had been pri scribed by the conquering English; the were even more desperate and solitar than the habitants after both had bee abandoned by their native lands. It woul be interesting to know, though impo sí ble to discover, what percentage ( Highland blood still runs in the veins c French-speaking Canadians answering t the names of Polycarpe Fraser, Onésim Ferguson, or just plain Jean-Baptisl Tremblay. Is the famous fire of th French-speaking hockey players of It Canadiens all derived from Normandy To me, a Highland Scot from the tougl mining town of Glace Bay, there is some thing very familiar in the expression have seen on the faces of the Rocket ant Jean-Guy Talbot when somebody hitthem over the head with a stick.

But the St. Lawrence had woven to gether more racial strands than these and with them the politics and habits tc which the racial groups were committed The upper river received thousands o' Loyalists. Quebec, Montreal and Kings ton for years harbored English garrisons Scots, English and Irish business anc professional men, now joined by thou sands of New Canadians from Europe have lived side by side with the Frene) in Montrealemdash;the flotsam and jetsam oi history, the ruins and the recoveries oi racial and religious hopes. The miracle is that the nation built around the St Lawrence has turned out to be one o! the most stable in the world.

For this fact we can thank the char acter of the Laurentian peoples, whethei of French, English, Scottish or Irish ori gin, whether of the upper or the lowei river. “Intricate” is the word which fit: best the collective pattern. As I havt come to know this region over the years I find myself running out of adjective: in an attempt to describe its people Does it make any sense to say that th¡ Canadian emdash; not the Maritimer or thlt; Westerner but the central Canadian wh( lives beside the St. Lawrence emdash; is sc subtle that beside him the average Eng

lishman is an open book? Does it make any sense to say this while at the same time admitting that he is not intellectual at all, that he is so indifferent to learning (in comparison, say, to the native Frenchman) that he is incapable of taking intellectuals seriously? Yet subtle he most certainly is. In England I have often felt provincial but never naïve. In Montreal, listening to Laurentian men talking about business and civic affairs, I feel naïve about once a week. They know so much more than they will ever say. They carry their guards high. They assume—they

take a quiet pride in it—that nobody w ever understand them as they understai themselves.

Think of some of the politicians tl Laurentian region has produced: thii of the member for Kingston, where Fc Henry looks out across the river wi cautious self - confidence toward tl United States. There were times while read Donald Creighton’s life of Sir Jol A. Macdonald when I laughed alou The first Canadian prime minister w dismissed as a colonial by elemental types like the English envoys and Amei

can senators with whom he had to deal at the Washington Conference of 1871. Yet he, and not they, all his life had been dealing in a kind of calculus of politics.

The Americans and the English at that conference, nominal opponents, liked each other better than they liked him because they could understand each other. But Sir John, understanding both and lying back, caring nothing for the calculated insults to his pride, came home with the knowledge that his country was going to be secure. He came home with no important part of Canada surrendered to the United States to satisfy the Alabama claims, and with the promise that the Canadian and American forts which glared at each other across the St. Lawrence would be demilitarized.

Can anyone believe that Sir John would have succeeded in Canada, much less in international affairs, if he had been as blunt as Nova Scotia's Joseph Howe, as arrogant as England's Palmerston or as self-righteously simple as America’s Senator Sumner?

For this type of lying-in-wait character, for this type which always has been content to let the credit go so long as it takes the cash, the St. Lawrence River is largely responsible. It is responsible, I should say, for these reasons.

Until the railways were built, the St. Lawrence virtually was Canada. It was the thread of communication which held together the scattered racial fragments in the area. This meant that the rejects of history which coalesced to form the Canadian nation had to share the river if they were to live at all. Catholic French, Protestant Loyalists, Scots of both religions learned here to damp the fires of their passions, to curb their tongues in public, to acquire the art of looking at all public issues with a double and even a triple vision. The fact that the St. Lawrence on its upper reaches formed the boundary with the United States was one more influence which complicated the public character of the Canadian people. The Nova Scotian, protected in the growing years of his province by the Royal Navy, never had any need to learn the great Canadian

art of compromise.

The freighter felt the tug of the current flowing through the gorge between Quebec and Lévis (the city’s name is

supposed to have been the Algonquin word for “strait") and looking around I felt the excitement this famous scene always gives me. The sky over the

purple-grey city was turbulent as it so often is, and the distant mountains were streaked with patches of bright light as the setting sun struck through gaps in the clouds. Here, as everywhere on the central and lower St. Lawrence, you

could see the eternal Canadian frontier, the rocky hills of the Shield.

Traveling along the St. Lawrence on a working freighter is still the best way to know this river. On the upper reaches it can be very intimate. Once, years ago, stealing at night past the little Ontario hamlet of Cardinal, I seemed to be looking into everyone’s living room. We stole along in the dark virtually between Canada and the United States, and I'll never forget the startling beauty of a lighted window behind which a girl, smiling secretly to herself, was brushing her hair. Nor again that night in 1940, the month when France fell, the feeling of hope and security it gave to look across this river-frontier at the lights shining in the United States, and to know that if all else failed, Canada’s participation in the war was sure to guarantee an allied victory, because the United States could

never permit Canada to fall into Hitler’s power.

Standing now on the ship below the pile of Quebec City, I recalled so many scenes along the stream which fed the waters of this ocean port: the pulsing; blue of the river pouring out of Lakej Ontario, the lovely canals now being changed for the Seaway, the motorboats chugging in the dark into Gananoque, the wild flowers blowing in the breeze on all the islands, the parish lights along the shores. Then, staring up to Quebec City, I wondered how anyone could believe that a country containing a city like this is really young at heart.

For Quebec, to me at least, has the air of a city which was never young.j No community in America, few in' Europe, give out such a feeling of intense, rain-washed antiquity. Those stern grey walls with their Norman and Mediterranean roofs two centuries ago sheltered an embattled people who lived as long and as hard in a decade as most communities live in a century, and to this day the city’s habits, customs and appearance reflect every aspect of the tangled story.

What a miracle that old town is! What an anachronism to find in the so-called New World! Above all, what a city to observe located within plain sight of the empty wilderness of the Canadian Shield!

I looked up at the palisade of the Citadel polished smoothly grey by wind, rain, snow and ice with the river sheer below it, and I remembered the evening when I stood on the grass of the King’s Bastion beside a famous English statesman and we stopped playing croquet when a corporal’s guard suddenly marched around the corner of the blockhouse to the flagstaff. Wind tossed the clouds and across the river we could see rain falling on Lévis. The soldiers were guardsmen in red coats and bearskins, and as the flag came down one of them blew the last post across the river whence, two centuries earlier, British cannon balls had whirred into the streets of the city. I saw tears in the eyes of the English statesman and heard him murmur:

“If Winston could only see this he’d talk about it for hours.”

Our host said with a quiet smile: “If he knew those guardsmen spoke French, I fancy he might talk about it all night.”

But Quebec,, as everyone knows who has ever lived in it as long as a week, is no monument. The r oble convent of the Ursulines looks as it always did: the belfry bells ring incessantly: the black soutanes of the priests flap in the wind around every corner. But the Plouffe Family also lives here along with their furiously energetic creator. Maurice Duplessis rules here. Here also the statesmen, generals, admirals and airmen met to set their seals to the masterplan which won World War II. And here, in this monument of the past, Albert Guay conceived and executed the most modern

murder in the history of crime.

The ship turned into the channel leading around the southern tip of the He d’Orléans, and as the sun set behind us I found myself recalling Conrad's chapter at the opening of his Heart of Darkness. Conrad's scene was a river even more famous, the Thames, but the thoughts it evoked in the novelist seem-


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“The cleverest man in France remarked that twlt; empires were fighting for a few acres of snow’

ed to fit thé St. Lawrence better than any of my own:

“The old river rested in its broad reach unruffled at the decline of day, after ages of good service to the race that people its banks, spread out in tranquil dignity to a waterway leading to the uttermost parts of the earth.”

Ages of good service! At least three centuries of varied service the St. Lawrence has given, and not the least of its gifts has been the knowledge its problems have taught the people involved in its story. The chief lesson of all is that history is invariably ironical, and that great men of action seldom understand the true meaning of what they do or the results which flow from their lives. Irony has been connected with the St. Lawrence from the very beginning.

Jacques Cartier seems to have been as practical-minded a mariner as ever sailed from a Brittanny port, but when he entered that colossal estuary in 1534, what else could he assume save that the St. Lawrence was the Northwest Passage to China? What singular importance he attached to the wild grapes he found growing on the J le d'Orléans, and what thoughts were his when he stood on Mount Royal, his ship halted by the rapids, and looked into that immense, empty land into which the river disappeared! And why did his own people, when he returned with the news of his discovery, do nothing about it for nearly a century? Had France moved then and not waited, the whole of North America might have been hers.

Irony haunted nearly all the great lives connected with this river. LaSalle, seeing the water boiling past his seigneury on the southern end of Montreal Island, inevitably thought of the Yangtze and Marco Polo, and in a sublime effort to prove right a geographer's guess he paddled and portaged all the way from Montreal to the Mississippi Delta. The meaning of the river's future was obviously closed to Jean Talon when he established beside it a virtual European feudal system. It quite baffled Laval’s intelligent hope that it could lead to a Catholic Empire in America with a cross on every hill from the Gaspé to the Gulf of Mexico; the same highway which led French canoes into the con-

tinent also invited the Royal Navy New France’s Citadel.

Irony also haunted the Europeans \v| tried to deal with the St. Lawrence, i even to think about it. The cleverest ms in eighteenth-century France is remet bered in Canada chiefly for one ej gram which turned out to be the me wildly inaccurate he ever made, th along the St. Lawrence two empires we fighting only for a few acres of snow.

Most ironical of all was what the riv did to the dream of England’s great« statesman before Churchill. When Lo Chatham studied his maps in London the 1750s, it seemed certain to him th if he mastered the St. Lawrence tl whole of North America would be h He mounted and dispatched the great« armada England had ever sent overse up to that time. He put in charge of a young general who was to become ii mortal not for taking Quebec but f being reputed to say (as he probably d not) that he would rather have writt a minor poem than capture the great« fortress in the world. But when the ! Lawrence finally did fall into Engli hands, what did it mean to Englan Not the winning of America but the lc of it, for the moment the English colo ists forgot their fear of the strategical located French, they revolted.

Final irony of all was the situatii at the end of the war. The forts alo the river of New France flew the Uni Jack, their former British enemies to t south a new flag entirely, and a centu later a Canadian statesman of the Fren tongue would say that the last shot fir in defense of the British flag in Not America would be fired by a Fren Canadian.

An intricate people these, made by the vast historical and economic ii portance of the river beside which th lived. Almost the only great man cc nected with the St. Lawrence who seer to have understood its essential meani was the first Frenchman to build a fc beside it. Champlain made his mistaki including the almost fatal one of usi his musket in an Indian war, but never made the error of thinking abc the river in terms inherited from 1 European past. Always he seems to ha seen it as it was destined to becou neither a northwest passage nor a pri

of power, but as an avenue leading into a continent unlike any dreamed of in Europe, where new civilizations, in the course of the centuries, were sure to arise. In this expectation, Champlain was as accurate as any prophet could ever hope to be.

The St. Lawrence, even before its military role ended, was well on its way to becoming the chief commercial and economic factor in the development of Canada. From the beginning it predestined economic empires of various sorts, and it still does. The very nature of the terrain, offering no scope to a large agricultural community, made it impossible even for the conservative French Canadians to remain static. As the good lands were taken up by farms, those without farms had to move. Move they did. and the movements of the Laurentian peoples have already produced at least four economic empires and now foreshadow a fifth.

The first Empire of the St. Lawrence —to use Donald Creighton’s famous title — depended on furs. Following the Champlain Road into the interior, the voyageurs of the fur trade — first the great Frenchmen like Radisson, Groseilliers, Brulé and La Vérendrye, later the great Scots and English like Peter Pond. Mackenzie, Thompson, Fraser, Finlay and McGillivray — penetrated from the St. Lawrence all the way to the Pacific coast and the Beaufort Sea, and in so doing staked out Laurentian claims to the future granaries of the plains.

Shortly after the fur empire faded, the railway empire took its place, and soon the prairies and mountains discovered by the voyageurs became the virtual provinces of the Laurentian cities, their tribute manifest in the Victorian castles which still survive on the southern slopes of Mount Royal.

There was also the empire of timber, which has now been translated into the empire of wood pulp, and seventy years ago sailors hauling on braces and halyards in ports as remote as Manila and Rio de Janeiro sang the chantey I heard as a boy in Halifax:

Have yon ever heen in Quebec,

Piling timber on the deck?

With the coming of hydro-electricity, the empire moved from the railway barons to the manufacturers, and within the last three decades power bred out of Laurentian tributaries has changed the entire nature of traditional French Canada, turning an erstwhile race of farmers into one of the most highly industrialized communities in North America, with results to their character still unpredictable.

Now, this month, the dream of centuries comes true and a Seaway is open for ocean-going ships as large as twentyfive thousand tons, all the way from any port in the world to any port on the Great Lakes. Together with the Seaway, and in the long run more important, is the power project which is sure to create still another Laurentian empire along the former agricultural reaches of the upper river. What course it will take is anyone’s guess, but that it will bind even closer together the Laurentian communities, the French of Quebec and the English of Ontario, seems certain.

The St. Lawrence, fed constantly with a super-abundance of clean cold water from its reservoir, has constantly changed the life patterns of those who live along its banks. Yet here is another paradox: the river itself has changed in appearance least of all the history-making

streams, and this you can see by flying over it.

The lower Thames is overwhelmed by London, the lower Hudson is utterly dominated by the towers of Manhattan, the Elbe disappears into Hamburg. But when you fly out of Dorval on the London or Halifax plane, the river below you is so enormous that the Seaway excavations look no more than a trivial scar along the south bend of Laprairie Basin, and even the size of Montreal shrinks in your mind. The St. Lawrence is still too big to be dominated in the landscape by anything human beings do to it. Below Quebec there are long reaches of the river which look today exactly as they did to Cartier. Even along the upper river, even along the section of the old International Rapids, where the engineering work of the Seaway and power project has been most spectacular, the changes wrought in the landscape are relatively small compared to the landscape's vastness.

My freighter turned into the channel around the Ile d’Orléans and an incoming Empress broke out her lights. We passed and went down into the gathering darkness of the immense stream. After dinner I came out on deck and began counting the ships we passed, but as I could recognize them only by their lights 1 could only guess at their nationalities. For hours I walked around the decks looking at the lights of the parishes slipping by in the dark, and leaning over the side 1 could hear the hiss of brine along the plates of the vessel. The water was almost entirely salt now, but we were many hours from dropping the pilot at Father Point. 1 went to bed and slept eight hours, and in the morning we still were in what the maps call the river. A school of white porpoises flashed about us and a deckhand told me they were unique to this region of the sea. Slowly, slowly we went on toward Labrador, where yet another empire to be connected with this stream is abuilding. The river had utterly lost itself now and we were well on our way to England.

Ten days later, after coming down from Manchester in an English June, I found myself in London again. Alone and caught by the bus strike. 1 spent many hotirs of every day walking the famous streets 1 had not seen for years. As a young man in Nova Scotia I had not looked west but east, and London had been the first great city I had ever seen.

Now 1 found myself looking at London with fresh eyes and. because 1 have moved around a great deal in my life, I began asking myself if there was any city 1 knew remotely like it. There is only one London, of course, and it still is the greatest city in the world, and in time will probably become as eternal as Rome. But 1 noticed one thing about myself in connection with London I had never felt before. I felt at home here now. 1 felt myself prepared for its scope and its attitude. One evening, walking down the Haymarket toward Trafalgar Square, 1 remembered an essay about London by V. S. Pritchett, the one in which he said that the word evoked in his mind by the idea of Rome was “murder,” the word by the idea of Paris was “woman" and the word by the idea of London was “experience.”

1 had it then. "Experience,” above all other words, is the one which seems to me to fit the city where 1 live now, w'hich is Montreal. It is still, and always will be, the commercial capital of the St. Lawrence, and its character, beyond a doubt, has been formed by the river w'hich made its existence possible and its importance inevitable. ^