LAST JOURNEY OF BLAIR FRASER, CANADIAN
“Canada’s standard of living, second highest in the world, is in no danger of losing that proud position. Washing machines and television sets abound, as in no other nation save one . . . Ugly little towns prosper, all calling themselves cities and all looking like faithful copies of Omaha, Nebraska.
“This is not a Canada to call forth any man’s love. But just north of it lies a different kind of land — too barren ever to be thickly settled, too bleak to be popular like Blackpool or Miami. There is no reason to doubt that it will always be there, and so long as it is there Canada will not die.”
—Blair Fraser, The Search For Identity
SOME CANADIANS FREQUENTLY complain about the poor quality of journalism in this country. Such critics have obviously never traveled abroad. The fact is that among the informed circles that count, Canadian correspondents overseas enjoy a reputation for skill and competence matched only by the admiration for our diplomatic corps. For years we have been turning out first-rate reporters, editors and commentators in numbers out of all proportion to our meagre achievements in related fields. Perhaps the reason for this professional specialization has to do with the nature of Canada — our preoccupation with self-analysis and the constant need to interpret ourselves to ourselves. In any event, the Canadian public is better served by its resident journalists than it often realizes. And today in major Englishlanguage news-gathering organizations throughout the world there are dozens of expatriate Canadians holding down top jobs.
No individual did more to create and sustain this country’s international reputation for superior journalism than Blair Fraser.
Fraser, who was 59, drowned last May in a canoeing accident on Ontario’s Petawawa River. This is the story of that last canoe trip. It is told here because the background that led up to the trip helps explain why Blair Fraser was much more than the distinguished Ottawa Editor of Maclean’s. It explains how one man, grappling with the
problem of his own and his nation’s identity, found the solution where he least expected it — on the sparse granite banks of half-forgotten northern rivers.
Fraser’s considerable talents as an objective, articulate analyst of the Canadian scene for the past 25 years scarcely need further elaboration, certainly not for regular readers of this magazine. But just as impressive, in many ways, was the image that Fraser presented abroad. He was a gentleman journalist, as adept at showing this country in its best light as any of the diplomats he often accompanied. He could and did talk to kings, prime ministers, peasants and dictators without once losing his common touch or showing a trace of condescension. He could sleep in a Bengal farmer’s hut one night and a maharaja’s palace the next without altering anything but his tie. The man remained true to himself.
He also remained true to Canada. Unlike many of us, Fraser was seldom mistaken overseas for a Briton or an American. Not that he wore gold maple-leaf pins in his lapel or self-consciously waved his passport about in Swiss cafés and Hong Kong bars. He didn’t need to. He conveyed his Canadian identity by his presence. He possessed that elusive quality we all hope to find one day, a Canadian style.
Identity is not something a man — or a country — is born with. It is the accumulation of countless insights and experiences that gradually blend into a recognizable shape and tell us who we are. By his early 40s Fraser was as familiar with his country as any man could be. He had been raised in the Maritimes, had settled in central Canada and had criss-crossed the nation more frequently than a federal cabinet minister with a rebellious west-coast riding. Yet it was not until 1951, when he was bullied into making a weeklong canoe trip through the Pre-Cambrian country north of Ottawa, that Fraser finally realized what being a Canadian really meant to him.
This first trip, taken in the middle of the journey of his life, triggered something in Fraser’s spirit. It was organized by Eric Morse of Ottawa,
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BLAIR FRASER continued from pafte 20
It began as an easy-going cruise. The white water lay ahead
a life-long outdoors enthusiast and now National Director of the Association of Canadian Clubs. Before setting out, Fraser told Morse that in his opinion “one Pre-Cambrian lake is just the same as another.’’ He returned convinced that the Canadian Shidd was the spiritual as well as the geological core of Canada. Thereafter he paddled with Les Voyageurs, as this honorable company of amateur adventurers later called themselves, on as many trips as family and professional commitments permitted. Eacli passage down the old fur-trading routes confirmed his belief that this was, as he wrote, “an empty area of forest and plain in which a man can still enjoy the illusion of solitude. This is the quality that makes Canada unique and gives root to Canadian patriotism.”
The trips, although wearying for anyone out of condition, were also immensely enjoyable simply as boyish expeditions. “There was lots of horseplay and everybody was always kidding everybody else.” Morse recalls. “Bun there was never a tense moment. The married men used to brainwash their wives into letting them go by arguing they'd be better husbands when they got back.” Fraser's widow. Jean, says she was apprehensive about the trips at first. “Then I saw those refreshed and rejuvenated faces that returned, and remembered the white, pinched faces that had left, and 1 didn't worry any more.”
Fraser's last canoe trip was intended to be just such a holiday, a chance to loosen up muscles and iron out mental wrinkles. The leisurely weekend cruise down the Petawawa had become a spring fixture in recent years. For veteran Voyageurs it was an easy-going Wind-in-the-Willows outing compared with the rigors of the three-week journeys mounted in the summers. Fraser had made the same trip both last year and the year before. The 1966 weekend, he said later, “was the best canoe trip I've ever been on.”
This year, however, Morse plans to take a company of younger canoeists into the rugged Barren Lands near the Arctic Circle. In preparation for this, he had organized his newer recruits into a party of 12 to make the Petawawa run in May. He wanted to test them out on a river that is generally safe but has enough white water to make the exercise interesting.
Fraser and some older Voyageurs heard about Morse's plans at the last minute and joyously announced that they would tag along as well. Morse, none too happy about the logistical problems this would create, suggested they travel together but as two separate units. It was agreed that each party would be self-contained and provide its own food and equipment.
Fraser and the three companions in his party had all been canoeing together since the early 1950s. Dr. Omond Solandt, Chancellor of the University of Toronto and ViceChairman of Erco Chemicals, had made the first Voyageurs trip with Fraser in 1951. Maj.-Gen. Elliot Rodger. Chairman of the Manitoba
Liquor Control Commission, and Denis Coolican, a vice-president of Brazilian Light and Power Company Limited, both joined the club the next year.
Early on Saturday, May 1 1, the two parties met at a forestry station near the boundary of Algonquin Park and were driven by truck and station wagon to their launching point on
Lac Traverse. They set off about 11.30 with Morse's single-file flotilla of six canoes in the lead and the two canoes of Fraser’s party about 100 yards behind. Fraser and Rodger, the lighter pair, were together in Fraser's new fibre-glass craft. They had been paddling partners on several previous trips and once, on Manitoba's Hayes
River in 1964. had capsized in white water and lost the party's cooking equipment. Fraser was an experienced canoeist but not the most expert of the group. He was more interested in the people and scenery around him than in the mechanics of the journey. Although never careless, he was probably more venturesome than any of his companions.
The Voyageurs look back on that Saturday as one of the pleasantest in their 18-year history. The temperature
was in the mid-60s, there was a light breeze and the sky was a storybook blue and white. Both parties stopped for lunch — corned beef and cheese
— on a warm round rock beside the Little Thompson rapids. Fraser, who was valued both for his singing voice
— he had an extensive repertoire of original voyageur chansons — and his conversation, talked happily about politics. He was looking forward to the federal election campaign with the relish of a wine connoisseur anticipating a Napoleon brandy. The decisive battle for votes, he predicted, would be waged in the west.
During lunch two canoes in the Morse party, stripped of equipment, practised shooting the choppy, 100 -foot rapids.
One finally made it on the third try without dumping. It was in the pool at the bottom of these rapids that Pierre Hlliott Trudeau, an occasional Voyageur, overturned on last year's trip and was helped ashore by Solandt.
An early camp was made at about 4.30 that afternoon after a long portage around Crooked Chute rapids. The site was the only one large enough on that stretch of the river to accommodate both parties. Rodger and Coolican pitched the fourman tent while Fraser and Solandt kindled the fire.
Fraser was the one Voyageur who didn't claim to be a specialist in some particular form of camp lore. The only task he performed regularly was to butter bread and pile the slices up in tiers on the blade of a paddle. Otherwise he did his full share of whatever work was assigned and never complained or lost his temper.
One favorite Voyageur story tells how Fraser, a keen if not always successful fisherman, finally hooked a large pike at the end of a luckless day.
After a feverish struggle, he had the fish flopping in the shallows when a companion suddenly dashed into the water and began banging the pike's head with a stick. In the process he broke the line and the fish vanished.
Fraser reeled in without a word, walked away and sat in stoic silence on a log for an hour or so. Everybody kept glancing at him uneasily. At last Fraser rejoined the group, took a drink and remarked, “You know, 1 think I could have landed that pike without help.”
Such tales were part of the conversation at dinner that last night. It was a first-day-out meal — thick steak, canned potatoes, peas and apple pie. all washed down with a couple of bottles of Chianti provided by Fraser. Later the talk turned to the high cost
of sending children through university these days. Fraser observed that his responsibilities in that direction were now over. His elder son John, 33, is the first secretary at the Canadian embassy in Warsaw. His younger son, 22-year-old Graham, was just about to graduate from the University of-Toronto. Fraser said he had sent Graham a cheque to cover final university expenses and had enclosed a note telling him that this was the last family money he could expect. Graham had already found a summer job as a general
reporter on the Toronto Star.
The party was in bed by 10. All four took sleeping pills. As always, Fraser had two sleeping bags. He liked to use the second as a blanket. They woke at six, breakfasted on bacon. bread and left-over pie — Solandt had forgotten the eggs — and were ready to get underway at eight.
The other party wasn't quite ready, so Solandt and Coolican consulted Morse about the next stage of the route. They were reminded that the first dangerous stretch was the Roll-
way rapids at the head of a long, 200-foot-deep gorge that the old loggers named The Natch. That was their way of spelling “notch." The gorge looks as though it had been chipped out of the surrounding pine and granite by successive strokes from Paul Bunyan's axe. It is the point where the Petawawa begins to drop off the southern edge of the Shield.
The Rollway itself is a cascade of corrugated white water, half a mile long, that not even a champion canoeist would attempt to shoot — ex-
cept possibly at mid-summer and then in a kayak. The actual start of the Rollway is concealed behind a right bend in the river. But Morse explained they couldn’t miss the approaches because of all the warning signs: the banks narrow, the water speeds up and becomes silky smooth and the roar ahead is unmistakable.
Fraser and company pushed off about five minutes in front of the Morse party. Solandt and Coolican were in the lead canoe, with Solandt in the stern. Behind them and a little
to the left were Fraser and Rodger, with Fraser in the stern. The sky was partly overcast and mist was still curling up from the water. After about 40 minutes, much earlier than he had expected, Solandt sighted a riffle on the right that Morse had described as being just above the Rollway portage point. He turned back to Fraser and yelled, "I guess this is where we land.”
Fraser shouted something like, “I'm not sure this is it.”
Solandt and Coolican then shot the riffle — a trough of turbulent water — and made a U-turn into the righthand bank. They assumed Fraser’s canoe, lost from view by this manœuvre, had followed them through the riffle and was making a wider U-turn behind. Instead, Fraser had missed the riffle entirely and w'as badly off-course in the middle of the river. Rodger, who is slightly deaf, had heard nothing of the earlier conversation between Solandt and Fraser because of the Rollway's roar. He first sensed danger when he saw' the underwater rocks slipping by much faster than they should be. He shouted. “B lair, we'd better go ashore and check.”
By this stage Fraser was fully aware of the peril and, with his canoe broadside to the current, was making desperately for the far left bank. At one point the canoe was a I m o s t heading back upstream. When he realized they would never reach shore, Fraser correctly turned the craft downstream again, gripped the gunwales with both hands and yelled, “We're going in.” The canoe immediately hit three heavy crests. The first wave half swamped the craft and by the third crunch it was completely flooded, kept afloat only by its buoyancy tanks.
Rodger describes what happened next:
“We hit a rock and were both dumped to the left. When I first felt the water the cold jabbed at me like a bayonet thrust. I managed three short gasps,
was able to turn the canoe right-side up and croaked, ‘Hang on,’ to Blair. I tried to climb back into the canoe but realized that was nonsense. We were both jarred loose again when the canoe hit a second rock and I
thought, ‘So what? The canoe's no use
“I felt like a piece of flotsam in the water. I couldn't help myself. I remember gulping in air when my face was up, to keep my buoyancy. I kept telling myself, ‘Get your lungs full of air and hang on to it. Never breathe out.' I wasn't conscious of being battered but my legs are covered with
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bruises. I think my feet scraped bottom once or twice.
“About three quarters of the way down I caught a quick glimpse of Blair six or eight feet behind me. His head was up, as if he were breaststroking, and his long hair was plastered over his face. He looked in control of himself. Moments later I heard a shout — just a shout; it didn't mean anything and it must have been Blair. I think he made that shout when he hit a rock and perhaps was knocked unconscious.
“All this time I wasn't worried about the actual fact of drowning. But I was worried about the nuisance it would cause to my family, the mess that 1 would leave behind. Then I found myself swirled by an eddy into the right of a deep pool. The water was very quiet. I thought. ‘I’ve got this far; surely I can get to shore.’ I tried the crawl but couldn’t get my arm out of the water because of my heavy sweater and the cold. Somehow 1 dog-paddled for a few yards and pulled myself halfway out of the river onto a rock. Just then the empty canoe, caught in the same eddy, glided eerily up behind me. For some silly reason 1 stumbled back into the water and grabbed hold of the painter. The canoe was only slightly damaged, a few deep cuts on the bow.’’
Rodger had been in the water for less than eight minutes.
Meanwhile G. H. U. “Terk" Bayly, Ontario’s Deputy Minister of Lands and Forests, had been the only member of Morse’s party to see Fraser and Rodger disappear down the Rollway. Bayly beached his own canoe immediately, raced diagonally through the clusters of jack pine to the portage trail and emerged on a bluff about halfway down the rapids. He spotted two heads bobbing in the black water just below the last of the rocks. “I couldn’t distinguish them but both heads were well clear of the white water,’’ says Bayly. “I don’t see how Blair could have hit his head after that.”
Bayly ran back down the trail and met Solandt and Coolican, both unaware of the accident. Bayly gabbled something about an upset, seized Solandt’s canoe from his shoulders and called to Coolican to bring the paddles. They put in at the first safe spot they could find, shot down the rest of the rapids into the pool and found an exhausted Rodger spread-eagled on the rocky shore. Fraser had vanished. He had been wearing a bright-red flannel shirt: but in spite of an intensive search, the party could find no sign of him.
“The amazing thing to me,” says Terk Bayly, “is not that Blair Fraser died in that accident but that Elliot Rodger survived.”
Late on Sunday afternoon a search team, flown in by helicopter and using Fraser’s own canoe, discovered the body in eight to 10 feet of water near the bottom left-hand corner of the pool. The nose was broken and there was a large bruise on the right temple. An autopsy conducted by the Pembroke, Ontario, coroner showed death by drowning. But it is not clear whether Fraser was knocked unconscious first.
Because none of the canoeing party had remained in Pembroke, the coro-
ner was unable to make a positive identification. Late on Sunday night he phoned Graham Fraser in Toronto. Graham was able to confirm the body was his father's by describing the scar tissue that covered Fraser's entire chest. That accident had occurred at birth. The doctor, asking for water to bathe the new-born infant, had mistakenly been handed a boiling kettle. As a result. Fraser was an invalid throughout most of his childhood. He suffered from chronic asth-
ma and was not expected to live to his majority.
Part of Fraser’s enthusiasm in later life for outdoor sports — sailing, fishing, skiing and canoeing — was an expression of his triumph over the illness that plagued his youth. More recently, his journeys wñth Les Voyageurs taught him how to triumph over the enfeebling illogicality of Canada. Four years ago. when addressing Graham's graduating class at Upper Canada College in Toronto, he put his
feelings about this country into words.
Many people, he told the young students, will never be able to accept Canada's harsh climate and desolate wilderness. Such people should be allowed to leave, and we should feel no sense of betrayal at their going. “But if you love it,” he concluded, “you should stay. And it will make you very happy.”
Blair Fraser did love it and he stayed. And it did make him very happy.