THE TRACKS OF HISTORY
TRAVELLING 6,371 KM, MACLEAN’S SENIOR EDITOR BOB LEVIN AND SENIOR WRITER RAE CORELLI CROSSED THE COUNTRY BY TRAIN TO EXPLORE CANADA’S PAST AND PRESENT
It is a wet and windy latespring day in Halifax. The gusts harbor water and spray oily harbor waters and spray drizzle against the cavernous pier sheds, deserted now except for the sparrows squabbling with pigeons high in the gloom beneath the roof. Before airplanes dominated transatlantic travel,
Halifax was a gateway to the continent. Mighty ocean liners from Hamburg, Rotterdam, Le Havre and Southampton disembarked the pampered rich of Europe and
North America and refugees from war, poverty or persecution. Long before that, when the ships were wooden and the passage more perilous, the harbor was a clean and fresh arm of the Atlantic, history’s westbound highway for European colonizers and conquerors enticed by a brave new world. They brought disparate cultures and religions, laws and languages, and despite inevitable conflicts they found enough common ground to create the Canadian Confederation.
But for thousands of Frenchmen and Britons in the nearly 300 years after John Cabot’s first wondering glimpse of Newfoundland in 1497, the ocean crossing was a one-way trip to sudden death from shipwreck, cold, disease, starvation or Indian rage— or at the hands of one another. The French, the English following, ventured westward from Acadia and the valley of the St. Lawrence in the quest for furs and places to plant their flags. They savaged the Indians, quelled rebellions and threw back American invaders. They never grew to like each other much,
yet in the end they stopped shooting and left the key under the mat for dreamers from other lands beyond the sea.
Those early nation-builders had a vision of their own, scoffed at by many as a pipe dream: to bind the country together by building a railway across the most treacherous and glorious terrain on earth. The train, it turned out, would spur a second great wave of immigration, carrying settlers from the docks and the towns of the East to the mysteries of the wide-open West.
A hundred years later, in the age of the frequent flyer, there is still no better way to see the sweep of the land and sense the rush of history than from the window of a westbound train.
Brave new world
The pier Halifax sheds. railway Inside, station there are is less no brass than a spittoons, city block slumberfrom the ing drunks or ticket windows with iron bars. The genial men behind the counters say “sir,” the floor is smartly tiled in brown and beige, and there are big fig trees, real ones, in. pots. The train leaves on time but has to back up for repairs, which take half an hour.
“I’ve never been on an airplane,” says Mary McDermott of Lethbridge, Alta., “and I probably never will.” She looks out the
dome car window as the Ocean, which has been making the overnight run from Halifax to Montreal for 88 years, rumbles between granite outcroppings and around the bleak shoreline of Bedford Basin where Atlantic convoys assembled during the Second World War. “It’s beautiful,” she says politely. “But they don’t have the mountains.” What Nova Scotia does have in abundance is history—it witnessed the beginning in the 17th century of five generations of intermittent warfare between the French and English in eastern North America. Off and on for 100 years, while Europe fawned over glittering courts and the merchants of Venice dominated the Adriatic, the two sides fought over Champlain’s ancient settlement at Port-Royal on the Bay of Fundy. When the outpost finally fell to the English in 1710 during the War of the Spanish Succession, so did the storied land of Acadia, from which 10,000 inhabitants were later expelled for refusing to swear allegiance to the British Crown. Most settled in New England and Louisiana.
The Acadians began drifting back a few years later. Thousands of their descendants now live around Yarmouth, where Ken Langille, 39, teaches at Memorial High School. Langille is taking 24 Grade 12 law students to Montreal and Ottawa for a week to see big-city justice in action. The teenagers wrote and sold enough copies of a 60-page book about local murders to pay for the trip, begun by bus because Via Rail cutbacks in 1990 cost Yarmouth its train link to Halifax.
Their slight, bespectacled teacher sits in the dining car, farms and forests flashing past outside the window. “Where we are, the majority of the French people think that Canada will stay together,” he says. Paul Comeau, a 47-year-old retired teacher who divides his time between Dartmouth, N.S., and the southern United States, has come along to help old friend Langille keep an eye on the students. He is of Acadian ancestry but speaks no French. When he travels by car, he says, he avoids Quebec because he was treated rudely there. “I'll go through Maine, I’ll go to Ontario, but I won’t go through Quebec.” Politicians, says Comeau, “should put everybody to work and then worry about the Constitution.” Langille’s students have never been to Montreal, but some have unhappy expectations. “I assume that some of them will be snobbish towards English-speakers,” says Barry Thibeau. “I guess people don’t like things they don’t understand.” Kim Jeffery, 18, would like to know how to speak French, “but I don’t think I should be treated worse because I don’t.” Nova Scotia’s rocky coastline has long been raw material for film-makers and poets, but the rest of it, except for the Wentworth Valley and the Cape Breton Highlands, is largely flat. Jeffery turns away from the window and says with a laugh: “Trees, trees, trees.”
Hidden by the billowing grasses of the Tantramar marsh, more or less the border between Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, are vestiges of the dikes put up by the Acadians to withstand the tides of Chignecto Bay at the head of Fundy. “This is beautiful, the only way to travel as far as I’m concerned,” says Robert Easterbrook. “Anybody who’d complain about this is a damned fool.” It is twilight. The headlights of the locomotive up ahead wash across the corridor of trees, an endless and immutable honor guard. The 63-year-old Easterbrook retired after 30 years as a long-haul trucker and sorely misses his wife, who died last year.
“That’s why I’m travelling,” he says. “To get away from it.” “You’re travelling alone?” a passenger asks.
“Yeah, travelling alone—unless I find somebody.” He laughs. “But that’s pretty hard anymore.”
New Brunswick is Canada’s only officially bilingual province. The station signs flying past attest both to that reality and to the province’s Acadian roots: Rogersville, Newcastle, Petit Rocher, Jacquet River. However, bilingualism has a way to go. English-speaking New Brunswickers pronounce the last two “Petty Rosh” and “Jacket River.” From the train, there is little evidence of the Micmac Indians who were here before anybody.
The relationship between French and English, past and present, comes up frequently. Montreal-born Anne Versailles, 53, is what the railways used to call a porter. Now they are service attendants. Wiry and cheerful, she yanks down upper berths and fluffs pillows. “There is enough wealth here for everybody and there is a place here for everybody,” she says. “I think if we were all working together rather than fighting, we
could have a better country.”
The Ocean thunders into Quebec, through the old railroad junction of Matapédia and on to Mont-Joli, Rivière-duLoup and Montmagny. Montmagny is the mainland community closest to Grosse-Ile, a 450-acre St. Lawrence River island where, for more than 100 years, arriving immigrants suspected of carrying disease were quarantined. The station, closed in 1937, will become a national park dedicated to the thousands of early newcomers, mostly Irish, who died there of typhus and cholera.
From the ferry terminal at Lévis on the St. Lawrence South Shore, the night sky turns to deep blue. The rising sun splashes orange on the fairytale turrets of the Château Frontenac and the ramparts of Quebec City. North America’s only walled city, it was founded 384 years ago by Samuel de Champlain and served as the capital of New France for 150 years, until the fateful day in 1759 when the armies of James Wolfe and the Marquis Louis-Joseph de Montcalm met on the Plains of Abraham.
Tree-lined streets, tidy brick homes and apartment towers, one sporting a rooftop revolving restaurant, now cover most of the battlefield. On his bronze-and-concrete monument in the shadow of Loew’s Concorde Hotel, a dying Montcalm is comforted by a winged angel. Wolfe is in a somewhat classier setting. His monument, at the spot where he is presumed to have died of wounds, stands in open parkland at the western end of the plains. Nearby is a cairn bearing a plaque commemorating an Anglo-French conference five decades ago, “when the descendants of ancestral foes met as fraternal friends.”
Maybe not so friendly. François Beaulne, the international affairs critic for the separatist Parti Québécois in the National Assembly, says that many Quebecers view Confederation as a pact from which they receive less and less benefit. They have become disenchanted partners, Beaulne says, “who
have concluded that if you can’t patch up the marriage, you go and find yourself a nice girl and start all over again.” Claude Morin, 63, a former René Lévesque cabinet minister who now teaches public administration, says: “Psychologically, I think, Quebec and Canada have already separated.”
On the stormy years before that marriage, Marc Lafrance is an expert. The 45-year-old native of Pembroke, Ont., is a Parks Canada historian who talks about Wolfe and Montcalm with familiarity, as though they had figured prominently in last week’s news. Lafrance drives along the riverbank through manicured parkland, the city to the rear and high above. He pulls up at the intersection of a road that winds back up the heights. “I don’t think Wolfe and Montcalm were military giants. Montcalm was trying to avoid a battle. And Wolfe, well, the only way to take Quebec was from behind, but it took him a long time to decide to try to put a force there.” Lafrance rolls down his window and points towards the shoreline. “Anse-au-Foulon,” he says. “That’s where he finally landed.”
• For more than a week, high winds and rain squalls lashed the river, buffeting the wooden frigates of the British fleet. Soldiers huddled around steaming campfires on opposite banks of the St. Lawrence. On the night of Sept. 12, the wind died and the skies cleared. In the shadows cast by the starlight, the British launched their last desperate gamble to capture Quebec. Although four-fifths of its buildings had been demolished by
cannon fire, the centre of French power in North America had held off its besiegers for months.
Shortly after nightfall, British warships began bombarding the French encampment at Beauport east of the city, reinforcing Montcalm’s conviction that it would be Wolfe’s initial objective in one final attempt to seize Quebec. It was a disastrous miscalculation.
At 9 p.m., west of the city, 30 flat-bottomed boats filled with 1,600 British troops cast off from the south bank and drifted silently downstream on the tide, finally going ashore on the north bank in a tiny cove called Anse-au-Foulon. Quebec and most of the French army were about two miles away. Confronting the men on the beach was a cliff 175 feet high. A crude’footpath disappeared into the darkness above, where a few French sentries suddenly spotted the attackers and opened fire.
While the main force waited below, Capt. Donald MacDonald of Fraser’s Highlanders led his infantry company up the dirt path and quickly overpowered the small French detachment. With the heights secured, the troops on the beach began ascending the cliff. From the staging area across the river, the small boats brought reinforcements—and the petulant, indecisive Wolfe. The British general had been ailing for months. He quarrelled repeatedly with his seasoned brigade commanders who had dissuaded him from attacking Beauport. Standing on the beach, Wolfe gazed at the imposing cliff and said to an aide: “I don’t think we can by any possible means get
there; however, we must use our best endeavor.”
But hundreds of English and Scottish soldiers were already up there. Additional hundreds, sweating and cursing under the weight of their weapons and packs, scabbards clanking on the rock face, clambered up the path all night long. By sunrise, Wolfe had 4,400 men on the Plains of Abraham less than a kilometre from the walls of Quebec. In front of the British lines was a cornfield dotted with bushes and beyond that, the Buttes de Neveu, a ridge that largely shielded the city.
At about 6 a.m. on the next-to-last day of his life, Montcalm was appalled to discover Wolfe waiting on his doorstep. By 9 a.m., the Frenchman had marshalled 4,500 men outside the city walls. The Buttes de Neveu lay between him and Wolfe, who had inexplicably failed to take the high ground on the ridge at daybreak. His men, hundreds of them weakened by dysentery and scurvy, had not slept for 24 hours. Montcalm could have withdrawn into the fortress and waited for the British to run out of food and water. Instead, he ordered his troops, most still out of breath after a two-mile forced march from Beauport, to charge—up the ridge, down the other side and into the cornfield.
Shouting and waving their weapons, the French loped towards the British lines in three columns, 20 men abreast and shooting as they came. The British held their fire until the columns were 30 yards away. Then, thousands of muskets belched flame and smoke. All along the French line, scores of bodies were flung back against the men behind. The formations disintegrated. Irish-born Lieut. John Knox of the 43rd Infantry Regiment would write in his journal: “Hereupon they gave way and fled, so that by the time the cloud of smoke was vanished, our men were again loaded and pursued them almost to the gates of the town.” In the half-hour battle, 658 Britons and 644 French were killed or wounded. Wolfe died leading the Louisbourg Grenadiers and Montcalm was wounded as his defeated army streamed into the fortress. Later, surgeons dressed his wounds and he asked them if he would live. They replied that he would not. When Montcalm wanted to know how much time he had left, they said, “About a dozen hours, perhaps more, perhaps less.” He was silent for a moment, then sighed: “So much the better. I am happy I shall not live to see the surrender of Quebec.”
The next day, Montcalm’s surviving commanders inside Quebec refused to organize a counterattack on the British. Governor General Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil and most of the French army abandoned the fortress. Left at the head of a token force, Chevalier Jean-Baptiste de Ramezay surrendered the capital to Brig. George Townshend, who had taken command when Wolfe was mortally wounded.
It was not the last battle for Quebec. On April 27 the following year, the brilliant Chevalier François-Gaston Lévis—who one day would become a marshal of France—marched on the city with 4,000 troops. Brig. James Murray, who had been left in command, made the same mistake Montcalm had: he marched his army onto the plains, was promptly routed and found himself under siege. But the standoff ended in May when a British fleet sailed up the St. Lawrence. Lévis fell back on Montreal, which the British captured on Sept. 9, 1760. Lévis had ordered his regiments to bum their colors rather than endure the humiliation of handing them over to the enemy. He preserved his honor. But he lost a continent.
From Quebec City’s vaulted old train station, the Montreal-bound Citadelle roUs through an urban backwater of large warehouses and small homes, then past scrubby woodlands and across the St. Lawrence. “I guess we’ll be running on the south side,” says Jim Eddy, a 71-year-old retired customer-service manager from Unionville, Ont. “Wait—my directions are all messed up.” He smiles. “I was a navigator in the war. I was shot down—spent 3% months in a German prison camp.”
The train is in open country now, blowing by cars on the adjacent highway and past white-siloed farms and stacks of firewood and blue overalls waving on a clothesline. Caroline Parker, a 28-year-old Australian
travel agent who has been to Vancouver, Edmonton, Toronto and Quebec City, says that it is hard to understand what Quebecers are worried about—their culture is already so distinct. “Like being in France, only I’m not, I’m in Canada.” With at least one notable difference. “I didn’t have any problem in Quebec as an English-speaker. The minute you look confused they switch to English. It’s better than in Paris, where they look at you like you’re from another planet and just ignore you.”
And what will she tell her clients back in Melbourne?
“That Canada’s a very comfortable place to visit,” says Parker, who is travelling alone. “A lot of people are terrified they’ll be mugged, have their traveller’s cheques stolen. But here, even the people who ask for money on the street don’t pester you if you say no.”
It’s called reserve, she is told—Canadians are famous for it.
“Well,” she replies, “I do find Americans a bit more open. But Canadians are friendly, too, and they’re more informed. Americans say, ‘Oh yeah, Australia, the one down south with the kangaroos.’ But here, people really know.”
Across the Richelieu River, a boarded-up train station flashes by, a graffiti artist’s delight. “Anarchist,” screams the white spray paint. It was up the Richelieu that ragged American forces travelled in 1775, Montreal-bound, during the critical period when 13 North American colonies began their revolution—and Quebec and Nova Scotia declined to join. By then, Montreal teemed with Scottish, English and American fur traders, flocking to the new British-governed land of opportunity. But despite British hopes, not enough English-speaking Protestants arrived to overwhelm Quebec’s French Roman Catholics.
Making a virtue of necessity, the British tried another tack to control the colony: they restored the Catholic Church to its former authority and forbade elected government. They also returned the prime fur country of the Ohio Valley to Canada, a move that was designed to placate Montreal’s anglophone merchants—but succeeded in outraging the expansion-minded Americans.
With France vanquished, the English-speakers were free to fight among themselves. Rebellious Americans, already exercised over high British taxes and facing a spate of repressive British laws, organized the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia. But Quebec and Nova Scotia were heavily dependent on London—the former for the fur trade, the latter for naval subsidies. And after fullfledged revolution erupted at Lexington, Mass., in
April, 1775, American troops marched north to prevent British Gov. Guy Carleton from using Quebec as a military base.
Although they eventually occupied Montreal, the Americans could not duplicate Wolfe’s triumph in Quebec City. They stormed the Citadel on a snowy, windy New Year’s Eve, only to be blown back by Carleton’s men. By June, the hard-pressed Americans had abandoned both Montreal and Quebec and, soon after, their hopes of Canadian conquest—at least for the moment. But they went on to win their independence from Britain—with the conspicuous help of revenge-conscious France—and to score stunningly at the bargaining table. The 1783 peace treaty left the Canadian colonies with the cold lands above the Great Lakes, while refugees—the Loyalists—were already streaming north to settle them, bringing their worldly goods and the capacity to help create a new nation.
Approaching Montreal, which is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year, the train crosses the St. Lawrence once more. It offers a panorama of the Jacques Cartier Bridge and the geodesic dome from Expo 67, then ducks beneath the skyline into Central Station. The four o’clock train to Toronto is called the Metropolis, and it is light-years from the first one to run that route in 1856, when the steam locomotive stopped 64 times in 15 hours. Now, the express I stops once and takes just over four
0 hours, hurtling passengers between t Canada’s two largest cities—and two
1 different worlds.
I “Toronto has a very cold atmo| sphere,” declares one passenger, Patrice Castravelli, a 39-year-old marketing co-ordinator from Montreal. “I like it, but it’s all business. In Montreal, you combine business and pleasure.”
“Montreal has the river and all those bridges and Montrealers are so proud of their city,” says Susan Short, 41, a native Torontonian who now lives in Montreal. “People are afraid to admit if they’re from Toronto. But one year I came home to Toronto and the leaves were changing color and the tears almost came and I said to myself, This is my city.”
Knocking Toronto, of course, is a national pastime, and Richard Moore, a research specialist for the Mining Association of Canada, thinks he knows why. “Out West, it’s a lot of jealousy,” says Moore, a 43-year-old Toronto resident who spent three years in Vancouver. “If you say Toronto’s not so bad, no one will speak to you for a half-hour. It’s about control—no one wants to be controlled from some distant place.” Looking up from his copy of Ontario Curling Report, Moore sums up the intercity rivalries: “People in Toronto like Montreal. People in Montreal look down on Toronto. Vancouver people hate Toronto, even though they’ve never been there.”
As it happens, purveyors of Toronto’s all-business stereotype would find ample ammunition in
the first-class section of the Metropolis. Swathed in the airplane ambience of the LRC (light, rapid, comfortable) cars, passengers in dark suits, their briefcases snapped open, pore over papers, punch calculators, talk shop.
“Most of our business is in. ... ”
“We wanted to see how the competition. ...”
And as the train barrels through eastern Ontario farm country, past staring cows and prancing horses, the ride is punctuated by the tittering ring of cellular phones. Getting up to go to the bathroom, one white-shirted passenger says hurriedly to another: “If the phone rings, take a message.”
The express speeds right by Kingston, an old Loyalist stronghold that would give the country its first prime minister, the mercurial John A. Macdonald. But before John A.’s time, when Britain created English-speaking Upper Canada in 1791, along with French-dominated Lower Canada, the Lake Ontario settlement was just another Indianor Frenchnamed place in the wilderness. John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada’s newly appointed lieutenant-governor, set about providing proper British names to his new domain: Cataraqui became Kingston, Niagara became Newark, the La Tranche River became the Thames. “Gen.
Simcoe has done a great deal for this province,” declared Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant. “He has changed the name of every place in it.”
At the time, Brant’s British-allied Six Nations were fighting a losing battle against the Americans’ inexorable urge to expand, an urge that would eventually engulf Canadians again in open warfare. In fact, throughout Canadian history—the
Quebec sovereignty debate is the current catalyst—the spectre of America taking over one part of Canada or another has repeatedly appeared. “I don’t believe Quebec will leave,” says one Metropolis passenger, Railway Association of Canada president Robert Ballantyne. “But if it did, absorption by the United States would be a danger.”
Down the aisle, Larry Bronson, going home to Belleville, Ont., has a
personal response to Americans. “I have many good friends from the United States, but they’re loud and boastful,” says the 57-year-old Bronson, a general sales manager for a firm that was for many years American-owned. “They’re proud of their country and rightfully so, but they don’t know much about what other countries have accomplished, and don’t seem very interested.”
Far harsher sentiments prevailed in colonial times, when Elizabeth Simcoe, the strong-minded wife of Upper Canada’s lieutenant-governor, described Americans as “perfectly democratic and dirty.” Her husband, who had once commanded a Loyalist regiment, was so wary of the Americans that, when considering a capital for Upper Canada, he concluded that both Kingston and Newark were too close to the Yankees. Instead, Simcoe chose an uninhabited and inhospitable spot atop Lake Ontario, a place the Indians called Toronto that he promptly renamed York—a place that, beyond its latter-day suburban sprawl, appears down the railway track like some space-age Oz, gleaming in silver and gold.
Yet for all its transformation, modem Toronto still harbors an
ambivalence towards Americans, those infuriatingly oblivious partners in Canada’s most complex and critical external relationship. One Torontonian, former United Nations ambassador Stephen Lewis, says that Canadians are “bemused by America’s excessive xenophobia” but “identify with an essentially liberal democracy.” In general, says Lewis, “Canada is happy that it’s not America, happy there’s a border—but one Canadians can cross with impunity.”
Americans cross that border as well, tumbling out of tour buses, strolling along the opaque grey lake, quizzing locals on how they keep Toronto so clean. One place many Americans do not notice, however, is a small, walled old fort tucked amid the highways and highrises. It is the
birthplace of the city that Canadians love to hate and Americans love to visit—a military base designed to keep the Americans out.
# York sat in a primeval forest, thick with mud and mosquitoes and little else. Simcoe’s men, arriving by boat from Newark, had set up camp on the site of an old French fort, while he and his family bedded down in a tent. It was the summer of 1793, and over the next few years the soldiers built log barracks and houses and started work on a road north called Yonge Street.
Slowly, settlers arrived. They were Britons, Germans, French, Americans, free blacks and slaves—slavery was quickly abolished. The newcomers worked as civil servants and tradesmen. They built ships, grew wheat, shot deer, caught salmon, frequented the Anglican Church and the town tavern. The gentry danced at elegant balls at the governor’s house and complained about a lack of good servants. One Irishman, Joseph Willcocks, wrote that there were “few pretty girls,” although he was more interested in their money anyway—“love and runaway matches I never was an advocate for, such proceeding may fill the belly of women but not of men.”
In 1807, one visitor expressed “sentiments of wonder on beholding a town which may be termed handsome, reared as if by enchantment in the midst of wilderness.” But by 1812, the Americans and British were at war and the enchanted town and its 900 people were threatened. The British, fighting with Napoleonic France, had been stopping U.S. ships on the high seas to arrest deserting sailors and to seize cargo destined for France. Many Americans became convinced that, by invading British
^ colonies to the north, they could liberate an oppressed people and complete their revolution. But three early losses had left them needing a victory, and York—where one warship was often in port and another was under construction—was the designated target.
On the hazy, windy morning of April 27,1813, an armada of 14 American ships plied the frigid Ontario waters off York, the winter ice having just broken up. On board were about 1,750 men, while York’s defenders numbered at most 700—British and Canadian soldiers along with Mississauga and other Ojibwa warriors deployed around a wood-and-earth fort. At about 8 a.m., the invaders headed for shore in small boats. They were met by a band of natives whose musket and rifle fire could not stop the Americans. Nor could a charge by British regulars,
scattered by the squadron’s booming cannon.
Outnumbered, unlucky, retreating to Fort York,
British and Canadian troops had a final surprise for the invaders: Upper Canada commander Sir Roger Sheaffe ordered his men to blow up the fort’s grand magazine. The explosion, wrote American Maj.-Gen. Henry Dearborn, produced “a most unfortunate effect on our troops”—it killed 100 of them, including Brig.-Gen. Zebulon Pike, a western explorer after whom Colorado’s Pikes Peak is named.
Ultimately, the Americans did not win much at York. The warship Prince Regent had left port before the battle began, and Sheaffe ordered the nearly completed Sir Isaac Brock—named for his predecessor, the slain hero of the battle at Queenston Heights—to be destroyed rather than risk losing it to the enemy. And, during their six-day stay, the Americans incurred the wrath of the British and the
enduring suspicion of Upper Canadians. The occupying forces looted houses and churches and set fire to the governor’s house and provincial parliament buildings. In direct retaliation, the British, marching on Washington the next year, burned the White House and the Capitol. The war, raging on inconclusively into winter, officially ended on Christmas Eve, 1814, in a desultory stalemate. By then, York residents were already rebuilding their fort, readying for a time that the Americans might come again.
Now, those wood-and-brick barracks and blockhouses are among the oldest buildings in Toronto. And on a chill April afternoon 179 years after the American attack, a group of costumed schoolchildren, many black or Asian, re-enact the battle beside the fort. They whoop like natives, chant like soldiers. They wear paper “shako” hats and cringe when a uniformed fort employee fires a blank musket. They charge across the damp ground. “Muddy York,” says the fort’s curator, Carl Beim. “History you can step in.” Around him, the city that was renamed Toronto two decades after the battle looms in all its clattering modernity. The brazen CN Tower and SkyDome front the skyline to the east. The elevated Gardiner Expressway, emitting the headache din of rushing traffic, lies to the south before a Molson’s brewery; the rail yards are a steel boundary to the north. All of which gives Fort York a decidedly low profile, making it a tough sell as a tourist attraction. “This is the birthplace of the city,” Beim says with a resigned shrug, speaking over the hoot of a train whistle, “and there it is.”
‘The main guy’
The westbound train from Toronto at first goes north, past Barrie and on through a wooded land of lakes discovered by 17th-century explorer Etienne Brûlé, who eventually so irritated the Huron Indians that they ate him. The region became part of Upper Canada, ruled by a succession of British lieutenantgovernors including Sir Francis Bond Head, credited by historians with introducing the lasso to the army. Sir Francis was so short that his legs stuck straight out when he sat on a chair. The British have been replaced by legions of city-dwellers who ostensibly come for the summertime serenity that inspired 19th-century Mohawk poet Pauline Johnson to pen “The Song My Paddle Sings”—a serenity that succumbs to their speedboats and Jet Skis.
A man dressed all in white—slacks, shirt and jacket, the uniform of the kitchen staff—wanders into the first-class dome car and flops wearily into a chair as the train comes to a stop. “Is this Owen Sound?” a passenger asks him.
The man glances carelessly out the window. “I don’t know,”
he says. “Maybe Owen Sound.”
“What do you mean you don’t know?” the passenger demands irritably. “Is this your first run?”
Ali Jalali, 29-year-old India-born head of a financial underwriting company with offices across Canada, sighs and mutters: “Christ, I’m wearing Hugo Boss clothes and everybody thinks I’m a waiter.” The passenger apologizes. Jalali waves a hand resignedly. “You’re not the first one. The last guy wanted to know what was on the menu.”
There are no Hugo Boss clothes among the passengers in the bar car. Most are going west—or will be, as soon as the train gets above the bulge of the Great Lakes—to restart or recharge their lives. They are young, around 30, men and women wearing sweatshirts, jeans and baseball caps bearing the names or logos of cities or breweries. It is not long before their faces become indistinct in a beery haze of cigarette smoke. They seem in no hurry to get anywhere, which is one way the train beats the plane: for people in transition, with things on their minds, slower may be better.
Todd Bruce is a bearded 31-year-old Ottawa construction worker in a blackand-white flannel shirt who has not worked since October. His destination is Nanaimo, B.C., where he will help his girlfriend’s brother build houses. “Mom cried the blues, but it’s for the best. There’s no work in Ottawa. Too much government. Small town, small minds.”
Among the capitals of the world, Ottawa has never come close to the elegance of Paris or the pageantry of London. But it was there 125 years ago that a handful of men presided over the birth of a nation that would become the second largest on earth. The drama began in September, 1864, when some of the future Fathers of Confederation steamed into Charlottetown aboard the Queen Victoria to be greeted by a lone top-hatted official rowing an oyster boat. The visitors brought $13,000 worth of champagne and an interesting proposal: that uniting the remaining British colonies offered the best protection against the expansionist mood of post-Civil War America.
The party atmosphere in Charlottetown evaporated at Quebec City during nearly three weeks of tough negotiations in October. But all sides ultimately agreed on a Confederation formula and, after rancorous debate, legislators from the two Canadas ratified it. However, growing prosperity persuaded Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland to opt out. And opposition in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia was silenced only after Britain promised to defend the region—and after cross-border raids by Fenians, IrishAmericans demanding independence for their homeland, spread fear of the United
The Canadian Pacific was the storied railroad of Confederation, but now it only handles freight; Via Rail’s transcontinental passenger trains ride the more northerly Canadian National line.
States. On March 29, 1867, Queen Victoria gave royal assent to the British North America Act—creating the country of Canada and making Ottawa its capital. Prince Edward Island, its good times overtaken by debt, signed on in 1873.
Near sundown, the train reaches Sudbury Junction, where a greyblack moonscape and slag heaps as big as ski hills are a dismal monument to the world’s biggest nickel-mining and smelting operation. Thousands of trees have been planted around Sudbury during the past decade, but over much of the region nothing of consequence grows—either on the land or in the water.
In the bar sits a 29-year-old curly-blond woman in a red Montreal Canadiens sweat suit. Her name is Margaret Osmond and she is going to the wilderness town of Homepayne, 400 km northwest of Sudbury, where she lives in a fourbedroom house with a python, a ferret, a pit bull, a Border collie, a cat and her 22-year-old boyfriend, Canadian National Railways freight conductor Eric Strisovich. As a child, Margaret and her mother moved from city to city after her parents broke up. “My mother was always looking for that better place to be. You plant a tree and then you pull it out and you plant it again and the roots don’t go very deep.”
Assistant service conductor Arthur Jurkowski, moustached and cheerful, lurches the length of the speeding train taking dinner reservations. “Five o’clock is the sunset sitting, seven o’clock is the twilight sitting, nine o’clock is the moonlight sitting,” he repeats. Since entrées go as high as $22, he gets few takers. Meals in the coach-class dining car are cheaper.
Later, a man in a tight T-shirt reveals his plan to get $3,000 worth of tattoos. A younger white man in a baseball cap, who says he used to be a gold prospector, is talking to a native woman. “White girls are stupid,” he says with feeling. “They’re just so stupid.”
At dusk, the lakes flash by as clear as glass. Mile after mile, the tracks have been blasted through the Canadian Shield, the oldest exposed rock in the world. It took 21,000 laborers 15 years to build the old National Transcontinental and Canadian Northern railways, both later absorbed by Canadian National, from Toronto to Winnipeg. Bridges had to be built across 240 rivers. Via trains run on CN tracks even though the Canadian Pacific route north of Lake Superior and through the Rockies at Banff, now used only by freights, is more majestic and historic. The CN line also
bypasses the major commercial centre of Thunder Bay, formed by the 1970 amalgamation of Fort William and Port Arthur. Thunder Bay is where western grain is loaded onto ships bound for Europe; the port’s 25 storage elevators can hold 100 million bushels, making it one of the world’s largest grain terminals.
Night comes quickly in Northern Ontario. Hour after hour, the train slices through the darkness at speeds of up to 80 m.p.h., over bridges, causeways and ridges, skirting lakes that would qualify as inland seas. At daybreak, the forest is still there, the train is still in Ontario and the Manitoba border is eight hours away.
Terry Fox—“I had the name before he did,” he says in a reference to the country’s famous one-legged runner—is in his element. The 45year-old Canadian Automobile Association executive from Toronto, wearing shirt, tie and navyblue blazer, is a train buff and has taken the overnight run from Toronto to Minaki in northwestern Ontario just for the ride. In 1982, Fox took the fabled Orient Express from London to Venice. On South Africa’s Blue Train, he had a suite that contained a bathtub. Now and then, Fox takes a short train trip from Toronto just to have lunch. “My friends look upon me as a bit of an eccentric.” He grins. “But I like the food; I like to eat on a moving vehicle. I won’t eat while the train is standing still.”
Past Ottermere, Malachi and Copelands Landing, the train reaches Rice Lake, the last stop in Ontario, where it pauses for about 45 seconds before rocketing into Manitoba and on to Winnipeg. The tortured landscape of smashed granite, frothing rapids and interminable forests suddenly vanishes. The land flattens into fields, the tracks straighten, the forest thins. An impression of orderliness stretches all the way to the Rockies, but the impression is vastly at odds with history.
The Prairies, in the second half of the 19th century, are a violent place. Métis buffalo hunters, Indians, English settlers, French-Canadians, railway builders, powerful frontier trading companies and American whisky traffickers and squatters are caught up in the fight for land, for political rights and for money. What emerges along the way among the French-speaking Métis, descendants of the fur-seeking voyageurs and their native wives, is a passion for unity and self-determination. That dream matures and its apostle is an eloquent, mystical visionary whose childhood was heavily influenced by the folklore and songs of Métis
nationalism and by the Roman Catholic Church. His name: Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba, the man who pushes the country closer to civil war than it likely will ever be.
On the east bank of the Red River across from downtown Winnipeg, St. Boniface Roman Catholic cathedral dominates a grassy 30-acre complex that includes a museum and the local historical society. Among the museum’s 19th-century artifacts is the plain black coffin that once contained Riel’s body. He is buried in the cemetery beneath a granite column, and Alfred Fortier, the historical society’s executive director, says: “If there is a shrine to Riel, this is probably it.” In the society library, great-grandnephew Joseph Riel reflects on life with a famous name. “When I was in school, being a Riel was just another liability, like buckteeth,” says the 32-year-old chartered accountant.
But times change. “When Manitoba celebrated its centennial in 1970, people started looking back at their heritage. Who founded the province? Well, whether or not you agree with what he stood for,
Louis was the main guy.”
# The surveyors from faraway Canada tramped around André Nault’s farm with measuring poles and chains, plotting the beginnings of a road from the Red River settlement to Lake Superior. They ignored Nault’s demand that they get off his land.
They did not ignore the next interruption, the arrival of about 20 fierce-looking, leather-skinned Métis horsemen. The leader, in his mid-20s, dismounted and put his moccasined foot on the chain.
“You go no farther,” he said. It was Oct. 11,1869, and Louis Riel, backed by the Catholic Church, had taken a fateful stand in the defence of the Northwest Territories colony centred at the junction of
the Red and Assiniboine rivers. Both Riel and the priests knew that neither the church nor a Métis homeland would survive heavy westward migration of Protestant English-speaking farmers from Ontario.
But Riel had just begun. Three weeks later, William McDougall, picked by Sir John A. Macdonald to be the first territorial lieutenantgovernor, showed up brandishing his letters of appointment and a British flag, but the Métis refused to let him enter the colony. And on Nov. 2, Métis raiders led by Riel seized the Hudson’s Bay Co. base at Fort Garry and jailed immigrant Canadians foolhardy enough to voice support for the hapless McDougall.
In Ottawa, Macdonald was afraid that the government’s apparent impotence would encourage Americans who wanted to annex the Red River.
He asked Donald A. Smith, chief representative of the Hudson’s Bay Co. in Canada, to go west, find out what Riel wanted and, if necessary, buy him off. All Riel wanted, Smith discovered when they met in January, 1870, was for Red River to be a province within Canada. Smith recommended that the Métis go to Ottawa and negotiate a deal with the Prime Minister. Riel agreed—and to strengthen his hand, he persuaded the colony to set up a provisional government. It was proclaimed on Feb.
10, after which, noted a newspaper editor, “a regular drunk commenced in which everyone seemed to join.”
Within little more than a week, the rebel found himself facing rebellion—and disaster. Loyalist Canadians, incensed by Riel's treatment of McDougall, mounted a daylight sleigh-borne assault on the Métis positions at Fort Garry. But Métis horsemen, plunging through snowdrifts,
rounded up the Canadians before they could attack and imprisoned 48 of them. An angry Riel, determined to teach his foes a lesson, ordered the court martial of one of the prisoners, an Ontario Orangeman named Thomas Scott, who was convicted and shot on March 4. “We must make Canada respect us,” said Riel. Instead, English-speaking Canada was outraged by Scott’s execution. French Canada concluded that Riel should be forgiven. After Riel’s Métis delegates arrived in Ottawa on April 11, they were arrested but released when the government intervened. For weeks, they negotiated
with Macdonald, who eventually gave them nearly everything they wanted. In early May, the deal creating the province of Manitoba was approved by Parliament and, a month and a half later, by the local assembly at Fort Garry. Said Riel: “I congratulate the people of the Northwest on the happy issue of their undertakings.”
But Riel, while waiting for the troops who would signal the changeover, became nervous. Some of his comrades whispered that the Métis leadership would be lynched, that Ottawa had lied about amnesty. The fear spread and, on Aug. 24, Riel fled south with two companions. On the way, the founder of Manitoba lost his shoes while crossing a river on a makeshift raft. For two years, he lived a shadowy existence in southern Manitoba and North Dakota, sheltering with friends, fearing arrest or assassination. Then, on Oct. 13, 1873, the fugitive became a member of Parliament, capturing Provencher riding without campaigning and winning re-election the following year. But he never took his seat: the House of Commons expelled him for ignoring an order to appear and respond to a charge of murdering Scott. Forewarned, Riel fled to the United States.
For nearly 15 years, his behavior growing more irrational, he wandered from New York to Montana and occasionally to Canada, where he spent a year in an asylum near Quebec City. But in 1884, buffalo hunter Gabriel Dumont went to Montana with a fresh challenge for Riel: help the Métis deal with federal abuse and neglect. Riel returned
home to demand that his people’s rights be respected. And when Ottawa ignored him, he set up a provisional government and declared independence from Canada. A week later, on March 26,1885,100 members of the North West Mounted Police tried to dislodge Riel’s rebels from their settlement at Duck Lake near Prince Albert. Twelve Mounties and five Métis were killed, and Chief Poundmaker’s Cree warriors joined the rebellion.
For the Canadian Pacific Railway, its westward push awash in red ink, the uprising was a godsend: promising to deliver soldiers to the northwest, it secured a further government loan. Two months after Riel proclaimed his provisional government, he gave himself up when Maj.-Gen. Frederick Middleton’s troops overran the Métis stronghold at Batoche.
From prison, Riel wrote to government leaders, asking for a state trial at Ottawa and, afterward, the premiership of Manitoba. But Macdonald was determined to punish the rebels. Riel was tried for high treason. Lawyers from Quebec attempted to prove that he was insane, and the jury added a plea for mercy. Riel disavowed the insanity defence: when he addressed the court, he was both rational and persuasive. “If I have been astray,” he said at one point, “I have been astray, not as an impostor, but according to my conscience.” The judge sentenced him to death.
£ English Canada applauded the verdict, but ¿ French Canada, which regarded Riel as a
1 patriot, reacted angrily. Quebec political or-
2 ganizer J. Israel Tarte warned: “At the mo-
“ ment when the corpse of Riel falls through
the trap, at that moment an abyss will be dug that will separate Quebec from English-speaking Canada.” But Macdonald would not yield. At dawn on Nov. 16, 1885—nine days after the ubiquitous Donald Smith hammered home the CPR’s last spike at Craigellachie, B.C.—Riel was led to the gallows in the Mounted Police barracks at Regina. To his priest, he said: “I die at peace with God and with man and I thank all those who helped me in my misfortunes.” A mask was placed over his face and the hangman put the rope around his neck. Riel began to recite the Lord’s Prayer, and when he reached the words “deliver us from evil,” the trap was sprung.
In early December, Riel’s comrades dug up the pine coffin containing his body and took it to Winnipeg. They carried it from the train station to the Riel family home on the Red River. A small wooden cross was placed on the roof of the house, the traditional sign that the occupants were in mourning. The coffin remained there for two days, and then was carried to the St. Boniface cathedral grounds for burial.
It was only last March that Parliament finally recognized Riel’s “unique and historic role” as a founder of Manitoba. Two decades earlier, the federal government had bought the Riel house and made it the centre of a one-acre national historic site. At one side is a forecourt of paving stones, broad lawns and picnic tables. The land that once ran down to the river a half-mile away is now a subdivision. The two-storey Riel home has been
painted white, trimmed in green and filled with 19th-century furnishings. There is a plain wooden cross on the roof. Métis from Western Canada and the northern plains states visit frequently. They no longer mourn. But neither do they forget.
Settling a new land is an act of boundless hope. Leaving Winnipeg station, where wide-eyed immigrants once gathered on the marble-and-tile floor, their babble of foreign voices filling the great beaux-arts rotunda, it is tempting to try to imagine how they saw the Canadian Prairies for the first time, in the early years of the century, when what lay behind was poverty or oppression or stagnation, and what lay ahead was unknown.
The great western migration that Riel had feared actually began in earnest in the late 1890s. It was a time of spreading optimism. The world was recovering from economic depression. Alexander Graham Bell, the Scottish immigrant who had already invented the telephone, was working on all manner of contraptions at his Cape Breton laboratory. The glint of Klondike gold drew thousands to the far-off Yukon, and the new Liberal Prime Minister, French-Canadian lawyer Wilfrid Laurier, appointed Clifford
‘The Last Best West’
Sifton as minister of the interior with a mandate to fill up the rest of the country.
Sifton’s method was simple: advertise. “The Last Best West,” was his line, and he pitched it across Europe in lectures, slide shows and circulars in many languages, which helped bring a flood of Ukrainians, Scandinavians, Hungarians, Germans, Russians, Poles. They settled in western towns and on 160-acre homesteads—obtained for a $10 registration fee—adding a smorgasbord of new cultures to a primarily British and French country before anyone ever thought of the term multiculturalism.
“I think it gives you a better sense of yourself, better self-esteem,” says passenger Jacqueline McClaran, speaking of Canada’s policy towards its different peoples.
McClaran grew up in New Jersey but for the past two decades has lived in Montreal, where she is an associate professor of family medicine at McGill University. She is on her way to a conference in Vancouver, viewing from tracklevel the adopted country that she had mostly seen from the air. Out the window, the fields of Manitoba stretch out like an ocean, the ubiquitous grain elevators like giant buoys.
As a child in the States, says the 47-year-old McClaran, “I remember a book that said, The grocer was Italian, the cop was Irish, but they aren’t anymore.’ And that was supposed to be a beautiful story.” Although her grandparents came from Ukraine, McClaran discovered on moving to Canada that “I wasn’t very Ukrainian—I don’t paint eggs, I don’t do shirt borders.” For her, multiculturalism
“is linked to the peacefulness of Canada.” Cal Langford agrees. A 32-year-old Via service attendant, Langford grew up in Transcona, Man., the son of a black railroader and his Belgian wife. His childhood friends were Ukrainian or German, he says, and “I never really noticed a problem until I started travelling to different places.”
Those travels have been as an athlete: like some real-life Superman, the mild-mannered Via employee is also an Olympic bobsledder, a member of Canada’s four-man team that finished an excruciatingly close fourth at France’s Albertville Games last winter. “Broke my heart,” says Langford. Competing elsewhere—he mentions Germany and Australia—he felt a kind of racial tension that he has never experienced in Canada. “That’s what I like about this country, the way everybody seems to fit in. I just wish people treated natives in the same way.”
“Canada is respectful of other cultures, but not native cultures,” says Donald Onakanakis, a 31-year-old Ojibwa from MacDiarmid, Ont. He is a carpenter and native dancer who is travelling to Edmonton to study under a medicine man. Growing up, he was tom between his mother’s native ways and his father’s Roman Catholicism, which he says taught him that native ways were no good.
“I was trying to figure out who I was. What was I going to be?”
He eventually chose the native way, and a medicine man gave him the name Crow Eagle. He stares out the window at the fields flying by, the ruler-straight roads under the enormous prairie sky.
“The way I look at it,” he says, “my church is out there. The trees are our walls, the roof is our sky, the ground we sit on is our altar.”
The train is passing near Brandon, where, in 1914, noted activist Nellie McClimg was burned in effigy for campaigning for the women’s vote. In 1916, women’s suffrage would become law in Manitoba—the first province to grant it—and, the next year in Alberta, Louise McKinney would be elected the first woman member of a British Commonwealth legislature.
At the back of the dome car, wearing a New York Yankees cap and listening to reggae on his tape player, sits Abdalla Abenour, a 26-year-old computer science student who says that he is from North Africa.
“Libya,” he allows. He avoids mentioning his country by name, he explains, “so people don’t think, ‘Oh, this guy must have a gun.’ ” And do people usually accept the North Africa answer?
“Yeah, Canadians don’t know that much. They figure South Africa’s a country so North Africa must be one.”
But Abenour, a graduate of Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who is travelling to Victoria to examine a master’s program, says that Canada has made him feel more comfortable than he did on earlier visits to Italy and England. “They know you’re a foreigner but they treat you as an equal.”
In fact, there were limits to Canada’s eager tum-of-the-century immigration policy: Ottawa sought mostly whites and no Catholics other than Irish ones, who after all were from the British Isles. Even today, many Canadians criticize immigrants. “There are a lot of people demanding that Canada look after them,” says Jeno Kosary, a 48-year-old Via service attendant who fled Hungary with his family after the Soviet-crushed uprising in 1956. “People emigrating to Canada should be told it’s going to be tough, that they may have to take jobs in places other than where they’d like to be.”
The train blasts westward into the setting sun. In the fields, acre-sized pools of water turn to silver in the sun’s rays; farmers bum off old crops in ragged rings of fire. By now the Canadian has crossed into Saskatchewan, a province since 1905. As humorist Stephen Leacock put it, “the Lord said, ‘Let there be Wheat,’ and Saskatchewan was bom.” And it would grow quickly, thanks in part to government cerealist Charles Saunders, who developed a new fast-ripening strain of wheat called Marquis—introduced in 1909—that made the crop profitable in the short northern summers. Already, two new railways were being built to transport the bumper crops of more southerly farms: the Canadian Northern and the Grand Trunk Pacific—the GTP, also known as “Get There Perhaps.”
Yet the train still has its charms,
evident even as night falls. The wheels squeak and squeal; the cars make haunted-house sounds, metal grinding metal. Lights flicker by as if on a distant and receding shore, the whistle hooting at farms and towns where adults gauge time by it and children wonder where the train might take them. The train is the vehicle of return, of countless war movies, the brave boys stepping down into the arms of sweethearts and parents. And for a generation of immigrants, packed into special colonist cars, the train was the vehicle of their great adventure, their new beginning. ...
In any town there are stories.
• John Mysak arrived in Canada in 1908, a solidly built Ukrainian in his mid-20s. He worked as a laborer in Winnipeg until he had saved enough money to buy a homestead near Scandinavian-settled Wynyard in central Saskatchewan, and he built a poplar-log, thatched-roof house. Then he sent for his wife and young son. When his wife,
Elizabeth, reached Wynyard by train, she could not understand what anyone was saying. “There are no people there,” she complained, “just Scandinavians.” It was the spring of 1912, and the next February the Mysaks had another son, Walter, born in Canada.
At the time, Ukraine was divided between the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires, and its landless, often illiterate peasants were flocking to Canada. Crossing the sea to Halifax, they moved west to ethnic-bloc settlements in a promised land that looked comfortingly like the old country but gave its bounty only grudgingly. Snow, drought, disease, insects—the Ukrainians battled them all to plant wheat in the wooded belt of parklands. Sifton called them “stalwart peasants in sheepskin coats,” and they may not have known the language or the customs or even the odds against them, but they knew the land and they knew about hard work.
The Mysaks’ land was thick with trees that had to be felled with handsaws and axes. The harrows and plows were ox-drawn and the sun often intense. After six years, the Mysaks bought more forgiving land near the town of Punnichy. The Anglo-Saxons often mocked the Ukrainians as sheepskins or Galicians, after their home province; at school Walter was not allowed to speak Ukrainian, but he and his friends spoke it in private anyway. Other ethnic groups were far more resistant to the local mores. Among the Doukhobors, a Russian sect that had settled at nearby Verigin, was a radical Sons of Freedom group so deadset against signing a loyalty oath or giving up communal ownership of property that they staged nude protest marches. Many eventually left for British Columbia, even then the restless edge of the country.
While clinging to their heritage, the Ukrainians were also becoming Canadian. The Mysaks wore traditional hand-embroidered clothes for special occasions but ordered their everyday wear from Eaton’s catalogue, whose pages were used for other purposes in local outhouses. In the late 1920s, they bought a radio and tuned in Saskatoon and Regina. Soon, Walter himself went off to Saskatoon to complete high school—his parents wanted their children to get the education they never had. His schooling was interrupted by the Depression, when some of Saskatchewan turned into a dust bowl and Walter turned into a supporter of
socialist politics. “Something has to be done,” he remembers thinking.
In 1939, Walter graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a degree in agriculture. He married, had three children and a varied career—assessing farmland, running a flour mill, a hardware store and an insurance agency. For nine years, he was mayor of Canora, a town 300 km east of Saskatoon where Ukrainians had congregated and where he and his wife, Bernice, still live.
Walter Mysak is 79 now, and his story is typical. He is a chunky, friendly man who spends his days in an old brick building on Main Street, retired but still working. His office walls are plastered with plaques, handbills and pictures of everyone from the Canora town council to Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who visited Canora in 1987. Mysak is a notary public, but older Ukrainians who do not speak English well
arrive for help with wills or tax returns. “People have a problem,” says RCMP Sgt. Bill Foreman, “they go to Walter.” Another prominent resident describes Mysak as a character—and a sometimes thorny one—but a man who continues to be a force in the community.
Outside his office, Main Street runs straight past dress shops and drugstores to the train station—Canora’s name is a combination of the first two letters in the words Canadian Northern Railway. It is an attractive community of clapboard houses and tidy lawns that is also unmistakably Ukrainian. Some 60 per cent of its 2,400 people share that heritage, with names like Woloschuk, Hrywkiw and Tomshyshyn, and they support onion-domed churches and restaurants that serve perogies and cabbage rolls. There is also the 15-foot-high statue of a Ukrainian girl in a red-and-white embroidered dress carrying a tray of bread and salt—the traditional form of welcome. “It was made by local craftsmen,”
explains Mysak. “But the skirt part—I believe it was imported from Japan or some dam thing.”
This year, the one million Ukrainian-Canadians are celebrating the 100th anniversary of their first permanent settlement in Canada. The Saskatchewan festivities will conclude in Canora in August, and Walter Mysak is in charge. Dignitaries will include Roy Romanow, the province’s Ukrainian-descended premier, and Gov. Gen. Ray Hnatyshyn, whose grandfather’s farm was near Canora and whose father played bridge with Mysak. The Ukrainians, says Mysak, “came here penniless, unknown, illiterate, and in the 100 years since they settled here they’ve made a decent living, educated their children and achieved offices that very few other ethnic Canadians can equal.”
Mysak’s own parents, John and Elizabeth, retired from farming in the 1940s and moved to Canora, where they eventually died. Driving outside town, Mysak stops at the homestead of another Ukrainian family. The sagging poplar-log house was built before the turn of the century. The wide Saskatchewan sky is a deepening grey, the wind whips up quick and cold, stinging the eyes with dust. “This is exactly like the house I was bom in,” says Mysak. And he just stands there nodding, nodding.
Striking it rich
The first white man to reach Alberta got there largely in a canoe. His name was Anthony Henday, and in the mid18th century he paddled and walked 1,300 miles from Hudson Bay to find Indians willing to trade furs for blankets and tools. For the next two centuries, the vast expanse of rolling plains and shallow gullies across the Prairies to western Alberta continued to lure first fur traders and adventurers, then buffalo hunters, timber cutters, miners, farmers and cattlemen. There were bad times, too, like the Depression that impelled thousands of hungry people to crisscross the country in boxcars in a desperate search for work. In 1935, police and relief marchers clashed in Regina and, that same year, William Lyon Mackenzie King became Prime Minister for the third time, extracting advice from a crystal ball. The Second World War abruptly ended the national malaise and westerners became reacquainted with prosperity.
The years have diminished the opportunities for windfalls on a grand scale but, as midnight comes and goes in the bar car, it is evident from the conversation that people still entertain the dream. Sharon George, 28, is from the Cowichan band of the Coast Salish Indians in Duncan, B.C. She left home at 12 and lived on the streets, but community social service workers helped her go on to college. She has become a committed lottery player— “I can’t pass a store without playing scratchand-win.” If she wins some day? “Florida, I want to go to Florida. But I’d probably be more concerned with looking after my family. My mother’s my mother. It’s kind of a payback for hurting her.”
Others in the car are less uncertain about how they would spend a bonanza. Briton Patrick Barrett, 35, a proofreader from London, says: “I’d go to the south of India. I’d go to China. Tibet. Antarctica.” Glady Masters, who works in the corporate services division of the B.C. Telephone Co. in Vancouver, says: “I’d build an A-frame log house in the Okanagan Valley and go live there with my husband. Life has become a rat race. I’d grow fruit trees.”
For hours in the darkness, Saskatchewan’s wheatlands and potash beds, the world’s largest, sweep past unseen. The train slips between the Touchwood Hills and on past Raymore and Watrous and Saskatoon to the Killsquaw Lakes, reputedly named for a long-ago massacre of Indian women, then into the ranching country that leads to Alberta.
If she got rich, says Elaine Verniette, a Winnipeg native who has lived
in Edmonton for 25 years, “I’d buy a big house, I mean a really big house, and I’d look after my eight children and my grandchildren. I’ve moved too much.” Her second husband retired in 1981 on a disability pension after years of working on oil rigs as an operator and toolpush, industry jargon for a drilling foreman. Elaine Verniette and her husband may be a long way from great wealth, but they have spent much of their lives in its shadow. For when it comes to striking it rich, nothing in the nation’s history comes close to the oilfields of Alberta.
# North American industry emerged from the Second World War eager to evaluate new prospects and seek new challenges. There were few companies more urgently in need of both than Imperial Oil Ltd. For 30 years, Imperial had been searching for oilfields across Alberta’s southern prairie and, by 1946, had spent $23 million to drill 133 holes that yielded nothing.
On the verge of abandoning oil exploration, Imperial’s head-office executives in Toronto decided to make one last attempt. They asked company geologists where to look next for oil. The majority proposed a strip starting northwest of Edmonton and extending southeast as far as Drumheller. Imperial began leasing mineral rights to hundreds of thousands of acres. Seismic crews moved in, setting off small underground explosions and recording the shock waves to locate rock formations that might conceal oil. By summer’s end, the geologists had detected something a mile beneath a township 25 km southwest of Edmonton and 13 km from an obscure village of about 1,000 inhabitants. The village was called Leduc.
Imperial negotiated leases with neighboring farmers, including Mike Turta, who agreed to rent five acres of land for $250 a year—his estimate of the profit that crops would bring during the same period. The company summoned one of its most experienced—but luckless— foremen, Vernon (Dryhole) Hunter, who moved his rig, crews and 136foot derrick to Turta’s farm. On Nov. 20, the drill bit into the earth.
Day and night, week after week, three 225-horsepower diesel motors drove the rotary drill steadily deeper. Winter gales lashed the neartreeless landscape, piling snow against the derrick platform and the surrounding sheds. Eyes watered and tears froze on cheeks. Inside thenparkas and heavy jackets, the crews on the platform sweated as the steel bit reached 2,000 feet, then 3,000 and 4,000. Early in February, the drill core, hoisted to the surface from a depth of more than 5,000 feet, contained porous limestone and traces of oil. The crew conducted more
tests and became convinced that only the tons of mud churned up by the drill lay in the way of a strike.
The jubilant company organized a party. Five hundred people gathered on the windswept site on the bitterly cold morning of Feb. 13. Alberta Mineral Resources Minister Nathan Tanner planned to tum a valve to start the oil flowing, but a bearing on the drilling gear had broken the night before and the crew could not get the mud out of the hole. It took six hours to repair the damage while Tanner and the other guests stomped their feet and shivered.
Then they heard, or felt, something. They stopped pacing and looked at the derrick. Oil worker John Funk felt the earth shake and became aware of a low rumbling that grew steadily louder. Suddenly, a § hissing, roaring fountain of water, “ mud, gas and oil spewed hundreds of ^ feet into the air from the end of a ^ pipe that ran to a pit a few hundred I feet from the derrick.
§ Spectators and the oilfield hands laughed and cheered, throwing their hats in the air, shaking hands, slapping one another on the back. Truck driver Ben Owre, whose job was to move the derrick from place to place, forgot that he had felt on the verge of freezing to death. Derrick worker Stan Smith reflected that farmers and city people had never seen a well come in before. Then he realized that he hadn’t seen many himself.
The boom was on. Oilmen converged on Edmonton from Toronto and Vancouver, Oklahoma and Texas. Oil company agents bid against one another for leases that were often sold and resold for more and more money. By April, 1947, more than 6 million acres were tied up, and drilling crews, road builders and geologists poured into Leduc and neighboring villages. Railroad flatcars brought the portable 12-by-20-foot homes of itinerant wildcatters, their wives and children, and Leduc’s merchants scrambled to accommodate customers clamoring for service. The Bank of Montreal shuffled dozens of new accounts, and the Royal Bank, drawn by the smell of money, got permission to use the municipal council chamber until its quarters were ready.
The statistics defined the boom. By 1956, the province had 15 times as many wells, yielding 20 times as much oil, as it had a decade earlier. The figures went on multiplying as the years passed and drill sites with names such as Atlantic, Golden Spike and Redwater became part of the oil legends of the West. On July 22,1974, its pool near exhaustion, Leduc No. 1 was closed, more than 28 years after it had forever changed Alberta’s landscape and way of life.
They are old men now, the survivors of the crews that punched a miledeep hole into the earth under Mike Turta’s farm 46 years ago. They stand around, hands in pockets, joshing one another, kicking stones, while they wait for Fin Lineham, 79. Lineham has called them together at the sealed wellhead of Leduc No. 1 for reminiscences and photographs. When Lineham arrives and gets out of the car, John Funk, 67, shouts: “Where the hell you been, Fin? We already got a thousand feet of pipe down!” The car licence plates are variations on the same link to the past. “LEDUC 1,” one reads. “LEDUC #1,” says another.
The 11 acres, dominated by a replacement derrick and drilling platform painted red, yellow and off-white, have been designated a historic site by the Alberta government. The Leduc/Devon Historical
Society is hoping to collect more than $1 million from the oil industry to build a permanent museum. Last year, 3,000 people came by to pick up souvenirs and stare at the derrick. “When exactly did she blow?” a visitor asks. “Blow? She didn’t blow,” says Lineham, somewhat testily. “You do it right, they don’t blow. They just come in.”
The photographs have been taken and they get into their cars and drive to nearby Devon, where they order coffee and sit at a long table in the Devon Inn. They talk about long-ago saloon fistfights, Saturday-night dances, the hated National Energy Program and the time they got drunk and stole the fire engine in Provost and went joyriding up and down the main street. They wrecked the truck right in front of Vernon Hunter’s house, and Dryhole had to write a cheque for the damages. “The mayor was so mad he wanted them all run out of town,” says Hunter’s son, Don. Did they get into trouble in Devon, too?
“Nope,” says Simon Gramlic, 69. “Back then, there was no Devon. There was nothing here. Just us.” What about when Leduc came in, was there a bonus for the crew? “Hell, no,” they chorus. Gramlic says, “Yeah, we did get a case of whisky out at the rig.” Ben Owre, 73, remembers that they all drank to stay warm: “It was so damned cold, everybody had a bottle in their cars, or something. After the strike, I think that was one of the biggest drunks.”
“What we want to do with the museum is showcase the oil industry,” says Don Hunter, “to show the social and economic benefits the oil industry has given Alberta since 1947.” To the visitor, it seems that the industry is already well showcased by the men who perspired and raised hell and forced Leduc to surrender its riches, and now nearly half a century later sit around a table drinking coffee and remembering.
Dreaming of paradise
The Rockies begin about four hours west of Edmonton. They are what everyone has been waiting for, the featured attraction that makes all the scenery before, no matter how appealing, seem like one long warm-up act.
“The passengers back there go bananas,” says Vic Cantera, sitting in a padded swivel chair in the train’s engine—or unit, in railroader’s parlance. “It’s nice, but we get used to it after awhile. We worry about the animals, though—we never like to hit the animals.”
Cantera, a wiry 55-year-old, is one of two engineers. The other, 39year-old Steve Godsell, is at the controls for now, sitting before a dashboard fitted with hand-operated throttle, brake and reverse levers. Godsell calls out the messages flashed by oncoming signal lights and Cantera repeats them, a practice designed to keep each other alert. The train runs beside the Athabasca River and plunges into a postcard scene of tall pines, clear water and snowcapped peaks. It threads through a tunnel beneath Disaster Point and, on the far side, a herd of bighorn sheep stands motionless on the rocks, as though posing for the paying customers back in the dome car. Entering Jasper Park.
“Trains are a great way to travel, if you’re not in a hurry,” says Cantera, who lived beside the tracks as a teenager in Edmonton and began working on steam engines in 1955. “It would be—whoa, whoa, get out of there,” he barks as a deer veers in front of the engine and Godsell gently applies the brakes—the animal scampers off safely.
The train, doing 70 m.p.h., passes over a sensor that sets off a computerized voice telling crews that there are no hot axles or other problems; the device is known as Hector the Detector. Godsell points out a mountain that, he says, has “this big, huge chin—we call it Mount Mulroney.” He laughs, and why not: he and Cantera are getting paid to do a boy’s fantasy job.
“I couldn’t work nine to five after working on the railway,” Godsell says, checking the gauges. “I’m into Jasper at two o’clock in the afternoon, I grab my golf clubs and I’m off to the course.”
“Yeah,” confirms Cantera, “you try to work nine to five after this— well, you’d go nuts.”
As the train nears the town of Jasper, where a Haida totem pole watches over the station parking lot, a crowd of people has gathered—as
transfixed as the sheep back up the line—to snap photos of the approaching Canadian.
“More people taking pictures,” says Godsell dryly. “I wonder how many drawers I’m sitting in.”
The Jasper stop completed, the windows freshly washed for sightseeing, the train rolls towards Yellowhead Pass, the easiest route through the mountains. When the CPR chose the more direct but difficult Kicking Horse and Rogers passes further south, it was left to the Grand Trunk Pacific and the Canadian Northern to chart the Yellowhead route in 1912, a heated track-laying race in which crews sometimes resorted to sabotage and more often to fists. There were bad omens early on: the GTP’s president, American Charles Melville Hays, died when the unsinkable Titanic sank off Newfoundland. By 1919, both lines were bankrupt and had been absorbed into the federal government’s new Canadian National Railways.
“It’s just awesome,” says Joanne Burleson as the train crosses into
British Columbia through a dazzling display of sheer rock surfaces and shining lakes. The dome-car riders follow their progress closely in guidebooks, calling out the names of mountains or waterfalls, like baseball fans consulting scorecards. If any of them are bothered that Via stopped running the even more dramatic CPR route in 1990, no one is saying. Burleson, 60, of Little Rock, Ark., flew all the way to Edmonton to ride the new Canadian to Vancouver.
“Even Arkansas travel agents know where Canada is,” says her husband, Jim, an English professor.
“We’ve seen the Rockies in Colorado just gobs of times,” adds Joanne, “but they don’t compare to this—this is a phenomenal trip.”
“Oh, I love trains,” gushes Patricia Mannix, leaping up from her parkcar seat to snap a picture of Mount Robson, which rises 12,972 feet—the highest point in the Canadian Rockies—and rarely gets its head out of the clouds. The 44-year-old Mannix has come all the way from Key West, Fla., and will travel to Vancouver, Los Angeles and then Chicago, mostly by train, before returning home. “I’m Peggy’s personal secretary,” she
explains, “and basically all we do is travel.” Her employer, 75-year-old Peggy Mulholland, who has had three husbands and four children, says: “I don’t fly. I’ve been back and forth across the ocean 22 times on the QE2. And I love trains. But I don’t fly.” “It’s more beautiful than I expected it to be,” says Paula Roy, 28, an Ottawa marketing specialist making her first trip west. She is looking forward to visiting Vancouver, which, she says, “is kind of a place of dreams—people talk about it in a mystical way.” “There’s a different business ethic, that’s what I’ve heard,” adds her husband, Michael, who is 33 and also in marketing. “They say people work for time off.” “And all the gardens are supposed to be so beautiful,” says Paula.
In fact, the train is full of people who view British Columbia as a place of dreams—people who, like settlers of old, have pulled up stakes to move west, looking for peace of mind and a piece of the action.
“We sold our house and the agent told us his company had lost 40 agents to British Columbia so far this year,” says Randy Reilly of Winnipeg, sitting in the bar car. Reilly, 39, is a painter and decorator; his wife, Vincenza, is a nurse’s aide. They have two children and are intent on moving to Kamloops, B.C., where they hear work is plentiful. British Columbia, says the slim, bearded Reilly, “must be a more comfortable place to be—I have yet to meet a bad person from British Columbia.”
John Wilkes is going to Kelowna, B.C. “In the last two years in Niagara Falls,” he says, “I’ve had 18 weeks of work out of 104—I couldn’t get a job pumping gas.” The 29-year-old Wilkes is a heavily tattooed biker, journeyman carpenter and highschool-level supply teacher. “A good friend and his wife moved out two years ago. He's bought a house, a truck and a bike and he’s called me every week for the last two years to come out.” Wilkes stares out the window. “It feels good to be on the road and out of Ontario. My first time through the Rockies—I wonder why I waited so long.”
Later, other passengers sit over roast prime rib or chicken breast dijonnaisin the art deco dining car. Most keep gazing at the landscape. One man videotapes his salad. A still photographer snaps pictures of the diners for an American travel magazine, as though the grandeur of the land were reflected on the faces of its admirers. Outside, the North Thompson River rambles on giddily, its rapids bubbling white in the dimming light.
In the morning, just at daybreak, the scene is all mountains and lush greenery and the Fraser River in a fog thick as cotton. It was along the Fraser—which writer Hugh MacLennan called “the savagest of all the major rivers of America”—that glittery dust was discovered in 1858, touching off a gold rush that culminated a few years later in the Cariboo farther north and brought thousands of Canadians, Americans and Chinese to British Columbia. Among them was Nova Scotia-born William Alexander Smith, who had changed his name to Amor de Cosmos, or Lover of the Universe; he would eventually become the new province’s premier, setting a tone of eccentricity that the likes of W. A. C. (Wacky) Bennett and William Vander Zalm would carry on. The Fraser River was also the site of dangerous railway-building for the CPR in the early 1880s. With labor provided by whites, natives and, above all, imported Chinese coolies, the canyon rang with the blasts of nitroglycerine, the rush of rock slides, the cries of men.
The fog bums off to reveal placid dairy farms in a valley where, in September, 1904, the new railway encountered a new phenomenon. An engineer had just pulled his train out of Mission station when he felt a gentle tap on the shoulder.
“Hands up,” said Billy Miner, another outsider seeking his stake in Canada’s Pacific paradise. “Do what you’re told and not a hair on your head will be harmed.”
The engineer, staring at Miner and two other masked gunmen, replied prudently: “I’m at your service, sir.”
The Kentucky-bom Miner, who eventually died in a Georgia prison, had his share of fortune and fame: he made off with $7,000 in Canada’s first train robbery, was credited with adding the phrase “hands up” to the vocabulary of crime and was even immortalized in a 1983 film, The Grey Fox.
Past the Vancouver suburbs, the city skyline appears, shining white. To the right lies Grouse Mountain and the twin peaks called the Lions, while a small seaplane, carrying commuters from Victoria, plies a perfect blue sky. Vancouver is the traditional terminus, the place where the dreaming ends and the reality begins. And not only for the young and the restless of Canada: American draft dodgers flocked to the city during the Vietnam War, and offshore immigrants—from Hong Kong, the Philippines, India, Vietnam and elsewhere—have continued to arrive, adapting to the local scene even as they inevitably alter it.
• The journey ends at a train station where new migrants from Manitoba and Ontario are greeted by a banner printed in English, French and Japanese. Down at Burrard Inlet, the sea gulls squawk just as they did in Halifax. There are fishing boats, a cruise ship, a hotel built to look like a ship, with a royal suite for $1,750 a night. Huge containers sit neatly on the dock, bearing local lumber, furniture and grain bound for Japan and Taiwan, bringing Asian-made TVs, auto parts and clothing to Canadian consumers.
British Columbians talk about feeling removed from the rest of Canada and its problems and, looking at the blue-grey mountains, it is easy to see why. “We feel as dissociated from the central government as Quebec does,” said Vancouver Mayor Gordon Campbell. “Ours just happens to be a geographic separation; theirs happens to be cultural. Ottawa is remote.”
Canada on its 125th birthday is a nation divided by culture and geography, united by shared experience and values. No one disputes how far—and how fast— the country has moved from the time when French and English explorers traversed the land and the trailing settlers made a home of it. Yet so many of Canada’s current troubles seem rooted in those distant beginnings. The French and English are still fighting the Plains of Abraham. The government is still trying to compensate natives for driving them off their lands. The country still strips resources from the earth even as it
decries the damage. Canadians no longer fear American invasion, but they fret over America’s economic control and pervasive culture. “The Americans don’t have to come and take us over,” Paul Comeau, the retired teacher, had said on the train from Nova Scotia. “They already own us anyway.”
Canada is young and huge, with an adolescent uncertainty that undermines its talents. The fledgling nation that bound itself together with steel has gone on to help win two world wars, bring Newfoundland into the fold, send peacekeepers around the globe, host two Olympics and two world expositions. It has basked in Trudeaumania, ensured medical care for all, survived the FLQ crisis and endless droning hours of constitutional debate.
It flies its own Maple Leaf flag but still retains a shaky sense of identity, its very existence seemingly up for grabs.
Yet it also harbors an intense love of the land, not just as it appears out the train window—a great gaping place to rattle around in—but as home sweet home. And in the country’s multiculturalism, for all its glaring shortfalls, there is a certain undefinable sense of peace. “It’s a small town, very friendly,” said Lien Tran, a Vietnamese immigrant who runs a restaurant in the mostly Ukrainian town of Canora, Sask. “You walk on the street and smile and people smile back. They don’t say, ‘Who the hell are you?’ ”
The immigrants—black, brown, tan, white— rarely arrive by ship anymore. The airport is the place to watch that parade, and it seems a fitting place to close.
It is early afternoon and the passengers from Cathay Pacific Flight 838 from Hong Kong push through the glass doors at Vancouver airport. The flight number is no accident: to the Chinese, 8 indicates prosperity and 3 means long life; the emphasis, obviously, is on prosperity. Among this group are some of British Columbia’s most prominent newcomers, carrying more money than most Canadians have ever seen, driven by the impending 1997 deadline when China will take over Hong Kong from Britain. “The benefit to Canada is enormous,” says David Bond, a vice-president of HongKong Bank who is greeting a business associate. “It’s a once-in-history kind of immigration. The people who came to Canada earlier, my ancestors and everybody else’s, weren’t the cream of the crop in Europe, let’s be truthful. These Chinese are the cream of the crop.”
That is one way of looking at it. Another is that any large immigrant wave is likely to create conflict, and the wealthy Hong Kong Chinese have stirred up resentment in a province with a well-documented streak of racial intolerance; even many members of the established Chinese community say that the new arrivals are too obsessed with money. But there is yet another way to look at the people from Hong Kong: as immigrants like so many others before them, dreaming big dreams, eager to please.
“We like Canada,” says Wan Kam Chu, who has already given himself the North American name of Johnny Wan. He is 46, sitting in the airport’s brightly lit immigration area with his wife and two children. He has answered all the questions, signed all the forms. “We want to invest money in a farm in Canada to grow Chinese orchids,” he says through an interpreter. “This country is so beautiful and the weather is very nice, very suitable for my business.”
He smiles. So do his wife, daughter and son. Then, the immigration officials—a first-generation Italian and a translator who came from Hong Kong three years ago—shake the newcomers’ hands.
“Welcome to Canada,” they say. □
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