PLACE-NAMES ON THE MAP DENOTED NOTJUSTFELLED TREES, BUT SETTLEMENTS ALIVE WITH THE NOISE AND SWEAT OF COMMERCE
As part of this year’s celebration of Canada’s 125th birthday, author and Maclean’s columnist Peter C. Newman, with photographer Peter Christopher, have produced a new book that dramatically evokes the national spirit of a century ago. Canada 1892: Portrait of a Promised Land combines Newman’s reconstruction of a bygone age with Christopher’s color photographs of historical sites as they now appear. Excerpts:
Portrait of a promized land
PETER C. NEWMAN
In the history of every country, there comes a pivotal moment when its urban future overtakes its rural past. Canada in 1892 was experiencing just such a time. Until then, the large, lone land had seemed little more than a brooding geographical mass, silent and inaccessible, its sparse population laying reluctant claim to the shoulders of its shores, the elbows of its rivers and the laps of its mountains.
But by 1892, the embryonic dominion had begun the momentous if painful time of its maturing. With the recently completed Canadian Pacific Railway tying the country together, the empty territories were beginning to fill up, and the place-names on the map started to denote not just felled trees or dug cellars, but expanding settlements, alive with the noise and sweat of commerce. Villages were growing into towns, towns into cities, and a half-dozen city-states were emerging across the country.
Modem Canadians walking the streets of Montreal or Toronto, Quebec City, Halifax or Victoria in the 1890s would witness a far different world from the one they know now. And yet, scattered here and there would be familiar landmarks. Architecturally, 1892 and the period it typifies was a significant water-
Canada 1892: Portrait of a Promised Land is published by McCLelland & Stewart Inc. and Penguin Books Canada Limited. Text copyright © 1992 by Power Reporting Limited. Photographs copyright © 1992 by Peter Christopher.
shed—some of its best buildings became a part of the Canadian heritage. They included Toronto’s Old City Hall, York Club and Queen’s Park; the Château Frontenac in Quebec City; Windsor Station in Montreal; various buildings in Vancouver’s Gastown and Craigdarroch in Victoria. Such popular period fashions as Richardsonian Romanesque and the château set the styles for Canada’s public and private buildings for many years to come and helped fix the character of the nation’s streets.
As the 1890s transformed Canada’s physical appearance, turning the still-infant dominion into an urban and industrialized land, other forces were operating on the recently minted Confederation—trends and events that would see bitter conflict within its borders and draw it into five wars beyond them.
“The Nineties witnessed the sunset of the Victorian ethic,” noted June Callwood in her wonderful history of the period, The Naughty Nineties, “the passing of a time when the role and importance of God, the Queen, the flag, duty, honor, virtue and family life were all clearly defined. It was an era of great contrasts, of chastity and brothels, censorship and pornography, of crippling poverty and bounteous windfall; tough bosses and violent labor disputes; an age of cesspools and sterilization, plagues and dramatic medical advances; prairie
droughts and booms; gold rushes and emigration; puritanical men and militant women; sporting houses and Klondike hurdy-gurdy girls.”
Federal-provincial relations in 1892 proved unusually combative, with Quebec and Ontario fed up with having to subsidize the poorer provinces (“the shreds and patches of Confederation”). The premiers were united by one emotion: their outrage with Ottawa’s every pronouncement. True to form, the Western premiers were particularly upset about exorbitant freight rates; the Maritimers were demanding higher fishing quotas.
Spurred on by the rulings of the United Kingdom’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, federal powers were being drastically decentralized so that most Ottawa initiatives seemed blunted. Economic times were tough, with Canada suffering its share of a worldwide recession. Industries that had been built up under the high-tariff National Policy (which had kept out most competing American goods) found they could not compete and resorted to layoffs and consolidations. The only solution, many insiders in both major parties whispered, was “unrestricted reciprocity” (free trade) with the United States.
Always strained, English-French relations were reaching a new low. “Between English and French Canada lay a gulf of incomprehension bridged only by the necessities of politics,” concluded John Saywell in his study of the 1890s.
“Bigotry was widespread, finding outlets in the traditional French-English and Catholic-Protestant conflicts, in hostility to any strangers in the land, and in sharp rivalries among Protestant sects. The tone of the Nineties was rough and discordant.” Reflecting that mood, former Quebec premier Pierre Chauveau had observed, “English and French, we climb by a double flight of stairs towards the
destinies reserved for us on this continent, without knowing each other, without meeting each other, and without even seeing each other except on the landing of politics.”
That “landing of politics” was forever altered in the summer of 1891 by the death of the great improviser, the Father of Confederation, Sir John A. Macdonald. Like some magnificent, indestructible lighthouse in a field of puny chimneys, Macdonald was not only Canada's founding prime minister, but the stalwart role model for each of his less-worthy successors. With an unerring instinct for his political enemies’ jugulars and an uncanny ability to take on whatever ideological
coloration each situation demanded, he dominated Canada’s post-Confederation scene for more than a quarter of a century. In the process, he turned opportunism and patronage into something close to Canada’s state religion, and yet it was his genius to turn this witches’ brew into a significant force of nation-building.
Macdonald’s impressive achievement of forging a Conservative party out of such anomalous forces as English-Canada’s fledgling business establishment and Quebec’s Catholic hierarchy attested to the reach of his skill. Within Ontario, Tory support came largely from manufacturers happy with the harsh tariffs of Sir John’s National Policy. Even though the majority of those industrialists were raging Protestants, they happily joined with the Pope’s representatives in French Canada to sit under the umbrella of Macdonald’s mildly progressive conservatism, united by their opposition to the forces of liberal secularism that by 1892 were beginning to sweep the country.
Perhaps his attraction as a politician was partly based on the fact that he seemed as vulnerable as the new and still-wobbly dominion itself—barely able to stand on his own feet after repeated bouts with his favorite brand of the demon rum, yet somehow surviving with spirit unbowed. His greatest strength was just being there, personifying survival—his own and his country’s.
In the last decade of his life, Macdonald spent his increasingly infrequent sober hours cajoling, bribing and inspiring the voters to follow his winding path to glory. He may have viewed the new world he was creating through bloodshot eyes, but he governed Canada’s awesome chunk of geography with the hardwon wisdom of a man with a million miles on his meter.
By the time the 1891 election rolled around, Macdonald, then in his 77th year, had spent half a century in the tumbling discontinuity of a political process so crude that those who actually followed its few rules of ethical conduct were judged to be either stupid or senile. Macdonald himself had made so many compromises to keep his country and his party together that he could no longer be sure where he himself stood on any issue.
As he prepared to face the voters one last time, the country had never seemed so troubled and so divided. Nova Scotia had begun to talk secession and in fact had formally voted to leave Confederation. There was dissatisfaction everywhere about everything, so that less than 25 years after Canada’s birth, the Dominion’s future appeared less secure than ever.
In the face of such high political risks, and while battling his own deteriorating health, Macdonald at the start of the 1891 election looked not so much old as dead, kept going only by increasingly frequent doses of booze, the ravaged topography of his face resembling nothing so much as the weather side of an ancient mountain gully.
There really was no issue other than Macdonald himself, although the Tories were not above attacking Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals as traitors for toying with annexation to the United States (while themselves secretly trying to negotiate a new brand of reciprocity with Washington). When he asked Governor General Lord Stanley to dissolve Parliament and call an election for March 5, Macdonald penned a public letter that laid out his position: “As for myself, my course is clear. A British subject I was bom—a British subject I will die. With my utmost effort, with my last breath, will I oppose the ‘veiled treason’ which attempts by sordid means and mercenary proffers to lure our people from their allegiance.” That statement was widely interpreted precisely for what it was meant to be: not an assertion of imperial support, but a declaration of Canadian patriotism. It worked.
The Canadian Manufacturers Association swung in behind the old man. Sir William Van Home, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway, assured Macdonald that “the CPR vote will be practically unanimous”—not surprising given that the CPR had been described as the “Tory Government on Wheels.” Macdonald wrapped himself in the Union Jack and charged the Liberals with treason for trying “to make Canada the Arctic fringe on the American blanket.” Although he was not feeling well enough to do much personal campaigning, whenever he did, his presence caused a sensation. As he stepped forward at his main Toronto rally, the audience reacted with an emotional sigh that could only be described as an expression of love.
Canadians responded appropriately on election night, granting Macdonald a 27-seat margin—a larger share of the popular vote than he had received in 1887. But the campaign broke what was left of his health. Three months later, on June 6, 1891, he was dead.
Eras end with the passing of each prime minister, but this was something different. Regardless of party loyal-
ty, Canadians mourned Sir John’s death as if a family member had been removed from their very firesides. Of the many obituaries, none was more moving than that of Macdonald’s political opponent, Laurier. “The place of Sir John A. Macdonald in this country was so large and so absorbing,” the Liberal leader told the Commons, “that it is almost impossible to conceive that the politics of this country—the fate of this country—will continue without him.”
As Canadians faced the first year in memory without the Old Chief in power, they wondered what 1892 would bring them. It would be a significant if troubled year for both Canada and the world. In Britain, the Liberals under William Gladstone won a slim electoral victory, while Keir Hardie became the first Labour member of Parliament. Bernard Shaw published Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Rudyard Kipling brought out his Barrack Room Ballads. In the United States, Democrat Grover Cleveland won the presidency, opposing the McKinley Tariff, which would have hurt Canada. Vogue magazine began publishing in New York City, and Pittsburgh saw the most violent strike in American labor history as clubwielding Pinkerton men battled strikers at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead works. Russia suffered famine and France went to war against King Dahomey in Africa. In sports, “Gentleman Jim” Corbett defeated John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship, while in technology, the diesel engine and the automatic telephone switchboard were perfected.
In Canada that year, Quebec Premier Honoré Mercier was acquitted on corruption charges, and poet Pauline Johnson began her public readings. In a still-too-familiar pattern, two Canadians were on their way to achieving world renown—in the United States. James Naismith would invent basketball while working at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass., and actress Marie Dressier (Leila Koerber of Cobourg, Ont.) made her first appearance on Broadway. Lead, silver and zinc deposits were discovered at Kimberley, B.C., and work was underway on the making of the world’s biggest cheese (13 tons) in Perth, Ont.
The country’s 1892 gross national product was about $460 million, and Canadians had socked away $55 million in savings accounts. But the original post-Confederation dream, which had envisioned a prosperous nation stretching from sea to sea, had yet to come true. The recession would continue to batter industry in Central Canada and hurt Eastern Canada even more. Fewer than a quarter of a million newcomers had chosen to settle on the western plains. The great wave of immigration that would see 1.5 million Europeans farming Canada’s prairies was still a decade away.
The automobile, motion picture and radio, the three inventions most responsible for
changing social behavior early in this century, had yet to be introduced, but life was becoming decidedly easier. Canadians were rapidly getting used to typewriters, central heating, indoor toilets, barbed wire (to keep track of the cows), Linotype machines, kerosene, half-tone newspaper photos, steam-powered threshers and, above all, electric lights, streetcars and telephones.
The early phones were treated with a certain degree of suspicion. Phone subscribers felt sure that somehow the talking machines were conveying false information, and for many years after they were introduced, Canadians used telephones mainly to make appointments to visit their friends in person. By 1892, almost every major Canadian city had electrified streetcars—but many oldtimers were still afraid of electricity.
Canadians, then as now, were marked by an ability to endure—to survive a lousy climate and worse politicians. That will has always been a Canadian burden. Concentrating too much on survival, however, often deters imagination and creativity—those intuitive leaps that allow individuals and countries to reach for greatness. Yet survivors are the winners in any game, and it is because Canada’s survival is threatened in 1992, as it was in 1892, that the mood and details of what happened in that distant year are significant.
As Canadians head into an uncertain decade, memories of precious times past take on a very special glow, keeping pride alive in our country and ourselves. But folk memories do not reproduce themselves; they must be preserved and sustained.
Anniversaries such as the current celebration of Canada’s 125th birthday help reinvent the past in a highly selective way; we decide what to remember and choose what to forget. That offers alternatives for the present and decides priorities for the future.
Writing about 1892 is no prehistoric venture. It is a time as close to us as our grandparents or great-grandparents. This, after all, is a country only four memories old, and history is nothing more, and nothing less, than those memories refined—the record of collective and individual encounters between character and circumstance. If we care to listen, we can still hear the faint echoes of the people who walked our streets, worked our farms and fished our waters a hundred years ago.
The parallels between 1892 and 1992 are haunting. Facing the dawn of a new century, as we do, Canadians a hundred years ago desperately longed to believe the next century would belong to them.
In 1892, that seemed like an attainable dream. The country was like some young giant stirred by an adolescent’s feelings of power, not yet daunted by the failures, misgivings and trepidations of full adulthood. Yet reality crept into the dream, too. The extremes of wealth and poverty, economic hard times, the simmering hostility between English and French, Protestants and Catholics, federal-provincial feuds—these and other trends were threatening to tear the nation apart. “We have come to the history of this young country when premature dissolution seems at hand,” lamented Laurier, the soon-to-be prime minister, sounding much like any 1992-vintage politician. “How long can the fabric last? Can it last at all?
All these questions which surge in the mind, and to which dismal answers only suggest themselves.”
We are still what we were then: a loose federation of absurdly diverse regions that sometimes feel as if they are on the very margin of the civilized world. It is an impossibly difficult country to govern—too big to contain itself internally, yet too small to yield any economic or political influence that matters.
A full century after the events described and depicted in this book, Canada remains “a promised land.” There are still only seven people per square mile occupying our landscape (compared with 915 in Hofland or 65 in the United States), and less than eight per cent of our territory has been fully settled. More than three-quarters of our 26 million population is hived into a Chile-like strip lying along the northern border of the United States. Of this country’s 125 cities, 102 are within 200 miles of the American boundary.
But even if most of us no longer venture any farther north than our summer cottages, our souls are still branded by the wild. Our best historian, W. L. Morton, has pointed out that “because of our origins, Canadian life to this day is marked by a northern quality. The line that delineates frontier from the farmstead, the wilderness from the baseland, the hinterland from the metropolis, runs through every Canadian psyche.”
Our unusual geography, combined with our rigorous climate, has often meant that the nation’s collective moods and individual concerns are governed more by the rhythms of the changing seasons than by anything the politicians or economists might be scheming.
It is our strength that most Canadians are attached to their country not by imperious trumpet calls, but by small, private epiphanies. Yet there is among us—now, as in 1892—a quiver of common interest insisting that no matter how agonizing it may get, staying Canadian is worth the candle. Hard as we may try to devalue the Canadian experience (“The world needs Canada because if it wasn’t there,” comedian Dave Broadfoot once said, “the Chinese could sail right across and invade Denmark”) our souls are branded by the maple leaf.
It is a feeling akin to the cry of allegiance of Will Ready, the Welsh poet who headed McMaster University’s library in Hamilton. “Wales rings in my mind like a bell in an underwater belfry,” he declared, “I am of Wales and everything I say and dream is framed in that context.” In an imported country like Canada, which went from being the colony of one empire to becoming the satellite of another—hardly daring to claim nationhood in between—it is essential to illuminate our history not as it might have been, but as it really was. Facing an uncertain future, the value of looking at the past becomes essential—but only if we learn from it.
In surprising ways, Canada has hardly changed in the past century. Most concerns animating Canadians in 1892 are still with us, and our hope must lie in the fact that however threatening these problems might have been, they did not daunt us. We are still here to argue—and implement—their solutions. □