The sex-positive Huron-Wendat

If, hypothetically, you wanted to define “historic Canadian values,” you’d have a hard time.

For example, I’m currently working my way through a large book about the history of the Wendat, a confederation of nations that ruled southern Ontario for centuries, with ancestral roots in the region running back even further. Today the Wendat are better known by the name the French gave them, the Huron. (The French were always renaming everything.)

There’s lots to say about the Wendat (Huron) Confederacy, including about their culture and what they, historically, valued. For the purposes of keeping this post brief, let’s focus in on one general topic area: dating, marriage, and sex.

Here’s what Bruce Trigger writes in The Children of Aataentsic about Wendat values with regards to sex, way back in the 1500s and 1600s, and possibly earlier:

The Huron considered premarital sexual relations to be perfectly normal and engaged in them soon after puberty…. Girls were as active as men in initiating these liasons [sic]…. Young men were required to recognize the right of a girl to decide which of her lovers she preferred at any one time. Sometimes, a young man and woman developed a longstanding, but informal, sexual relationship…. This did not prevent either partner from having sexual relations with other friends.

When the French showed up and witnessed this in the early 1600s, they were “astonished” and some were even horrified, writes Trigger, especially and specifically because of the agency enjoyed by women.

Wendat marriage proposals also included a no-commitment trial period for women. To propose, “the boy offered the girl a beaver robe or a wampum necklace. If she took it, they slept together for several nights. After this, the girl was free to accept or reject her suitor, but in either case she could keep the present he had offered her.” Listen, we both knew what this was. Thanks for the robe!

Divorce law allowed for any marriage to be “terminated at the wish of either partner.” In comparison, it would take two hundred years and a revolution before the French even legalized divorce at all. Meanwhile in Quebec, until “less than a century ago, Quebec women were essentially treated as children—legal dependents of their husbands—and they held no claim to homes, bank accounts, or other assets.” Further, “women couldn’t be granted a separation—even from an adulterous spouse, unless the cad actually brought his ‘concubine'” home. (Nutt, 194-195) Throughout the rest of Canada, “access to divorce…was extremely limited until 1968.”

Defining “historic values” isn’t just difficult because you first have to pick which history you’re talking about; it’s also nearly impossible to map historic cultural values onto present ones in any meaningful way. Cultures are complex, and societal values don’t progress in a straight or predictable line.

Still, I find it interesting that as someone who was socialized in a colonial Canadian culture, on these examples I find myself easily siding with the values of a pre-Columbian indigenous confederacy over those of their European contemporaries.

Canadian Prime Minister looks forward to working with fascist

The primary purpose of Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s trip to London was to attend the coronation of George VI, but he managed to squeeze in a few other things while there, including a private chat with a Nazi. Specifically, he met with ambassador Joachim von Ribbentrop, who, writes Allan Levine, “was so impressed with King’s enlightening attitude to the League [of Nations] and world events that he invited the prime minister to Berlin for a personal meeting with Hitler.”

As a general rule, if your political views impress a Nazi who then suggests you would really hit it off with his boss the Führer, you’re probably on the wrong track. But this was 1937, appeasement was the mood of the day, and “Mackenzie King was the ultimate appeaser.” To be fair to King, fascism often presents as a slow burn, and crossed lines are much more visible in retrospect. Many people were wiling to believe that Hitler wouldn’t be so bad, and might even have a positive impact.

So, the Canadian Prime Minister headed off to Berlin. Levine describes the beginning of the meeting this way:

King had brought Norman Rogers’s biography of him as a gift for Hitler. As he presented it, he opened the book to show Hitler photographs of his childhood and drew attention to the fact that he had grown up in Berlin, Ontario. Hitler smiled warmly and leafed through the volume.

We know this because King wrote about it in his diary. In that document, King says that he told Hitler, who at this point was four years into building a nationalist dictatorship, that he admired “what I had seen of the constructive work of his regime, and said that I hoped that that work might continue.”

King also used his diary to talk about Hitler’s eyes:

He smiled very pleasantly and indeed has a sort of appealing and affectionate look in his eyes… His skin was smooth; his face did not present lines of fatigue or wariness; his eyes impressed me most of all. There was a liquid quality about them which indicate keen perception and profound sympathy.

Hitler “truly loves his fellowmen,” has a “deep emotional nature,” seems “eminently wise,” and “feels himself to be a deliverer of his people from tyranny,” King wrote.

By Levine’s summary, “the two men spoke about a wide range of topics, with the noticeable exception of the Nazi’s anti-Jewish policies, which King would never have dared raise lest he insult his host.” Canadians are known for their politeness after all.

More than politeness, though, Canadians were not immune to the anti-semitism that was on the rise in Germany and elsewhere. Jews in Canada also faced “widespread discrimination” at the time, writes H. Blair Neatby, and Canada’s immigration policy was “influenced by anti-Semitic views.” A couple of years later as the war began, a Canadian immigration official would utter the now infamous phrase “none is too many” when asked how many Jewish refugees Canada should accept.

King also attempted to be an interpreter between England and Germany. In response to Hitler’s complaints about England, King writes: “I said to him that I thought the Germans did not some time understand the English, or the English the Germans. I thought some of us in Canada understood both of them better than they did themselves.” Canadians had experience bridging divides between different nations, he said.

As the meeting concluded after more than an hour, Hitler presented King with a personally inscribed portrait (pictured at the top of this post). King told Hitler that “I greatly appreciated all that it expressed of his friendship, and would always deeply value this gift.” He said he hoped to talk with Hitler again, and that he believed Hitler “would be remembered” for his good works, and that Hitler should “let nothing destroy that work.”

After the war, in 1946, Hitler’s Foreign Minister was put on trial for war crimes at Nuremberg. Not only had he been actively involved in Nazi invasions, he had also, the court found, been deeply involved in the Holocaust. His name was Joachim von Ribbentrop, the man who King had so impressed in London that he’d set up the meeting with Hitler. He was executed on October 16th.

Canada is not 150 years old

As you know, I’m writing this blog because I’m a complete ignoramus about Canadian history who decided to learn more, and to share what I learn along the way. Keep that in mind when I tell you — begging your indulgence here — that it is not clear to me how old Canada is, or why we seem to have settled on this 150 number.

This year, Canada marks 150 years since the three British colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and, well, “Canada,” formed a union in order to collaborate economically and build a railroad. That’s a notable anniversary, but why is it the anniversary?

There are a few other places we could start the clock. We could say Canada is as old as its independence, using the same metric as the United States. In that case we’d turn 35 years old this year, the amount of time it’s been since we’ve had control of our own constitution. If that’s too strict a definition of “independence,” then let’s call it 86 years, the time since Canada’s been able to independently pass its own laws.

Then again, even those landmarks, like Confederation, represent incremental changes to a continuous system of British rule and governing structures that go back 254 years. #Canada254🇨🇦! Hey we suddenly got a lot older!

At this point you’ve no doubt noticed that all of these ages are purely colonial. As long as we’re choosing ages related to colonization, why don’t we recognize the ongoing period of continual European colonization and say Canada is 409?

Or we could pick an age that doesn’t pretend the land called Canada was uninhabited before Europeans arrived. This is still going to be somewhat arbitrary, but if we decide to pick a milestone of human civilization — say, agriculture — then now Canadian civilization can trace its roots back something like 1,300 years, give or take, depending on your source, how strictly you define farming, and how many older archeological discoveries are yet to be made.

As a non-farmer though, I feel compelled to point out that even people who don’t farm are people. So if we push the clock back even further, to encompass all human history in this land we now call Canada, that takes us back… uh, I’m not even sure how exactly to interpret this, but we’re talking at least 14,000 years here, maybe as much as 30,000 years, which is a number too big for you or me to understand, and may as well be forever.

This is more than pedantic. The official government website for Canada 150 invites Canadians to discover “150 years of history,” suggesting that’s how much history Canada has. Such a statement excludes not just precolonial Canada, it even places 250 years of colonial history and another 100 years of European exploration outside the borders of our story.

I don’t have a problem with marking 150 years of Confederation, an important bend in a long, winding river with many tributaries. But 150 is too large a number to mark Canada’s independence, too small to hug the full story of a country of nations that is still incubating. What’s important, I think, is not that we all agree on the same age, but that we recognize the many shifting boundaries we’ve placed on our story, and what each set of boundaries means. Canada is thousands of years old, and it is a day old, and it has not yet been born.

Operation Fish: The secret plan to hide Britain’s gold in Canada

Winston Churchill needed a backup plan. Europe was falling to Nazi Germany faster than anyone imagined, and Hitler was coming for Britain next. There was a real possibility the island could fall. So, Britain started making moves to send massive amounts of its wealth — and, if necessary, the government itself — across the Atlantic, to Canada.

How much wealth are we talking about? “Virtually everything Britain possessed which could be turned into dollars” in the form of gold and negotiable securities, reported Leland Stowe in 1963. And there was no guarentee they wouldn’t lose it all.

The bullion and paper would be shipped to Halifax, but the Atlantic Ocean was a conspicuously risky basket in which to place all of your eggs. In May 1940 alone, writes James Powell in his excellent telling, “100 Allied and neutral merchant ships had been sunk.” In June, another 57 ships went down.

Because we’re talking about Canada, ice was also a threat. Off the  Canadian coast one ship encountered “frightful fog, with floating ice” which made it impossible to continue without daring an iceberg to strike. “For nearly twelve hours it stopped us dead,” said the captain.

Upon reaching Halifax, the loot was loaded onto trains that headed to Montreal to drop off the securities, then the remaining train cars continued on to Ottawa where the gold was stashed at the Bank of Canada on Wellington Street.

As the first train arrived in Montreal on July 2nd, 1940, the Bank of England’s Alexander Craig met the Bank of Canada’s David Mansur and announced that “we’ve brought along quite a large shipment of fish.” But “actually,” he explained, almost certainly unnecessarily, the “fish” was not literal fish. It was a code word for both the cargo and the whole operation.

“We’re cleaning out our vaults,” Craig explained, Britishing all over the place, “in case of invasion, you know.”

The securities were stored in a steampunk setup in the third basement level of the Montreal Sun Life building. Deep below the building’s oblivious 5,000 employees, construction workers built a new vault out of steel taken from an abandoned railroad, and installed hypersensitive microphones in the ceiling to detect even the slightest sound of an intruder. The vault door opened only to two different combinations entered simultaneously by two different bankers who did not know each other’s codes.

All the securities needed to be sorted and itemized. “Mansur had recruited some 120 Canadians — retired bankers, brokers and investment firm secretaries — as a staff. Taking oaths of secrecy, they began to unravel what some called ‘our bundles from Britain.'”

Meanwhile in Ottawa, writes Powell, “men laboured in twelve-hour shifts to unpack the gold bars and bags of coins and store them in the Bank’s 60 by 100 foot vault. Everything had to be meticulously recorded and accounted for. By the end of it, the Bank of Canada was the home to more gold than anywhere in the world outside of Fort Knox in the United States.”

And the operation was about more than money. Stowe writes:

The decision held even greater import. It meant that Churchill’s government was secretly determined to do far more than ‘fight on the beaches.’ If a German invasion should succeed, the British would carry on the war from Canada. The transfer of the treasure was thus part of a two-stage, last-ditch survival plan.

“In total,” tallies Powell, “more than £470 million in gold was shipped from the Bank of England in London across the Atlantic to the Bank of Canada in Ottawa. (Its value today would be about US$67 billion.)” The securities were worth even more: £1.25 billion. Powell says that technically their value today is “incalculable,” though another account says that the whole haul, including the gold and securities, was together worth more than $300 billion in today’s dollars. That’s more than the entire annual budget of the government of Canada.

Given all the risks involved, this wasn’t just the largest movement of wealth in history, it was also, says Stowe, “the biggest financial gamble ever made by any nation in peace or war.” And somehow, critically to the operation’s success, the whole thing remained a secret until the gold was returned after the war.

“At one time or another well over 600 people were involved in the Security Deposit’s clandestine services,” concludes Stowe. “The gold deliveries involved thousands of ships’ personnel and hundreds of dock-workers on both sides of the ocean. Perhaps never before have so many kept so great a secret so incredibly well.”

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I first learned about Operation Fish (not by name) from Thomas Childers’s World War II: A Military and Social History lectures.

The most direct source I was able to find online was American journalist Leland Stowe’s 1963 How Britain’s Wealth Went West which for some reason is preserved online only as a PDF hosted by the Australian Department of Defence, and now posted here too, just in case.

I learned about Stowe’s report from a summary posted on, a resource for Ontario school teachers.

I’ve quoted and linked to James Powell’s post on his Today in Ottawa’s History blog.

Bob Faber also blogged about Operation Fish for Interesting Shit.

The photo at the top of this post is from Library and Archives Canada. It is a real photo of gold bars in the Bank of Canada in Ottawa, but it was taken in 1955, so it is not very Operation Fishy.

Library and Archives Canada also has a short account of Operation Fish on its website.

The definitive book on the topic, which I have not read but is used as a source by many of the above, appears to be Operation Fish: The Fight to Save the Gold of Britain, France and Norway from the Nazis by Alfred Draper.

One other fun fact to reward you for reading this far: The BBC made a movie called The Bullion Boys about a fictional plot to steal the Operation Fish gold as it was transferred through England. According to Sir David Jason – A Life of Laughter by Stafford Hildred and Tim Ewbank, 14 million people watched The Bullion Boys when it first aired on the BBC in 1993.

Why “Acres of Snow”

So far, many of the most interesting things I’ve learned about Canadian history have come from indirect sources, like histories of the United States, of the Americas in general, and of Canada’s European colonizers. For example, I chose the name of this blog after listening to a lecture series on the French Revolution by history professor Suzanne M. Desan.

Desan explains that in the lead-up to the French Revolution, the French colonies in Canada “didn’t have much appeal” as an immigration destination. One of the primary reasons was the climate. She quotes a French soldier as saying that “to survive the Canadian winter, one needs a body of brass, eyes of glass, and blood made of brandy.” (Fact check: this is still true.)

She then quotes Voltaire, the French enlightenment writer, as having dismissed Canada as “a few acres of snow.” Quick Googling revealed a Wikipedia page called A few acres of snow, which is dedicated not just to that phrase, but more generally to how much Voltaire hated Canada and all of the derision he cast its way.

(Other aspersions include wishing that an “earthquake had engulfed that miserable Acadia,” and complaining that Canada is inhabited by the three B’s: “barbarians, bears, and beavers.”)

The full “acres of snow” quotation comes from his 1758 novel Candide, in which one character, discussing the Seven Years War (still underway at the time of the novel’s publication), says: “You know that these two nations are at war about a few acres of snow somewhere around Canada, and that they are spending on this beautiful war more than all Canada is worth.”

What struck me — aside from how funny I found Voltaire’s distain for Canada, and how much ink he dedicated to that passion — is that Canada’s cold climate does come up again and again in Canadian history. It has influenced settlement patterns, culture, warfare, and economic activity for as long as people have lived in Northern North America. Geography and climate are not the only factor in Canada’s story, but they’re a big one.

When I moved to New York, I found myself regularly defending Canada as “not that cold,” since coldness seems to be a primary association most New Yorkers have with my home country. And by reading history, I hoped to move beyond the Canadian cliches I knew, coldness included. But I’ve now come to appreciate and embrace that Canada’s climate is a defining characteristic of the country, and one that has remained consistent for its entire history.

And frankly, most of Canada — the boundaries we recognize today, larger than those Voltaire was thinking of — could fairly be described as acres of snow. I decided to embrace the label. A kind of reclaiming, 260 years in the making.

Also the domain name was available.

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Canadian history is world history

Last year I realized that, despite thinking myself a reasonably educated and engaged Canadian, I knew almost nothing about Canadian history. I could name some major milestones and important figures, but I couldn’t answer simple, fundamental questions about what kind of country Canada is and how it came to be.

So I began a personal project to learn what I could. I started studying the time around the American Revolutionary War (those who know me will not be shocked to hear that my interest in history was kindled by the Hamilton musical). I heard amazing Canadian connections to revolutionary America I’d never known before, like the time future traitor Benedict Arnold and Philip Schuyler (the man is loaded) aimed to conquer Quebec for the revolution, eventually to be chased back into New York by Guy Carlton.

And I quickly realized that I’d been erroneously thinking of Canadian history as something isolated and compartmentalized, when in fact it is just one part of North American history, which is one part of transatlantic history, which is one part of world history.

For example, I vaguely remember learning about the Plains of Abraham in high school. But I didn’t appreciate, and don’t think I was taught, that that battle was the climax to a global war for empire that reverberated across the Americas and around the world. We try to divorce Canadian history from its context in order to focus only on the Canadian parts, but that often removes the germ containing not only much of the meaning, but much of the drama too.

That’s why I started researching not just Canadian history itself, but preceding and contemporary periods in Europe and the rest of the Americas as well.

That’s a really foolish thing to do, because here is one thing I can tell you about history: there is a lot of it. Too much, really. And now that I’ve read a few books and listened to a handful of recorded lectures I feel like I understand an even smaller percentage of Canadian history than when I started, because my perception of what there is to learn has grown much more quickly than what I’ve actually learned.

Still, I am learning a lot. (I benefit from my profoundly ignorant starting point in that way.) And often enough I come across a fact or a story or a perspective that is interesting enough that I want to remember and share it, which is what this blog is for.

I am not a historian, so you will not find original research here, and I will try to be cautious with how I interpret sources with which I have no expertise. I will instead share the stuff that is the most interesting to me in a way that might also be interesting to you too. You can think of this as “I read a bunch of books about Canadian history so that you don’t have to.” Or, if you’re someone who actually does know a lot about Canadian history already, you can think of this as “I read a few books so that you can be entertained by my naive excitement upon discovering stuff you’ve long known.”

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