Are you better off than you were 400 years ago?

Here’s an impossible question: is life especially hard for you because you don’t have access to technologies you’ve never even conceived of?

An early episode of CBC’s Canada: The Story of Us included some Canadian celebrities talking about how hard life was hundreds of years ago. The examples cited were that “we’re very lucky… because we can get on a plane” and “I can’t leave my house without my phone.” This is an easy and common fallacy; it’s very tempting to apply our own “beliefs and experiences” to people from the past, and assume we can understand what it was like to be them.

In reality, the culture and context of people who lived centuries ago were different enough that it takes a lot of work to even begin to understand what their lives were like. For starters, people who lived in the land now called Canada hundreds of years ago had all sorts of problems, but a lack of mobile internet ain’t one. Hundreds of years from now human descendants, if there are any, will be tempted to think I suffered because unlike them, I was bound to one physical body, didn’t have a networked mind, and lived in a world that hadn’t yet unlocked the secrets of faster-than-light travel. They would be just as wrong.

Of course, this assumes that life is always getting better, and that if you could live at any time in history, you’d want to live now, if not in the future. Some critics of this idea call it “the myth of progress.” In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes that the cultural idea that things are getting better is a relatively recent one in human history, beginning in Europe around the time of that continent’s conquest of the Americas, about a hundred years before the dawn of Canadian colonialism.

Before that, most Europeans believed that history was static, and that if anything life had gotten worse since the time of a lost “golden age.” As Europeans began to colonize and conquer the Americas, the modern idea of progress was a nascent, experimental theory.

In Sapiens, Harari also argues that while new technologies have been good for the species, they have often been bad for individuals. Ancient foragers, he writes, were “as fit as marathon runners” and “had physical dexterity that people today are unable to achieve.” One way to learn what forager life was like in the distant past is to look at hunter-gathers living today. “Even in the most inhospitable of habitats such as the Kalahari Desert,” today’s hunter-gatherers work an average 35-45 hours a week, less on average than non-foragers in either the developing or affluent world.

If the foraging life of earlier humans meant people were healthier and had more leisure time, why is the development of agriculture considered an improvement? The agricultural revolution was biologically good for the species because it allowed for an increase in population. From a biological perspective, more copies of a species’ DNA is a good thing even if the individuals carrying around that DNA are working harder and getting less in return. This is why Harari calls the agriculture revolution “history’s greatest fraud.”

The point, in the context of early Canadian history, is to be skeptical of the assumptions we might have about what kinds of societies are valuable for what reasons, and about how life does or doesn’t improve for individuals over time.

If you want to understand what life was like in pre-contact North America or early colonial Canada, and you do so primarily through a lens that views past people and their lives as primitive or lacking, your understanding will be very limited, in part because that’s not how they saw themselves. They, like us, could only ever compare their situation to what was possible and normal in their time. Additionally, even if they could compare their society with today’s, there’s no guarantee they’d prefer ours. The theory that people from the past or people with less advanced technology are always worse-off is hardly nuke-proof.

For example, in the 16th century southwestern Ontario was home to The Wendat Confederacy, and they, writes Bruce Trigger, “knew of no culture that they had reason to believe was materially more successful than their own.” They traveled and traded over today’s provincial and international borders, and remained secure in this belief. And when the French arrived after thousands of years, they still didn’t really change their minds.

This was going to be a post about the Wendat, but again I got lost in the preamble, because I think the context is so important. So I’ve copy-and-pasted the next 1800 words over to another draft for another day.


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Weird things I apparently taught my American friends about Canada

As I’ve mentioned, I recently moved to California from New York. As a goodbye gift, some of my New York friends compiled a document called “A List of the Things We Learned About Canada From Chris Tindal.” It was a really special and thoughtful gift, especially now that I am able to use it as a blog post during this extra busy time.

Some of this is grossly inaccurate due to misunderstanding, and there are a few items that I can’t even explain the origin of. It might also look like I complained about Canada all the time, but I hope not. Mostly I suspect I was just trying to impress my American friends with weird stuff and make Canada seem exotic.

What follows is the slightly edited document. Actual history to continue next week.

A List of the Things We Learned About Canada From Chris Tindal

Chris Tindal, a man we will have worked with until 3pm today, contains within him a wealth of knowledge about Canadian history and minutiae. Over the last two or so years we have had many conversations with him about this nonsense. We have treasured these talks though we have failed to accurately remember them. We will attempt to relay that information, in our best addled recollection, in this doc.

1. Canadian radio stations are required to play a certain number of Canadian artists per day, so there are a lot of Canadian musicians Americans have never heard of.

There is a board that manages this, but I don’t remember the name of it. I do remember that there is a point system for figuring out how canadian a musical act is called MAPL. I think it is an acronym though I have no idea what it stands for. As a band a Canadian band member will land you one MAPL point, and you need at least two to be considered officially Canadian enough for radio. Radio stations need to then play a certain number of officially Canadian artists. This system works per artist – having one extremely Canadian band, for example a 40 piece operatic indie folk act from Ontario – will not be enough to carry your radio station.

2. Canadian people love that it bothers Americans that they call beanies “touques”, and they will never stop talking about it.

They treat this like it’s America’s problem even when we are the ones who invented skateboarding. The two things might not seem connected but I assure you they really are. Also, a toque specifically has a pom-pom, and all canadians get really fucking mad when beanies don’t have pom-poms.

3. There is a complex beer registry system in Canada and that’s why Canada doesn’t get a lot of good beer.

Having some kind of irritatingly pleasant deeply entrenched regulatory board for a banal thing is deeply Canadian. [Editor’s note: I do not remember being this hard on Canadian beer, though I do get very mad at The Beer Store. Also I am sorry that pretty much this entire document mistakes either “Toronto” or “Ontario” for “Canada.”]

4. Despite every funny person being from Canada, Canadian TV doesn’t really have satire, and isn’t a lot of fun.

This might be related to the irritatingly pleasant deeply entrenched regulatory boards I mentioned before?

5. At one point a video surfaced of a political candidate peeing in a cup and it was a big political scandal.

Canadian politics are fun. [Editor’s note: I had forgotten about this! A great moment in Canadian history.]

6. Chris once met the lead singer from a band he liked who was bartending in Toronto or something.

It was a band I was totally unaware of (see #1) but this was a big deal to Chris and he brings it up from time to time. It is an anecdote about the unpredictability of life and finding humility in an idol’s failure, and growing old. [Editor’s note: I do not think Edwin is a failure, and enjoyed the evening I spent in his bar.]

7. Instead of Bloody Marys Canadians drink something called a “bloody Caesar”

It is a Bloody Mary guaranteed to contain Clamato and some kind of novelty garnish. That’s it. Somehow this is of great cultural significance.

8. Canadian Thanksgiving is in early October

And they all drink bloody Caesars

9. Santa lives in Canada, and New Zealand is Australia’s Canada

10. The Queen has many birthdays

The Queen of Canada’s birthday is May 24th.

11. Canada has its own kindle! It is called a Kobo!

[Editor’s note: I love, and would not shut up about, my Kobo.]

12. Canada also has a national font.

[Editor’s note: I think this is a reference to how the word Canada often appears in the same font in government material?]

13. Canada was not actually an independent country until, I want to say, 1986

[Editor’s note: Ha, ok.]

14. Oh Smarties! They are Canadian m&ms that Chris Tindal deems superior.

15. Canada has many fine treats such as: Maple Sandwich cookies, Coffee Crisp, All Dressed Chips, and Hickory Sticks

16. Famous Canadians, a list, from memory only, please. NO GOOGLING.

  • Chris Tindal
  • Cap Tindal (or whatever your brother’s name is)
  • Handsome Idiot Justin Trudeau
  • Former PM _____ Trudeau (related to the handsome one)
  • Kate Beaton
  • Alanis Morissette
  • The original Avril Lavigne (maybe not Avril Lavigne’s doppelganger)
  • Celine Dion
  • Drake
  • Leonard Cohen
  • Neil Young
  • Rick Moranis
  • Mike Myers
  • Jim Carrey
  • Pamela Anderson
  • John Candy
  • The rest of SCTV
  • Kids in the Hall
  • Norm Macdonald?
  • Nelly Furtado
  • J-Biebs
  • Snow, the white rapper who penned “Informer”, a licky boom boom down
  • Bryan Adams
  • The Weeknd
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Uhhh winnie the pooh (like the actual bear) i think
  • Michael Ondaatje? Maybe he was born somewhere else?
  • The band Rush
  • Leslie Feist
  • Grimes
  • Carl Newman
  • Many many hockey players
  • Bret “The Hitman” Hart
  • Tommy Chong (from Cheech &)
  • Late Former Toronto Mayor Rob “Crack-smokin’” Ford
  • Troy Hurtubise, inventor of the “Bear-proof Suit”
  • Everyone named “Gordon”
  • There are definitely some TV anchors that are from Canada.
  • Steve Nash

18. Chris can name everyone on a Canadian coin from memory, as well as identify a respectable number of figures on American coins.

The Hunters become the hunted

So it’s November 13, 1838, and 182 members of the Hunters Lodge, a United States-based secret society dedicated to the liberation of Canada, are stranded on the Canadian side of the Saint Lawrence River in Newport, near present-day Prescott, Ontario, after executing an ill-advised invasion.

* record scratch *

* freeze frame *

If you’re wondering how they ended up in this situation, read the first two posts in this series, The Republic of Canada and The Battle of the Windmill. This post concludes my summary of Shaun J. McLaughlin’s telling of The Battle of the Windmill, the bloodiest battle of the Patriot War.

It was extra bloody not because of the British or American militaries, both of whom opposed the Hunters (the former because their territory had been invaded, the latter because American Hunters, acting as individuals, were in violation of American law), but because of the Canadian militia, who were merciless.

By the way, do you like apples? On the first morning of the battle, there were “five hundred Canadian militia” and only a hundred professional soldiers. The militia squad that “took the brunt of Hunter fire” as bullets flew for the first time included two brothers named Macintosh, whose father, on the “family farm, twenty miles east… cultivated the crispy red apple variety that still bears the family name.” How do you like them apples?

Anyway, members of the Canadian militia had “drilled for hours on bayonet use” and “skewered slow-running Hunters with lethal, seventeen-inch, three-sided blades” as the Hunters ran.

Retreating to the relative safety of their stone buildings, including the windmill from which the battle gets is name, the increasingly ironically named Hunters also faced uncomfortably cold temperatures as well as bombardment from American and British ships on the river. Fortunately, one iron cannon ball “screamed in through a window” of the windmill and then, after settling and injuring no one, but still very hot, “helped warm the frigid room.”

“Winter arrived that afternoon” and snow began to cover “the unclaimed bodies in the battlefield’s no-man’s land.” By the next morning, “the wet snow that covered the bodies… had hardened to icy coffins” and one man “observed hogs eating corpses.” A truce was called mid-morning, “and for an hour combatants politely helped each other pry bodies from their wintry tombs.” It started snowing again later that night. The Hunters had still not liberated Canada from British tyranny, and now they were cold and miserable and eaten by pigs a bit.

On the third day, “gathering clouds dumped snow and sleet.” Some Americans on the New York side of the border tried and failed to negotiate the safe repatriation of the doomed Hunters. That night, three Hunters escaped across the river by canoe. They were the last to have such an opportunity.

On the morning of fourth day, Friday, November 16th, “just 117 Hunters remained fit to fight,” surrounded by a “force of regulars and Canadian militia” that “steadily grew” in number. The river also became “packed” with “gunboats towing barges with additional artillery.” The floating artillery “fired each gun every two minutes” and “steadily dismantled Newport.” By dusk the Hunters had retreated into “just two structures,” with “the majority huddled in the windmill.”

One American Hunter, Captain Heustis, was “infuriated” that his own government was against him in what he called his “struggle for freedom” in Canada. Heustis compared his fight to that of the Texas Revolution, in which individual Americans had also fought against a foreign power (in that case, Mexico).

As an “unstoppable wall of death” in the form of British regulars advanced on the Hunters, the Hunter leadership finally left the windmill, flying a white flag of surrender. “A squad of Canadian militia ignored the surrender notice and fired at them, sending them scurrying to the windmill.” Witnessing this display, a captain in the British navy “ordered his marines to shoot any militiaman who fired on a truce flag again.” Later, as the Hunters surrendered for real, they were protected by British regulars, though not with complete success. As Hunters were leaving the tavern, the other stone building they occupied, Canadian “militiamen bayoneted two men who walked out with their hands up.”

It’s unclear exactly how many men died. One source says 17 Hunters were killed, which McLaughlin says is “a testament” to their “defensive strategy and the thick stone buildings of poor little Newport.” McLaughlin also finds the official death count of 13 Canadian and British troops to be “suspiciously low” given that “we do know that bodies so littered the battlefield that it took a truce on the second and fourth days to remove them all.” No matter which number we choose, “it was the deadliest encounter for Canadian forces in the Patriot War.”

The windmill itself survived and remains standing today, converted into a lighthouse. You can go stand there, read the plaque, picture the battle unfolding around you, and even look across to the easily-visible American shore from which the raid was launched.


Remember the event that helped kick this all off, when Canadian militiamen rowed to Navy Island, aka the “Republic of Canada,” and set fire to the American ship the Caroline, sending its flaming hull over Niagara Falls? A “radicalized” Canadian rebel named Benjamin Lett had been on Navy Island with William Lyon Mackenzie, and he “harbored a grudge” about the burning of the Caroline. Almost a year later, near Navy Island, on the morning of the last day of the Battle of the Windmill, Lett knocked on the door of a man named Edgeworth Ussher (I swear George R. R. Martin didn’t write this), who “had piloted [the] fleet of boats” that had attacked the Caroline.

Ussher opened the door, saw Lett, and slammed the door in his face. “Lett fired his pistol through the sidelight, killing his victim instantly.”

The Battle of the Windmill

When we last left off, the refugee rebel mayor of Toronto, William Lyon Mackenzie, had just been driven from his declared Republic of Canada on Navy Island, which helped rally Americans to his side and started a year-long series of battles and invasions known as the Patriot War.

Violence begets violence, often in ways that are hard to predict in the moment. As Upper and Lower Canadians rebelled, Americans were watching. And what they saw were oppressed Canadians, fighting for their freedom from British tyranny. The rebellions looked to many Americans like a northern version of their own Revolutionary War. Defeated Canadian rebels fled to the United States, exploiting a legal loophole known as “this border isn’t tightly controlled yet,” and their stories inspired would-be American liberators to rally to their side.

The Upper Canada Rebellion took place at the end of 1837 in December, and the Republic of Canada occupation of Navy Island ended in January 1838. In May, a secret group called the Hunters Lodge, comprising both Canadian rebels and sympathetic Americans, formed to build up an army and plan an invasion of Canada. In September they “held a convention in Cleveland, Ohio, to pick new leaders for pending invasions of Canada that fall,” writes Shaun J. McLaughlin in The Patriot War Along the New York-Canada Boarder (from which this post draws heavily).

Formed in the style of masonic secret societies, members in the Hunters Lodge held one of four levels of membership: “snowshoe, beaver, master hunter and patriot hunter.” The Hunters had at least $150,000 and “large stores of arms.” They “bragged that they had twenty-five thousand armed men ready to fight,” but that would prove overly-confident.

The Patriot War included many small plots, invasions, and skirmishes, but the Hunters’ decision in the fall of 1838 to invade Prescott, Ontario was “one of the worst decisions” of the war, writes McLaughlin, and led to its bloodiest battle.

Thanks to a spy, the Upper Canadians were expecting an attack in Prescott, which is on a narrow stretch of the Saint Lawrence River near Kingston, where the Canadian and US sides are easily in view of one another. The Hunters didn’t know about the spy, but their leaders did know that not nearly enough men had shown up for the invasion. Despite suspecting “our scheme will fail,” the leaders conversed and agreed to press on. “I’d prefer to be shot” than back down, said one. “I would rather die than be branded a coward,” agreed the other.

The Hunters had managed to assemble 400 men split over three boats, which were lashed together and steaming towards Prescott from the American side. But when the moment of truth arrived, and the men were ordered to all consolidate onto the two smaller boats that would land on the north side of the river, only half of them agreed.

Under the cover of darkness, the first attempted landing went hilariously wrong. Both schooners approached the Canadian shore, lashed together. “As they came upon the wharf,” one man jumped out, tied a rope, and then jumped back in “just as the rope broke.” As the sun rose the next morning, people on both sides of the border “witnessed the embarrassing result of the Hunters’ aborted raid:” the schooners were both beached near the shore on the American side.

The next morning the invading force did successfully land on the Canadian side with men and artillery, on “a point one mile downstream from Prescott” near the battle’s eponymous windmill. “They immediately took possession” of the windmill and raised a flag that boasted Canada had been “liberated” by the Hunters.

They really believed “that Canadians would flock to the Hunters as liberators.” Reader, the Canadians did not. Upper Canada, and especially Prescott, was full of British loyalists, because of the thing where the Americans had fought a whole war against the British, strongly incentivizing any loyalists in The Thirteen Colonies to head north.

In addition to the windmill, the Hunters soon held “the barn and all unoccupied buildings” as “most residents fled.” Meanwhile, a small naval battle flared-up on the Saint Lawrence, as two ships played cat-and-mouse back and forth across the boarder. The British ship was called the Experiment, and the ship that had been captured for use by the Hunters was called the United States.

Ultimately the two ships charged each other, seemingly playing chicken. The Experiment swerved at the last second and “fired at close range… removing half of [the United States‘s captain’s] head.”

At this point, the Hunters had picked fights with loyal Upper Canadians, the British military, and the U.S. military, because they were in violation of the U.S. Neutrality Act, which made it illegal for any American to go to war against a power that was at peace with the U.S., which Britain was. Soon U.S. troops had arrived on the U.S. side, and “an American steamer… patrolled in mid-river to prevent any further crossings.”

With that, “the trapdoor” closed. Throughout the night rowboats went back and forth “carrying men in both directions” as some people deserted and others joined the fight, but by the morning the 182 Hunters who occupied stone buildings on the Canadian side of the river were stuck, without hope of reinforcement, and with both the British military and Canadian militia closing in.

Find out what happens next in the third and final post in this series, The Hunters become the hunted.

The Republic of Canada

Because my current interest in history began with the American Revolution, one of the first questions I asked was: why didn’t Canadians fight for independence like Americans did? One answer is that they did. Violent rebellions in present day Ontario and Quebec happened within living memory of and were influenced by the American Revolution and, while they were not on the scale of the Revolutionary War, they did contribute to Britain loosening its grip on its remaining North American colonies.

I’d heard of those Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions, but not of the so-called Patriot War that immediately followed. This year-long war, explains Shaun J. McLaughlin in The Patriot War Along the New York-Canada Boarder, was “a historical oddity,” an “undeclared war between the United States and the Canadian colonies.” What makes it odd is that it was “not a war between nations,” but rather a war fought between an alliance of likeminded Canadians and Americans against the combined might of the British and American militaries and Canadian militiamen.

The pivotal event between the Rebellions and the Patriot War was the declaration of a Republic of Canada by William Lyon Mackenzie. As you may know, Mackenzie is most famous for leading a rebel assault against Toronto, the city of which he had recently been mayor. What’s less well-known is what he did next.

Having lost the battle but not yet the war, Mackenzie and other rebels fled to the United States. There, the “fiery and accomplished orator” rallied Americans to his cause of a free Canada, comparing “the suffering of Canadians to the ‘same evils’ that had caused” the American Revolution.

On December 14th, 1837, Mackenzie and other “Patriots” invaded Canada with 24 men and two cannons. Well, kinda. The invasion involved the occupation of the small Navy Island in the Niagara River, technically on the Canadian side. Still, Mackenzie proclaimed a “Republic of Canada,” a kind of government in exile, and the bold move attracted more people to the island.

“At its peak,” writes McLaughlin, “the island’s Patriot force numbered approximately six hundred, almost equally Canadian and American.” Their artillery also increased to twenty-four cannons, which they used to bombard the Canadian mainland.

Loyal Canadians were unamused by said bombardment. Just two weeks after the beginning of the Patriot occupation, sixty Upper Canadian militiamen “rowed across the icy river in darkness” to seize and set aflame the rebels’ supply ship. In a scene worthy of HBO, “the blazing craft grounded on rocks and broke apart, its pieces plummeting over the falls.” The short-lived Navy Island occupation fizzled out two weeks later, in part, says McLaughlin, because the rebels were bored and cold.

One detail prevented the Republic of Canada’s demise from being a tidy victory for Upper Canada. The supply ship the militia destroyed — the Caroline — was American, and an American soldier was killed in the process. So, that was a whole thing. Americans were outraged, and “sent money and ammunition to Mackenzie. American volunteers soon outnumbered Canadians in the Patriot army.”

Thus, “a bungled revolt near Toronto” evolved “into a yearlong undeclared border war” between Canadian rebels and American would-be liberators on one side, and the British and American militaries and loyal Canadian militia on the other.

Read the next post in this series, The Battle of the Windmill.

Featured image: a contemporary painting of the destruction of the Caroline by George Tattersall.

The French Canadian Mayor of Los Angeles

Early this morning I arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area, where I now suddenly live, having moved from New York City for a new job. One of the implications for this blog is I now have to decide if my weekly post deadline is still midnight Sunday Eastern Time, or if I’ll give myself an extra three hours and adapt to my new local time. Another implication is that I’m thinking about historical Canadian connections to California.

Today, Los Angeles is the undisputed megacity of California, but in 1852 L.A. had a population of only about five thousand people, way fewer than San Francisco’s 36,151. And at least some of L.A.’s growth into what it is today is credited to a former French Canadian mayor.

Prudent Beaudry was mayor of Los Angeles from 1876-1878. I learned about him and his brothers from Gaétan Frigon’s chapter in Legacy: How French Canadians Shaped North America. The Beaudry bros were born outside Montreal. When Prudent Beaudry was 32, he decided to follow his brother Victor to San Francisco, where, Frigon writes, the two Canadian business men set up a business selling — and this is not a joke — syrup and ice.

Two years later in 1852, Beaudry moved to the small town of Los Angeles which counted six hundred French speakers among its population of around five thousand. He began to build his fortune in real estate, buying up and developing “barren” land just north of downtown L.A., including what today are the neighbourhoods of Bunker Hill and Angelino Heights.

“This 1869 view of Los Angeles, looking south from First and Broadway, shows an undeveloped Bunker Hill flanking the the growing city. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries,” taken from this article about the development of Bunker Hill

“The subdivisions would be worthless, though,” explains Frigon, “unless water could be conveyed to them.” So next he needed to create the Los Angeles City Water Company, which pumped water to his new “upscale residential neighbourhoods.” To design the villas, he turned to “an engineer from the first graduating class of Montreal’s École Polytechnique.”

Twenty four years after he first moved to L.A., in 1876, Beaudry was elected mayor. By at least one account, he was a pivotal one:

The 1889 publication An Illustrated History of Los Angeles County, by J.J. Warner, a prominent citizen who knew Beaudry well, contains the following assessment of the French Canadian’s time as mayor: “It was a transition period for Los Angeles, and the services of just such a clear-headed, energetic and incorruptible man as Mr. Beaudry were needed to guide the struggling young city through the difficulties of changing from a Spanish American town to the proud position of being the commercial and political rival of San Francisco…”

Historian Hubert Howe Bancroft backed up this assessment, writing in 1890 that “there is no one to whose enterprise and public-spirited policy of Los Angeles is more indebted for her development from a struggling village in 1852 to its present position as the metropolis of southern California.”

I maybe shouldn’t be so surprised that L.A. had a French Canadian mayor, because Beaudry wasn’t even the first! Damien Marchesseault, also from Quebec and an associate of Victor Beaudry, became mayor a few years after Prudent Beaudry moved to town. He killed himself in the council chamber, though.

In another weird detail, the other Beaudry bro, Jean-Louis Beaudry, was mayor of Montreal at the same time as Prudent was mayor of L.A. I’m going to have to find more time to dig into these guys, because I haven’t even gotten into some of the other details found in Beaudry’s Wikipedia page, including his belief that the United States should annex Canada, and Victor Beaudry’s provisioning of the Army of the Potomac during the American Civil War.

That’s it for this week, delivered before midnight in my old timezone. I expect this blog will adapt to Pacific time over the coming weeks, maybe more quickly than I do.


Ironically, I’m not able to do a standard post about Canada this week because I am away from home, in Canada. Specifically, I am in a part of Canada that has very little internet access, and where, in fact, use of the internet is regulated and discouraged. That’s because I’m at a kids’ summer camp, where we are supposed to be focused on canoeing, swimming, crafts, and nature. So I’ll instead just tell you a little of the history of this place, and hope that I can publish it to the web using one of the single intermittent bars of cell service available to me.

Camp Big Canoe was founded in 1968, and celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. I spent 16 consecutive summers here, starting as a very young “PeeWee” camper and concluding as Head Waterfront. I coveted that job because it finally meant that no one else could make me go in the water if I didn’t want to, and usually, I didn’t.

As always, I’m fascinated by how time passes. When I first came here in (I think) 1989, it felt like the camp had been here forever. But it was just barely 20 years old, and 1998 is uncomfortably closer to 1968 than to today. My teen coworkers this week (I’m teaching canoeing, but need to be minded by teen lifeguards, because the only certified lifeguards you can ever find are teens) are sure to remind me that they were not even born when I was first on staff, something I also remember marvelling at when former staff would come to visit us.

Because all Big Canoe campers go on at least one out-trip, I would often encounter people from other camps while paddling through various provincial parks, and they would always laugh at what they thought was our camp’s funny name, and make some kind of joke about how our canoes were, in fact, regular size.

Such encounters were teaching opportunities, because Camp Big Canoe is in fact named after the Big Canoe family from Georgina Island. The predecessor of Camp Big Canoe (or CBC, as it is confusingly abbreviated) had been located on Georgina Island, which is an Ojibwa/Chippewa reserve, and a relationship had developed between the Big Canoes and the camp.

The camp’s account of its history says that Chief Lorenzo Big Canoe lit the first campfire, and that his children Wanda and Albert returned 25 years later to again light a fire and renew the relationship. When I was staff in 2001 (or maybe 2002?) one of my campers was also a member of the Big Canoe family.

Children’s summer camps are often egregious examples of the appropriation of Indigenous cultures. They are situated on unceded Indigenous land, make use of racist caricatures as logos and craft activities, and give themselves names from Indigenous languages or just make up names that “sound native.” (CBC’s predecessor camp was called “Ahshunyoong,” a word that no one has bothered to define or explain in any camp materials I’ve found, and which does not exist online, in that spelling, outside of the context of that camp).

I don’t mean to whitewash this camp’s history (again, a previous incarnation was literally located on land reserved for the Chippewa nation), and I’m certainly not an impartial observer, having spent so many foundational years here. But I’m glad that this camp at least has an identifiable relationship with the Indigenous family it is named after, and that the staff manual, in the context of explaining this history, includes a prohibition against “copying” or “mimicking” the traditions or dress of Indigenous peoples, calling them “ancient” and “sacred.”

I’ll remain in Muskoka until next weekend, but will try to find some more time and internet between now and then for the next post. When I’m not trying to blog, it’s a blessing that reliable mobile service still hasn’t come to Camp Big Canoe, making it seem remarkably unchanged by the outside world and the passage of time. As soon as I put my devices away, it could almost be 1989 again.

Canada is home to the oldest evidence of life on Earth

Ironically, the further we get from the distant past, the more we understand it. We learn more about recent historical events as we gain perspective on them, we learn more about ancient civilizations as we discover new archeological artifacts, and we learn more about the origins of life itself through similar discoveries and scientific research.

The past is not fixed, and we are always discovering new instances of the oldest version of something. For example, our understanding of how long ago life began on Earth is informed by the oldest evidence of life we’ve been able to find so far. In 2011, a discovery in Australia had life originating there 3.4 billion years ago. Australia got to hold on to that distinction until earlier this year, when traces of life from at least 3.8 billion years ago were found in the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt, Nunavik, Quebec, Canada. The CBC reported on the Nature paper:

While there is some debate as to whether or not the the age of the rock in the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt is 3.8 billion years old or 4.3 billion years old, Jonathan O’Neil, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, believes it to be on the older side. But even if the rock is younger than that, it would still make their finding the oldest record of life on Earth, by 100 million years.

So, Canada is the site of the earliest life on Earth. Unless and until someone finds even earlier life somewhere else.


As Canada celebrates 150 years, it’s worthwhile to think back to an earlier time when southwestern Ontario was a collection of villages. The population of just the area between Lake Ontario and Lake Huron was around 20,000 or 30,000, spread out over about 20 small communities. The economy was different than it is today, but still strong by the standards of the time. People worked as farmers, potters, carpenters, and fishers. One of southern Ontario’s main exports was corn, and the people in the region tended to import clothing and exotic goods like fur and tobacco.

If you’re picturing a bunch of European settlers, you haven’t gone back far enough. The land I’m describing was not yet called Ontario, and the people were not Ontarian. South and western Ontario, before it was named that, was home to a confederation of nations who collectively called themselves Wendat. You’ve maybe never heard that word before, because when the French showed up they named the Wendat “Huron” instead (the French were always renaming everything), and that is the name that, unjustly, has stuck for the modern day county that was their land, and the lake that was their lake.

And even the Wendat confederacy — which yes, fit the above description, including many villages, defined systems of government, foreign policy, trade agreements, and a culture of art, sport, and cuisine (if you’ll pardon the contextually awkward use of a French word) — was just the latest configuration of an unfathomably long history of human occupation.

People have lived in the land now called Ontario for at least ten thousand years. At least. Ten thousand years. That includes many thousands of years when Ontario was covered in ice year-round. Then 5,300 years ago Ontario warmed enough, the ice retreating northward, to have “reached essentially present-day [climate] conditions,” writes Bruce Trigger in The Children of Aataentsic, his history of the Wendat. We know that by then people had copper tools, caught fish, enjoyed leisure time. Trade was already happening “over vast distances,” across today’s provincial and international borders. By at least 3,000 years ago people from the land now called Ontario were making pottery. As of at least 2,500 years ago, they built buildings.

Buildings in southwestern Ontario. 2,500 years ago. I didn’t know that, and my astonishment reveals a mixture of ignorance and, I think, racist assumptions about Indigenous peoples. My image of pre-colonial Ontario was more one of wilderness, which of course was at least partly true. But the more I learn about pre-colonial history, the more I feel a great number of things, including a dull horror and the scale of what was shoved aside by European invaders.

I mean, imagine. Imagine heading up Ontario’s highway 6 from Hamilton to Owen Sound, then turning left on route 21 and driving almost all the way to Southhampton, then jumping into your time machine and setting it to 500 years before the birth of Jesus Christ. Assuming your TARDIS or Infinite Improbability Drive or whatever works, you’ll soon be staring at some large houses, a nearby cemetery, and a group of people, looking up from their fishing, wondering who the hell you are and where you came from.

While we’re imagining you have access to a time machine, let’s imagine you’re also immortal. You like the looks of this country and decide to stay. You’d have to live here for more than 2,000 years before a European (he would more likely label himself a “Christian”showed up. That’s not as long as Marvin waited for his companions to show up at Milliways, but still a longer time than is really conceivable.

You’d watch thousands of years of history happen around you. Births, deaths, parties, spiritual experiences, religious ceremonies, artistic creations, political machinations, trade negotiations, heroes, villains, war and peace, fallings in and out of love. For 2,000 years.

Then, after 2,000 years, after you meet that first Christian, you have to wait almost 500 more years before you find yourself suddenly surrounded by a bunch of people celebrating the 150th anniversary of “Canada.” At that point 150 years would include only 6% of the time you’d spent on the land, and in your 2,500 years you still would have witnessed only a small fraction of the land’s full human history.

I wrote at the outset that Canadian history needs to be understood in the context of world history, so I’ve been learning about the histories of other nations (especially France, Britain, and the United States) and how their stories have interfaced with ours. But we don’t even need to leave Canada’s current borders to have the histories of hundreds of nations to explore.

The immensity of that is daunting, but in the spirit of you-gotta-start-somewhere, I’ve started with the Wendat, the confederacy I described, along with their neighbours, above. I already wrote briefly about their attitudes towards sex and marriage. At least one future post — maybe several — will explore their culture and society in more detail.

Featured photo, “Camping & Lake Huron,” by Josh Farewell.

Canada vs. The Union

It would be difficult, should the American experiment fail, for the rest of the world not to gloat. After all, Americans had so often held themselves up as the ideal republic, to be emulated by lesser nations. That was at least the feeling in much of Britain and Canada as southern states began to secede from the union in 1860 on the eve of the American Civil War. But gloating would be short-sighted, because Canada and the British would soon find themselves on the brink of entering the American Civil War against the North.

My non-scientific poll of Canadian friends reveals little familiarity with the incident I’m about to describe, as well as a level of surprise that, were Canada to pick a side in the American Civil War, its most likely position would have been to fight against Lincoln’s Union. Here’s how it went down.

First, the North became pissed off with the British very early in the Civil War, when Britain granted “belligerency status” to the Confederacy. While not equalling full diplomatic recognition, this status did give the Confederacy more than zero legitimacy and allowed them some equal rights to the Union, like the use of neutral ports for fueling and repairs.

Why would Britain extend even this level of support to the rebels so quickly? Historians tend to agree that Britain was partial to helping out the South for a couple of reasons. One, they figured secession would be permanent, and that therefore they may as well start establishing relations with this new country. Two, and related, Britain got a lot of cheap cotton from the South, and that in turn was good for their industrial economy, and who really wants to think too hard about why the cotton was so cheap, the point is that it was cheap and cheap is good.

What could go wrong? The biggest risk, writes Herman Hattaway, was “the unsettling realization that the provinces of Canada lay open, virtually undefended, should the North decide to invade in retaliation for any British aid to the Confederacy.” Another historian says that “if the United States had decided, with its enormous armies in place during the Civil War, to march against Canada, Britain would have been helpless to stop it.”

Worse, if Britain tried to reinforce Canada, the supply chain depended on a river that was full of obstacles and frozen solid much of the year. Support would also be difficult because, Hattaway continues, “the Canadians never had gotten around to finishing their interprovincial rail line.” (“Damnit! Let’s not make that mistake again,” thought Canada.)

Then on November 8th, 1861, under these already tense circumstances, a Union ship seized some Confederate diplomats who were on their way to Europe. That might not have been a big deal, except that the Confederate diplomats were traveling on a British mail ship in neutral waters, which now starts to make this look like an act of war by the Union against the British empire. (The ship was called the RMS Trent, which is why this whole incident is known to historians as the Trent Affair.)

The reaction of the British public was not positive. One American in Britain at the time hypothesized that “were the country polled I fear 999 men out of 1,000 would declare for immediate war.” But as mad as the British were, they were far away in Britain. Except for the ones in Canada. Those ones were in Canada.

So the government in Britain started planning a preemptive Canadian invasion of the northern United States, starting with an attack on a fort on Lake Champlain, the scene of so many battles from both before and after Champlain named that lake after himself. (The French were always renaming everything.)

On December 4th, about a month after the Union’s transgression, President Lincoln met with future Canadian Father of Confederation Alexander Galt. The Dominion of Canada didn’t exist yet, but the Province of Canada did (try not to get them confused, or do, who cares, it’s all pretty fluid), and Galt was Canada’s Inspector General.

Instead of being reassured, the Canadian came away from his meeting with the American President concerned that “the policy of the American Govt is so subject to popular impulses, that no assurance can be or ought to be relied on under present circumstances.”

Within weeks, on December 18th, the British started moving troops to Canada in anticipation of war with the American North. As always, the ships they sent had to dodge ice in order to make it into Canada’s mouth. Eleven ships over two weeks transported more than 10,000 troops to Canada. Many were moved further inland across, ahem, ~acres of snow~ by sled, uncomfortably close to the Maine border, since the only available railroad went through Maine itself. (This country really needs its own railroad!)

Meanwhile the streets of Toronto were full of “excited discussions” about “the probabilities of a fight with the Americans.” Canadians themselves began organizing for war, activating and training tens of thousands of militia members. Unfortunately, the Canadian militia was a lazy parody of itself, with officers literally prefacing their orders with “please” and getting underwhelming response in return.

So what happened? Ultimately the Union concluded that beginning a war with Britain, in addition to their war against the Confederate rebels, was unwise. Regardless of the military dimensions, the threat of war was hurting the economies of all parties, and the longterm ramifications of a conflict with Britain would be bad. Additionally, there were members of the Union government who weren’t convinced the removal of passengers from a British ship had been legal. To avoid war, the United States backed down and released the prisoners, which satisfied the British.

The close call left a lasting impression on Canadians, who embarked on the project of Confederation just a few years later, in large part to create a political counterweight to the expansionary re-United States. The first order of business: finish the railroad!