Canada’s mandatory “Eskimo Identification” tags

In 1941, based on a proposal made in 1935, the Government of Canada began requiring Inuit to wear tags stamped with unique identification numbers. The Inuit word for the system was ujamiit. In English, the tags themselves — leather coin-sized disks that many people have likened to “dog tags” — read “Eskimo Identification Canada.”

I learned about this program from Chelsea Vowel’s Indigenous Writes, a book I strongly recommend and will come back to. Then, as always seems to happen, I set out to learn more and fell down a rabbit hole. The three main questions I’ve tried to tackle, all yielding surprisingly complex answers, are: why was this system put in place, how did it come to an end, and what is its legacy?

A rose by any other government-issued ID number

The apparent need for the program arose from the inability of increasing numbers of white people (first Christian missionaries, then government officials and RCMP officers) to understand, pronounce, and spell Inuit names. And because Inuit didn’t have surnames, the names they did have also weren’t considered unique.

Better record keeping and identification systems were desired to help administer government programs. Canada issued ID tags stamped with unique codes, starting with a region code and then an individual ID number, and instructed the recipients that they were to keep the disks on their person at all times. The numbers were also used in official government correspondence instead of names.

The cultural disconnect went even deeper than pronunciation and a lack of surnames, though. What I think is most important to understand, and what I almost certainly do not fully understand, is the very different significance and use of names in Inuit cultures compared to the culture of European settlers to the south.

“The government never considered… the importance of a name to the Inuit,” writes Norma Dunning. Names, which were not gendered, were given to children by elders, “who usually chose the name of someone who had recently died.” A 2006 article in The Toronto Star says that more than being a simple ancestral tribute, this practice could represent “the transmigration of souls:”

If a person died, the next baby born might not only be named after the person but also be regarded as that person.

‘The reason for this is that it eases the feeling of bereavement of the lost one,’ says Louis Tapardjuk, a long-time authority on the subject and now Nunavut’s minister of culture, language, elders and youth.

Another commonly-cited quotation, attributed to an Inuk woman, makes this idea even more explicit: “No child is only a child. If I give my grandfather’s atiq [soul name] to my baby daughter, she is my grandfather. I will call her ataatassiaq, grandfather.”

Additionally, reported the Star, “Inuit often changed their name.  A hunter suffering a lean winter might change names for good luck, perhaps going through five or six in his lifetime. Or he might be known by different names to different people.”

Names are not only important, but meaningful. Dunning says that Inuit names “[explain] kinship ties and how that person is connected within a group.” That’s similar to the purpose of a surname in other cultures. It seems to me the problem wasn’t that Inuit names didn’t encode family connections and relationships, it’s that the government didn’t know how to decode that information, and didn’t try.

Project Surname

In the 1960s opposition to the disk system grew, and the federal and territorial governments felt pressure to reform it. The trigger incident happened in 1969, when “Simonie Michael, the first elected aboriginal Canadian, spoke at a council meeting of his frustration about the continued use of disc numbers by the Canadian government.” The government created Project Surname, which was well-named, in that it was a project to assign surnames, the lack of which had been cited as an original reason for the ID tags.

One man, Abe Okpik, was central to the plan. Ann Meekitjuk Hanson explains:

Abe Okpik, a respected Inuk from the western Arctic, headed the project. Between 1968 and 1970, Abe visited every Inuit home and asked the families to choose a name. The head of the family picked a surname — often a relative’s given name — and we were no longer known by numbers.

One of the things that made Abe Okpik well-suited for the task was his “understanding of the different [Inuit] dialects” in addition to English, which made it easier for him to communicate as he traveled “from community to community.” (I’m struck by how often in Canada’s history individuals have either been empowered by their ability to speak multiple languages, or felled by language barriers. That’s probably a future post.)

Okpik’s travels took him “over 72,420 km and [he] interviewed more than 12,000 people,” writes Michelle Filice for The Canadian Encyclopedia. A year later, once everyone had been assigned a surname, the government stopped issuing ID numbers.


My initial reaction upon learning about Canada implementing mandatory identification badges in the significant year of 1941 was in the neighbourhood of horror. And you don’t have to dig deep to find Inuit today who feel very negatively about the program. But that feeling is not universal. According to Okpik himself (via Dunning’s paper), when he started working on Project Surname some people asked him “why are you taking our number away? It worked for us all this time!”

In the examples I’ve found, some Inuit who were issued tags react with humour, not just laughing off the tags but laughing at the government that deemed them necessary. Others, especially younger generations, are less likely to think this is funny, and connect the tags to greater injustices like forced relocations, residential schools, and the sled dog slaughter.

One Inuk, Zebedee Nungak, remembers his identification number E9-1956 fondly. (Inuktitut Magazine, 88:2000, pages 33-37) He thinks the fact that white people (Qallunaat) felt the need to use numbers for their record keeping is comical, and that the IDs ended up being “a unique feature of our distinct identity as Inuit,” a fun source of pride. He wishes he knew more about the behind-the-scenes conversations that deemed the disks necessary in the first place, and that his own disk, which he lost in childhood, could be officially replaced. He calls it “a handy I.D. for all purposes.”

David Ruben told The Toronto Star that he thinks of his number as “an extension of myself as a person,” and that he “[sees] the lighter side of it.”

In an interview with Dunning, an elder named Minnie Aodla Freeman “does not seem angry about the system. She says practically and sympathetically that the Inuit did not mind the tags because it was explained that the government could not understand their names.” Dunning and Freeman also laugh at the idea that Qallunaat believed the tags were actually worn all the time: “they were only worn on the days when a boat was coming into harbour,” says Freeman.

Dunning is clear that not everyone was laughing at the time, though. John Arnalukjuak said that they were afraid of losing their disks, because the RCMP issued them and told them not to lose them: “the RCMP were really bossy and you know, so we feared them.” Rachel Uyarasuk said “I was afraid to lose mine.”

Olivia Ikey Duncan grew up after the tags had fallen out of use, but she told the CBC’s DNTO that once she learned of the history of the tags, she got one tattooed on her arm as a reminder of “what the government tried to do with my people.”

“I guess it was with good intentions… but they didn’t think of us as a people, as a culture, as the children, the elders, the community. They didn’t put us in their heads and in their hearts.” She says the tattoo helps her understand the “hurt” and “neglect” from that period.

Lucie Idlout wrote a song about the tags after hearing a report that “Canada was rated as one of the top countries in the world to live in.” She thought that was “a fucking joke considering how many treaties have been broken and how many Aboriginal peoples live in poverty.” (Dunning, 216) When Sheila Watt-Cloutier talks about her tag, she immediately starts listing other ways Inuit experienced loss of “our language and culture.” She says the tags are tied up in the “legacy” of all those things and need to be talked about.

The way the tags were phased out through Project Surname is also not without problems. It might be a mistake to read the reaction Opik recounted (“why are you taking our numbers away?”) as approval of the ID system instead of as an objection to surnames as yet another culturally-ignorant governmental intrusion. Again, this all started, in part, because surnames were not an Inuit tradition. “Again,” writes Dunning, “the Inuit were being forced to absorb a governmental practice that did not recognize or respect their cultural norms. Again, the Inuit had to submit to a change imposed by the Canadian government.”

Filice summarizes the criticism this way:

Some Inuit preferred the disk system to Project Surname, arguing that it was less disruptive to identity traditions and less intrusive than other bureaucratic interventions. Most Inuit had accepted their disk numbers, and some had even become emotionally attached to them…. Some also criticized Okpik for speaking mostly to men and for using men’s names as their family’s new surname. This became a source of distress for women who came home to find their identity overturned and reassigned.

Dunning points out that Social Insurance Numbers were being rolled out to whites in the North West Territories around the same time as Project Surname. “Why not issue a social insurance number to the Inuit in replacement of their disk numbers and leave their names alone entirely?” (Notable differences between Eskimo Identification tags and Social Insurance Numbers include that the latter do not replace names entirely, and are of course not required to be worn.)

It’s been decades since ID tags were issued, but, in a Vice report, Duncan, the Woman With the Eskimo Identification Tattoo, describes an eerie practice that persisted to a new generation:

‘Growing up, all Inuit kids picked a number for themselves, like a lucky number, it was just a normal thing,’ says Olivia. ‘We signed everything with our numbers, I was number 8…my brother was 11. I guess it just kind of transferred over, weirdly, to this day.’

The same Vice report points out that the Government of Canada has never apologized for or directly addressed this program since it ended.

Stories about history are dangerous

To borrow Dan Carlin‘s phrase, I’m “not a historian, just a fan of history.” I read and listen to as much Canadian history as I can, then try to recount the events and facts that I find most interesting in a compelling way. This usually means I’m telling stories, which, if you want to be a little fancy, means I’m doing “amateur narrative history.”

It turns out narrative history is not only difficult but dangerous. This is a longer post than usual, because I think it’s important to explore the potential pitfalls of the kind of writing that appears on this internet web log site. I’ll also reveal some of the secret sausage making that’s gone into past posts, and provide a bit of a disclaimer for posts to come.

Emotive vs. historical empathy

Storytellers want to connect with their audience in an emotional way. That often means establishing a sense of empathy between the person hearing the story and the characters within. But empathizing with historical figures can be a lot harder than it seems, and attempts at empathy may leave you with a more distorted impression of the past than if you’d never felt anything at all.

A paper by Darren Bryant and Penney Clark explains two broad categories of empathy you might feel while learning about history. The first category is called “emotive empathy,” which is the type you’re most likely to experience when learning about history through stories.

When people feel emotive empathy, they “merely apply the understandings, beliefs, and experiences of their own worlds to interpret the experiences of historical agents and their worlds.” For example, a teacher might ask students to consider “what it might feel like” to be someone from the past, and ask them to “write a first-person account of that individual’s experiences.” But the average lay person would “rarely possess the contextual information or understanding to perform such a task with any degree of insight.” Instead, they end up “[projecting] their own feelings onto the historical actors” which risks exacerbating their “dubious historical orientation.”

Emotive empathy, therefore, is more like sympathy coupled with delusions of empathy. You don’t actually know how the historical person is feeling, but you imagine that you do.

The second category of empathy is “historical empathy.” Unlike emotive empathy, historical empathy “is in large part cognitive” and requires “an understanding that ‘people in the past not only lived in different circumstances… but also experienced and interpreted the world through different belief systems.’”

Historical empathy is a lot harder than emotive empathy, and that advanced difficulty is a feature, not a bug. Gathering enough context to cognitively reconstruct what it actually would have been like to experience past events with a totally different set of beliefs, values, and assumptions is so hard that the very process “acknowledges the limitations of our ability to understand the past.”

All of this means that if you’re picturing yourself in the shoes of someone from the past and you think you know what it would have been like to be them, or why they acted the way they did, you’re probably at least a little wrong.

Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story

But because great storytelling usually calls for the audience to be able to identify with characters in the story, a narrative historian has bad incentives on this count. While a level of healthy skepticism is built-in to the process of reaching historical empathy, the erasure of doubt and ambiguity is more naturally built-in to emotive storytelling.

The problem, Bryant and Clark write, is that if simple historical narratives are successful by the standards of storytelling, the viewer or reader will imagine themselves to actually be there in the past, and they will interpret that past by “[accessing] personal experiences” rather than through “cognitive tools” like consulting multiple sources and understanding the historical context.

They then apply this framework to the main focus of their paper, which is criticism of the use of emotive empathy in the 2000 CBC TV series Canada: A People’s History. The producers of that show, by their own accounts, “viewed interjection by historians to analyze evidence or suggest alternative interpretations as obstacles to the flow of the narrative.” Gordon Henderson, a senior producer, is quoted as saying “I would rather see the narrative driven; I’d rather see the story kept alive. We want to avoid history class. We want to keep telling stories.”

“The myth of progress”

On the one hand, I’m mildly scandalized that producers of a massive, federally-funded documentary series designed in part to be used in classrooms would be so dismissive of actual history. On the other hand, I can empathize (er, so to speak). I’ve certainly felt this tension.

And while storytellers have conflicting incentives, their audiences can also fall into traps. When considering the perspectives of people who had very different values or world views than your own, “historical empathy is atypical and counterintuitive for most students,” who tend to have a “working assumption… that people in the past were essentially the same as they were.”

One of the problems with assuming people in the past “were essentially the same” as you is you can end up judging their words and actions in unfair and inaccurate ways. As a result, research has found that “students tend to view historical people as ignorant or mentally defective in comparison to contemporary people,” and “students view change over time as progressive, improving on the way things were in the past.”

In her book Indigenous Writes, Chelsea Vowel writes about “the myth of progress,” and illustrates how this bias becomes additionally insidious when one of the things that “change over time” has produced is oppression and violence.

Vowel echoes Bryant and Clark when she describes “the myth that progress is tied to the passage of time, thus, things are always inevitably getting better.” As one example of how this plays out, she argues that this pervasive myth has directly reinforced colonialism. “The idea that Canadian society is evolving and progressing is an important part of” how many Canadians come to understand and process Canada’s colonial history. It becomes part of a “colonial imaginary” mythology, an “image… based not so much on historical fact as on ideological interpretation.” (119)

The assumption that progress is inevitably tied to the passage of time is maybe something you believe without really questioning it. I know I did, until I started reading history and finding counterexamples everywhere.

Show your work

Another problem with “presenting history… as ‘a story’” is that it is a “misrepresentation of how historical knowledge is created.” Stories have one definitive narrative, and they also tend to exploit binaries like hero vs. villain. But history is a messy collection of unresolved contradictions from multiple sources with multiple interpretations. That dissonance is never supposed to fully resolve.

Whenever I’ve started to research what I thought was a simple story I’ve quickly realized that it’s more complex than I assumed. Different sources have fully different versions of events, each answer reveals more questions, and there are rarely clearcut heroes and villains.

For example, in my telling of Mackenzie King’s diary about meeting Hitler, I only briefly touch on how many of his contemporaries shared his views, while simultaneously taking advantage of the fact that we, unlike Mackenzie King, know what’s coming. When talking about Canada signing on the wrong line of Japan’s World War II surrender, I present the story as if it’s a comedy, which totally falls apart if you stop to consider how the war had just ended for Japan, and the fact that Japan ends up being the butt of the joke. In my post about the “Operation Fish” plan to hide Britain’s gold in Canada, I play up the dramatic risks of the operation without including the precautions that were taken to successfully mitigate those risks.

Those are choices that I made in part to tell what I hope are compelling, engaging stories, as well as to keep posts short, which I realize is a principle I have now chosen to abandon. I don’t think that means I wrote anything that wasn’t true, and of course I try not to mislead. But I did discard some of the detail, context, nuance, and messiness, and in so doing may have contributed more towards emotional, rather than historical, empathy.

In Donnacona’s own words

Interestingly, Vowel also cautions “that it is too simplistic to think… in binaries” particularly when examining the histories and historical consequences of oppression and identity. (18) And it’s her area of focus — the histories of Indigenous peoples, colonialism, and the ongoing ramifications of those histories — that led me to Bryant and Clark’s paper in the first place.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to tell the story of Donnacona, a man who lived five hundred years ago along what we now call the Saint Lawrence River until he was kidnapped by men from another world, never to return home. Bryant and Clark’s paper turned up in my research because it criticizes how Donnacona’s story was told by Canada: A People’s History (CAPH).

Or, more accurately, it’s the story of Jacques Cartier, Donnacona’s kidnapper, that gets told. That’s because CAPH’s commitment to “tell Canada’s story through the eyes of the people who lived it” — by which they mean through actors reading primary sources, to the exclusion of historians and other experts who could provide context, interpretation, and alternative versions of events — confines us to Cartier’s account.

Donnacona didn’t write his side of the story down. We can’t know for sure what he knew, how he felt, what motivated him. If we want to guess, one way to do that is through the hard work of historical empathy. To try to get at “the understandings, beliefs, and experiences” of his world before even beginning to try to understand the story itself.

And then, even if we can do that extraordinarily well, rather than end up with one clear narrative we’ll instead be left holding a complex mesh of possibilities and paradoxes. That makes for good history, but complicates the story.

In the case of CAPH, write Bryant and Clark, storytelling wins out. “Viewers learn the opinions of Aboriginal peoples [including Donnacona and his sons] through interpretations offered by European characters,” resulting in “an empathetic distance from Aboriginal peoples and a sense of proximity to Europeans.”

Can’t stop won’t stop

I have no idea why you’ve read this far (omg thank you), but one of the reasons I’ve written all this is by way of asking permission to keep telling stories, admitting and acknowledging the shortcomings of doing so, and identifying ways to avoid the worst pitfalls of narrative history.

Even the Bryant and Clark paper I’ve quoted so heavily from doesn’t argue people shouldn’t consume narrative histories or attempt to tell each other stories about the past. The gateway drug to my current obsession with history was the Hamilton musical, which, while managing to convey a remarkable amount of historical fact, also falls into many of these traps. Millions of people still connected with it, though, and many of them went on to learn even more about the history through other avenues.

Historical stories and snapshots should be a starting point for discussion and exploration. Students of history who create or consume narrative histories should remember that their “conclusions should be regarded as tentative and may not be in agreement with” other people’s interpretations, including those of historians. And that’s ok. We should just be aware and cautious of the limitations, and always keep learning.

The man who signed on the wrong line

Colonel Lawrence Vincent Moore Cosgrave was a Canadian war hero. For his service in World War I (he was at Ypres, he was at the Somme) Cosgrave was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order twice, received the French Croix de guerre, and was blinded in one eye. He even claimed that his friend John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” on a scrap of paper on his back.

That’s not what Cosgrave is best remembered for, though. His most enduring contribution to world history, the time he really made his mark, so to speak, was when he signed on the wrong line of Japan’s World War II surrender document, messing the whole thing up:

The Dominion of Canada had made a “most tragic contribution” to the Pacific war, writes Geoff Ellwand, through “the hopeless defence of Hong Kong” which saw almost two thousand Canadian casualties. At the closing of the war Cosgrave happened to be stationed in Australia, and was likely called upon to sign the Instrument of Surrender simply because he was the “closest available Canadian of sufficient rank.”

So he reported for duty, and the Allies started signing from top to bottom, starting with the Untied States, then China, and so on. But when it was Cosgrave’s turn, well, Allan Richarz explains what happened next:

When signing the Japanese copy, Col. Cosgrave – perhaps owing to blindness in one eye – placed his scrawl below the line reserved for the Canadian signature and instead signed on the line of the French representative… Each subsequent delegate eventually signed on the next available – if incorrect – line; the final delegate from New Zealand simply signing his name in a blank space underneath the others, his signature line having been commandeered by the Dutch.

Somehow, things got even more awkward from there. You will note that, in the above photo, the names of each country below each signature have been manually altered. That, continues Richarz, happened after the Japanese protested:

Douglas MacArthur’s famously brusque chief of staff General Richard Sutherland scratched out the now-incorrect list of Allied delegates and handwrote the correct titles under each signature, adding his initials to each correction to forestall further protest. The Japanese were then dismissed from the USS Missouri with a short ‘Now it’s all fine’ from Gen. Sutherland.

This appears to be a photo of Sutherland “fixing” the signatures while the Japanese representatives look on.

If you’re feeling like it’s still too soon to think any of this is funny, it apparently amused people even at the time (though probably not people in Japan). According to Ellwand, The Globe and Mail’s report said the incident “put a touch of humor in the gravest ceremony of our time.” The reporter went on to write that “Col. Cosgrave’s botch … will rank high among the historic bobbles of our time.”

There may still be hope for poor Cosgrave’s reputation, though. Internet forums contain at least a couple Cosgrave truthers who point out that U.S. General Douglas MacArthur appears to have distracted Cosgrave during the signing!

Colonel Cosgrave signing the Instrument of Surrender while Douglas MacArthur stands over his shoulder whispering “you’re gonna blow it,” possibly.

If this is true, then there is no doubt video evidence in existence, but I can only chase a 70-year-old inconsequential conspiracy theory so far. While I didn’t find any footage of MacArthur waving his hands and shouting “look over here,” I did watch several videos of the signing, one of which I turned into this gif of Cosgrave signing for Canada.

And suddenly, watching him actually sign, this all seemed a little less funny to me. He’s only 55 here, but he looks older. He’s been through a lot. I think we can give him a pass.

Incidentally, Cosgrave got it right when he signed the Allies’ copy. The botched version was given to Japan, where it can still be seen at the Edo-Tokyo Museum.

Where the Great Lakes pour into the sea

When searching for this website’s header image, I first looked for any photo of Canada from space, because I love space, and because I wanted to try and capture some sense of Canada’s expanse. But when I came across this particular photo, I knew it was the one. Even from space it contains only a small fraction of the country, yet so much has happened in this frame.

St Lawrence's mouth, where the Great Lakes pour into the sea
“St Lawrence’s mouth, where the Great Lakes pour into the sea.” (NASA)

At the bottom right, where the mouth of the Saint Lawrence is open widest, we can just barely make out Anticosti Island (l’Île-d’Anticosti). If you want to sail from the Atlantic upriver into Canada, you must first pass this island that David Hackett Fischer calls “the great tongue” of the mouth of the Saint Lawrence. Anticosti was believed to be home to “huge white polar bears” whose “legendary ferocity” was enough to ensure that Europeans and indigenous peoples both gave it “a wide berth.” (Fischer 129)

Further upriver, incredibly visible, we see where the Saguenay River drains into the Saint Lawrence at a place the Innu called Totouskak, meaning “bosom,” and the French called Tadoussac, meaning “we almost pronounced Totouskak correctly.”

The Saguenay River and Tadoussac.
The Saguenay River and Tadoussac.

This country belonged to the Innu, who the French called Montagnais (the French were always renaming everything), for thousands of years. They camped and hunted in this spot, and were doing so when Jacques Cartier swung by in 1535. When Samuel de Champlain arrived at Tadoussac 68 years later, he happened across thousands of people from “many nations” engaged in a huge celebration. The chance encounter, writes Fischer, was a “moment of high importance in the history of North America” that began an unusually long period of good relations between these indigenous peoples and these Europeans. (We’re sure to come back to this meeting at Tadoussac in a future post.)

Île d'Orléans and Quebec City
Île d’Orléans and Quebec City

Then even further upriver, we can see all the way to Île d’Orléans, and clearly make out that just beyond that island is the point where the river narrows, which is what the Algonquin word Kébec means, which is how the 409-year-old city of Quebec, located at this spot, got its name.

Montreal in the bottom left, Ottawa above, right at the river’s elbow.

As unlikely as this sounds, we can even see all the way to Montreal and Ottawa. Montreal is identifiable at this distance thanks in part to Lac St-Louis splashing a flash of light at the left edge of the picture just beyond the Island of Montreal, and because the Ottawa River intersects with the Saint Lawrence here as well. We then follow that river up, as if in a canoe, and find the present capital just downriver from where the water takes a sharp turn to the right, before continuing onwards to disappear toward the horizon.

I also like that, beyond New Brunswick in the bottom left, we get a glimpse of the State of Maine, which itself is all mixed up in Canadian history, because the indigenous peoples who lived here for millennia, and the Europeans who fought and traded and colonized here for centuries, did not know they were crossing back and forth over an invisible future line.

Finally, way back on the right hand side, is one of my favourite geographical features in the world: the ring lake Manicouagan, also known as the “eye of Quebec.”

Lake Manicouagan as photographed from above by NASA’s Terra satellite in 2001, and, inset, as it appears in the Saint Lawrence photo.

The lake fills the ring of a crater left by an asteroid more than 200 million years ago. “Most craters this age on Earth have long since disappeared,” explains Phil Plait, but this one is preserved by tough Canadian rock.

All that time and all that space, and still so much of Canada isn’t in this photo at all. But I still love it. And only after I began writing this post did I realize the photo was taken by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield. He tweeted it from the International Space Station in 2013, adding what remains the photo’s official simple caption: “St Lawrence’s mouth, where the Great Lakes pour into the sea.”

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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