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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