Christmas ReadingIt would not be Christmas if I did not get a book or two, or three. This year a got three. My son gave me some light reading in a biography of George Carlin, which he had been working on with a writer before he died. I alway enjoyed this iconoclastic comedian of my generation. It will be a fun quick read.
My sister always gives me a book, usually two. She always makes interesting good choices. I guess she knows me fairly well. Often they are about Canada or by Canadian authors. She, being a former history teacher, shares with me an interest in history.
The books she gave me this year are about two extrodinary Canadian explores. David Thompson
and Dr. John Rae
. They had both been employees of the Hudson's Bay Company, when held a charter to all the fur trading rights of most of northern North America, a region known a Rupert's Land.
The Hudson Bay Company was the commercial and legal authority over this vast terrritory ( the area that drains into Hudson's Bay) administering it in a way to maximize the fur trade through the native people. They were very efficient with all administrative employees keeping extensive written logs. As a result, the Archives of the Hudson Bay Company
, housed in Winnipeg is a remarkable resevoir of Canadian early history and exploration.
The book on David Thompson is entitled, "The Writings of David Thompson, Volumn 1, The Travels 1850 Version" It is edited from his actual journals of his extensive travels across western northern North American. I including places now part of the United States. One could think of him as the Canadian version of Lewis and Clark as he extended the know regions of Canada westward, joining central Canada to what is now British Columbia. But he was more than Lewis and Clark.. He traveled further, under more rugged curcumstances and mapped most of Western Canada.
The biography about Dr. John Rae is a facinating story entitled, "Fatal Passage, The Story of John Rae, The Arctic Hero That Time Forgot. Dr. John Rae was a physician with the Hudson's Bay Company and lived and worked in Moose Factory for many years. He was a remarkable outdoors man, traveling widely on snowshoe to visit patients and to explore the territory. He carefully learned the skills to survive from the native people. He was a remarkable snowshower admired even among the native people for his skill and stamina.
Rae came to be written out of history. He discovered what had happened to the ill fated
. He reported back to England that in the end they had resorted to cannibalism. No one wanted to believe English sailors would do such a thing so he was widely criticized. Lady Franklin carried on a campaign to discredit him and Charles Dickens, the most popular writer of the time joined in this attack on him. Rae actually, discovered the last open passage to form the Northwest Passage. History gave that achievement to Franklin. As a result, Rae was not given the credit he disserved for his great achievements as an explorer and was never knighted for his efforts as so many other were.
There are similarities between these two men besides being employees of the Hudson's Bay Company and their extensive wilderness explorations. They were both well educated men. They were both very willing to learn from the native people achnowledeging their superior skills and technologies to survival and travel in the North. Dr. John Rae in particular studied and learned from the native people. He adopted their ways: dressed in skins. eat their food, hunted and lived off the land successfully. He even wrote extensively about native technologies and learned many of the skills such as making snowshoes and using them. Thompson came to marry a metis woman who not only had 13 children with him, she traveled extensively with him sharing what knowledge she had. These two men were rare in their respect for native people at a time when they were considered mere ignorant savages by most Europeans. Thompson loved his wife and lived a long life with her at a time when employees of the HBC took native wives and had families with them while they were in North America and then abandonned them to return to England and their wives and families there.
To Canada's shame we never teach our history very well. It is common to hear that Canadian history is not very interesting. And yet, it is full of remarkable heroic characters that were actually larger than life at what they achieved. Thompson and Rae were just two of them.
When I went to school we learned of the French explorers somewhat and the political changes in Canada but the history jumped for the eastern settlement of the country to the Red River settlement and the Metis rebellion of Louis Riel to the building of the railroad that tied Canada together. The northern explorers like Thompson and Rae and Hearne
and the Tyrell Brothers
and others, who came to know and appreciate the land and the people who lived on it were ignored. These men explored Canada, mapped it, kept extensive records on their exploits and claimed it for our Nation.
I look forward to reading these two Christmas books on Thompson and Rae. I will read them with an eye to the Canadian values that emerged from how they came to know the land and people of early Canada. It is suggested that they exhibited values that Canadians take as their own today. Do they illustrate early on the position of Philosopher and writer John Ralston Saul that Canada is a Metis Nation? Is this why Canadians are different than Americans? Our imperial cousin and neighbour, which has rebelled, fought and conquered throughout their history, and continues to do so, is different from us in many ways. History matters in understanding ourselves.