Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Visiting Vancouver - 3: Canadian history through Australian eyes, early days

I my second post in this series, I said:

I had not properly realised just how different Canada's history is to that of Australia or New Zealand. Far more complicated. I don't think that you can understand Canada without understanding that history.

As part of my train, really in this case plane, reading I have been reading Craig Brown (Editor), The Illustrated History of Canada, Key Porter Books, Toronto, 2007. I bought this book on my last full day in Vancouver to set a context for some of the things that I had been learning.

Outside the Aboriginal period, Canada's history is far longer than that of Australia. By the time of the first settlement at what would become Sydney in 1788, the history of what would become Canada was already something like 300 years old. Canada's oldest company, the Hudson's Bay Company, was formed in 1670.

At the time that Blaxland, Wentworth and Lawson crossed the Blue Mountains in 1813, the colonies of what would become Canada were in the middle of a US invasion. This followed the British defeat in the American War of Independence, really the first US civil war, when many Empire loyalists moved north. Canada itself was formed by the British North America Act of 1867, Australia 1901.

Canada itself emerged almost by accident. Had the US not invaded what would be Canada in 1812, then it seems to me that some if not all of the British North American colonies might well have ended up joining the US. Despite all the apparent odds the US was beaten, creating heroes and mythologies that unified at least English speaking Canadians.

The later decision to form Canada, while supported by Westminster in part for financial reasons, reflected local political rivalries and especially the conflict between French and English speaking areas.

French, English, US and Indian form the corners of a complicated geometric figure. The interactions within that figure were determined not just by the relations between the corners, but also by geography and climate.

Fish and furs bought the Europeans to what would become Canada.

The rich east coast fishing grounds provided a source of food that could be transported to Europe by sea. What would become Canada's maritime provinces began as fishing camps.

Furs were required for beaver hats; fashion created a demand that supported a European presence because, like wool in Australia, fur was a high value product that could support collection and transport costs. This supported French settlement along the St Lawrence river, creating what would become the province of Quebec. It also led to the creation of the Hudson's Bay Company in 1670, a company granted formal authority by London over the vast lands draining into the Hudson's Bay to the north and west of the French settlements . The irony here is that the Company was in fact created by two Frenchmen who turned to London after the authorities in Paris refused their requests for support.

Initial European settlements were small, fishing camps and trading forts. However, this began to change because of the efforts Samuel de Champlain. In July 1608 Champlain and a party of workmen landed at the foot of Cap Diamant, the great rock that dominates Quebec City. While New France and Quebec remained little more than a trading post and embassy for decades, the die was cast. To understand this, we need to introduce the next players, the North American Indians.

When the Europeans first arrived in Australia, they applied the word tribe or tribes to local Aboriginal groups. This misnomer came from North American experience.

Despite the modern usage of First Nations to describe the original indigenous inhabitants of countries such as Canada or Australia, the North American Indians were and are very different from the Australian Aborigines. They were far more war like, possessed developed social and political structures that made it easier for them to operate as larger groups and displayed great variety in ways of life.

The arrival of the Europeans changed Indian life in a variety of ways long before Europeans or European settlements arrived in particular areas. As in Australia, the spread of diseases such as small pox affected population structures. European imports from tin kettles to horses to guns spread across the North American continent. Most importantly of all, the Europeans became players in inter-tribal warfare and politics in a way alien to the Australian experience.

Initially, the Indians controlled the fur trade. They collected the furs and brought them to the trading posts. The fur trade became an important source of wealth to particular Indian tribes. Just as the French and English competed against each other for furs, so Indian groups fought against each other for the control of supply of furs.

Champlain established his new settlement at Quebec as a trading post for furs. However, furs did not require a significant permanent settlement, simply a location for trade and shipping. Champlain was able to create a permanent settlement because of warfare between the local Huron (or Wendat) Confederacy and the powerful Iroquois Confederacy to the south. Huron and Iroquois spoke related languages and had similar economic and political structures but were in deadly rivalry for power. The Hurons accepted Champlain because they saw the French as protection.

Initial growth of the new French colony was very slow, just a small stream of settlers. Then in the Indian wars of the 1640s, some of the bloodiest in North American history, the Iroquians used newly acquired guns to launch a major military offensive against their rivals. Between 1645 and 1655 four major nations including the Huron each numbering more than 10,000 people were wiped out. New France itself was threatened. Many settlers and missionaries suffered the terrible deaths by torture that marked Iroquian warfare. New France survived, but by 1663 it had barely 3,000 people as compared to 100,000 settlers in the English colonies in North America, 10,000 in New Holland, the Dutch colony on the Hudson River.

In 1663 Louis XIV took direct control of New France. In 1665 French troops arrived to bolster the militia that had been defending New France against the Iroquois who then made peace with New France and its Native allies. Louis began an active migration program. While still small scale by later standards, the number of settlers had grown to nearly 10,000 by 1681. From this point, the population increase came largely from natural growth.

At this point we can introduce the next main thread in Canadian history, the importance of export industries and farming.

The fur trade did not require large numbers. The settlers who came to New France came as farmers, missionaries and administrators. As happened in Australia in the first period of European settlement, this made for initial slow growth in population.

The problem with farming is that transport costs were high relative to the value of farm produce. The new settlers hugged the waterways and developed farms whose primary purpose was to feed the family while also supplying tithes to church and seigneur; New France had developed something approaching a feudal structure.

With small domestic markets and lacking high value exports beyond fish and furs, all the colonies in what would become Canada grew far more slowly than their counterparts further south. Timber exports would become important, but it was not until the later spread of the railways that exports of farm produce itself became important. This then led to the opening of new lands and mass migration during periods in both the 19th and 20th centuries.

To be continued

A full list of posts in the visiting Vancouver series can be found here.


Legal Eagle said...

Interesting! I don't know much about Canadian history, although I do know a bit about the history of Canadian indigenous people from studying native title law around the Commonwealth. I look forward to the next update.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi LE.The saga will continue tomorrow morning - I hope!

Christopher Moore said...

You have digested a lot of Canadian history very effectively! -- and I say this as one of the authors of The Illustrated History of Canada, the book you were reading.

Jim Belshaw said...

What a nice compliment, Christopher. I have really enjoyed my exploration of Canada, although I haven't been as structured as I had intended. I have taken bits in posts on other topics.

Like all bloggers, I followed you back. I hadn't seen you blog, and you have some nice links that I followed through.

Too distracting, really!