Forest fires


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a039810-v6 fire Duncan Lake ONt 1908

Forest fire. Duncan Lake, Ontario, 1908. Library and Archives Canada

I’m almost reluctant to write about forest fires, particularly given the terrible human toll that often coincides with them in this day and age. Hearing about some serious fires taking place in B.C. at the moment, however, I was thinking a little bit about forest fires over the weekend. Forest fires are part of the natural ecology and development of a forest, providing for greater diversity, for example by ensuring varying ages of trees. This can make a forest more resistant to disease and pests. That said, I heard on the radio that of the current fires in B.C. about 60 per cent have been labeled as caused by humans.

In thinking about human-caused fires, my mind turned first to the First Nations who sometimes used controlled burns in order to improve the environment for some food sources. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, railways became a significant source of human-initiated fires. I located an interesting article on the issue in Ontario, in this edition of the journal of the Ontario Forest History Society, by M. Grunstra and D. Martell (p.5), including some informative graphs (p. 7-8). There were many causes for the coincidence of fires and railroads, both during their construction as crews initiated burns in the areas in which they were building, and subsequently with the operation of the railways and the conjunction of dry brush and hot ash, errant sparks, etc.

Here are a couple of photos of forest fires related to railway building in B.C., to give you an idea, retrieved from the Glenbow Museum archives, Calgary, AB.

na-3658-70 Forest fire near Moose Lake BC 1912-13 at mile25 of Grand Trunk construction

Forest fire near Moose Lake, B.C., 1912-13, near mile 25 of Grand Trunk Railway Construction. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

na-3658-73 Fire along Tote Road BC 19081909 possibly during construction of Grand Trunk Railway firefighters centre corduroy laid

Fire along Tote Road, B.C., 1908-09, possibly during Grand Trunk construction. Firefighters at centre, corduroy laid. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB.

It’s almost unfathomable to think of fighting forest fires with so little equipment, particularly considering the resources and methods available today. Of course, the pattern of settlement of the lands nearby was greatly different in the early twentieth century.


Monday Vintage Inspiration: Blowin’ ‘er in; Parry Hoot

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An island in Georgian Bay, Ontario, near Parry Sound, Ontario

I came across the above photo in my personal archives this week, which speaks to me of summers long gone. My family had a cottage on an island very near to this one for many years, which unfortunately my parents sold a number of years back.

Last night I was reading a description by George Eliot of the importance of our childhood landscapes to our sense of beauty. I know that it is true for me that there are no more beautiful places to me in the whole world than these places in Ontario that I come back to. I visit Italy three times a year and I have lived in Australia, the US and Asia. Those are beautiful places, too, but there will never be a place that holds the same resonance for me as those little islands in the middle of the grand inland waterways of the Great Lakes.

One of the stories I remember about our little cottage was that the floorboards were recycled from the old-time dance hall in Parry Sound, otherwise known as Parry Hoot. This got me thinking about lumbering, of course, as in the 1870s the virgin forests east of Georgian Bay were opened for auction and began to compete with the Ottawa valley.

Print (photomechanical) | District of Parry Sound, Ontario | M987.253.63

District of Parry Sound, Ontario, with Georgian Bay on the left-hand side, 1881. H. Beldon and Co. Notman photographic archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

The rough and tumble lifestyle of the lumberjack, who would often spend six months in camps or shanties in the woods throughout the winter, emerging in springtime and eventually heading back to their farms and families to farm during the winter months, can be easily imagined. Perhaps also readily imaginable is what happened after the men left the camps, which is to say a presumably rip-roaring good time, at least for a few days.

A few years ago I was searching for some information on rural prices around 1900 and I happened to come across this anecdote in Donald MacKay’s book, The Lumberjacks, which is a well-written account of the lifestyle of these classic figures in Canadian history.

Mr. Mackay recites the story of M. B. Fortin, a lumberjack in the Ottawa valley area, who got into some trouble during 72 hours in Ottawa following six months in the lumber camps in 1890. His wife, when he finally returned home to L’Ange Gardien, Quebec, was astonished to find that he had only $54.13 remaining of the $150.13 that he had earned in winter wages. Mme. Fortin wrote to his company to find out where the remainder of his wages had gone, with the outcome of the company’s research indicating the following list of expenses, among the more predictable ones of whisky and tobacco for the man himself and his friends (totalling at least $30.00), room and board, fancy new clothes, and, eventually, a train ticket home:

- Ear rings ($1.75)

- A breakfast plate of oysters ($1.50)

- Hair cut and shampoo ($1.50)

- Hair dyed, black ($2.00)

- Hair dyed brown, when black did not suit ($2.00)

- Sightseeing with a horse and buggy ($7.00)

- To organ grinder for damage in knocking over organ ($2.00)

I feel somewhat badly taking advantage of the frailties of Monsieur Fortin for the sake of a bit of a laugh, because I am quite certain that had I spent six months in a shanty in the bush I would also have needed to “blow ‘er in.” Quite badly, in fact.

Do pick up a copy of Donald MacKay’s well-told account of the lumberjack, if you’re interested in this sort of thing.

Photograph | Lumbermen's shanty, Muskoka District, ON, 1873 | I-80963

Lumbermen’s shanty, Muskoka District, ON, 1873. Notman photographic archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.


Photograph, glass lantern slide | Bay near Rose Point, Parry Sound, ON, about 1900 | MP-0000.25.776

Bay near Rose Point, Parry Sound, ON, about 1900. Notman photographic archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: “Oh ye dealers in wild lands…”


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Photograph, glass lantern slide | Niagara River, falls in distance, Niagara Falls, ON, about 1875 | MP-0000.25.752

Niagara River, falls in distance, Niagara Falls, ON, about 1875. J. Lévy et Cie. Notman Archives, McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Please permit me the vintage photo of Niagara Falls, which is my current obsession, in spite of the fact that this post is neither about Niagara Falls, nor 1875. You might remember that I posted an excerpt from Jane Urquhart’s The Whirlpool in honour of Canada Day, the main protagonist of which is an undertaker’s widow in Niagara Falls, Ontario in 1889. I also lived in the City of Niagara Falls for exactly one school year, in 1982, so there’s a piercing nostalgia related to the place that encroaches on my thoughts when I think about 19th century settlement in Ontario. One of my clearest memories of living in Niagara Falls, apart from many visits to the Lundy’s Lane wax museum on account of our neighbour’s husband being the owner, was the tangible presence of 19th century history in the environs. At the time the Niagara Falls Museum was full of Victorian oddities, which it might still be, among them the barrels and contraptions that various daredevils had used to attempt the trajectory over and beyond the falls, and at least two Egyptian mummies.

Photograph, glass lantern slide | Whirlpool on the Niagara River near Niagara Falls, ON, about 1895 | MP-0000.25.762

Whirlpool on the Niagara River near Niagara Falls, ON, about 1895. Notman Archives, Montreal, Qc

Now that I’m through that digression, I’ll tell you what I actually intend to write about in this post. After my foray into my bookshelves to pull out some literature for Canada Day, I started reading snippets of Susanna Moodie’s Roughing it in the Bush, once subtitled “Forest Life in Canada.” I’ll confess that I’ve never read it in its entirety, which I think I should remedy with great speed. It’s an interesting rumination on the life of an educated immigrant from Britain in the wilds of Ontario in the mid-1800s.

As a little bit of background, I’ll give you a short synopsis of the biography at the front of my c. 1970 McClelland and Stewart Ltd. version:

Susanna Strickland, later Mrs. Moodie, was born in 1803, the daughter of Thomas Strickland, who was then resident in Suffolk, England. Susanna had four sisters and a brother, who all became writers, among the most famous of whom was Catherine Parr (later Mrs. Traill), who emigrated to Canada and became a well-known writer. (Note that Catherine Parr Traill was also referenced in my last post, through the section I cited from Margaret Laurence’s The Diviners.) The older brother, called Samuel, also emigrated to Canada and wrote a book about his adventures.

After Mr. Strickland lost all of his money and died in 1818, Susanna and Catherine married officers from Orkney, and subsequently emigrated as married persons to Canada. The Moodies emigrated from Britain in 1832, first occupying land near Port Hope and Cobourg (just east of Toronto), later moving further east to an area north of Peterborough, near the house of the older brother and the Traills. Roughing it in the Bush describes the backwoods of these two places.

Photograph | Rural road, Peterborough(?), ON(?), about 1900 | MP-0000.2360.101

Rural road, Peterborough, ON, about 1900. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Susanna Moodie begins her account here:

In most instances, emigration is a matter of necessity, not of choice; and this is more especially true of the emigration of persons of respectable connections, or of any station or position in the world. Few educated persons, accustomed to the refinements and luxuries of European society, ever willingly relinquish those advantages, and place themselves beyond the protective influence of the wise and revered institutions of their native land, without the pressure of some urgent cause. Emigration may, indeed, generally be regarded as an act of severe duty, performed at the expense of personal enjoyment, and accompanied by the sacrifice of those local attachments which stamp the scenes amid which our childhood grew, in imperishable characters upon the heart. Nor is it until adversity has pressed sorely upon the proud and wounded spirit of the well-educated sons and daughters of old but impoverished families, that they gird up the loins of the mind, and arm themselves with fortitude to meet and dare the heart-breaking conflict…

The choice of country to which they devote their talents and energies depends less upon their pecuniary means than upon the fancy of the emigrant or the popularity of a name. From the year 1826 to 1829, Australia and the Swan River were all the rage. No other portions of the habitable globe were deemed worthy of notice. These were the El Dorados and lands of Goshen to which all respectable emigrants eagerly flocked. Disappointment, as a matter of course, naturally followed their high-raised expectations. Many of the most sanguine of these adventurers returned to their native shores in a worse condition than when they left them. In 1830, the great tide of emigration flowed westward. Canada became the great landmark for the rich in hope and poor in purse. Public newspapers and private letters teemed with the unheard-of advantages to be derived from a settlement in this highly favoured region.

Its salubrious climate, its fertile soil, commercial advantages, great water privileges, its proximity to the mother country, and last, not least, its almost total exemption from taxation – that bugbear which keeps honest John Bull in a state of constant ferment – were the theme of every tongue, and lauded beyond praise. The general interest, once incited, was kept alive by pamphlets, published by interested parties, which prominently set forth all the good to be derived from a settlement in the Backwoods of Canada; while they carefully concealed the toil and the hardship to be endured in order to secure these advantages…

Oh, ye dealers in wild lands – ye speculators in the folly and credulity of your fellow-men – what a mass of misery, and of misrepresentation productive of that misery, have ye not to answer for! You had your acres to sell, and what to you were the worn-down frames and broken hearts of the infatuated purchasers? The public believed the plausible statements you made with such earnestness, and men of all grades rushed to hear your hired orators declaim upon the blessings to be obtained by the clearers of the wilderness.

~ Susanna Moodie, Roughing it in the Bush

What has really caught my attention though are these passages, much later in the book, describing the inhabitants. I’m assuming that these were written or edited for the post-Confederation 1871 edited reprints of the book in Toronto and Montreal, with the original volumes of the work having been published in London in 1852:

Forty years has made as great a difference in the state of society in Canada as it has in its commercial and political importance. When we came to the Canadas, society was composed of elements which did not always amalgamate in the best possible manner.

The Canadian women, while they retain the bloom and freshness of youth, are exceedingly pretty; but these charms soon fade, owing, perhaps, to the fierce extremes of their climate, or the withering effect of the dry metallic air of stoves, and their going too early into company and being exposed, while yet children, to the noxious influence of late hours, and the sudden change from heated rooms to the cold, biting, bitter winter blast.

Though small in stature, they are generally well and symmetrically formed, and possess a graceful, easy carriage. The early age at which they marry and are introduced into society, takes from them all awkwardness and restraint.

They have excellent practical abilities, which, with a little mental culture, would render them intellectual and charming companions. At present, too many of these truly lovely girls remind one of choice flowers half-buried in weeds…

To the benevolent philanthropist, whose heart has bled over the misery and pauperism of the lower classes in Great Britain, the almost entire absence of mendacity from Canada would be highly gratifying. Canada has few, if any, native beggars; her objects of charity are generally imported from the mother country, and these are never suffered to want food or clothing. The Canadians are a truly charitable people; no person in distress is driven with harsh and cruel language from their doors; they not only generously relieve the wants of suffering strangers cast upon their bounty, but they nurse them in sickness, and use every means in their power to procure them employment. The number of orphan children yearly adopted by wealthy Canadians, and treated in every respect as their own, is almost incredible..

It is a glorious country for the labouring classes, for while blessed with health, they are always certain of employment, and certain also to derive from it ample means of support for their families…

What an ideal vision…dating to the 1870s. It bears noting that Susanna Moodie had a novelist’s flair and extensive experience as a literary columnist.

I will report back after I have reread the early chapters on bush life.  If you are at all interested, I recommend acquiring a vintage or second hand copy of the book, or perhaps a public library copy that has been much-read and loved, but that’s my personal taste.




Cool country


Painting | Niagara from Goat Island | M360

Niagara from Goat Island, James Pattison Cockburn, 1831. Watercolour and graphite on paper. McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

I was thinking about how I want to celebrate Canada Day, the day of our nation’s birth, and the best answer that came to me was with literature. I do not need to dig very deeply into my bookshelves to find delicious, exquisite literature. These snippets happen to be by women authors, although this is not intentional.


It was true about my father. But he was usually away, taking a cure, resting in a sanatorium, traveling. Before I was born he had been a Member of Parliament. He suffered a great defeat in 1911, the year Laurier went out. Much later, when I learned about Reciprocity, I discovered that his defeat had been only a corner of a national calamity (if indeed you were inclined to see it as a calamity), but when I was a child I always believed that my father had been personally, tauntingly, shamefully rejected. My mother likened the event to the Crucifixion. He had come out on the balcony of the Queen’s Hotel, to speak, to concede his defeat, and was prevented, jeered down, by Tories carrying brooms on fire. I had no idea, hearing this, that such were the scenes politicians sometimes have to face. My mother dated his downfall to this time. Though she did not specify what form the downfall took. Alcoholic was not a word spoken in our house; I don’t believe it was spoken much anywhere, at that time. Drunk was the word used, but that was in the town.

My mother would no longer shop in this town, except for groceries, which she had Robina order by phone. She would not speak to various ladies, wives of taunters and Tories.

I will never darken their door.

That was what she would say about a church, a store, somebody’s house.

“He was too fine for them.”

She had nobody but Robina to say these things to. But Robina was satisfactory, in a way. She was a person with her own list of people not to be spoken to, stores not to be entered.

They’re all ignorant around here. It’s them ought to be swept out with a broom.”

And she would start telling about some injustice done to her brothers Jimmy and Duval, accused of stealing when they were only trying to see how a flashlight worked.

~Alice Munro, Executioners (Something I’ve been Meaning to Tell You)


Catherine Parr Traill, one could be quite certain, would not have been found of an early morning sitting over a fourth cup of coffee, mulling, approaching the day in a gingerly fashion, trying to size it up. No. No such sloth for Catherine P.T.

Scene at the Traill Homestead, circa 1840

C.P.T. out of bed, fully awake, bare feet on the sliver-hazardous floorboards – no, take that one again. Feet on the homemade hooked rug. Breakfast cooked for the multitude. Out to feed the chickens, stopping briefly on the way back to pull fourteen armloads of weeds out of the vegetable garden and perhaps prune the odd apple tree in passing. The children’s education hour, the umpteen little mites lisping enthusiastically over this enlightenment. Cleaning the house, baking two hundred loaves of delicious bread, preserving half a ton of plums, pears, cherries, etcetera. All before lunch.

Catherine Parr Traill, where are you now that we need you? Speak, oh lady of blessed memory…

Morag leaped over to the bookshelves which lined the two walls of the seldom-used livingroom. Found the pertinent text.

In cases of emergency, it is folly to fold one’s hands and sit down to bewail in abject terror. It is better to be up and doing.

(The Canadian Settler’s Guide, 1855)

~Margaret Laurence, The Diviners


People the wide world over like to think of Canada as a land of ice and snow. That’s the image they prefer to hang on to, even when they know better.

But the fact is, Ottawa in the month of July can be hot as Hades - which is why the Fletts’ supper table is set tonight on the screened porch. There will be jellied veal loaf, sliced tomatoes, and a potato salad and, for desert, sugared raspberries in little glass bowls.

You should know that the raspberries are from the Fletts’ own garden, picked only an hour ago by the children of the family. One of these three children, Warren, seven years old, got raspberry stains all over the front of his cotton shirt, and he has just been sent upstairs by his mother to change into something clean. “Lickety- split,” she tells him, “your father’ll be home in half a wink.”

The memory of our “lady-slippers” discussion has, of course, led me into wondering whether you perhaps viewed our marriage in a similar way, as a trap from which there was no easy exit. Between us we have almost never mentioned the word love. I have sometimes wondered whether it was the disparity of our ages that made the word seem foolish, or else something stiff and shy in our natures that forbade its utterance. This I regret. I would like to think that our children will use the word extravagantly, and moreover that they will be open to its forces…

Do you remember that day last October when I experienced my first terrible headache? I found you in the kitchen wearing one of those new and dreadful plastic aprons. You put your arms around me at once and reached up to smooth my temples. I loved you terribly at that moment. The crackling of your apron against my body seemed like an operatic response to the longings which even then I felt. It was like something whispering at us to hurry, to stop wasting time, and I would like to have danced with you through the back door, out into the garden, down the street, over the line of the horizon. Oh my dear. I thought we would have more time.

~Carol Shields, The Stone Diaries


The trail’s winding now through high ground where there are boulders coming up out of the earth, carried and dropped by glaciers, moss on them and ferns, it’s a damp climate. I keep my eyes on the ground, names reappearing, wintergreen, wild mint, Indian cucumber; at one time I could list every plant here that could be used or eaten, I memorized survival manuals, How to Stay Alive in the Bush, Animal Tracks and Signs, The Woods in Winter, at the age when the ones in the city were reading True Romance magazines: it wasn’t till then I realized it was in fact possible to lose your way. Maxims float up: always carry matches and you will not starve, in a snow-storm dig a hole, avoid unclassified mushrooms, your hands and feet are the most important, if they freeze you’re finished. Worthless knowledge; the pulp magazines with their cautionary tales, maidens who give in and get punished…, fractured spines, dead mothers or men stolen by their best friends would have been more practical.

~Margaret Atwood, Surfacing


In his hand he held a small bronze paperweight fashioned in the shape of a cow. “This,” he cried, “is Laura Secord’s cow!”

Patrick, thoroughly convinced now that he had lost the thread of the conversation, merely stared stupidly at the object in the other man’s hand.

“Imagine it,” McDougal continued, “the young, slim woman alone, walking through the enemy-infested, beast-ridden woods, and she has the presence of mind to bring a cow along to fool the enemy sentries. Twelve miles over a rough terrain…” McDougal began to walk the bronze cow over the mountains and valleys of his paperwork. “And then…” he paused and wedged the cow between two portfolios…”and then she arrives at her destination only to find her path blocked by a company of Indians…reinforcements, working for our side, but how was she to know? Indians in the moonlight…awesome! They let her pass, however. They escorted her, in fact, to Fitzgibbon, whereupon she gave him the message and we surprised them before they could surprise us. “SURPRISE!!!” he shouted at Patrick, who jumped nervously in his chair.

Silence filled the room as the two men pondered the dead woman’s heroic deed. Patrick looked across the cemetery on the hill. “What happened to the cow?” he asked, for want of anything better to say.

~Jane Urquhart, The Whirlpool


Sunday Vintage Inspiration: Dominion Day, July 1



na-1325-1 Decoarated wagon for Dominion Day celebration Bassano AB 1914

Decorated wagon for Dominion Day celebration, Bassano AB, 1914.  Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

Towards the Last Spike*

It was the same world then as now -  the same,
Except for little differences of speed
And power, and means to treat myopia
To show an axe-blade infinitely sharp
Splitting things infinitely small, or else
Provide the telescopic sight to roam
Through curved dominions never found in fables.

~ E.J. Pratt

*The “last spike” refers to the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway crossing Canada, with the last spike laid near Revelstoke, B.C. in 1885.

na-2211-20 Dominion Day celebration Grande Prairie AB July 1917

Dominion Day Celebration, Grande Prairie, AB, 1917. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

Prior to the repatriation of the Canadian constitution from England, the day now known as “Canada Day” was referred to as Dominion Day, reflecting broad loyalties to the British Empire while celebrating Canadian Confederation.

na-5096-1 Dominion Day celebrations Woodbine Park Prince Albert Sask 1891

Dominion Day, Woodbine Park, Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, 1891. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

dominion day horse parade 1904

Dominion Day horse parade, Toronto, 1904. City of Toronto Archives.

There are many other realities of Canada that are not reflected in the photos above, but don’t think I’ve forgotten them: aboriginal; multi-cultural, non-European. These realities if anything will play an increasingly important role in the Canada that is to come. I look forward with excitement to seeing this flowering.

na-2640-3 First Nations person on Dominion Day parade Calgary AB 1908

First Nations person on parade, Dominion Day, Calgary, 1908. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB


A patriarch dies; “I don’t buy green bananas”


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Excerpt from my grandfather’s was memoir, about being shot in a Lancaster flying over Germany in 1944

My grandfather died on Thursday night. He had been saying for years that he didn’t “buy green bananas” because he was at the end of his days. This time he was right. He died at a ripe old age and the end was relatively quick, which is I think what we all wish.

I was the oldest grandchild, but being a girl I didn’t get a lot of his attention. His attention was focused on the boys, with whom he felt more comfortable. For most of my childhood I remember him sending me away when my grandmother sent me out to help him in the garden, or when I wanted to go fishing. Nevertheless, although I didn’t succeed in spending time with him as a kid, I was the only grandchild who followed in his footsteps in my choice of profession and I know he also appreciated the research that I did into elements of our family history that he hadn’t captured in his writings.

When I was returning home from the funeral on the bus yesterday, I buried my nose in a copy of the memoir that he wrote about his participation in the second world war as a rear or tail gunner in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). I read the document that he wrote when he wrote it 20 years ago and for years I had been asking my mother to send me another copy. I finally got one and it is a fascinating read. What I’ve excerpted for you above is the part about his final mission on two tours of ops as a tail gunner, first in Wellington aircraft and later in the Lancaster. This was a very dangerous position to be in in these aircraft and my grandfather was definitely fortunate to return to Canada after the war alive. Only about a third of those in similar positions did, if that.

In a lot of ways, just by virtue of my grandfather’s nature and as a result of his beliefs about the proper roles of women, the closest I ever got to knowing my grandfather more intimately was through his writings. I’m incredibly grateful that he wrote at least four documents about his life: his wartime memories, the history of his parents and grandparents and the family farm he left to go to war; the post-war years and the early years with my grandmother (a recent project and a new discovery by me, to much gratitude); and a transcription of the letters he sent home during the war and their replies. I am an observer, so I always had my perceptions and understanding of him, which I think were mostly correct, but it’s particularly special as you can imagine to have a glimpse into his life through his own words.

Each time I think about the long life he had, the many things he did and the family that grew out of his life I am amazed. In many places in his war memoir he notes that the “ball bounced luckily in another way.” Any small turning of events and his life would have been different or would have ended. In fact, only two of his original crew survived the war and he saw many casualties along the way. Of course, my mother would never have existed and then neither would I have. Even the way that he met my grandmother was by chance, as meetings always are, as my grandmother’s cousin had returned from the war at the same time as my grandfather and my grandfather’s sister was at that time studying to be a nurse in Toronto. My grandfather’s sister knew my grandmother slightly and had been invited to the welcome home party for my grandmother’s cousin. My grandmother casually suggested that she invite her brother who had recently returned from the war. So a Canadian farm boy who had signed up underage to fight in a war he knew nothing about both returned home and married a lovely lady from an educated family in the city who then helped and encouraged him to get an education and build a life and family that he was very proud of.

Any subtle turning and life would be different. I often think this.



Sunday (Monday) Vintage Inspiration: Geological Survey of Canada


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logan-156094 Baltzly Benjamin F 1835-83 Geological Survey of Canada party Canoe River BC October 1871 surveyihg william notman TPL Alfred Selwyn at centre with john Hammond and Benjamin Baltzly

Geological Survey of Canada Party, Canoe River, BC. October 1871. Alfred Selwyn at centre with John Hammond and Benjamin Baltzly. Source: Toronto Public Library. Logan – 156094. William Notman collection.

Note: The reference for the factual material in this post is a paper by Christy Vodden (1992), located here:

I always knew that the Geological Survey of Canada was an interesting organization, but on Saturday my curiosity was piqued anew. I’ve done a little bit of preliminary research, which unearthed the aforementioned comprehensive article, but I’d like to add to this later.

On Saturday I was walking back home from Little Italy in Ottawa, taking a detour from streets lined with Ferrari-crazed fans there for the parade of Ferraris for La Settimana Italiana, and soccer-crazed fans awaiting the Italy-England match, when I took a route I’ve never taken before, along Booth Street. Suddenly I was confronted with buildings easily dating to the 1920s or in fact ten to twenty years earlier, clustered with a series of modern buildings clearly dating to the 1950s. I’d seen this cluster before in passing from the vantage point of a main thoroughfare, but never paid much attention. This time I looked at the various signage to realize that the buildings are a cluster of the Department of Natural Resources. There are interesting stonework signs on the fronts of some of the older buildings, with labels such as “ore dressing laboratory,” which naturally piqued my curiosity.

I must admit that I’ve always been a little bit intrigued with geology in particular. If I hadn’t already had a torturously and long rank-order list of competing interests, I probably would have studied it at university. In fact, I did take a geography class in first year of university. Alas, it was not to be. I will live vicariously through the histories of great geological explorers, as told by others! To follow is a skeletal history of geological surveying in Canada.

The Geological Survey of Canada is in fact one of Canada’s oldest government institutions. It was established in 1842, just after the formation of a unified Canada West and Canada East and the implementation of “responsible government” or a kind of self-government under the crown. This is an intriguing fact, given that “the Province of Canada” at the time didn’t consist of the territory that now comprises the second-largest country in the world, but rather only part of Ontario and southern Quebec. I’m not sure how you’d scale that, but possibly less than an eighth of our current non-offshore territory and a long way away from the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific North-west, etc.

In spite of the rather limited geography of Canada at the time when viewed from a modern perspective, there were individuals with a much bigger vision. The 1841 Legislature of the Province of Canada voted a sum of money to be used for a survey of the then-Canada, with the idea being that for it to succeed as an industrial entity it would need to survey and exploit its mineral wealth. At the time, the expectation was that the survey would stimulate the mining industry and generate provincial revenues. Obviously, with the Confederation of four provinces in 1867 and the subsequent expansion of Canada from coast to coast to coast with the entry of BC to Confederation in 1871 and various other provinces thereafter, the grand project of the organization by then known as the Geological Survey of Canada became much grander.

William Logan, born in Montreal and educated in Scotland, with a keen interest in geology, petitioned for the job to lead the Survey in 1842. Although not trained in geology, he had cut his teeth working in the copper smelting industry in England. His bid for the job was supported by prominent English scientists and he was appointed director of the Survey in April of 1842. He laid the groundwork for the first survey in the fall of 1842 in Kingston, the then-seat of the provincial Legislature. The following year he moved the offices of the GSC to Montreal. An assistant, Alexander Murray was also appointed. (Note: Canada’s highest mountain peak, Mt. Logan, is named after William Logan.)

In the first two field seasons, despite wide-ranging studies through Upper and Lower Canada, ranging from the Atlantic Coast to Lake Huron, Logan was able to report that there were no likely coal deposits. The rock formations that they explored were older than the earliest-known coal-bearing formations. Interestingly, one of the discoveries he made was the southern part of the Pre-Cambrian Shield that we’ve come to know as the Great Canadian Shield, full of nifty crystalline rock formations.

What’s interesting about the early years of the GSC is that although there was evidence of benefit from surveying, the mandate and funding for the organization wasn’t secure. Logan in fact spent some of his own money to complete the initial two survey years, after which the mandate was renewed for a period. In fact, it wasn’t until 1877, ten years after Confederation, that Parliament granted the GSC permanent status and promise of continued funding.

In the 1850s, Logan was able to expand his staff, as the organization took root, hiring a paleontologist, a chemist and a draftsman for the preparation of maps. Canada provided an exhibition of minerals that was well-received at the London World Fair in 1851 and again at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1855. In 1856, Logan received approval to run a small museum open to the public out of the headquarters of the GSC in Montreal. (I can’t quite wrap my head around how interesting it must have been to visit such a museum and to interact with some of these characters at that time.)

Engraving | River with a small sailboat, Geological Survey of Canada | M991X.5.707

John Henry Walker, River with a small sailboat (1850-1885), Geological Survey of Canada, engraving. McCord Museum, Montreal

The history just gets more and more interesting as we continue. Logan himself was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1856. In 1863 the GSC published the first major compendium of all acquired knowledge on the geology of Canada and in 1869 Logan’s geological map of Canada followed. Logan, almost 70, gave up the directorship of the organization in 1869. He was succeeded by Alfred R.C. Selwyn, a Brit who had previously led the Geological Survey of Victoria in Australia. This brings us back to the beginning of the story, as recounted by me, or at least to the photo at the top of this post.

Alfred Selwyn was an avid mountaineer from time spent in Switzerland as a student, which came in handy as the work of the survey quickly expanded to the west with the addition of BC to Confederation in 1871. It’s amazing to think of the motley crew in the photo above as accomplishing great feats of trekking, but it’s absolutely true. As rail links between the east and BC were proposed as a condition of BC’s joining of Confederation, the survey set about exploring the mineral wealth of the proposed routes. By 1878 the GSC had moved from Montreal to Ottawa, to a location close to Parliament (i.e. not the location that I saw yesterday, which probably dated to about 1909, although Selwyn directed the organization largely from the field). This began a series of great expeditions to both the west and the north and Selwyn was gradually able to expand his field staff from six groups in 1871 to fourteen as of 1890.

It turns out that I have a titillating hobby that I have never told you about this point. It’s to examine Reports of the Auditor General to the Parliament of Canada for the period up to about 1900. I kid you not! If you scroll to page 131 of the report for 1890-91, which is gloriously available electronically through the University of Toronto’s archival portal (although I kind of miss the library stacks), you will see that Alfred Selwyn’s salary for the 12 months ending June 30 was $4,000. You’ll note that his surveyors were earning about $3 a day. Draftsmen earned even less. The Auditor General’s reports are useful for all sorts of things. I will return to this subject another time.


Among the scientists to join the Survey over the period (in 1875), was George Dawson, after whom Dawson City, Yukon is named. He was already exploring the Klondike nearly ten years before the gold rush in 1896 and prospectors used his maps to make their trails. Dawson succeeded to director of the GSC in 1895.

Geological survey of  canada party near wolf hills, SASK nov 5 1879 Dawson Glenbow

Geological Survey of Canada party, near Wolf Hills, Saskatchewan, 1877. Photo taken by George Dawson. Glenbow Archives, Calgary, AB

Christy Vodden reports that Dawson and his assistant R.G. McConnell explored an area of about 164,000 square kilometers in northern British Columbia and the headwaters of the Yukon River, on foot and by boat, in the 1887 field season. The area had been previously unknown other than accounts of a few First Nations persons and prospectors. Vodden further reports that Dawson had been a sickly child and was a small man with a hunched back and weak lungs, which makes this journey even more astounding.

Something that piqued my interest in reading about Dawson is that he was also keenly interested in the languages and cultures of the First Nations people he encountered. He apparently reported on the Haida Indians of northern coastal BC and took photographs of them(something for future research on my part). He also published papers about various other First Nations: the Yukon Peoples, the Kwakiutl and the Shuswap.

Photograph, glass lantern slide | Front Street, Dawson, YT, 1899 | MP-0000.103.23

Front Street, Dawson, Yukon Territory, 1899. Notman Photo Archive, McCord Museum, Montreal. Photographer: Hegg?

I love this photo, possibly because almost all of the backs of the people are turned, adding to the air of mystery and the feeling of rhythm therein. Note the uniform length of coat and the straw hats on some. There seems to be a lone woman under a parasol, on the far right.

Alas, I’ll have to leave this fascinating story to continue another time.

Change of blogging subject: Canada only

I’ve been writing in this space for quite some time and I’ve enjoyed it, but it has been clear to me all along that my lack of subject-area focus was a problem. There are not many people who are interested in the exact same combination of subjects that I am (Florence, Canada, vintage photos, knitting, sewing, literature, handmade, visual art, etc.). I’ve found myself restricting myself from posting in a more forthright and detailed manner about specific topics, because I know that some people are reading specifically for other subjects. As a result, I’ve decided to divide my attention in three directions, which I think is going to serve me and anyone who wants to read much better (I know there are few but everyone is welcome!). From now on, this space will be a space for thinking and writing largely about Canadian history. This is a great thing for me because it will force me to deepen my research and thinking about Canada, as I have long wanted to do. My other posts will be directed as follows:

There is nothing there yet, but I will write about Florence/Italy at this address:

I will write about sewing and knitting and other art-y and textile-y things here:

I’m particularly excited about the sewing and knitting blogging space, because the material I want to write about in that context doesn’t really have a space here. I started blogging in the first place in order to write about knitting, so this will give me the freedom to do that!

Take care and welcome to those who want to read about Canadiana!




Vintage photo(s): General Election, 1908, Ontario



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Election, Ontario, 1908. Crowd in front of Telegraph Building, Melinda St.  Toronto Public Library photo archive

It’s election night in Ontario, so as I listen to the results come in over the radio, I am thinking a little bit about what elections and voting must have been like in the past. Completely abstracting from the fact that women did not have the franchise in 1908 and were not yet declared persons, I’m still keen on imagining the process of waiting for the newspaper to come out to see the results!

I can understand what is going on in the photo above, but I’m not sure what the crowds were waiting for here, meaning what kind of a presentation they might have expected:

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The photo is apparently from the same location, by the Telegraph Building on Melinda Street. Source: Toronto Public Library.

Incidentally, I had no idea who won the 1908 election before writing this. It turns out that it was the Ontario Conservative Party. Tonight it seems to be going the other way. No comment on politics, however! I will mention though that the Premier-elect is a woman.

Update: If you’re interested in knowing a little bit about when women got the right to vote in Canada here’s a brief article. I hadn’t realized that women had campaigned for suffrage over such a long period in Ontario (the vote was finally gained in 1917 after forty years of struggle). It was 1918 when most women gained the vote federally, although it was many years later that suffrage included some women, including aboriginal women (1960).

Sunday Vintage Inspiration: madeleines, where you are; Laurier House


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Painted ceiling in a Queen Anne style mansion in Ottawa, built at the beginning of the twentieth century by a lumber baron for his daughter

Do you have a madeleine? (A Proustian madeleine, I mean.)

I do. Well, I have several. I’m sure you do too. One of mine is mint chocolate chip ice cream. In Italy, where mint is a secondary flavour of gelato and mint chip not a flavour at all, I’ll forgo caffè, nocciola, pistacchio…any of the conventional and delicious possibilities if there happens to be mint on the menu, no matter how lurid the shade of green. With the first taste I am a little girl in a the back seat of a hot Cutlass Supreme with white leather seats, windows open, seemingly endless lakes and rocks and trees flashing past. As Proust wrote about the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea:

An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me.

~Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Yesterday I was reminded of another of my involuntary memory triggers, which is less easy to specify: “old” stone or brick houses, which in Ontario means houses built between 1800 and 1910.

I’m not sure exactly when I developed this trigger, but when I was little I developed the certain knowledge that the height of elegance was to live in a restored “old” house. It might have been because we did not live in an “old” house, but rather in what I thought of as depressing post-war bungalows and more modern split-levels in growing suburbs. Brief residence in a 1920s-era two-story red brick in the late 1970s was insufficient to satisfy my hunger for a “better” life. When we were in the countryside we would drive by the family homestead of my great-grandmother’s family, built by her father and dating to about 1860, but it wasn’t ours, having been sold when my grandfather abandoned a farming life for greener pastures in the 1950s.

My perspective changed slightly, of course, when I got older and realized that people like my partner G. live in gracious frescoed buildings built in the 16th century or even earlier, in places in Europe, although my tender yearning for brick Victorians has lingered. To G., the houses here are “cassette” or “little houses,” given their relatively low ceilings and lack of monumentally-thick stone walls. My friend, a relatively recent immigrant from India, laughs at me. Two years ago he entered the housing market with his wife and could not understand why old houses fetch a premium in my neighbourhood. “Why do people want something old? It makes no sense,” he says, shaking his head, “Why wouldn’t you want something new?”

So yesterday. What happened yesterday? This weekend, the event “Doors Open Ottawa” is taking place, in which buildings of historical importance, including many embassies and ambassadors’ residences, ministries and other early structures are open to the public. In most cases, not all rooms are visible, but an attempt is made to provide access to rooms of political or social importance or of historical or architectural interest. (As an aside, the American Embassy is the only place that I am aware of that had a pre-screening and a lottery system for those who wanted to visit. Every other place was/is open to those who come. It comforts me to think that I live in a place where pre-screening is not for the most part necessary.) I was disappointed to discover that a few places that would be of interest to me were not on the list, such as the Dominion Observatory (the first location from which the national Canadian time signal was broadcast and an important building in the history of Canadian astronomy), but there was a good selection available.

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We stuck to a limited list as there were other things to do yesterday, but of interest were two. One was a home built in the Queen Anne style in about 1902-3 by a local lumber baron and containing nice examples of Art Nouveau decoration. It is now an ambassador’s residence.

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The staff quarters:

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The views in the early 20th century probably did not include a high rise apartment building:

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The second was the home of two former Prime Ministers, which is in fact always open on the weekends, and one of the best small museums in Canada in my opinion, called Laurier House. It was the home of Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier and his wife from 1897 until their respective deaths in 1919 and 1921. The house was then willed to the bachelor Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, who took up residence there in 1923. He left the home to the nation upon his death in about 1950.

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Unfortunately, photos inside were not permitted, but these photos of the external covered porch and bottom level of the brick exterior give you some idea:

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The very knowledgeable and fully bilingual guides to the house are all dressed as maids. I don’t know whether this is a regular feature of the house as it is many years since I last visited, but I won’t comment on this choice of costume…

Wilfred Laurier is recognized as an important Prime Minister of Canada. He was the seventh Prime Minister, elected in 1896, and the first francophone to hold the position. He is also recognized for the longest unbroken tenure of a Prime Minister, at about fifteen years. He was known for his statesmanship and desire for a Canada that was a partnership between French and English populations. He pursued a Canada that would eventually be autonomous within the British Empire, while respecting the parameters of the relationship with Britain. He died in the bedroom on the second floor of the house, in 1919, and his wife of fifty years, Zoe, remained in the house until her death there in 1921. He was a small but dapper man who I’ve always felt had a sympathetic face. There’s a Saville-row-tailored wool coat with a velvet collar of his in a second-floor room.


Sir Wilfred Laurier in 1869, Library and Archives Canada

He’s better known in portraits from his time as Prime Minister:


Sir Wilfred Laurier, Library and Archives Canada, Reference number: C-001969

Photograph | Centre Block, Parliament Buildings, Ottawa, ON, 1900 | MP-0000.27.173

The Centre Block of Parliament, in 1900, during the leadership of Prime Minister Laurier, and before the building burned down in 1916.  (Now rebuilt, obviously!). McCord Museum, Montreal, Qc.

Although parts of Laurier House have been decorated with objects from the Laurier household, as William Lyon Mackenzie King became the new owner and remained in the house for twenty-seven years, the home naturally reflects more of his life and tenure as Prime Minister. King remains the longest serving Prime Minister of an English-speaking country in the British Commonwealth, at twenty-two years, and naturally the longest-serving Prime Minister of Canada. He’s important for a variety of reasons apart from the length of his tenure as PM, among them for the fact of being a wartime (WWII) Prime Minister. He’s generally considered by scholars to have been a shrewd and effective politician, in spite of lacking personal charisma.


William Lyon Mackenzie King, 1941, Library and Archives Canada

I personally hold quite a bit of sympathy for Mackenzie King, which I suppose says something about my Canadian “practicality,” as G. always points out to me. He was known as a sharply intelligent and perceptive man; a workaholic who took his work very seriously, and who focused his work on what he felt was the betterment of the nation. On the third floor of Laurier house you can visit his well-preserved library, containing more than 2,500 volumes. He did much of his work from there during WWII, with his war Cabinet visiting frequently. People often focus on his personal shortcomings and lack of the charisma that is associated with other international characters of the period (Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle), but I rather think that his labouring and substantial yet not scintillating style is a rather appropriate match to this under-the-radar country. (Yes, you heard it here: serious is preferred to scintillating, although I suppose they don’t always have to be mutually exclusive.)

Photograph | William Lyon Mackenzie King and friend on railway platform, Montreal, QC, about 1930 | MP-1978.107.216

William Lyon Mackenzie King with a friend on a railway platform, Montreal, Qc, about 1930. McCord Museum, Montreal.

On the personal side, King fell in love as a young man studying in Chicago, with a young American nurse with French-Canadian roots. Unfortunately, his family did not approve of the match and actively dissuaded him from marrying. In the end, he never married and this lack of a female partner/hostess did not assist in softening his image.

Among the more commonly-known facts about King is his interest in spiritualism, or the ability to contact spirits from the afterlife through various means, although this was hardly an unusual pursuit during the late Victorian period and slightly beyond. It is understood that King was very close to his mother and made attempts to contact her after her death. Part of the mythology of King involves a crystal ball, which was a gift to him and which can be seen in the library of the house. I think the common perception is that he used the crystal ball to contact his mother, although I don’t believe this to be the case in fact.

There are some very interesting artifacts in the house, many of them objects given to King during his tenure as Prime Minister, including a plaster cast of the face and hands of Lincoln dating to 1860, and the CBC microphone from which he announced to the Canadian people the abdication of King Edward VIII to marry Wallis Simpson in 1936. There are some interesting paintings, including a late 1500s Italian painting of the Madonna and Child and a painting of Venice from the Canaletto school. Something that I liked was the bounty notice issued for King’s grandfather Mackenzie King in the 1830s, which King apparently showed King George on his visit to Canada, to much amusement. (Mackenzie King, King’s grandfather, was an important figure in Canada in the rebellions of 1837, specifically in Upper Canada, which led to the introduction of responsible government in Canada, or self-government under the British crown, shortly thereafter.)

If you ever visit Ottawa and have even a passing desire to learn a little bit about the history of the Canadian capital in the early twentieth century, I recommend a visit to that home. I visited with my friend who is Canadian but who was German born and raised by a Canadian-German mother and a German father, and it was interesting to see his appreciation of the place. For me, having lived and breathed Canadian history throughout my life, being in the house situated me again in my childhood and in my visceral sense of what it meant to create a modern Canada out of the genuine wilds. Our modern political history is so short and Ottawa still a relatively small city. The home in some ways is a tangible reminder of these modest roots. It is not in reality particularly grand, but would have been considered so in this rustic and newly developing place in the late 19th century. Its mix of old-world treasures and new-world functionality is a perfect reminder of what Canadians with the means to do so would have been striving to create in a home environment in the early twentieth century.

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Another view of the porch. The awnings are very effective in creating a comfortable space.  I wanted to take the porch home with me.


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