Seeking New Caledonia
- Marie Elliott (Author)
Fort St. James and New Caledonia: Where British Columbia Began. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Stephen Hume (Author)
Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia. Harbour Publishing (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Mark Diotte
I found the prospect and writing of this review to be particularly appealing given my residence in the Township of Langley, the home of Fort Langley, which claims to be the “birthplace of British Columbia.” While the colony of British Columbia was declared in Fort Langley on 19 November 1858, with James Douglas as governor, debate continues over precisely when and where “British Columbia” began. In the opinion of Marie Elliott, it is at Fort St. James (Stuart Lake Post until 1821), founded by Simon Fraser in 1806, that British Columbia began. Indeed, Fort St. James is the second oldest non-Aboriginal, continuously inhabited community in British Columbia, and according to The Encyclopedia of British Columbia, edited by Daniel Francis, it was “considered the ‘capital’ of New Caledonia for many years.” However, Stephen Hume in Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia offers a competing claim for the origin of BC in the form of Fort McLeod, founded by Simon Fraser in 1805 and the first permanent European settlement west of the Rocky Mountains in what is now British Columbia. What is clear from all accounts, what is most important in my opinion, is the passion and dedication to the history of British Columbia these two volumes demonstrate; ultimately, both succeed in contesting the stereotypical conception of Canadian history as underwhelming. Elliott and Hume go beyond the “facts” of history to foreground an identity of place forged through economics, conflict, politics, and above all, cooperation.
Despite the title of the book, Elliott’s Fort St. James and New Caledonia: Where British Columbia Began is better summed up in the introduction where Elliott states that “this book is a history of the fur trade as it developed in central British Columbia” up to the early years of the twentieth-century. Elliott further qualifies her subject by posing a number of questions around the “main themes of survival and cooperation.” Questions such as “how did the North West Company gain a secure foothold west of the Rockies in a land well populated by First Nations?” immediately inform her readers and involve them in constructing the answers. Furthermore, by posing such a question at the beginning of the work, the centrality and presence of First Nations populations are immediately established. Indeed, the reader is frequently reminded that European expansion west of the Rockies was impossible without the aid and cooperation of the First Nations, and that “without Native guides and interpreters neither Alexander Mackenzie nor Simon Fraser could have reached the Pacific Ocean.” Despite the conflicts that arose between the North West Company (and later the HBC) traders and the First Nations population, and despite the overarching mandate of imperial expansion and exploitation, Elliott’s work suggests that an atmosphere of cooperation and economic interdependence prevailed. The NWC and the HBC made a practice of respecting First Nations’ customs such as the arrival of the first salmon, and cremation ceremonies, and of “recognizing headmen or chiefs at an annual ceremony.”
Often at issue in the fur trade was the relationship of the fur traders and company men with First Nations women. These relationships often helped to forge trade alliances and agreements as well as fostering cooperation in areas of food, clothing and shelter. The phrase au façon du pays is translated in Elliott’s appendix as “in the fashion of the country” and is used to “describe the of a fur trader and a native or Métis woman.” While Elliott points to works such as Jennifer Brown’s Strangers in Blood,which states that “Nor’westers treated Native women as commodities,” she also reports that “many of the Nor’westers remained with their partners for life” and that individuals such as John Stuart and James McDougall “maintained stable relationships with Native and Métis women.” In each chapter, Elliott not only chronicles the lives of clerks and traders such as Daniel Harmon, but devotes time to their wives and families. In the case of the Harmons, Elliott relates that they spent over “fourteen years together” during which they shared many “joys and sorrows together, including the deaths of newborn twins,” and that upon their departure together from New Caledonia, they were “formally married” at Fort William.
In answer to the question, does Elliott convince me that Fort St. James is “where British Columbia began?,” I would suggest that this is not the intention of the book. What it does do is successfully present an informative account of the fur trade, and place Simon Fraser at the beginning of British Columbia as the founder of Forts McLeod and St. James. More important, however, is that Elliott gives credit to those who operated in the background of Fraser as interpreters, clerks, guides, and suppliers. As Elliott suggests, it is individuals such as John Stuart, interpreter Jean Baptiste Boucher, and clerks James McDougal and Daniel Harmon “who deserve the credit for cooperating with First Nations” and ensuring the success of the fur trade in New Caledonia which ultimately led to the colony of British Columbia.
What I commend about Elliott’s work is the informative, approachable style in which she writes. The amount of information in this volume is substantial, and the research undertaken is both evident and appreciated. The combination of style and information makes this an essential book for the academic, student, and general reader alike.
What struck me the most about Hume’s Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia, based on the series in the Vancouver Sun, is the sheer beauty of the volume. From the stately and imposing watermark of Simon Fraser on the front cover to the myriad historical and modern photographs, to the helpful location maps that aid the reader on Hume’s journey of discovery, to the weight and feel of the book, the luxuriousness of Hume’s work is unmistakable. His conversational, poetic, and somehow personal tone is easy to read, and enjoyable from page to page. Hume makes his readers feel as if they too are on the journey with him, stepping gingerly into a canoe, blazing a trail through the forest, and trekking down path after muddy path. While some of the chapters seem, in my mind, more suited to the newspaper series in which they originally appeared, the simple convenience, style, and beauty of the book is too advantageous to ignore.
In his foreword, Hume remarks that “what follows is not history in the scholarly sense of that discipline . . . Nor is this a conventional biography . . . It is simply a curious reporter’s story.” Hume’s words are important to framing his narrative, and if at times I wanted more of the academic insistence on facts, references, linearity, and biography, perhaps this desire reflects my personal bias rather than any particular flaw of the volume. As a “curious reporter’s story” of an “epic life and the times it spanned,” it succeeds.
In the numerous asides, and curiosity-laden interruptions to the narrative of Simon Fraser, in the focus on the search for modern British Columbia, Hume finds the most success. Hume continuously operates in what I would call “tangent-mode,” offering enjoyable and engaging insights into modern British Columbia and Canada from the Cold Lake Air Weapons Range “annual top-gun war games for fighter pilots” near Cold Lake, Alberta, to Sault Ste. Marie, “hometown of Roberta Bondar, the first Canadian Woman in space,” to tracing the footsteps of Fraser’s expedition along the Ottawa River to behold the modern-day Tulip Festival from the Alexandra Bridge. Through these asides, Hume challenges his readers to “see” the history that is imprinted in the geography that surrounds us.
As Hume travels from location to location in his retracing of Fraser’s expedition, it quickly becomes clear that not much is known about Fraser or his journey west. Indeed, Hume often relies on conjecture or on the accounts of other historical figures such as Alexander Mackenzie to tell his story. Does Hume thus answer his own question “who was Simon Fraser?” In my opinion, yes. Indeed, Hume’s style allows readers to become Simon Fraser. In chapters such as “Forts Beyond the Rockies,” Hume delightfully becomes more novel writer than historian as he describes the scene facing Fraser, the “darkest winter months of 1806” where the “once-terrifying Peace River canyon was silenced by ice more than a metre thick” and only in a few places “did the slick, black shimmer of open water punctuate the silent eternity of white.” Hume fleshes out the epic figure of Simon Fraser, enlivens him in the imagination, and in doing so takes one of the first steps in elevating Simon Fraser from relative obscurity to national importance.
What stands out in Hume’s work is the idea of togetherness. He makes it clear that the idea of Canada is a creation, that the idea of British Columbia is born of an economic and political reality; these categories are modern inventions that lack permanence and stability. He says it best when remarking on the winds that travel from Louisiana, down the Mississippi, down the Wabash and Ohio Rivers, and across Lakes Erie and Ontario: “it’s one more reminder of how the continent is woven together in ways that haven’t changed since Fraser’s day and will certainly outlast our own delusions of permanence.”
- Utopies d'une Amérique française by Constance Cartmill
Books reviewed: Utopies en Canada (1545-1845) by Bernard J. Andrès and Nancy Desjardins and La Nouvelle-France. Les Français en Amérique du Nord XVIe-XVIIIe siècle by Jacques Mathieu
- In Touch with the Land by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Tom Thomson's Shack by Harold Rhenisch, Summer Gone by David Macfarlane, and The Clouded Leopard: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire by Wade Davis
- Picturing BC Landscapes by Joel Martineau
Books reviewed: The Sunshine Coast: From Gibsons to Powell River by Howard White, Haida Gwaii: Journeys Through the Queen Charlotte Islands by Ian Gill, and This Ragged Place: Travels Across the Landscape by Terry Glavin
- British Columbia's Iliad? by Mark Diotte
Books reviewed: The Inverted Pyramid by Bertrand W. Sinclair
- White's Mythology by Charles Barbour
Books reviewed: Figural Realism: Studies in the Mimesis Effect by Hayden White
MLA: Diotte, Mark. Seeking New Caledonia. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 24 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #206 (Autumn 2010). (pg. 128 - 130)
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