by ANNA STOOKE
Canada is famous for a lot of things, such as maple syrup, our natural landscape and our friendly population. But let’s face it, when it comes to history, even I have to admit that it’s not so thrilling.
But history matters. The stories we tell define us. And if you’re visiting from another country, there’s no better way to understand Canada’s patchwork of people and languages than to look into the past.
On July 1st, 2014, Canada will turn 147 years old. What a young country! But wait! People have been living on this land and telling stories for thousands of years.
Many scientists believe that people crossed into Alaska and British Columbia from Siberia about 12,000 years ago, over an enormous ice bridge that connected Alaska and Russia. The descendants of these people still live in Canada. They’re known as our native, or indigenous people. However, they weren’t alone for long.
There is evidence that Japanese fishermen occasionally washed ashore and lived with the native people on the Pacific coast. On the Atlantic coast, the Vikings tested their luck in a settlement in Newfoundland in the year 1000, but they abandoned the area due to the weather and threats from indigenous people.
Europeans followed the Vikings about 500 years later. From the late 1400s to the late 1800s, these shores saw explorers from England, Scotland, Russia, France, Portugal, and Spain. Everyone tried to claim a piece of Canada for their own!
These explorers were also businessmen, and they soon started trading guns and metals with the native people, in return for valuable animal furs. The Hudson’s Bay Company, from England, started trading in 1670. However, most of their workers were not English, but Hawaiian and French Canadian. This company, which is still thriving in downtown Vancouver, is older than Canada itself!
As you can see, although the idea of Canada is fairly young, our history is much, much older. And it is unique in its variety. So many different people have had so many different experiences in this country. All of our stories are worth listening to.
If you’ve spoken to a few Canadians, you’ve probably heard us making jokes about Americans. We don’t always feel too friendly towards our southern neighbours, and beating them at hockey is absolutely essential to our dignity! However, the ice rink is not our only battlefield.
In 1812, a war started between the United States and British North America (Canada before 1867). The war was mostly about trade and business, but the events are still exciting to Canadians today. 212 years ago, the Americans invaded part of southern Ontario. This marks the last time anyone has invaded Canada. To retaliate, our soldiers marched all the way to Washington, D.C. and actually burned down the White House!
At the time, the White House was still under construction. The head architect was none other than my direct ancestor, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. I suppose he felt pretty angry after we burned down his White House, but he did get to redesign it into the White House that you recognize today.
Since he was a relative of mine, I probably shouldn’t feel so excited about this moment, and, as a Canadian, I’m usually proud of our peaceful international reputation. But I have to admit that I love the drama and daring of this act. It was a defining moment, although Canada and the United States have never agreed on who actually won the war.
As the world’s second biggest country, Canada spans forests, prairies, mountains, rivers and even a desert. Our motto is “from sea to sea” because of our Atlantic and Pacific coasts. Our geography is definitely impressive, but in the days before the internet and easy access to the telephone, I can’t imagine how difficult it was to communicate.
When Canada was created in 1867, it was only a small collection of provinces in the East. The new nation and the land around it were vulnerable to American interests. One area in particular, British Columbia, was especially tempting to the Americans. It was, and is, a natural paradise. It also had coastal ports, coal and gold, and a large European population.
Both the Canadian and American governments fought hard for BC’s favour, but, in 1871, Canada won out with a promise to connect BC to the political and business centre of the young country. How? Canada would build a railway. It would stretch from Ontario all the way a small town in BC called Gastown, which we can now proudly call Vancouver.
The Canadian government set to work on building the track in 1881. But where would it find people willing to work long hours of backbreaking labour? Who would build 22,531 km of railroad?
In British Columbia, most of the work was done by Chinese workers, who travelled to Canada in search of jobs and money to send to their families. The youngest Chinese workers were only 12 years old. They worked tirelessly to clear tunnels with dynamite and many were killed in the process, but they received only half the wage of the European workers.
The treatment of the Chinese workers is one of the great Canadian tragedies. Their hard work was essential to the creation of Canada.
Sixteen years after Canada’s promise of a railway, Vancouver welcomed its first train in 1887. Many of the Chinese workers could not, or did not want to return home. They built prominent communities in major cities across Canada, particularly in Vancouver. Chinese Canadians make up about 11% of British Columbia’s population, and you can trace this all the way back to the railroad.
I can’t over-exaggerate the importance of the Canadian railway. Before it, Canada and British North America was a loose collection of different geography, different people and different languages. I think of the railway as a belt, bringing these people and this land into one manageable nation.
It allowed the spread of European culture, commerce, and people. However, it also allowed the spread of military power and disease, and it was absolutely devastating for the indigenous people who had lived here for thousands of years.
Although English and French are our official languages, Canadians tell stories in as many languages as there are cultures. Maybe the famous Canadian friendliness is just a way to keep the lines of communication open. After all, you can’t remember a story unless you listen to it.