“This land of shaven stone and stunted trees was called Ontario, but . . . the north was a separate province in everything but political arrangements, its people a separate breed, its life turned forever northward
IN COBALT I met two ruined men. One of them, being Chinese and therefore a philosopher, took ruin calmly and grinned at me from behind his restaurant counter like a gentle old monkey. The other, a broken miner, having no gift of philosophy, pointed to the tortured hills of Cobalt, the pyramids of crushed rock and the lurching mine towers. “She’s gone,” he said, “murdered, crucified and dead from hell to breakfast.”
The Chinese proprietor—speaking in an odd mixture of English and French—told me that the fatal mistake of his life had been to settle in Cobalt. His restaurant in Montreal had employed eight French-Canadian waitresses and had earned him a modest fortune, now lost. Here he was his own cook, waiter and dishwasher, trapped in Cobalt. Still, he rather liked it. The people were so nice, so gentile.
“When I hit this town,” the miner said, “she was the best damn town in the north—thirty mines, ten thousand people and whisky two drinks for twenty-five cents. And, mind you, not watered down like now. We was rich on a dollar and a half a day. That was nineteen-seven. Now she’s dead. Two mines, two thousand people. And me too old to work.”
Why didn’t he leave Cobalt for a warmer climate in the south? “Hell, man,” he cried, “you can’t leave the north! Once you’re in you can’t get out.” Why? His face wrinkled deeper in thought and he finally explained everything.
“It’s the north,” he said, “that’s all. The north.”
So he, too, had trapped himself in this diminished town. Cobalt! It was a word of magic fifty years ago. When Jim McKinley and Ernie Darragh picked up a hunk of pure silver beside Long Lake, on August 7, 1903, these humble timber cruisers had unlocked the Precam brian Shield and given Canada a new dimension. Out of Cobalt surged the great Ontario mineral boom, which is just getting nicely into its stride today. But it has left Cobalt, its birthplace, far behind, almost forgotten.
I looked out the window again at the ragged street, the hills blasted, riven and gutted of their treasure. What, the miner asked, did I think of that? I didn’t tell him, for 1 was considering a discovery of my own—an obvious discovery, to be sure, well known to the natives but new and rather staggering to the stranger.
This land of shaven stone and stunted trees was called Ontario, but in true distance from the Ontario 1 knew it might as well have been within the Arctic Circle. 1 was beginning to realize that the north was a separate province in everything but political arrangements, its people a separate breed, its life turned forever northward and bounded on the south by the appalling Precambrian dike.
Yesterday I had walked the streets of Toronto and, the day before that, the orchards of Niagara. Now I seemed to have landed on another continent. Anyway, it was no longer Ontario, whatever the map might say. It was not the real north either. Most of Canada’s land mass lay beyond Cobalt. Nevertheless, I had crossed one of the sharp internal boundaries and spirit lines of the nation, of which division the two men in the restaurant were tiny markers and mileposts.
It was evening when my wife and 1 escaped from Cobalt and headed north, into the empire of the Shield that covers more than half of the nation with rock, tree and water and with hidden wealth beyond man’s imagining.
The road was straight, smooth and lonely. It bore no mark of man’s passage in an hour’s fast travel, save countless corpses of porcupines crushed by speeding wheels.
A yard from the pavement the Shield, oldest solid substance on our planet, and mother of all things, rolled in mammary swelling to a hard horizon under a dome of gun metal. The northern twilight, like the rock beneath it, was flecked with precious mineral. Gold dust danced in the long sunset and the air carried the distilled Canadian smell of wild rose, pungent spruce, balm of Gilead and damp muskeg— a smell sweet with boyhood memory and a man’s vain regrets.
Suddenly the silence was shattered by a thundering frog chorus, daylight died grudgingly with a last scarlet tear and to the northward the lights of Kirkland Lake glowed like a false dawn.
As we neared the town we could make out a red Neon cross thrust bravely against the black rim of the world, then the ghostly mine towers and smokestacks swimming in moonlight.
It was nearly twelve o’clock before we reached the gaudy main street of Kirkland Lake, but on a Saturday night no one, apparently, had yet thought of going to bed. I could hardly find a place to park my car. Every restaurant was crammed. Store windows blazed with displays of refrigerators, washing machines, electrical gadgets of every sort, new automobiles, women’s lingerie, evening gowns and all the essentials of civilization, more than a hundred miles from nowhere.
The townspeople saw nothing strange in this spectacle. They were making a night of it in their own fashion. To a stranger bursting out of the darkness the town looked as unreal as a flimsy stage set erected half an hour ago to be dismantled and carted away at daybreak. Of course, it wasn’t really a town at all, for all its solid business buildings, modern homes and shiny new cars; it was a miners’ camp.
After enquiring in vain at three hotels, we finally obtained a room of sorts for which the proprietor, a desperate but kindly man, apologized. A convention of the Diamond Drillers Association, or some such festive company, had taken over the town and would be drilling enthusiastically until morning at least.
It was impossible to sleep in a stifling cubicle amid the glass-clinking sounds of the drillers’ night shift, so we went for a walk. No one else was walking. Kirkland Lake seems to travel exclusively on wheels and boasts the ownership of more cars per head than any place in America. Yet a block from the glaring main street we found ourselves on the lip of wilderness and limbo.
The northern slope and cold shoulder of the earth slid downward to the Pole in a hush punctuated by the tick of man’s machines here and there, in darkness pierced by his few pale winks of light. He can bore a few miles of tunnel into the body of the Shield, smelt some specks of its ore. His camps called towns or even cities leave hardly a scratch on a surface little changed since it rose from the steaming liquid of creation. The cause of his feud evidently went back a long way and was no business of’ ours. We turned discreetly to an evil mess of bacon and eggs, while the miner, his battered old face twisting in rage, informed a tipsy youth that he would meet him outside, at leisure, and destroy him with bare hands. The youth tottered to the door. The miner forgot the quarrel and undertook to educate me in the history of the north.
The houses of Kirkland Lake clutch the naked rock faces. The rough floor of the »Shield erupts in the back yards. Sidewalks reel six feet above the road in places and the road is level with the next row of roofs. »Some thrifty householders have managed to grow a tree or two, a bed of flowers or a patch of lettuce in a scjuare yard of soil. The rich have made spacious gardens. But this remains physically and spiritually a camp.
“The houses of Kirkland Lake clutch rockThe Shield erupts in the yards”
Lull . . . before the great gale
No chipmunks ran the roof that night;
No hound gave cry; no owl was out; The cabin creaks were thin and slight,
A furtiveness closed all about;
The spruces seemed to stand more tall Than they had ever stood before;
No crooked twig nor branch let fall A breathing sigh.
Down on the shore, Three waves spoke faintly to the sand Of what was rumored in the sky,
And we, awake . . . could understand What might be coming by and by.
MARTHA BANNING THOMAS
It was two o’clock on »Sunday morning when we shouldered our way through the crowded doors of a restaurant. Naturally, another Chinese philosopher, the universal Canadian, the same man wearing slightly different masks from »St. John’s to Victoria, presided over this establishment. A second universal Canadian was present also the miner who has followed the rainbow all his life and found no pot of gold. At the moment he was a little drunk and meditating a duel of honor.
I was in luck. I had stumbled on a rich ore body. For the next hour that man drilled me with a gimlet eye while he told his private odyssey.
Yes, he’d known them all in his time.
He remembered Harry Oakes and W. H. Wright, who staked WrightHargreaves and Lake Shore, filled Kirkland Lake with rock and sludge, built a town on this foundation and began the Golden Mile of seven mines.
“A lot of good it did Harry,” the miner said. “They murdered him somewheres down in the West Indies. He j should of stayed up here where he belonged. And Wright, he bought a newspaper and race horses. Too bad.”
He even remembered, or said he did, the fabled Fred La Rose, a blacksmith whose mine was the first producer in Cobalt and the start of the great rush.
“Why,” he affirmed, wagging a bony fist under my nose, “when 1 first come in I was only a kid then—they was hand-cobbing the stuff, just breakin’ it up with a hammer and shippin’ it in gunny sacks, it was that rich.”
His eyes were glazed with drink and recollection. “The Porcupine!” he ¡ croaked. “There was a fella from Klondike, name of D’Aigle, only knew placer, you see, and drilled up there and never saw what he had and went away, and Benny Hollinger and some other fellas come along and flipped a coin for the claims—and that was the Hollinger. Can you beat it? Then a fella by the name of Preston fell down a rock and landed on a vein—that was the Dome.”
So the great names, the facts and the fables of the Shield drifted through his talk, together with items from his own adventures, the hopeful strike, the promise of opulence, the disappointment, the endless trek from mine to mine. Others had struck it rich and he had ended where I found him, in a dingy Chinese restaurant.
I repeated the question 1 had asked in Cobalt—Why not leave the north?— and got the same answer. “Once you’re in,” he said, “you can’t get out. And who wants to? Sure, the big hoys in Toronto get all the gravy. They don’t even come up here to see us work. Not them. Might get their shoes muddy. But they miss all the fun down there. What do them pansies know about minin’?”
He permitted. himself a hitter little laugh and stretched his hands across the table for me to see the calloused palms and crushed fingers.
“That,” he said, “is minin’—fiftythree years of minin’. But, hell, it’s okay. This country’s only beginnin’. They haven’t even scratched her yet.”
It was after three o’clock and revelers still surged through the restaurant. They were of every breed, look and language. Though they spoke in Fnglish, French, German, Polish and tongues beyond recognition, all of them bore the unmistakable mark of the north; not physically, of course, but in the texture and slant of the spirit.
An assortment of diverse breeds had merged here in the single, unvarying breed of the miner. These men, and t heir women too—the chunky laughing women who followed their mates wherever the trail happened to leadmight seem to settle down in a town like Kirkland Lake but they were not settlers. They were rovers, spending their money as fast as it came in, on cars, on trips, on a good time, and then moving on to the next camp.
Their talk, or as much of it as I could understand, was of neighborly affairs, of baseball, movies, fishing and the minutiae of a small town anywhere. Yet it was not the talk you would hear south of the Shield. Through it ran the family news of the universal miner— the price of gold, silver, lead and copper, rumors of a new strike to the north, tales of sudden wealth in the uranium fields, and shrewd detailed discussion of the big mining companies’ annual reports.
They were assembled here as lonely men always assemble, as the Indians squatted around a campfire, to escape the loneliness and the dark. They had come to find some light, some company and perhaps some drink after the labors that mainly enrich other men, far away in the board rooms and the clubs of the city.
By the irony of all things, the working people, as the old miner had said, seem to have more fun than the owners of the stock certificates.
The crowd in the restaurant thinned out at last, leaving only a party of somewhat hungover businessmen after a night of poker. They did not appear altogether happy about Kirkland Lake.
It was standing still, they said, while other towns went ahead. It had never quite recovered from the miners’ strike a few years ago, a scar still unhealed. New industries were needed to employ the young, for the miners’ sons seldom followed their fathers into the mines but drifted to the factories of Toronto. Who could blame them?
The businessmen were trying to turn a camp into a town and that, I suppose, is the basic problem of most camps throughout the north. It will be solved in time, but the miner will never be anything but a miner, even when he becomes a townsman. And the north, I suspect, will never be quite merged with the south. Rock and soil won’t mix.
The Chinese proprietor had retired by now and a handsome dark woman, obviously with some Indian blood, and speaking in a strong French accent, had replaced him at the cash register. She told me her people were French Canadian on her father’s side, and she had just returned from a visit to the old family home in Montreal.
I asked her how she liked the eastShe said it was all right, though she hadn’t drawn a happy breath till she got back home. Kirkland Lake wasn’t much of a town, she guessed, but she liked it. The only trouble was the new immigrants. They cut wages and spoiled the business of the country. The north should be kept for Canadians. Many of her people had moved out from Quebec and more would come, if the immigrants didn’t get all the jobs first.
It was light again when we reached the street. The towers of the surrounding mines stood up stark and hideous against the pink dawn, their machines still clanking and grinding on the Sabbath. The main street, after the night’s glitter, was silent and deserted. The town had shrunk to a few yards of pavement, a huddle of buildings, a tiny smudge on the bosom of the Shield.
Who lives next door?
That horseshoe of rock, stretching from Newfoundland to the Arctic, was not what I had expected after seeing it only from airplanes and trains. I had pictured an unbroken and uniform sweep of badland, Christmas trees and glassy puddles. In daylight I found it varying from mile to mile as the rock surged up into little mountains, sank into swamp and muskeg, parted to hold big lakes or circular inkwells, disappeared under a fur of black spruce and Opened now and then into lush meadows for man’s plow.
‘i The fertile belt of clay, the fat fields, big barns and sleek cattle around the dairy town of Earlton, about two hundred miles within the Shield, look almost unbelievable after the sterile rock north and south of it.
A young French-Canadian farmer Said most of the people hereabouts came from Quebec and were doing fine. The ancient civilization of the St. Lawrence had leapfrogged across the stone dike and, after a ruinous forest fire thirty years ago, had prospered in this remote pocket of agriculture. Plenty more land could be cleared, this man said; life was good and everybody friendly, also bilingual.
He had just returned from his first, visit to Montreal and took a poor view of it. Things moved too fast down there and “nobody knows who lives next door.” His people had belonged to the great eastern river for three centuries. Now they belonged to the Shield.
All French Canadians are not so fortunate or so competent as the farmers of Earlton. Farther south a forlorn and soiled figure thumbed a ride and climbed into the back seat. He could speak no English, but eagerly consumed the remains of yesterday’s picnic.
As I had a few words of French and my wife, with none, can somehow understand it, we struck up a wild disjointed conversation and learned the tragedy of our passenger.
He had hitchhiked from Quebec City on his way to a prosperous uncle in St. Boniface, had been robbed of his valise and money at Timmins, had slept on the roadside without food for two days and had lost his courage. Now he was beating his way home, with a broken heart. For once, the westward march of the French Canadian had ended in retreat.
Disaster could not suppress his kind for long. Enlivened by coffee and sandwiches, he entertained us with French songs and jolly imitations of Maurice Chevalier until we parted with mutual regret at North Bay.
Like other railway travelers, 1 remembered North Bay as only a station and a brief flash of lights. In daylight it turned out to be a substantial little city, ringed by a charming array of tourist camps on the shore of Lake Nipissing. The week-enders of Toronto have come a long way north.
The French Canadians, however, are not coming into this country for the week end. They are here to stay. Sturgeon Falls, a town built by the electrical power of the raging Sturgeon River, prints its street signs in English and French. 1 heard little English among its people.
To the west a cunning combination of metal, timber and waterpower is building a series of industrial centres in the most unlikely places. Probably nature never intended man to live here but, around Sudbury, he has improved on her work of desolation. 1 he fumes of his acids have killed every blade of vegetation, stripped the rock of its thin integument and produced a fair replica of hell or Hiroshima.
One might be traveling, for several miles along the highway, on the surface of some dead planet. Sudbury crouches around the belching Moloch of its smelter. It rears mountains of slag, li builds a city in a vacuum of aching stone and looks from the distance like a casual outcrop of grey ore.
Man, most adaptable of creatures, can get used to anything, even Sudbury on a summer day, when heat gushed out of the stone oven at a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. A French Canadian, who came here to work in the smelter and now owns a fleet of taxis, assured me that Sudbury was t he best place in Canada.
“We’ve got everything,” he said. “Baseball in summer, hockey in winter and something doing all the time. A guy can make money here. Why, 1 wouldn’t take the whole of Quebec foi Sudbury. Only trouble is, the immigrants stealin’ too many jobs away from us. But this town’s only beginnin’. They’re findin’ more mines all over the country and that means more dough for everybody. Go back to Quebec? Don’t make me laugh!
We staggered into a dingy shop for a bottle of cold pop and found behind the counter the stately caricature of Colonel Blimp, speaking in the colonel’s accent. T suspected that this English gentleman might be oppressed by the mixed population of Sudbury, so 1 asked him obliquely if there were many foreigners in town. He bridled at my question.
“What do you mean, foreigners? ‘Phis, sir, is an international city. No people are foreigners here.
After this proper reprimand I enquired if he liked Sudbury. He launched at once into a lecture, well rehearsed and often repeated, to advise me that Sudbury produced ninety-five percent of the world’s nickel, and lay amid the largest store of minerals on earth. It was bound to become a metropolis.
This, I am sure, is all true and the nation fortunate indeed to have people who will live, work and find contentment in the heart of inferno. Full of admiration and dread, we sped west on a crowded highway at the customary local speed of some eighty miles an hour.
it was too hot to stop at Blind River, which is said to be a name as magical today as Cobalt was half a century ago. 1 took the word of a proud resident that this village is surrounded by the largest uranium treasury yet discovered and will be a major Canadian city. A smiling old priest was greeting his parishioners at the steps of his church as we passed by. How long can such a pleasant rustic scene survive the prospective metropolis of Blind River?
Soon we were in a region of hill, forest, lake and river, cooled by the reliable refrigerating apparatus of Huron and perfectly designed for the camper, fisherman and painter. I began to understand why the Group of Seven had gone gently mad in these surroundings. Their gaudy brush strokes seem extravagant only to those who have not beheld the artists’ model.
It is sad to see that Americans appreciate better than most Canadians the gorgeous substance of the Shield in these parts. Tourists drive all the way from California and the southern states to some secret camp and there revel in scenery and fish, wondering, as one of them remarked, why the natives foolishly go south to the U. S. on holiday.
We were the only Canadians, I think, at dinner in Melwell Lodge, built by an imaginative young pair named Melba and Weldon Moore on a hidden lake not far from the main road. Americans had got there ahead of us and wisely pre-empted all the beds.
Moore filled us with beefsteak and trout, got busy on his telephone and found us a cabin at Northern Lodge, on Lake Huron, amid such an amphitheatre of terraced green rock, wild flowers and tufted islands as the Group of Seven never quite captured. We slept that night beside a cool beach, soothed by the cry of gulls and the flash of fireflies, and set out again at dawn forSaultSte. Marie.
The Soo is a town, to be sure—a town prettier and better built than most, with a single main street six miles long (or so they told me, but I was too tired and hot to measure it), so that a businessman must take a taxi to visit a neighboring office. But the Soo is something much more important than a town; it is the hinge of the continent.
French voyageurs found that out long ago. Here, in June 1671, the Sieur de St. Lusson proclaimed, with musket fire and a ceremonial sod raised on his swordpoint, France’s lawful claim to America entire. Though events worked out otherwise, nothing could alter the Soo’s decisive place in continental geography.
Beside the canal locks that drop Lake Superior twenty-one feet into Lake Huron 1 encountered a tall figure in seaman’s blue serge and peaked cap. His face was dark and finely cut, his mustache fierce, his eyes gentle. He might have been a descendant of those old voyageurs. And in fact he was, on the French-Canadian side of his family.
He gave me a gruff reception at first, like a captain long accustomed to the discipline of his bridge, but I suspected, from his attachment to a mongrel named Mike, that he had a softer side. When I ventured to remark that the locks appeared interesting, he rebuked my ignorance with a cold look.
“If,” he said sharply, “one hydrogen bomb dropped right here, America would he paralyzed.”
That is hardly an exaggeration. The largest tide of continental freight flows day and night through these locks in the holds of some two thousand lake ships.
Having registered these facts, the captain mellowed somewhat and invited me to the snug cabin of a tugboat, the command of his later years, to examine certain relics. He showed them to me in an off-hand fashion, but I could see that they were precious. Adventures incomprehensible to anyone except a lake navigator were recorded in rumpled charts, photographs of forgotten ships, newspaper reports of wrecks, collisions and fires, faded portraits of many gallant seamen drowned in some of the world’s worst water.
We returned to the stone wall of the Canadian lock, empty at the moment, and watched a steady procession of vessels stride from Lake Huron into the MacArthur lock on the American shore. They loomed up vaguely in the mist, announcing their arrival with a scream of whistle, and all of them looked alike to me. The captain knew the name, dimensions and freight capacity of every ship at a glance.
To the west, in Lake Superior, other ships awaited their turn, each a silhouette of high bridge in bow, funnel in stern and nothing between but a dark pencil line. The captain named them for me at a distance of several miles and explained the evolution qf their design through nearly two centuries of experience since the days of birchbark.
These were floating machines, automatically loaded and unloaded. One of them could carry in six or seven hundred feet of hull the grain of forty thousand acres, the freight of two hundred boxcars and the material for sixty million loaves of bread. I thought them efficient and ugly. The captain rebuked me again. They were beautiful, he said.
“The Soo is something much more than a town; it is the hinge of the continent”
Ghosts at tli«wild waters
Some fishermen dangled their lines idly in the tailrace of the St. Mary’s River, but not long ago Frenchmen portaged around these wild waters and the Nor’westers dug a ditch twenty-five hundred feet long and eight feet nine inches wide to carry their canoes and bateaux. The replica of a lock on thaf first Soo canal, completed at a cost of “upward £4,000” in 1798, and destroyed by the Americans in the War of 1812, has been installed amid a sweep of lawn and flowers to remind Canadians of their fathers’ work.
Nobody seemed to notice it that morning. And how many Canadians outside Sault Ste. Marie know that Charles 4’. Harvey, an imaginative salesman of household scales, started to build the first ship canal, on the American side, in 1853, at a cost of $999,802.46, almost forty years before the Canadian canal, which cost thirty-four million?
Since it is impossible to drive along the northern shore of Superior—the so-called Trans-Canada Highway passing far to the north—we were compelled to make an American detour south through Duluth, Minnesota. A day’s drive brought us to the Canadian Lakehead and an astounding spectacle.
The grain elevators of Fort William and Port Arthur rise, lonely and stark, beside the indigo pool of Thunder Bay. Mr. C. D. Howe who, I was told, had built most of these structures, is commonly accounted only a man of business, but it seemed to me that he had qualified as one of our leading Canadian artists. His towers are our Egyptian pyramids, our Tower of London and Taj Mahal—or at any rate express exactly our grim and practical northern life.
I ventured in a previous report to name the Welland Canal as Canada’s true national monument. On second thought, I recommend the Lakehead. All the labor, the silence, the loneliness and stern beauty of our land brood in these grey cylinders, rank on rank aslant the blue metal of the lake.
As at Welland, the visiting spacemen of the future will make nothing of our work, will probably ascribe these concrete sproutings to a religion that worshiped strange and brutal gods. In a way those antiquarians will be right—Canada worships the gods of commerce; the engineer is its idol; the production and movement of material things are its constant fascination. The elevators of the Lakehead contain its tribal deities.
They contain much else, unsuspected by the passerby. From the outside a terminal elevator is a motionless bin, supposedly filled with grain. Inside it is a workshop of whirling machines, conceived by Disney and operated by his Seven Dwarfs, very hot and dusty from their work.
The boxcars roll in from the prairies. A pair of mechanical hands grasps them, upends them and shakes out their grain; or if this latest unloading gadget has not yet been installed, two muscular young men, masked against the dust, wade waist-deep into the cars, with squares of board attached to cables. As the cables drag the boards out again like giant shovels, the grain comes with them. It is caught on belts, moving perhaps sixty miles an hour, and carried in a brown ribbon to the “leg,” which lifts it in an endless stream of buckets to the upper stories.
There it is automatically weighed in giant tanks, poured out through movable chutes, cleaned on vibrating screens and passed under a magnet to extract any metal scraps from some farmer’s combine. (“Watch out for that magnet,” said the elevator boss. “Get too close and it’ll pull your watch out of your pocket, and maybe your gold inlays.”)
At last the clean and golden stream is pouring into the belly of a ship, oozing slowly through the many separate holds like a thick syrup. A man beside every spout flicks samples from the stream with a tin dipper, and in a tiny office nearby the final verdict on the farmer’s work is quickly rendered.
The grader, a great man in the hierarchy of the elevator, spreads a handful of grain across a tray. He looks at it, rubs it between his fingers and within two minutes must say whether it is Number One Northern, or maybe fit only for cattle feed.
How does he know? He cannot explain. The color tells him something— this rich red stuff is obviously of highest grade—but his fingers tell him more and, after a rxioment’s doubt, his experience tells him everything; not only experience but affection. He fondles the grain as a miser fondles gold.
This stuff is, of course, much more valuable by proper measurement than the almost worthless metal of the financial myth, and it is moving out of the lakes to the river, to the great canals, to the ports of foreign lands and the stomach of mankind. It will soon be a loaf in some London housewife’s oven and served up with sticky jam for an Knglish workman’s afternoon tea, or will be eaten by unimaginable brown children, or yellow, in the forgotten byways and lost villages of the world.
The gaping decks were battened down. ‘File captain climbed aboard, telling me that his was a dull trade and he wished to God he’d become a dentist or an insurance salesman in a snug house ashore. With a farewell toot the long black ship, low in the water and pregnant with her living freight of seed, slid out into the lake.
The distinguished townsman of Fort William who had me in tow boasted that the suction pump of the Lakehead handled more grain than any port on earth. He showed me the paper mills, the torrent of iron ore paralleling the torrent of grain, and a dozen other industries that make Fort William and Port Arthur two of the busiest towns in Canada and the home of forty racial stocks. (“In our champion hockey teams,” my guide said, “half the names are always foreign.”)
I his place has come a long way since those roving rascals, Groseilliers and Radisson, first sighted Thunder Bay, since Du Lhut started trading furs here, the Nor’westers founded their Fort William and Lord Selkirk captured it by force of arms for the Hudson’s Bay Co.
Alas, the soil of all that rousing history is buried under the railway tracks, but Fort William takes its past seriously, maintains a line museum of antiquities and worships its legends— especially the legendary Indian maiden, Green Mantle, who led her captors over Kakabeka Falls and died with them rather than betray her tribe.
Both cities on the bay are grossly underestimated by railway passengers. I had often seen them from the train windows and remembered only a few rusty warehouses and the concrete towers. On a summer’s day Fort William and Port Arthur are two of Canada’s most agreeable towns, engulfed in foliage and blossom. (All flowers wear a deeper hue here than elsewhere, thanks to the invigorating climate, the natives claim. The character of the natives is affected in the same way.)
Business streets in both towns are modern, expensively built and crowded, the homes comfortable, the tourist resorts luxurious. There cannot be nobler view in Canada than the blue lake, the elevators, the ships in ceaseless shuttle and the square shoulders of Mount McKay, as seen from the hill behind Port Arthur.
An obvious question must plague every visitor. Why two separate towns, organically one, divided by an imaginary municipal line? The natives spoke obliquely of this division and hurried on to something else, as a man may hint at things unseen and not intended for human sight.
The secret rivalry of the tribes has been handed down, but never told to aliens, since Port Arthur seized one of Van Horne’s trains, in some tawdry tax dispute, and that ferocious empire builder moved his terminal point to Fort William. And it is only fifty-two years since Fort William’s embattled citizenry assembled with shovels, axes and crowbars to prevent a junction of their street railway with Port Arthur’s.
“We don’t belong to Ontario”
Rudyard Kipling, pausing here for an hour or two, recorded that the Twin Cities “hate each other with the pure, poisonous, passionate hatred which makes towns grow. If Providence wiped out one of them the survivor would pine away and die—a matchless hate-bird.”
Kipling recklessly prophesied their eventual union but of that there is no sign yet. They live in a kind of polite co-existence which, I gathered, could not be called peace but is not war. 1 did not enquire too deeply. One does not ask about the mysteries of the tribal gods, brooding in their concrete temples.
Both cities, so long as 1 didn’t confuse them in conversation, received me with a warm western hospitality, and much strong drink. I say western for, as one of Fort William’s scholars informed me, “We don’t belong at all to Ontario, you know. We’re part of the west, thank God! And some day, mark my words, we’ll be a separate province.”
He pointed to a map on his wall and put his finger on White River. “There or thereabouts,” he said, “the line will be drawn between Ontario and our province. The Soo and Sudbury? Oh, they’re Ontario, strictly eastern. Our faces are turned west. That’s where the grain comes from.”
Various other geopoliticians analyzed the economic ties binding the Twin Cities to the prairie and emphasized the purely western character of their people. No proof was needed. The natives of southern Ontario and the natives of Thunder Bay are as unlike as Canadians can be a settled society and a restless band of pioneers.
As a westerner I am prejudiced in this old folk argument. 1 like a breed of western men who casually build an industrial complex a thousand miles from anywhere, blast mountains, toss the grain of the prairies into the conveyor belt of the lakes, prepare to make a province of their own, throw up concrete wigwams and endow them with spirits, while moose and bear wander into town.
“You’ve got us all wrong,” said a geopolitician, “if you think we’re just a port and manufacturing centre. Look.”
He traced on his map a line from London to Lindsay and south to Niagara and Windsor. “All that area,” he said, “has less fertile land than we have right around here. This is going to be one of the richest farm sections in Canada. Go and see it for yourself.”
It was hard to leave such a lively folk, but we had a long journey ahead of us. So, with proper obeisance to the tribal shrines, we drove west and, as my informant had promised, found a lush oasis of agriculture planted within the stone desert of the Shield. We also found, among his abundant acres, a swarthy young giant named Walter Drazeky who, without knowing it, is doing an important job for Canada. He regarded me with skepticism at first but gradually softened.
His father, a Pole, had come here early in the century, worked for twenty-five years to make a stake, and bought a run-down bush farm. Slowly, with infinite toil, he had cleared two hundred acres, now waving in hay and grain.
The younger Drazeky was still clearing land at the rate of ten acres a year, and evidently prospering. His parents lived in a big square house, surrounded by flowers, and he had built a modern bungalow for himself close by.
The father was absent that day but the mother—a woman bearing the lean peasant look and the solemn dignity of the earth—greeted me shyly from her kitchen. The son said she was the business brain of the farm and knew down to the last pint the cost of producing the milk from the herd of dairy cows in the barnyard.
We inspected the massive barn, the array of costly machines and two fat Clydesdales eating their heads off in a meadow. Why the horses? Because, said Drazeky, “a farm just isn’t a farm without horses.”
Did he ever grow tired of this labor and think of taking a job at high wages in the industries of Fort William? “Not me,” he said. “I’m a farmer. The land is good and there’s still miles and miles of it to clear. But I guess you’re born a farmer, or you’re not.”
He was a clever man, well educated, a master mechanic, a scholar of husbandry. Only the high cheekbones and handsome dark face showed traces of his Polish blood. When we parted at his gate he petted his shiny Clydesdales and remarked that they had been raised right here. Then suddenly, in case I misunderstood, he added, “I was born and raised right here, too. I’m a Canadian!”
This country, I thought, raises no better Canadians than Walter Drazeky. I left him, a happy man beside his horses, a symbolic figure of western history. Though the prairies lay far ahead, I knew I was already in the west.