A NATION OF EXPLORERS © David Watts 21/03/2010

The sheer size and emptiness of much of Canada means most of this country is unknown. It also means that any who want to discover and know Canada will have to be explorers.

This began with our first peoples. Later arrivals held the myth of aboriginals as sedentary, living unchanged from the time of populating of the land until the arrival of Europeans.

This was not the case. Though time did not move as fast for them as for post-Industrial Revolution Europeans, Canada’s first inhabitants did move through the land they lived in.

A study of aboriginal languages confirms this. The Cree spoken in the Alberta parklands is part of the Algonquian linguistic group, showing migration westward from the St. Lawrence.

Individual aboriginals moved even faster. Western Canada’s Yellowhead Pass is named for a blond Iroquois from the east coast. Many such guides helped open the country to Europeans.

But the first Europeans here, apart from a short-lived Viking project, were seagoing explorers: Cabot and Cartier on the Atlantic coast, Drake, Valdez, Quadra and Vancouver on the Pacific.

Hudson, David and Frobisher in the arctic, and eventually Champlain, Lasalle and Lavérendrye on the Saint Lawrence, Mississippi and Red Rivers.

These came before there was such a thing as Canada other than the Iroquois word for “village.” Their search for a trade route, a northwest passage, made them part of an international venture.

And the encounters between some of these explorers of different nations became models of an international village—part of the as-yet-unnamed Canadian legacy they contributed to.

It is significant that James Cook, greatest of the international seagoing explorers, experienced Canada on three fronts: charting up the Saint Lawrence for Wolfe’s forces, mapping Newfoundland, and exploring Canada’s west coast as a Commanding Officer.

But the real exploration of Canada was on inland waterways from the St. Lawrence westward. From the Montreal and Hudson bay-based fur trade emerged a unique breed: the voyageurs.

And from these companies of adventurers came our greatest overland explorers: Anthony Henday, Peter Pond, Samuel Hearne, David Thompson, Simon Fraser and James Douglas.

Many of these were searching for the western sea to China, but the work they did on land in Canada was thorough and lasting. Maps, journals, place names, stories and an ongoing spirit.

Stan Rogers captures this in what became an unofficial anthem for English speaking Canada:

Three centuries thereafter I take passage overland

In the footsteps of brave Kelsey where his “sea of flowers” began …

And through the night, behind the wheel, the mileage clicking west

I think upon Mackenzie, David Thompson and the rest

Who cracked the mountain ramparts and did show a path for me

To race the roaring Fraser to the sea …

A century after these explorers, following the same lakes and streams, came the railway surveyors: Sanford Fleming who charted Yellowhead Pass, and Major A. B. Rogers who found the pass in the Selkirk Mountains first followed by the CPR—a pass that bears his name.

It took some months afterwards before Rogers was persuaded by Canadian Pacific accountants to cash the company’s $5,000 cheque that he framed on the wall of his den. The motivator for Rogers was not money but having his name on the map for something he’d found.

Damming a brook with stones, building a fort in the woods, giving a name to a stream or pond are parts of growing up of many children and youth.

And setting out for parts unknown to find ourselves is part of the Canadian legacy the later Rogers sets out in the last verse of his “Northwest Passage:”

How than am I so different from the first [ones] through this way

Like them, I led a settled life, I threw it all away

To seek a northwest passage, at the call of many men

To find there but the road back home again …

Given the breadth and vastness of our country, it’s not necessary to leave it to find our way and to come back home to ourselves.

We can canoe or kayak the rivers of the bygone voyageurs where we’re joined by Germans and other adventurers from Europe.

We can set out with backpacks or ride horseback on the Skyline Trail of the Canadian Rockies.

We can take three days crossing the country by rail in the company of other explorers, or spend a year at a school or campus or on a job in another region of the country.

Or we can head into the wilds of our backyards—badlands, mountains, rugged coast or northern forests—to go on a vision quest as our aboriginal forebears did.

For us, like them, the wilderness is only hours away. Entering it, savouring it, sinking into it, letting it permeate us, is to strengthen and tame our own wildness and make us more human.

Canada, a country of great space and opportunity, is a nation for exploring.

Canada, a global village of competing and complementary strengths, is a nation of explorers.

Let us celebrate that gift and opportunity as we share it with our fellow citizens of Earth.