Canadian symbols: NIAGARA FALLS

Canadian symbols: NIAGARA FALLS © David Watts, 9 May 2003


Niagara Falls appears on travel posters as a “must see” for visitors to Canada from Europe. But it is more than a tourist attraction.

It is an axis on which our country’s existence originated, and on which it continues to turn.

Significantly, it is a joint symbol shared by Canada with the United States. An island in the middle creates two watercourses: the Canadian falls, which are arguably more scenic, and the American Horseshoe Falls, which are longer, slightly higher and handle a greater volume of water

The Niagara River and the twin falls between Ontario and New York not only make the boundary between two countries across the St. Lawrence Seaway.

They are a natural force that led to there being two countries in North America rather than one.

An aboriginal legend attributes the creation of the falls to the intervention of the Spirit of the Atlantic in a duel between two other powers. Geologically, this is not so far off the mark.

For the cutting through the Niagara Escarpment by the upper four Great Lakes —,— years ago effected a major change in the drainage of the Continent.

Till then, they drained southward to the Gulf of Mexico through the Missouri and Mississippi.

The uplift created Niagara Falls introduced a new route, joining with the Ottawa to the northeast.

This river route to the interior became a border line and changed the orientation of North America

Continentalists like to argue that Canada is an artificial construction geographically, since the major physical divisions run north and south, not east and west.

That is true in the west, particularly on the Great Central Plain, which runs from the Peace River country of British Columbia through Alberta, Montana, Utah and Colorado to the Arizona desert.

The Cordillera, too, runs north to south, though its many folds and ranges, coupled with glaciated inlets along the coast make it a divisor rather than a unifying factor.

But in the eastern half of North America the lines are very different.

Here the northern half is dominated by the Canadian Shield, which lies almost entirely in Canada, while the U.S. to the south has different structures.

Within and below the Shield is the St. Lawrence Lowland, one of the two major rivers on the eastern North American seaboard.

Canada was settled by Europeans beginning on this coast, where the dominating geography ran east to west, with two livers leading into the continent.

In the south the Hudson penetrates the Alleganies, in the north the St. Lawrence cuts a notch

The Hudson River became the commercial hub of the colonies founded by Great Britain, the St. Lawrence became the base and highway of the fur-trading empire of New France

Within twenty years the political landscape changed enormously. New France passed to the British. New England and the other British colonies to the south became independent.

But the disappearance of France’s Empire from the New World did not lead to a single English speaking entity, for the two river systems continued to compete economically.

Voyageurs from the Northwest Company had already opened up the interior and north of the continent on their annual run for furs.

When the land south of the 49th parallel was closed to them, they built new bases and found new routes and portages: the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers on the plains.

When transcontinental railways were surveyed, they followed the paths of the voyageurs. The New York Central extended the …

Canadian Pacific and later Canadian Northern extended the Nor westers lines to the western sea.

It was a Hudson—not an American but a Canadian locomotive, the “Royal Hudson” that set the record for the fastest crossing of North America, pulling C.P.R.’s “Dominion” until the 1950’s.

All this came from the uplift of Niagara Escarpment and the two falls and countries it delineated.

For forty-three years after Confederation the two countries continued as competitors. Then the Laurier Liberals proposed they become partners in a Canada U.S. Free Trade Agreement This proposal died when the Liberals were defeated by Borden’s Conservatives in the 1911 election.

While this was happening, an American railroader, Charles Melville Hays, built a bridge across the Niagara River, between the two countries, just above the Falls. He then attempted to build another railway across Canada by a new route: not to Vancouver but to Prince Rupert, which was closer to the Far East by sea.

The line went through but Hays went down with Titanic and his railway folded soon after. Free trade with or through Canada seemed a losing proposition, especially when the Depression came.

Seventy-six years later it was revived with the parties reversed: The Progressive Conservatives of Brian Mulroney proposed Free Trade with the U.S. over the opposition of John Turner’s Liberals.

This time the Government was re-elected and the proposal passed into law. Free trade is now a fait accompli. It has not been all smooth sailing—like the rivers, it has its snags and eddies.

As long as the rivers shall flow”—our first nations say that when they mean forever. Yet rivers do not flow forever. They are dammed and diverted and redirected by human and natural factors.

Niagara Falls is gradually moving upstream as the River erodes the escarpment. Sometime the island in the middle will disappear. Then there will be a single falls.

But the land is moving too, as our the people who live on it. Will there continue to be two main rivers, two countries, running west to east, or will they come together?

If they do, it will not be a matter of one swallowing up the other. Watch when two streams, one green and one brown, join. For a time we can see two stripes running side by side in a single channel. Then they make a new colour, not quite the same as either one was before.

It’s like that with peoples too. You can’t think of Great Britain without the Scots and Welsh. Or of Switzerland without the French, Germans, Italians and Romanish.

The Canadian spirit is now alive in many peoples who have come from many parts of Earth. Once “Kanata” meant a village along the St. Lawrence. Then it meant an extension of that River “from sea to sea, and finally to another ocean in the North.

Someday it may mean what “Dominion” meant in the Bible: to the ends of the earth. When that happens, it may not matter if there’s one place called Canada, if the Canadian spirit of tolerance and connection is shared world wide.

At this point of History’s flow, we can love and appreciate our side of the double waterfall and our side of the River, realizing we’re ultimately all part of the Ocean and Planet of Humankind.