Canadian Voyageur

The Canadian Voyageur David Watts 4 July 2003

Canada was explored, opened up and first inter-connected by the voyageurs.

In England’s past is Piers Ploughman, in America’s Paul Bunyan, John Chapman and the frontier. In Canada’s is no single figure but a society of them: the runners of the woods in their canoes.

The rivers of Canada run in four directions: north to the Arctic, south to the Gulf of Mexico, east to the Atlantic and Hudson Bay, and west to the Pacific. The voyageurs traveled all of these.

When the American colonies separated and cut off access to the south, the voyageurs concentrated on the east-west link that became the transcontinental orientation of Canada:

Ottawa to Nipegon and the Upper Great Lakes, Lake of the Woods to Lake Winnipeg, the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers, the Peace, Athabasca and Parsnip to the Fraser and Columbia

Where our first nations knew the lands where they lived like the lines of their hands, the voyageurs joined the lines, the parts together to get a sense of a whole body of a half continent.

The peoples of the plains had told them the legends of a western sea, the coastal tribes recounted tales of the interior. The voyageurs made trails of the tales, and checked them out to their sources

Before roads, rails or even a single pathway ran between the oceans, they scouted the network of lakes, streams and portages that became the Northwest Passage.

The lines they traced held our country together east and west before we were a single country, and the American push northward to the pole seemed unstoppable.

Their waterways became the pathways for the railways that would make the country a reality.

The men of the Hudson’s Bay and Northwest Companies were here first after the aboriginals—learning from them, adding colour to the forests and songs and dances that became our folklore.

They were wiry figures, compact enough to fit into canoes between the bales, sinewy enough to paddle sixteen hours a day, singing to keep in stroke, munching pemmican on the move

Around the falls and rapids, they portaged on the run: hauling 200 pound packs with thongs around their foreheads, holding their canoes above them.

They ran, they sang, they paddled and portaged, they stopped to sleep four hours and started again. At their destination they dressed, danced and dallied, then turned around for the return trip.

Half the time they paddled against the current. Back in Quebec their lifestyle became a counter-weight to the image and values the Church was promoting.

The priests of New France had encouraged their young men to become sons of the soil, to settle down, take up farms along the River and raise up children of the faith.

The men who passed up and down the River each year on their way to and from the woods represented something else. Their women were more numerous, their children less.

Half the year they consorted with the tawny and copper maidens of the tribes where they traveled. The other half they returned to the forts to tell romantic tales of faraway places by winter fires.

Their sanctuaries were not the parish churches but the forest cathedrals: the rocks, peaks and waterfalls that were their bones and the Life stream that coursed through their bodies.

The freewheeling voyager and the home-loving habitant seemed to be at opposite poles.

Yet in middle age some voyageurs stopped and settled. What they founded, lasted.

It was the voyageurs who named many of the lakes and rivers of what is now Northern Alberta and the northern United States, and serviced the forts of the Yellowhead and Miette passes.

It was a band of retired voyageurs, les voltigeurs or “darts,” that became the first police force of Fort Victoria, now Victoria, BC.

The voyageurs live on in the Canadian psyche: in our songs, stories and celebrations when we learn our heritage in schools and live it at summer camps.

The voyageurs live on in the spread of names they gave to the map of North America: Lachute Quebec, Laronge Saskatchewan, Barriere BC to Boise Idaho, Sioux St. Marie and Seine, Ontario

They live on in our seasonal awareness: breakup and freeze up, flight of the geese and fall of the leaves, northern light and longest day

Most of all, the voyageurs live on when we stretch ourselves to the limit: climbing and kayaking, traveling the Trans-Canada Trail, walking in the Marathon of Hope, training for the Olympics

Focused on a goal, keeping pace, steady, measured—

The spirit of the voyageurs is the spirit of Canada: in full stride, full stroke on the human voyage.