O Canada


Canada: Geography


Donald Creighton, The Commercial Empire of the Saint Lawrence, Ryerson Press, Toronto, 1937, 441 p.


2 Fundamentally, the civilization of each society in North America is the civilization of Europe. An inward necessity, instinctive and compelling, had driven the immigrants to preserve the mysterious accumulations of their cultural heritage

Undoubtedly, these two societies, one almost exclusively French and the other predominantly English, were differentiated by race, language, laws and religion. [...] But the society of the St. Lawrence and the society of the Atlantic seaboard were divided by something else, which was more fundamental and which is purely American. Immediately these migrants had to come to terms with the new continent. From it they had to wrest a living; and since they were Europeans and not Indians, a living meant  not merely the food to sustain life but the amenities of West-European civilization which alone could make it tolerable. They had to find means to produce their own necessities and to pay for their imports from Europe.

3 Each society, after long and recurrent error, had read the meaning of its own environment ; accepted its ineluctable compulsions and prepare to monopolize its promises. And each, in the process of this prolonged and painful adjustment, had acquired an American character, a purpose and a destiny in America.

3 Chance flung the first English colonists on the edges of the Atlantic seaboard and opened the single great eastern waterway of the interior to the French. In the history of the different economies, of the cultural patterns which were to dominate North American life, these were acts of the first importance.

4 The river up which Cartier ventured gave entrance to the totally different dominion of the north. It was a landscape marked off form the other geographic provinces of the new continent by the almost monotonously massive character of its designs. A huge triangle of rocky upland lay bounded by a river and a string of giant lakes. [...] The enormous flat bulk of the Precambrian formation was not only the core of the whole Canadian system, but it was also the ancient nucleus of the entire continent.

5 The Canadian Shield and the river system which seamed and which encircled it, were overwhelmingly the most important physical features of the area. They were the bone and the bloodtide of the northern economy. For the French and their successors, it was inescapable.

Settlement starved and shriveled on the Shield; it offered a sullen inhospitality to those occupations which were traditional in western Europe and which had been transferred by the first immigrants to the Atlantic seaboard of North America.

It was an area of staples, creating simple trades and undiversified extractive industries; and its furs, its forests and its minerals were to attract three great assaulting waves of northerners.

6 [...] this drainage basin, driving seaward in a great proud arc from Lake Superior tot he city of Quebec, was the fact of all facts in the history of the northern half of the continent. It commanded an imperial domain. Westward its acquisitive fingers groped into the territory of the plains. Aggressively it entrenched upon the dominion of the Mississippi. [...] It was the one great river which led into the heart of the continent . It possessed a geographical monopoly; it shouted its uniqueness to adventurers. the river meant mobility and distance; it invited journeying; [...] the whole west, with all its riches, was the dominion of the river.[...]it seemed the destined pathway of North American trade; and from the river there rose, like an exhalation, the dream of western commercial empire. The river was to be the basis of a great transportation system by which the manufactures of the old world could be exchanged for the staple products of the new. [...] The dream of the commercial empire of the St. Lawrence runs like an obsession through the whole of Canadian history [...].

8 the pressure of geography bore with continuous persistence upon an unprotected people; and a brutal necessity drove the first Americans to come to terms with the landscape they had inherited. [...] What the continent flaunted, they took; they could not be made to seek what it seemingly withheld Their economies grew naturally, organically out of the very earth of the new world.

11 The economy of the north was in utter contrast with the industrial and commercial organization of the Atlantic seaboard. In the north, geography directed the activities of men with a blunt sternness; and it had largely helped to create a distinct and special American system. The lower St. Lawrence was for the French, as it is for the Canadians of today, the destined focus of any conceivable northern economy.

[...] northern commerce was not to be built upon a solid foundation of agricultural production. The river and the Shield, which seemed physically to overawe the valley with their force and mass, reduced the lowlands of a position of secondary economic importance.

But the first important Canadian market and the first source of Canadian staples for export lay, not in the lowlands, but in the west.

13 Canadian expansion drove impulsively westward, along the rivers and into the interior. The energy and initiative that lay dormant in the lowlands grew exuberantly in the western wilderness of rock and water and forest.

14 Furs, a product of the Shield, obtainable by the river system of transportation, weighted the already heavy emphasis of the Precambrian formation and of the St. Lawrence. Furs impelled the northerners to win that western commercial empire which the river seemed to offer to the daring. The expansion of the French was the penetration, not the occupation, of the west [...].

14 This was the northern commercial system, of which furs were the first staple ; and the fur-trading organization of the French was the elementary expression of the major architectural style of Canadian business life. It was a distinct North American system, peculiar to CD, with the immensity and the simplicity which were characteristic of the landscape itself.

14-15 [...] The whole landscape annexed to the river of CD, the lands that spread out north and south and westward of the Great Lakes were claimed and largely exploited by he commercial state which was centralized at Quebec and Montreal.

15 The pressure of this system was enormous. The colony grew curiously - ungainly, misshapen, almost distorted - stamped by tasks and ambitions which were, on the whole, too great for it.

16 It was western trade, moreover, which largely determined the style of Canadian politics. Transcontinentalism, the westward drive of corporations encouraged and followed by the super-corporation of the state, is the major theme in Canadian political life; and it was stated, in its first simplicity, by the fur trade. [...] The St. Lawrence was an expensive monopoly; ad its imperious demands could be met - and even then inadequately - only by the corporate effort of the northern society. [...] Strong, centralized government was of course imported from old France; but its continuance in the new world was encouraged, rather than opposed, by the northern commercial system.

20 In a certain sense, the French were not really the builders of the northern commercial empire: they were its first owners, its first occupants. They read the meaning of the region, they evoked its spirit, and they first dreamed the dream which the river inspired in the minds of all who came to live upon its banks [...] its was an astonishingly correct anticipation of the experience of successive generations of northerners. With the surrender of the transportation system of the St. Lawrence, there was passed on also to the victors the commercial philosophy based upon it.