Thursday, 29 June 2017

The Discovery of Prince Edward Island and the Backwater of Canadian History

"Then 480 years later we plan to legalize weed, gay marriage, and sex with animals..."

The chief characteristic of Canadian history is how underwhelming and indeed twee it is. Although it has its occasional moments, there are few of the Earth-shaking events and titanic figures of the kind that define other countries' histories. This should not be surprising as the country derives its name from a casual Indian word for "village" (kanata) and has chosen to symbolize itself with a flag based on a dead leaf.

Canada is the work of steady, low-profile individuals making calm, rational decisions to exploit hitherto unexploited resources, and keeping conflict to a minimum, not hard to do in a land that is still considered "big and empty." It is a country where the spirit of history has traipsed with light, moccasined feet and gently dipped its paddle, rather than marched with heavy steel-capped boots to the sound of drums.

An example of this "history-lite" occurred today (29th June) in 1534, when the Breton explorer Jacques Cartier discovered the island that later came to be known as Prince Edward Island. A beautiful, crescent-shaped island of low-lying, gently rolling land in a large sheltered gulf, Cartier immediately saw its potential, and described it as "the fairest land one can see, and full of beautiful trees and meadows." He called the island after St. Jean, leaving it to the British to later rename it twice.

Everyone trying really hard to stay awake at the start of Canadian history.
Cartier (1491-1557) was also the man who gave Canada its name (through a bit of linguistic confusion while schmoozing with the Indians), and, as the pedantic nature of that choice suggests, he was a calm, methodical, get-along kind of guy—not at all unlike the land he discovered later became.

He had sailed from St. Malo in Brittany on April 20, 1534, with two ships and 61 men, reaching the Bay of St. Lawrence, which he then explored, encountering and trading with the Micmac Indians, who barely used the land they sparsely inhabited. The voyage was at the behest of King Francis I of France, keen to challenge the claims of Spain and Portugal to the New World by sending out his own feelers.

But while the main rivals of the French, the Spanish, were sending out daring, do-or-die expeditions that were toppling the Aztec (1521) and Inca (1532) empires, this expedition was low-key but competently managed. Nothing spectacular happened, rather like Canadian history itself.

There was also nothing "imperial" about the French Empire that later grew up in Canada and the Mississippi river basin. It was in fact an "empire" that was defined by waterways, spreading along lakes and rivers, like pondweed, mainly through bartering and by getting on the good side of native Indians.

The bucolic charm of St Edward Island, discovered 483 years ago today, was a good precursor for the tone that was to define the history of the land that Cartier discovered.

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