‘Upper Canada: The Formative Years’ by Gerald M Craig

My research has moved onto another stage: Judge Willis’ Adventures in Upper Canada.  My Australian readers will no doubt agree with me that Canadian history does not figure highly in the Australian history curriculum and that I probably shouldn’t feel as embarrassed as I do by my ignorance about all things Canadian.

This book was suggested to me on a Canadian history blog as a good, if somewhat dated, starting point in researching Upper Canada.  Where’s Upper Canada? you may ask.  (I certainly did).  As one of my first surprises, it’s not particularly “Upper” at all- it’s the area of Southern Ontario, north of Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. To my antipodean eye “Lower Canada” was actually closer to the north pole (and hence, upper)  than “Upper Canada” was.   It only officially existed until 1841, when Upper and Lower Canada were merged.

This, for me, was Revelation No 1- the river/lake eye view.  In his book, The Tyranny of Distance, Geoffrey Blainey emphasizes the importance of the lack of long inland waterways in Australia.  When you look at a map of Australia, there are none of those meandering rivers that weave , branching and converging across a continent.  Instead, apart from the Murray-Darling system,  there are stubby little twigs that start and break off, seemingly without reason.  No wonder explorers dragged their canoes with them into the Australian desert: their experience in other continents would have reassured them that there would be a river system somewhere, waiting to be discovered.  It also explains why early British settlement in Australia hugged the coast so tightly, and why they were keen to annex strategic harbours rather than the continent as a whole. (p. 122-3).  With a Canadian river-eye view, “Upper” refers to the reaches of the river, not the lines on a map, and “development” involves canals and river engineering works.

Revelation No 2 was the importance of borders, and here I remembered echoes of John Hirst’s first year Australian History subject where he emphasized the importance of Australia not having to share a border with any other colonial power.  I hadn’t considered before the significance in the time of the Napoleonic Wars of having French-Canadian neighbours, or the implications of “loyalists” coming across the border after the War of Independence, and the uneasiness that would evoke.  The book was a salutary reminder.

Revelation No 3 was the familiarity of policies across the empire. I was prepared for this, but it was still an “aha!” moment for me to see migration, land and church policies that I had thought of as “Australian” being applied in another context.  Our “national” history is not as unique as we might want to think it is- much of  it was part of what we would now deride as “one size fits all” empire-wide approach.  Policies that seem puzzling, like the insistence on restricting settlement around the Sydney area, make more sense in the face of Upper Canada’s experience when settlement was allowed to become too dispersed, a phenomenon exacerbated by the policy of reserving large tracts of land for clergy and Crown needs at a later date.  Of course “one size” didn’t fit all, and policies were subverted and ignored, but it’s interesting to observe the empire’s “corporate learning”, even if it only existed on paper.

Revelation No 4 was not strictly a revelation either: more a confirmation of the mobility of colonial careers.  For here we see George Arthur popping up as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, having completed an earlier stint in Van Diemen’s Land- and there’s Charles Buller– I thought he was supposed to be “our” man in Whitehall!

The book was clearly written, with a strong chronological structure.  I found myself raising a sceptical eyebrow at the comment that unlike the United States, Upper Canada was never an “angry” Indian frontier- is that true?  The emphasis on the book was on politics and economics rather than social history, and I don’t think that there was a single woman in the whole book.  That’s fine: I’ve just started reading and plenty of time to rectify that.  There’s an almost laconic view of causality running through the narrative of this book: rebellions and ructions, when they occurred,  are portrayed as almost unnecessary, as structures would have collapsed under their own weight and events would have unspooled anyway.

The book, published in 1963,  was the first cab off the rank in the Canadian Centenary Series.  It concentrates on a defined geographical area within a clearly designated timespan.   The book ends optimistically, looking to the future and further progress.  The concept and premise of “Upper Canada” seems to be a phase in Canada’s history, and I sense that it has been left behind without regret or nostalgia in the march towards other things.

7 responses to “‘Upper Canada: The Formative Years’ by Gerald M Craig

  1. Re Revelation #1: I remember my Atlantic History lecturer saying that the Europeans during the era of ‘exploration’ and colonisation viewed water like we view roads. The ocean and rivers were not barriers, they were conduits for European movement.

    This was reinforced to me last semester when I explored the history of Delhi. Whereas the Mughals came to India from Central Asia via land routes, the British came from the sea. The map of the British occupation of India at 1805 in the Times Atlas of history (p. 172) gives a graphic depiction of the consequences of the preference for travel via water. The British territory hugged the coast line except for the incursion into the area of the Upper Doab (which is in the vicinity of Delhi). This extension of British territory into central northern India follows the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. In the first half of the nineteenth century the principal means of transport between Delhi and Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the river except for a short stretch of bumpy, uncomfortable travel by land.

    This preference for water travel was reflected in Britain during the frenzy of canal building in the later eighteenth century. Travel by land at the time was uncomfortable, potentially dangerous (highwaymen) and damaging to goods needing transport. Water was safer, more comfortable and quicker. Jenny Uglow conveys this well in her collective biography, The Lunar Men. But then anyone who has had a ride in a stage coach at Sovereign Hill will be able to sympathise with travellers of the nineteenth century in Australia!

    • Yes- it must have been exhausting being thrown around in a stage coach, especially in trips that took several days. I haven’t read The Lunar Men, even though I’ve meant to for some time.

  2. *nod* Australians really didn’t get a good look at Canada in high school and undergraduate history courses. Until Canada sent all its young men to aid Britain and the Empire in World War One, I too would have thought of it as a large, snowy country where the Brits and the French slugged it out for generations.

    Quite rightly you noted that you hadn’t considered the significance of having French-Canadian neighbours during the Napoleonic Wars, or the implications of Loyalists coming across the border after the War of Independence. Too remote for us, I think.

    But consider the USA advocates of Manifest Destiny who believed that expansion was not only wise but that it was readily apparent and inexorable. Texas would be swallowed up first, then California, perhaps Mexico and eventually all of Canada. If I had been Canadian, I would have been watching the Americans more closely than the British and French.

    • Yes, the suggested reading list from Andrew Smith’s blog placed quite a lot of emphasis on American history at the time. At first I thought that rather puzzling, but I can now see why that alternative across the border played such a significant physical as well as philosophical/political threat.

  3. Pingback: ‘Roughing it in the Bush’ by Susannah Moodie | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

  4. “Upper” Canada is so called because the entire settled area of what is now Canada was then dominated by the St Lawrence River and the area in question was up[stream. The word had nothing to do with its being near the top of a standard map of North America, nor did it have anything to do with the elevation of the land.

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