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The Scot in British North America
Chapter I The Country and its early History


Stretching from ocean to ocean, with "cold and pitiless" Labrador at the eastern extremity, and Vancouver Island for its western outpost, lies a broad belt of land, bounded on the south by Quebec, Ontario and the United States, but unlimited northward, save by the icy ramparts which encompass the Polar Sea. All this vast expanse is British territory and forms part and parcel of the Dominion of Canada. Of the eastern portion little will require to be said, except in so far as the Hudson Bay Company’s trading operations may invite notice. It is almost uniformly bleak and barren, whatever may be its mineral value, and is historically interesting only because it has afforded scope for the adventurous trapper and huntsman. It is with the North-West that we have now chiefly to do, including in that term all that region lying from James Bay to the Pacific. It will be found that, as a field for exploration, trade and settlement, this broad domain has claims upon the consideration of Britons of which the vast majority of them have only the feeblest conception. The literature accumulated upon the subject is voluminous enough certainly; and yet it is not too much to affirm that the surpassing value and importance of this noble possession of the Crown are far from being appreciated not only in Europe, but even in the older Provinces of the Dominion. To undervalue what is but partially and imperfectly known, especially if it be distant or demand energy and self-denial to secure, has been a characteristic, of many nations otherwise sufficiently diverse in their tempers and tendencies. It is, so to speak, the wisdom of ignorance, quickened into contempt by the languid energy of indolence and satiety. The cynical Frenchman who consoled Louis XV. for the loss of New France by the sneer at those "few arpents of snow," represented a large class not yet extinct. There are not a few men now who are not much better than he, the only difference being that they laugh at his ignorance, and at the same time repeat it along with the sneer, when they speak of the Saskatchewan Valley. The "arpents" are not few, farther west than the courtier dreamed of, but they are only "arpents of snow" after all.

It was Lord Salisbury, if we mistake not, who uttered some pungent remarks concerning the right and wrong use of maps a few years ago. There is need of a similar caution otherwhere than in Eastern concerns. To some men it would appear to be not merely inexplicable, but preposterous, that the climate and fruitfulness of a continent, throughout its entire breadth should depend upon anything except the parallels of latitude. They are astonished, if not incredulous, when told, that the isothermal line which passes below the city of Quebec reaches the Pacific Ocean at almost the sixtieth degree of north latitude, and therefore, that all their preconceptions regarding the North-West are far astray. In European countries, especially in the British Isles, there is no room for tracing these broad climatic laws. It seems startling, therefore, to be told that in and about the Province of Manitoba, seven hundred miles north of Toronto, as fine, if not finer, wheat is grown than in any part of the rich peninsula of Ontario; and further, that this fertile breadth of one hundred miles, hemmed in between the northern lakes and the boundary line, expands, like the cornucopia, as it stretches to the Rocky Mountains, until it measures three or four hundred miles. Even north of that fertile belt, about far-distant Hudson Bay, "houses" and "factories," cerea1s are cultivated regularly and with assured success. Another point deserves notice. It is constantly urged by the pessimists that, whatever the natural advantages of the North-West may be, it can never compete with the American line of overland travel, either for traffic or permanent settlement. Now, in the first place, there is the superiority of the country itself to be taken into account. The American Desert is almost entirely south of the boundary line; in fact it only impinges slightly upon British territory and need not be taken into account. There is no salt solitude on the banks of the Assiniboine, the Saskatchewan, or any of the other generous streams which water our central America. Broad prairie, navigable waters—lake and river—and what our neighbours lack, coal almost the entire way from Manitoba to Victoria. The mineral wealth of the Northwest has only been vaguely guessed at; but it is known that not only in the "fertile belt," but far north, upon the Mackenzie River, even beyond the Arctic Circle, gold, iron, copper, lead, and coal have been found in exhaustless abundance. There is another advantage in the climate, notwithstanding the fact that the extremes of heat and cold exceed those of the older Provinces, though not those of Minnesota. The atmosphere is dry, and the temperature in any given season more equable than in other parts of the Dominion. The snow-fall is less heavy, and there is not usually that distressing interchange of frost and thaw, ice and slush, which are so trying elsewhere. Those who have passed the winter in the west as well as the east, express their decided preference for the climate of the former. So lightly does the icy finger of the north press upon the fertile country that horses and cattle are often pastured all the winter upon the long grass on the prairie, without shelter and yet without risk. The facilities for the construction of a transcontinental railway are as much in our favour as the fertility and well-watered character of the land. Most of the country is comparatively level, or, at worst, rolling prairie, and the engineering difficulties are few, until the Rocky Mountains are reached. Even there, the passes are at a lower elevation, the snows less threatening, and the work necessarily less expensive. Add to this, that, through this rich and fertile region, lies the shortest route from Europe to China and Japan, and the reader may form some conception of the glorious future in store for the Canadian North-West.

The pioneers in discovery here were, of course, the French of Old Canada; but it is to Scotsmen especially, that the world owes the complete exploration of the territory, and the first efforts put forth for its settlement and civilization under the British régime. The successors of Champlain, La Salle, Marquette, Joliet, and De La Vérendrye—the first white man to lift his eyes upon the snow-tipped summits of the Rocky Mountains—were almost all of them Scots. Some indications of Scottish energy are embalmed in the maps and charts of the country; yet they inadequately represent the courage and enterprise displayed in the early days by those avant-couriers of trade and exploration. The river nomenclature is usually supposed to afford the best indication of the race earliest at work in any country; and, if that be taken as a mark of Scotch priority, the evidence is conclusive. The Mackenzie River—longer than the St. Lawrence, including its great chain of lakes—traced by him whose name it bears to the delta through which it struggles, by various mouths, into the frozen sea, the Fraser River of British Columbia, the Simpson and the Finlay—all afford silent testimony to the indomitable courage and enterprise of the North Briton. Whatever future—and it must needs be a glorious one—awaits this noble British domain, in the past certainly, all the rough, and much that proved thankless, work was accomplished by the stout arm, the strong will, and the hard head of the Scot. Multitudes of diverse nationalities will pour upon those fertile plains, and enjoy the fruits of the Scotsman’s labours, without thinking of their benefactor; still, to the eye of the historian, or even the grateful patriot, in centuries to come, the trials and struggles of the past will assume their fair proportions in any panorama of this greater Scotland in the North American continent.

During the French period which the graphic pen of Mr. Parkman, for the first time, introduced to the notice of the English reader—the fur trade was the be-all and the end-all of colonization. It was the pursuit of skins and peltries of all sorts that more than anything else, fomented the natural antagonism between French and English colonies, aggravated the horrors of Indian tribal warfare, and eventually brought about—first, the death-struggle between the powers in the North, and, secondly, by necessary sequence, though indirectly, the American Revolution. ["We come now to a trade far more important than all the rest together, one which absorbed the enterprise of the colony, drained the life sap from other branches of commerce, and, even more than a vicious system of government, kept them in a state of chronic debility – the hardy, adventurous, lawless, fascinating fur trade. In the eighteenth century Canada exported a moderate quantity of timber, wheat, the herb called ginseng, and a few other commodities; but from first to last she lived chiefly on beaver-skins. The government tried without ceasing to control and regulate this traffic; but it never succeeded. Parkman: The Old Regime in Canada, p. 303.] The great aim of the Colonial Governors, both English and French, was to detach the Indian tribes from affiance with their national rivals. When the French were not fighting the Iroquois of the British colonies, they were intriguing with them, though for the most part unsuccessfully. The English, on the other hand, strove to destroy the French trade by seducing or crushing the Hurons and Ottawas, who not only served the masters of New France, but commanded their communications with the North-West, both by the Ottawa and the Upper Lakes, and at Michillimackinac (now Mackinaw), the junction of Lakes Huron and Michigan, by the frontier route. It was the settled policy of the French rulers to hem in the British colonies by Gallic settlements on all sides, and if they could not drive them off the continent, at least to concede only a strip of territory, upon the Atlantic. It was with this object that the heroic La Salle, Father Marquette and other daring explorers, wandered far west and north and south. Fort du Quesne on the Ohio, memorable as the scene of Braddock’s defeat, was only one of the cordon of strongholds designed to strangle British North American colonization in its infancy. The claim set up by Frontenac, Denonville and other French viceroys to both shores of the great lakes, and all the territory watered by streams flowing into them, was prompted by no mere lust of national aggrandizement in the way of land, but by a settled determination to secure and maintain possession of the great water highways of the continent.

All those historical episodes, which give so romantic a tinge and shed so sombre an interest over the chronicles of New France—the surprises, the heroisms, the patience, the endurance and the sufferings of soldier, priest, religieuse and habitan—were occasioned by the Indian intrigues and counter-intrigues in the great struggle for the mastery in trade competition. The mother countries might be at peace, and yet covert, and often open, war was waged between the colonies. Even during the later Stuart epoch, when the honour and fortunes of England were at the lowest ebb, the royal pensioners of France who sat on the throne could not restrain the impetuosity of the Virginia, New York, and New England colonists. The struggle between Denonville and Gov. Dongan of New York may serve to illustrate the internecine conflict which never ceased until the red cross of St. George floated over the castle of St. Louis. The Marquis de Denonville, with his predecessor the irascible De la Barre, filled up the space between the two vice-royalties of Frontenac. His term almost exactly coincided with the reign of James II. in England. He appears to have been a pious, well-meaning ruler, not without considerable abilities and certainly with strong patriotic feelings. Colonel Thomas Dongan, an Irishman and nephew of the redoutable Earl of Tyrconnel, was a Catholic, and yet no friend either to the Jesuits or the French. He had been strictly enjoined, both by Charles and James, to concede every French demand, to give no countenance to the Iroquois or any Indian tribe hostile to the French; and yet, either from choice or necessity, he violated his instructions in every particular. The Dutch and English settlers were determined to assert their claims to a share in the lucrative fur-trade in the North-West. As this traffic could not be carried on without contracting Indian alliances, of which the French were naturally jealous, conflict was inevitable under any circumstances. The Iroquois were not merely friends of both races, but even aspired to hold the balance of power between them. Dongan was, perhaps unjustly, accused of having incited the Five (or Six) Nation Indians to war; unhappily, as the whole history shows, they stood in no need of prompting. The scalping-knife was always ready whetted; it was only to sing the war-dance, brandish the tomahawk, and away to the harvest of death. The French had an astute agent in the Jesuit Lamberville, but they made little progress south of the Lakes. The chief, "Big Mouth," as represented in Parkman’s graphic narrative, [Parkman: Frontenac, p. 109.] was wily enough to palter with the bluff La Barre, and, in spite of his plausible and almost eloquent harangues, little satisfaction was obtained by the French. The old soldier failed and was succeeded by Denonville, who, according to Saint Vallier, always had the Psalms of David in his hands. The Church, no less than the State, hoped much from his piety and administrative skill. He was a soldier of long service, but he had to face a difficult and trying crisis with an empty exchequer and a mere handful of troops. The people of New France were numerically inferior to those of New England and New York; the flower of their youth were scouring the woods, huckstering with the Indians and worse; and above all there was a government which was despotic without effective power, strong where it might have been mild, and weak where it ought to have been strong. And yet the task was laid upon Denonville to decide in France’s favour the deadly struggle between the French and English colonies. ["The Senecas, insolent and defiant, were still attacking the Illinois; the tribes of the North-West were angry, contemptuous and disaffected; the English of New York were urging claims to the whole country south of the great lakes, and to a controlling share in all the western trade; while the English of Hudson Bay were competing for the traffic of the northern tribes, and the English of New England were seizing upon the fisheries of Acadia, and now and then making practical descents upon its coast. The great question lay between New York and Canada. Which of these two should gain mastery in the west. –" Frontenac, p. 117.]

Denonville was not disposed to resort to any means which his religious spirit did not sanction. He was a firm ally of the clergy in their inflexible hostility to the traffic in brandy with the Indians; but he could also use religion as a political engine, when French emissaries were needed on British territory. He appeals rather too fervently to Dongan, as a man "penetrated with the glory of that name which makes Hell tremble, and at the mention of which all the powers of Heaven fall prostrate," to "come to understanding to sustain our missionaries by keeping those fierce tribes in respect and fear." But although Col. Dongan was a Catholic, he was too crafty a bird to be caught in the net spread in his sight. He knew full well what the Jesuits, Lamberville, Engelran, and their associates were about amongst the Iroquois, the Hurons and Ottawas; and he knew his duty as an English governor. He boldly entered the lists against the French schemes. "If his policy should prevail," writes Parkman, "New France would dwindle to a feeble Province on the St. Lawrence; if the French policy should prevail, the English colonies would remain a narrow strip along the sea." [Ibid., p. 119.] The "diplomatic duel" which ensued between the two rulers, is diverting at all events, if not edifying. The earnest appeals of Denonville, the rough-and-ready coarseness of retort used by the Irishman, together, give spice to an altogether futile correspondence. Denonville complains that Dongan had promised to leave everything in dispute to decision by the kings at home, and yet had disregarded the orders of his master. So, he had no doubt, but, with the mental reservation, that he should only obey instructions of which he approved. The Frenchman scolds his neighbour for permitting the sale of New England rum to the Aborigines. "Think you," he writes, " that religion will make any progress, while your traders supply the savages in abundance with the liquor which, as you ought to know, converts them into demons, and their lodges into counterparts of Hell?" "Certainly," replies Dongan, "our rum doth as little hurt as your brandy, and, in the opinion of Christians is much more wholesome." [Ibid. pp. 127,128.] The New York Governor scouted the idea that "a few loose fellows rambling amongst Indians to keep themselves from starving gave the French a right to the North-West." As for the plea drawn from the French Jesuit missionary, he sneeringly remarks "The King of China never goes anywhere without two Jesuits with him. I wonder you make not the like pretence to that kingdome." [Ibid., p. 161.] In short, Dongan utterly repudiated the French claims either to territorial ownership or the exclusive right to trade.

This brief glimpse of the relations between the colonies touching the fur trade and the Indian tribes, may serve to illustrate the deadly conflict which was almost unintermittently waged between the two nationalities. It remains to give a slight glance at French progress in the North-West. In the peltry traffic, as elsewhere, the Royal authorities, the King, his Minister, the Governor and the Intendant, attempted to inspect everything with their administrative microscope and manage everything with their official tweezers. The Bourbon system was, above all things, paternal—the exact antipodes of any government a Scot or an Englishman could either frame or endure. Colbert, the great minister of Louis XIV., wrote to the ablest and best of the Quebec Intendants, in 1666, after assuring him that the King regards all his Canadian subjects as his own children, desires the Sieur Talon "to solace them in all things, and encourage them to trade and industry." To this end he was instructed to "visit all their settlements; one after the other, in order to learn their true condition, provide as much as possible for their wants, and, performing the duty of a good head of a family, put them in the way of making some profit." [Packman: Old Regime, p. 209.] How this unwieldy system was manipulated from Paris may be seen in the three volumes of the Royal Edicts and Ordinances reprinted in Canada [Edits, Ordonnances Royaux. Declarations et Arrets du Conseil d’Etat du Roi, concernant le Canada. Quebec, 1854.] by the Provincial Government in 1854. A glance at the indexes at the end of the third volume will, of itself, give some idea of the minute care exercised over the mint, anise and cummin of Canada, while, the weightier matters of the law were being dealt with as avarice or love of adventure might suggest on the "few arpents of snow" lining the St. Lawrence. It will be found that whilst all sorts of petty arrangements were solemnly made in Paris to bind Canadians, not merely such as we are accustomed to consider within the purview of government, but matters commercial and purely personal of the most trivial character, the inherent weakness of this scheme of centralized despotism would early have manifested itself in any case, but it became clearly apparent the moment free Anglo-Saxon energy became a competitor in the race. The fur-trade was, of course, taken, so far as possible, under the fatherly care of the rulers at Paris, Quebec, and Montreal, but to begin with, their hands were not clean. Systematic jobbery pervaded the entire governmental system. The taxes were farmed to the highest bidders, and of the small portion which passed nominally into the coffers of the State, far too much stuck to the fingers of the Governors, Intendants, and those creatures to whom New France was simply a place of exile, where rapid fortunes were to be made by the greedy and unscrupulous. The mother country was early depleted of men and treasure by its vast and expensive wars, and as the Canadian officials were poorly paid and supported, they were compelled to make a competence, and often a bare livelihood by engaging in trade, and not seldom by barefaced extortion, peculation and fraud. Whilst the minister at Paris and his master were framing edicts against profane swearing, deciding where the officials should sit at church, how many horses a farmer should keep, and how large a house he might build, &c., the men high in place were plundering all alike with admirable impartiality. Bigot, the last and far the most infamous of the Intendants, although he robbed right and left, was so solicitous about the morals of the people that he forbade those residing in the country to remove into Quebec, lest they should be corrupted by city life. [Old Regime, p. 279.] The paralyzing hand of absolutism was everywhere, meddling even with the bread a man ate and the texture of his coat; and, as for freedom of speech, Intendant Meules accurately expressed the prevailing view when he said: "It is of great consequence that the people should not be left at liberty to speak their minds." [For a general view of the Civil and Ecclesiastical Government of Canada see Bell’s Garneau: History of Canada, B. III. Chaps III. and IV.]

So far as trade was concerned, the French policy may be summed up in one word - monopoly. Early in the sixteenth century, Cardinal Richelieu chartered "The Company of the Hundred Associates," ceding to them all French North America on the usual terms of feudality. After being about thirty years in active operation, the Associates, who had dwindled down to forty-five, surrendered their charter in 1663. This Company possessed governmental and even royal powers, but, when it disappeared, a regular system of administration was established. In 1664 the monopoly of trade was given to the West India Company for a period of fifty years, and at about the same time the feudal system was regularly and definitely introduced. M. Talon, the first and best of the Intendants, under the new colonial system, amongst other wise and beneficent measures, urged and obtained a relaxation of trade from Colbert, by which the people were allowed to import their own goods, and buy furs and peltries from the Indians, subject to a royalty payable to the all-devouring Company. The traffic in furs was, however, from the first, almost beyond the control both of the government and the monopolists. It was, in fact, the only safety-valve for the pent-up energy, enterprise and spirit of adventure, which lay within the breasts of the Canadian Youth. Companies and farmers of taxes; might mulet the owners of beaver-skins, at Montreal, Three Rivers or Quebec, but they had little or no control over the Indians who trapped the fur-bearing animals, or the middlemen who traded both with the aborigines and with the merchants of New France.

The Coureurs des Bois or Wood-coursers, as the middlemen came to be called, soon formed a distinct class of the Canadian population. As the discoverer of the Mackenzie River says, they were "a kind of pedlars, and were extremely useful to the merchants engaged in the fur-trade, who gave them the necessary credit to proceed in their commercial undertakings. Three or four of these people would join their stock, put their property into a birch-bark canoe, which they worked themselves, and either accompanied the natives in their excursions, or went at once to the country where they knew they were to hunt. At length these voyages extended to twelve or fifteen months, when they returned with rich cargoes of furs, and followed by great numbers of the natives. During the short time requisite to settle their accounts with the merchants, and procure fresh credit, they generally contrived to squander away all their gains, when they returned to renew their favourite mode of life, their views being answered, and their labour sufficiently rewarded, by indulging themselves in extravagance and dissipation during the short space of one month in twelve or fifteen."[Sir Alex. Mackenzie’s General History of the Fur Trade from Canada to the North-West prefixed to his Voyages to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in the Years 1789 and 1793. London, 1801.] There was much to attract the romantic spirits of New France in this novel and adventurous life and if they had been amenable to the control of the Government and the Church, their hardiness and power of endurance might have made the Coureurs of use to their country in its conflicts with any enemy, red or white. Unhappily, instead of proving a source of strength to the colony, this class became a running ulcer through which all the vigour and vitality of Canada ebbed gradually away. The monopolists were the first to take the alarm, though not at all on moral or political grounds. The interlopers were lessening the profits of the West India Company, and although under Colbert’s regulations, the whole population became more or less interested in the fur-trade, they had organized power at their command. The consequence was an unsuccessful effort "to bring the trade to the colonists, to prevent them going to the Indians, and induce the Indians to come to them. To this end a great annual fair was established, by order of the kings at Montreal." [Old Regime, p. 303. Mr Parkman gives a graphic account of one of these Indian gatherings in the passage directly following these words.] Another fair was afterwards established near Three Rivers; but neither of them served the purpose. The people were too wary to submit to the paternal scheme, and they soon learned to form settlements further west and north, to intercept the Indians, and negotiate with them as they pleased. It was now, through the coureurs and squatters, that brandy was introduced to facilitate trade with the red men, and the fearful train of evils which followed, against which the Church uniformly protested in no uncertain terms. At last, although the curse of the traffic was sufficiently apparent, the New England rum was made the excuse for the sale of French brandy and vice versa.

Gradually the attractive life of the Coureurs des Bois absorbed all the best youth of the country, and, in the end, instead of civilizing the Indians, it seemed not improbable that the French would themselves be barbarized by contact and admixture with the Indians. Against the lawless adventurers, the king and his officers strained every nerve. Duchesneau, Denonville, and other viceroys complained bitterly of the fearful demoralization of the young men. Instead of cultivating the soil, they permitted it to go to waste; they would not marry the fair Frenchwomen and do their part in the building up of the colony; but preferred the lawless; sensual and degraded life of the woods and the wigwam. ["Out of the beaver trade," observes Parkman, "rose a huge evil, baneful to the growth and morals of Canada. All that was most active and vigorous in the colony took to the woods, and escaped from the control of intendants, councils, and priests, to the savage freedom of the wilderness. Not only were the possible profits great; but, in pursuit of them there was a fascinating element of adventure and danger. The bush rangers or coureurs des bois were to the king an object of horror. They defeated his plans for the increase of the population, and shocked his native instinct of discipline and order. Edict after edict was directed against them: and more than once the colony presented the extraordinary spectacle of the greater part of the young men turned into forest outlaws. Old Regime, pp. 309, 310.] The colony was, as nearly as possible, in the condition it would have been, if all it’s adult males had been drafted away upon foreign service. Farms, wives and children were deserted by these adventurers who moved off occasionally in organized bands. ["The famous Du Shut is said to have made a general combination of the young men of Canada to follow him into the woods. Their plan was to be absent four years, in order that the edicts against them might have time to relent." Ibid. p. 310.] The government was at its wit’s end. At times it ordered whipping, branding, and the galleys, to be inflicted upon all who went to the woods without license; at others, it tried coaxing and promises, and promised amnesties. [One of these "Acts of Grace" will be found in the Quebec edition of Edits, Ordennances, &c., vol. ii. p. 551.] It was all to no purpose, and the work of demoralization continued up to the conquest by Great Britain.

Meanwhile, by the various agencies at work, the area of the hunting-grounds was being gradually extended until it reached nearly two thousand five hundred miles from the citadel at Quebec. It may be well to note here the names of the chief explorers with the dates of their voyages. To the great Samuel Champlain belongs the credit of first tracing out the Ottawa and Lake Huron route to the North-West. In 1615, with only four voyageurs, and an interpreter named Etienne Brulé, he ascended the Ottawa River, visited Lake Nipissing, descended the French River, embarked upon the broad waters of the Georgian, and returned by Matchedash Bay, the Huron country and Lake Simcoe, not homewards, but to fight the Iroquois with the Hurons and Algonquins on the Genesee River. In 1665 Father Allonez explored the shores of Lake Superior and established a mission there. At Sault Ste Marie the renowned Marquette formed a settlement in 1668, and in 1670 the Fathers Allonez, Dablon and Marquette had heard of the Mississippi and were on the high road to the great North-West. In 1671, Marquette established a Huron settlement at Michmillimackinac at the junction of Lakes Huron and Michigan, and the first steps on the threshold of the unknown land were traversed. Dreams of a short route to China and India were floating through the minds of laymen like Joliette and La Salle when they turned their eyes to the west. The story of the intrepid La Salle does not fall within the purview of this work; yet his exploration of Lake Erie, the building of the first vessel above Niagara—the wonderful description of the Falls by Father Hennepin, and the fortification of the line which still constitutes a frontier between nations, is always fresh to the reader, and may be thus incidentally referred to. Towards the close of the French régime— in Canada, the last of the great French explorers, the Sieur De La Verendrye attempted—now that early fancies had been dissipated—to reach the Pacific by the overland route. Twelve years did that patient and courageous adventurer spend, in company with a brother and two sons, in exploring the country west of Lake Superior. The entire country to the west, including the vast extent of territory from the Saskatchewan down to the upper Missouri, and the Yellowstone Rivers were faithfully examined, and in 1743, sixty years before any British traveller came that way, the Rocky Mountains were sighted by De la Vérendrye’s son and brother. This was the last expiring effort of French exploring energy, and the scene opens upon British effort in a region which was destined to be for all time to come an English-speaking land.


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