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The Life of James Robertson

AT the head of the great waterway that reaches from the Atlantic westward into the heart of Canada, stands Fort William, once the point of departure for the far West and the far North by the great fur brigades in the brave days of the Hudsonís Bay Companyís rťgime. At Fort William there used to gather for annual council those fur-trading lords of forest and river whose fame has floated down to us through a hundred years. It is at this point that Western Canada proper begins, that Canada whose discovery as a field for settlement made a Dominion of Canada an assured reality and a Canadian nation a possibility. From that ancient trading post west for four hundred miles stretched a waste of rock and water, impassable at that time except by canoe brigade in summer and dog-train in winter. And a forbidding barrier that same rocky waste has proved through all these years. Beyond this rocky barrier lies the prairie country, then one vast empty, boundless plain, offering in those old days a home to the red man, the buffalo and all wild things, a stamping ground to the fur trader and in later years a precarious dwelling to the remote and infrequent settler. For a thousand miles the prairie land stretches and rolls till it brings up against the bases of the mighty Rockies.

Far away to the West, between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, lies the most Western colony in British North America, British Columbia, consisting of a series of mountain ranges and intervening valleys heavy with forests and cut deep by rapid rivers. Until recent years this Pacific coast, to most men, was the limit of Canadaís territory, but the time came when far to the North, fifteen hundred miles away, a new land was found, and into the Yukou country men thronged and crushed in their struggle for gold.

Before the year 1870, when Canada took over from the Hudsonís Bay Company the administration of the West, all that vast territory that lay beyond the Great Lakes and swept up the coast line to the far North, was to all but the fur trader and the adventurous explorer, a tellus ignotum. No living man dreamed, not even the most farseeing of the Hudsonís Bay factors who knew the country best, that the day would come when down that same Kaministiquia River, where there floated back the rythmic chant of the voyageurs who had gone swaying round the bend in their canoes, there should come the hoarse roar of three transcontinental railways. A few men of prophetic soul had a vision that in some favoured spots men might make homes in security and in comfort; but the vast majority of Canadians and, of course, all others, regarded the great West as an extremely doubtful asset to the Dominion. And the tales that came of terrible Arctic winters which few men could support and of vast barren spaces where no man could dwell, made people content to abide where they were safe, if somewhat cramped in opportunity to live.

But the year 1870 changed all this. That was the year of that very needless and very unhappy little rebellion in which men of solid sense and worth, exasperated beyond endurance by the chafing of stupid misgovernment upon their own inflamed prejudices, allowed themselves to be led by the nose by a shallow-pated Frenchman, vain and none too courageous, who, after bringing brave men into difficulty and danger, fled to safety, careless of their fate, to return at a later day to perpetrate an even more foolish, base and cowardly outrage upon those who trusted him and upon an all too lenient government. The rebellion concentrated the eyes of Canada, and to a certain extent of Great Britain, upon the West. The troops returning from the suppression of the rebellion, the officers who commanded them, the politicians and the shrewd business men who followed in their wake, all came back enthusiastic immigration agents. Then there began that succession of tidal waves of immigration which has continued to flood the Western country with men hungry for land, from that day to this.

In the far North, too, in late years, it has been found that men can dwell in comfort; that not only adventurous miners taking their lives in their hands, but men of less heroic mould, can make homes, if not fortunes, in the great valleys that lie between those mountain ranges with their eternal snows.

This vast country which, reaching from Fort William across prairies and mountains to Victoria and up along the rugged and indented coast line from Victoria to Skagway and far into Dawson City, this great West which gave the Dominion a new basis and a new hope for empire, this is the Robertson land; the Robertson land because it was the scene of his labours, the arena upon which, during twenty-five years, be made proof of his powers of administration, and, more than all, the Robertson land because it bears to-day the mark of James Robertsonís hand more than that of any other one manís, and that mark is cut deep into the heart and conscience, into the very life, of the Western people. For not only was he more than any other the maker of a great Church in this land, but, as we shall see, his hand was felt in the tracing of those other structural lines that enter into the building of a nation.

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