8 Non-Boring Moments in Canadian History

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For Canadian school kids, the country's history involves tedious tales of explorers lugging canoes between mosquito-infested rivers as they contemplate what or whom to eat. Apart from the odd skirmish between the French and English, stories of fur trading routes being established and canals being dredged are among the juicer bits. Being situated where we are doesn't help: When you compare a tale of starving pioneers cursing fate as they turn into popsicles to, say, the Civil War, it's tough for even the most patriotic Canucks not to be a bit envious.

But while it's unlikely that Canadian history will ever inspire a Hollywood blockbuster, here we present eight unsung stories from our nation's inglorious past that would, at the very least, make for decent government-funded movies.

1. INDEPENDENT REPUBLIC OF MANITOBAH

The federal Dominion of Canada was founded July 1, 1867, but present-day Manitoba wasn’t yet part of it. It was known as Rupert’s Land, and owned by North America’s oldest commercial corporation, Hudson's Bay Company, a fur-trading outfit that is currently a bit like Target but less glamorous.

Scottish-born Thomas Spence’s settlement in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba (100 miles from the present North Dakota border) fell outside all recognized jurisdictions, rendering it in effect lawless. Politically astute Spence convinced settlers that security would lie in the formation of a recognized council, and who better to lead it than him? The Independent Republic of Manitobah was born, with Spence as its president.

The Scotsman set about trying to collect taxes from residents—and confused fur traders who happened by—to fund the construction of a council house and jail. One shoemaker refused to pay, calling Spence and his council a bunch of drunks who used tax money for bar tabs. Incensed by that kind of sauce from one of his subjects, Spence sent two of his "deputies" to arrest the shoemaker for treason, and eventually tried him in one of his constables' homes. The shoemaker's friends intervened and the "trial" deteriorated into a brawl, with the Republic's president cowering under a table once the revolvers came out.

The Republic fell finally and forever when Spence received a letter from the Colonial Minister in London informing him that neither he nor his republic had any status whatsoever and to knock the whole, bloody thing off.

2. OH, BROTHER XII, WHERE ART THOU?

One of Canada's most notorious cult stories had a marriage-like arc—starting with visions of love and promises of mutual betterment and ending in acrimony over money and sex. Edward Arthur Wilson was a British-born mystic and sea captain who began having visions in 1924 and came to believe that an Egyptian spiritual master was guiding him.

Renaming himself Brother XII, Wilson decided he needed a colony—what he called the "Ark of Refuge"—to prepare people for the coming Age of Aquarius, but first he needed the cash to pay for it. Enter gullible Californians who ate up his lectures during a speaking tour and bankrolled both his Ark of Refuge (in Cedar, British Columbia) and the Aquarian Foundation backing it.

By 1927, the Foundation was raking in serious money. But tensions began to mount when it was discovered that Brother's actions in the "House of Mystery"—a building meant for spiritual contemplation—were not so mysterious if you were familiar with the sounds of frenzied lovemaking.

Other sex scandals followed, but the biggest complaints were over Brother's dictatorial handling of Foundation resources. Brother XII won court cases brought against him, but damning press saying his was a cult centred on free love and bilking investors (pretty accurate, it would seem) led to the Foundation being dissolved in November 1929. That didn't hit Brother's wallet, though, as he had converted much of the donated funds into gold coins, socking them away in jars.

His partnership with a bullwhip-wielding sadist named "Madame Z" resulted in conditions for colonists turning from creepy and unpleasant to backbreaking and unbearable. They eventually rebelled, drafting what has to be the saddest "declaration of independence" of them all. Brother XII and Madame Z fled with their gold in 1932, destination never confirmed.

3. TOUGH LACROSSE TO BEAR

Lacrosse has the sad designation of being Canada's "national summer sport" and, like the winter one, it involves high-speed projectiles being shot around and teeth getting knocked out. It derives from the Native American "baggataway," which had no rules and was so brutal that chiefs would use games to give warriors a taste of battle hell.

But the most violent game in the sport's history was played on June 4, 1763. Two Ojibwe chiefs invited George Etherington, the British commandant of Fort Michilimackinac, to watch a game between the Ojibwe and Sauk tribes. It would be something special to celebrate King George's birthday that day, they said. Etherington hushed anyone who questioned his decision to accept. (He was blissfully ignorant of the Fort Detroit siege happening simultaneously.) Etherington and several of his soldiers left the safety of the garrison—and their weapons—behind to watch and bet on the game.

As the game progressed, it went unnoticed that the native women milling about were dressed more for the dead of winter than the middle of summer. The reason for this fashion choice became apparent when the ball entered the fort compound. The women opened up their heavy blankets and passed off tomahawks and knives to their men. It was game on of a different type as the tribesmen set about the slaughter, killing at least 27 men both outside and within the fort. Etherington, whose galling credulity was partly to blame for the gore, survived after being ransomed.

4. Toronto's Disastrous First Hanging

Canada's last execution occurred in Toronto in 1962, involving two men strung up for a couple of really ill-timed murders. Toronto's first hanging occurred more than 150 years prior, in 1798. A tailor named John Sullivan was drinking whiskey with his friend, a ne'er-do-well named Michael Flannery known for spouting off in Latin. The two ran out of money, so “Latin Mike” forged a banknote worth about three shillings. The forgery was discovered and Latin Mike took himself and his dead language to the U.S., leaving Sullivan to face frontier justice.

However, the city was only five years old at that point and certain systems would take years to perfect—such as breaking a man’s neck with a rope. While the townspeople were eager for the weekend entertainment a hanging would provide, none of them volunteered to be hangman. Unluckily for Sullivan, he was sharing the jail with a guy named McKnight, who was more than happy to help out for a pardon and $100—or approximately 100 times more than the sum originally involved in the crime. New to the business, McKnight was said to have tried and failed twice to tie the noose correctly with even Sullivan getting vocally frustrated before, well, he was beyond the realm of complaints.

5. OUR VERY OWN ASSASSINATION

American history is so full of political assassinations that the U.S. might want to consider administering the Oath of Office in a bank vault. But only one federal politician has ever been assassinated in Canada: Thomas D'Arcy McGee, an Irish-born newspaperman turned legislator.

Returning from a late night parliamentary session in the spring of 1868, McGee fumbled for the key to his Ottawa boarding house. Before he could open it and finish smoking his cigar, a .32 calibre bullet tore through his neck and jaw.

The assassination was linked to members of the Fenian Irish Independence Movement in New York, a group that was prepared to use violent means to overthrow the Canadian government and who McGee had warned to stay out of Canada. Dozens of Irish immigrants were rounded up before one of them, Patrick James Whelan, was charged with the crime. He was subjected to a kangaroo court with the prime minister at the time and a friend of the victim, John A. Macdonald, sitting beside the judge, and one of the jurors heard to say prior to jury selection that he wanted to see Whelan hang.

Dispatched to the gallows with Judge Judy-like haste—the trial lasted only eight days—he was another unfortunate victim of bad hanging practices, lingering in front of thousands of onlookers for four agonizing minutes.

6. SITTING BULL AND THE MOUNTIE

Who says that the American West had all the badasses? On May 8, 1877, about a year after Sioux warriors saw to it that General Custer would stand no more, a Canadian Mountie named James Walsh and half a dozen of his men rode into a camp of about 5000 of Sitting Bull's tribesmen in what is now Saskatchewan. That Sitting Bull could have decorated the prairies with his guts surely must have occurred to Walsh, but he wanted to make sure they respected "the laws of the White Mother [Queen Victoria]," promising fair treatment in turn.

Sitting Bull agreed, and the strangest buddy story in Canadian frontier history began. The Mountie defended the chief, who he felt was misrepresented as bloodthirsty following Little Big Horn. Walsh, in turn, endeared himself to Sitting Bull by not conspiring to have him expelled or murdered.

But tensions did flare up. Sitting Bull approached Walsh on one occasion to criticize The White Mother for being stingy with provisions. The two quarreled, Sitting Bull went for his revolver, but the Mountie managed to seize the chief and throw him out of the cabin. When he tried to stand, he got a kick to the Sitting Bull for his troubles. Mounties were still hugely outnumbered, so this would have seemed suicidal, but after a brief stand-off Sitting Bull backed down.

The two put the incident behind them and their friendship continued until Prime Minister John A. Macdonald transferred Walsh, saying he was overly sympathetic to the chief. Sitting Bull, upon learning of the move, was said to have been distraught and knew his days in Canada were numbered.

7. JUMBO-SIZED LEGACY

Arguably the most famous elephant of all time, Jumbo was a prime London attraction before PT Barnum purchased him from Queen Victoria against the wishes of weeping youngsters who sent thousands of letters in protest. Nonetheless Jumbo was sent across the pond to become part of Barnum's traveling North American circus—and Canadian history.

The latter would never have happened had Jumbo not died in a small town in Ontario in 1885, killed, according to reports, by an oncoming train. That small town, St Thomas, would feast off the death—both literally and figuratively—for years to come.

The Ottawa Citizen published a letter in which a woman recounts her great-grandfather's memories of the day after the crash. Local butchers cut up the carcass so that taxidermists could stuff its hide and its skeleton could go on display in a museum. No instructions were given for the meat, which was put in a giant funeral pyre for fear it would rot. The tantalizing smell of roasted tusker filled the air and many, the woman's great-grandpappy included, came by with a fork and dug in.

A century after that feast in 1985, St. Thomas reaffirmed its auspicious ties to the elephant's violent death by unveiling a life-sized statue of the beast during a rollicking "Jumbo Days" celebration. The town’s Railway City Brewing continues that tradition, oddly proclaiming that, “When you raise your glass of Dead Elephant Ale, you will enjoy everything that Jumbo was and became.” An exploited animal and the strangest Canadian lunch meat ever? No thanks.

8. THE CIRCUS RIOT

In the summer of 1855, Toronto didn't need its mayor to give it a reputation for vice. Back then it was a rapidly expanding frontier town chock full of brothels. More family friendly entertainment was hard to come by, so when the American SB Howes' Star Troupe Menagerie & Circus came to town, the performers did well.

After one performance, the circus' clowns opted for a bordello romp. They did not choose their spot wisely. The brothel was the favoured meeting place of the Hook & Ladder Firefighting Company, who only a few weeks prior had battered another crew competing with them to put out a blaze. (That was called "The Firemen Riot"—in a month this crew would have two riots named after them.) Details are sketchy on what set off the incident, but before you could say "Get this giant shoe out of my butt," the clowns were thrashing the firemen, ensuring brothel dominance for the night.

The firemen were part of the Orange Protestant power structure dominant in Toronto then, and the following day they went to the fairgrounds where the clowns were staying, bent on vengeance. A crowd joined in the assault and the beating the carnies took was so brutal that some of them jumped in Lake Ontario to escape. Protestant-sympathising police did nothing to stop it, which would lead to an official inquiry and a total overhaul of the force.

Noel Boivin and Christopher Lombardo are the authors of The Man Who Scared A Shark to Death and Other True Tales of Drunken Debauchery (Penguin, 2007) and more recently Tastes Like Human: The Shark Guys' Book of Bitingly Funny Lists. Check them out at TheSharkGuys.com.

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July 1, 2013 - 1:00pm
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