The beaver is Canadian

The beaver exemplifies what it means to be Canadian. Rachel Poliquin puts it this way:

“Humpbacked and portly, with an earnest and honest charm, beavers epitomize the Canadian spirit of unpretentiousness, integrity, and industriousness (Canada’s History magazine, Aug/Sept, 2017).”

    image: wordartsme.com

The beaver has not always been regarded as exceptionally hard-working. Canada’s indigenous people viewed them as skilled builders, healers, and earth-makers but not any more hard-working than coyotes or porcupines.

Eurasian beavers were hunted to near extinction. Ancient physicians regarded the beaver’s smelly sent organs as a potent medicine. Beavers would give off the smell to repel attackers, a bit like a skunk. Mistaking the castor sacs that held the scent for testicles, early Europeans thought the beavers bit off their testicles and shed their fur to escape capture. The Greek fabulist Aesop had this to say:

“If only people would take the same approach and agree to be deprived of their possessions in order to live lives free of danger; no one, after all, would set a trap for one already stripped to the skin.”

Eurasian beavers were seen by Christian moralists as models of chastity, austerity, and prudence.

Beavers were so rare in Europe, that by the time that Europeans arrived in North America, they saw them for the first time. They were so impressed by the rodent’s architectural abilities that they imagined a beaver society that could achieve such wonders.

The seventeenth-century French aristocrat, Niclolas Deny, outlined what he saw as a beaver society in which specific tasks were assigned such as cutting down trees, making stakes, with the oldest carrying dirt with their tails. The construction of beaver mansions was overseen by foremen. Beaver carpenters, ditch diggers, log carriers, ensured a high standard of construction. If any workers were neglectful, the foreman “chastises them, beats them, throws himself on them, and bites them to keep them at their duties,” wrote Denys.

Denys’ views mirrored the society in which he grew up. Great public works could only be achieved by keeping the grunt labourers in line. Whipping them into submission was an accepted means of accomplishing a greater good.

Europeans wondered what kind of political structure the beavers preferred. Of course, since only rich aristocrats could afford to explore, beavers must have preferred aristocratic overseers.

Aristocratic beaver society served as a model for settler society. Lazy beaver workers would have the fur stripped from their backs, it was imagined, and banished from beaver society to live their lives, exiled, in holes.

This was a convenient tale to tell independence-minded settlers, many who were escaping social upheaval in Europe. It was to keep settlers under the thumb of aristocrats. Poliquin explains:

“Outcast beavers also offered a moral lesson for habitants who were tempted to go primitive and become coureurs de bois. Venturing into the wilderness to seek their fortune in furs, coureurs de bois were naturally vilified by the ruling classes and bourgeois fur merchants. Living like vagabond beavers, they refused the duties of societies and acquired a taste for wandering and its associated vices. Repent now, the fable almost warns, lest you end up in a dark and dirty hole with no coat on your back.”

Modern Canadian beavers have escaped the tyranny of aristocracy and live in well-insulated homes. They come out of their dens to vote every four years. Unpretentious, yet a bit smug, they imagine their society to be better than others such as the one to the south.

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Dieppe’s secret mission

Recently declassified documents reveal the true mission of the raid on the beaches of Dieppe on August 19, 1942.

   image: commons.wikimedia.org

The publicly stated reasons varied: to test Hitler’s defences in France; to placate Stalin in his calls for a second front to divert Germany’s attention away from Russia; to learn lessons in preparation for D-day (Canada’s History Magazine, Aug/Sept, 2017.)

However, the real reason was to steal the Enigma machine and give decoders like Alan Turing a chance to figure out what the Nazis were planning. It would reveal vital information about German positions, capabilities, and intentions.

Previous raids on the Norwegian island of Lofoten had been successful in stealing the three-rotor version.

Other than top command, no one knew the true mission –not the general public and certainly not the Germans. To mask the true mission, it had to look like a regular operation. Enough damage had to be done to installations to make it look convincing but not so much damage as to destroy the machines. Press reports described the large scale destruction of facilities. Not only did the propaganda bolster public moral but it deflected German attention away from the theft of cryptography. It worked at first.

But after a dozen more trawlers were taken, the Germans became suspicious and came up with a more complicated encoder: the four-rotor version of the Enigma machine. The three-rotor version was hard enough to crack but four-rotors would have been impossible without capturing more deciphering data.

Emboldened by the success of earlier raids and driven by the necessity of decoding German plans, raids became more daring and unrestrained. The ambitious “Dickie” Mountbatten was placed in charge. Three raids were planned in 1942.  The first was on a U-boat base at Saint-Nazaire. It had limited success but failed to capture the ciphers and cost an entire commando unit. The second raid on the port of Bayonne was a complete failure.

Undeterred, Mountbatten pressed with the third raid on Dieppe. His leadership was in question and he had to prove himself. Not only Mountbatten’s reputation was at stake, but so was Prime Minister Churchill’s.

Canadian soldiers were languishing in England and were itching to get involved in combat. When the opportunity came in the Dieppe raid, they jumped at it.

The Dieppe plan was complicated and everything had to go like clockwork to succeed. To avoid alerting the Germans by the sound of droning planes, no bombers were used. The 14th Canadian Army Tank Regiment (Calgary) was to take Dieppe, the South Saskatchewan Regiment and Royal Regiment Canada (Black Watch) were to take adjacent beaches. Bunkers were to be attacked but not destroyed to spare the cipher equipment.

Things went badly from the start. Calgary tanks cleared the beach but got stuck in roadblocks. Other Canadian regiments were trapped on the beaches and were sitting targets for the German guns.

Six hours later, more than 1,000 soldiers lay dead on the beaches –most of them Canadians. About 2,300 were taken prisoners. No Enigma machines were captured.

October 30, 1942, the four-rotor Enigma was discovered by chance on a sunken U-boat off Port Said, Egypt.

 

By the time the trekkers got to Kamloops

In April of 1935 they left their miserable camps and made their way to Vancouver. The camps had been set up in the middle of nowhere. Young men worked in the military-run camps for 20 cents a day under deplorable conditions in dead-end jobs with no end in sight.

Canada’s History Magazine

The camps were designed to harsh. Prime Minister Bennett had reluctantly set them up as a concession to the unemployed victims of the Great Depression. He was opposed to anything that looked like a handout, including even the appalling camps. He told a labour delegation in 1930: “Never will I or any government of which I am part put a premium on idles or put our people on the dole (Canada’s History magazine, August-September, 2016).”

The camps didn’t have to be that way, says historian Bill Waiser of the University of Saskatchewan. “In contrast to the American Civil Conservation Corps, a popular federal work-for-relief program across the border, the make-work projects and isolating conditions of the Canadian relief camps aggravated the gloom of the men who were in them.”

About fifteen hundred desperate men arrived in Vancouver and were warmly received. Huge public rallies and parades were held. On Mother’s Day in Stanley Park, three hundred women circled the men in the shape of a heart.

As is typical, provincial and federal governments wrangled over who was responsible for the men. Finally the men decided to take matters into their own hands and trek to Ottawa aboard boxcars. About one thousand left Vancouver in June of 1935. Governments made no attempt to stop them –convinced that the trekker’s tenacity would dissolve in the cold trip through the mountains.

By the time the trekkers got to Kamloops they were cold, hungry and dispirited. Unlike Vancouver, no warm reception awaited them. Nothing had been done to prepare for their arrival: Mayor W. J. Moffatt and the chief of police flatly refused requests for help.

Kamloops had problems of its own with hordes of desperate, unemployed men in formal camps and informal “hobo jungles” says Mary Balf, former curator of the Kamloops Museum, in her book Kamloops 1914-1945. In one case, on May 1, 1931, men flocked into the city to complain about the poor conditions in these camps. Police closed the bridge from North Kamloops to limit the numbers.

“The work camps continued rather haphazardly until the summer of 1936,” says Balf, “but never really worked well. . . frequently they were so badly managed that even the promised wages were not forthcoming.”

After 300 men joined the trekkers from Kamloops, they were revitalized. As word of the trekkers spread, they were soon regarded as folk heroes. Washtubs of stew awaited them when they arrived in Golden in June. Calgary citizens were struck by the youthful innocence of the men.

More men joined the trek in Alberta but not my father. He was in a camp in Jasper at the time building the national park. He never told me about the camp conditions in Jasper. Perhaps he preferred to forget the depression and the stigma of unemployment. Perhaps, like some of the projects in the U.S., the building of parks gave purpose to his work.

As the popularity of the heroic trekkers grew, the federal government began to worry that they might actually get to Ottawa. By the time they got to Regina, the feds decided they would go no further. On Dominion Day in 1935, Regina police and RCMP raided a rally attended by thousands of trekkers and supporters. A riot ensued with hundreds of injuries and two deaths.

The trek ended but not without a cost to the feds. In October of 1935, Bennett’s government was defeated. A year later the camps were closed down.