by Amanda Wong Media and Communications Coordinator
If you missed the first part, check out Part 1 of our Water Journey here.
Our last stop was in 1856, at the Fraser River Gold Rush in British Columbia. We have covered quite a bit of Canadian history so far, from the discovery of new paths through the Rockies, to the discoveries of gold in B.C., followed by the quarantine stations on the east coast and the implications of some of these events on the Indigenous people of Canada. In part 2, we will continue this adventure through Canadian waterways to uncover so many more pivotal historical moments!
We’re Bursting with Gold!
Klondike River, Yukon
August 17, 1896
Prior to the settlement of Europeans, many Indigenous peoples were aware of the gold in the Klondike River. Like the Nlaka’pamux who lived near the Fraser River, written colonial records showed that the Indigenous community around the Klondike never extracted it as it was of no value to them . Many fur traders had even heard speculation of the possibility of gold in this region, but during this era fur trading was the most profitable . In the summer of 1896, George Washington Carmack, an American prospector (a person who looks for rare minerals), found gold in Rabbit Creek (a small tributary off the Klondike) after hearing rumours . Carmack’s discovery was only possible with the help from Keish also know as Skookum (Chinook Jargon for strong) Jim Mason, and Káa Goo of Tagish First Nation . After the discovery, Carmack and other local prospectors began to sell the gold to the United States to attract more miners to the Klondike .
To get a taste of the excitement and the journey that many took to arrive at the gold fields, let’s watch this video by the Smithsonian .
With the hopes of tons of gold to be found and the riches to be made, hoards of Americans rushed to the Yukon between 1897-1899 . This rush of miners into the Yukon led to the development of Dawson City at the mouth of the Klondike River . At the peak of the gold rush there were over 25 000 people in Dawson City. That’s quite a lot of people in such a short amount of time! Similarly to how the Fraser Gold Rush led to the formation of a British colony and the establishment of the territory of British Columbia, the Klondike River gold rush led to the formation of the Yukon Territory .
The influx of Americans had significant impacts on the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in (Han) who lived in the Klondike region . There were three Han communities around the Klondike River, Nuclako-Fort Reliance, Johnny’s Village, and Charley’s Village . The heavy disruption by the mining led to the deterioration of the ecosystems in and around the Klondike River . This led to the displacement of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in from their traditional territories and limited their ability to hunt and fish . In addition, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in were losing access to their traditional territories due to the privatization of land as a result of ambiguous sales between the First Nations and miners . The written records, from the colonial settlers, leave it unclear the degree of conflict between the Indigenous and non-indigenous communities in the Yukon, but the miners’ presence had devastating effects on the Han people . In addition to the loss of hunting and fishing grounds, the Han people were being exposed to new diseases by the settlers, all these factors combined caused many deaths in the Han community .
Like all the previous gold rushes, the Klondike died down as well. This wasn’t before the millions of dollars that were made through the gold sales which made a small number of miners very rich .
Let’s move onto the east coast of Canada and learn about one of the most devastating man-made disasters in the 20th century.
The Ship is on Fire!
The Narrows of the Halifax Harbour, Halifax
The morning of December 6 started the same as most days during the First World War era . Businesses were bustling, children were heading off to school, boats coming in and out of port, and locals preparing for the holidays . Halifax grew tremendously during the First World War as it was the most east port in Canada, making it an ideal port to send off American, Canadian and British soldiers to Europe . At the peak of Halifax’s growth, there were 50 000 people living in this port city which helped exponentially grow the economy .
On December 6, the munitions ship Mont Blanc was making its way out of the Narrows (a portion of the harbour that is less than a kilometre wide) . The Mont Blanc was heading towards Bedford Basin to join a munitions convoy heading to Europe . That same day a cargo ship, Imo, was heading towards Halifax Harbour through the Narrows. The Imo was a supply vessel which was heading to New York to collect relief supplies for Belgium, who had been devastated by the war . Typically ships heading to Bedford Basin would be on the east side of the Narrows, while ships going towards Halifax Harbour would be on the west side of the Narrows.
This specific morning, as the Imo was making its way into Halifax Harbour from Bedford Basin, there were two ships that were exiting the Narrows on the wrong side . This forced the Imo to have to move eastward into oncoming traffic . The Mont Blanc was in a rush to go towards Bedford Basin and that is when disaster ensued. By the time the Imo realized that it was headed towards the Mont Blanc it was too late to turn around or change directions, this led the Imo to hit the front right side of the Mont Blanc which caused a fire . During the war, flags alerting to explosives were removed from ships to protect them from submarine attacks . This meant many people did not realize there were tons of benzol, pitric acid, TNT, and gun cotton (all very explosive) onboard the Mont Blanc . The Mont Blanc which was aflame, drifted towards Pier 6, a very populated area of the harbour . This area in Halifax contained many homes, businesses, moored ships, and the Royal Naval College of Canada . Due to the lack of flags bringing attention to the explosives, groups of people congregated towards Pier 6 to watch the fire on the ship. The fire triggered a huge explosion which flattened homes and buildings on both sides of the Narrows around Pier 6 . The communities that were devastated the most by the blast were Richmond (community that has been developed upon, but see map below for the historic location ), Africville, and the M’ikmaq settlement Maskwiekati Malpek (also known as Turtle Grove, which was located where Tufts Cove is now) . The explosion also triggered a six story high tsunami within the Narrows which devastated the already vulnerable communities around it . There are no official numbers of the deceased, but it’s estimated that the explosion caused 2000 deaths and 9000 injuries .
Many recounts of the Halifax explosion don’t include the perspectives and stories of the Indigenous communities that lived on the Dartmouth side of the Narrows. There were around 20 M’ikmaw families living around Kepe’kek and Maskwiekati Malpek (in the region called Tufts Cove today) in 1917 . Like the people around Pier 6, the small Mi’kmaw community observed the boat explosion from the shores without realizing the oncoming destruction . Many children were swept into the water from the tsunami; their homes and schools were also burnt down from the ship’s fiery rubble . Prior to the explosion, the non-Indigenous residents in Dartmouth were already unhappy with the presence of the M’ikmaw, and after the explosion there was no effort in rebuilding the small M’ikmaw community in their traditional territory. This essentially expedited the relocation of the M’ikmaw to another area of the island away from the non-Indigenous residents .
In addition, there is little inclusion of the impacts the explosion had on the Black community. Afriville was also severely damaged, and their already limited infrastructure (due to lack of government services) was made more fragile . The number of injured and dead in Africville remain unclear due to the lack of government level reporting, however it is estimated at least six people died due to the explosion . While many official documents do not discuss the impacts the explosion had on Africville, personal recounts from volunteers paint a clearer story . According to a document written by an architect, Andrew Cobb, who volunteered in rescue efforts in Africville, people were stuck under their collapsed homes, many suffering from injuries inflicted by glass, nails, wood, and building material . Many residents lost their eyesight due to sharp glass and nails which damaged their eyes, and others suffered hearing loss from the blast . Like the Indigenous communities experienced, almost none of the relief donations received by the government were allocated to the rebuilding of Africville . Most of the responsibility was then left to the residents to quickly rebuild their severely damaged properties .
I hope this description of the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion provided new insight on this disaster.
For those who are interested CBC created an immersive and interactive VR video recreates December 6, 1917 (Here). (Note it does include animations of the explosion and can be triggering or upsetting to some viewers).
We’ll be staying in Halifax for our next stop. Let’s head over to Pier 21 and jump ahead 11 years to 1928!
Pier 21, Halifax Harbourfront,
March 8, 1928
As a family of first generation immigrants, I wondered what it was like for the many families before me who moved to Canada. This immigration facility’s construction started in 1912, but was paused for 9 years due to the Halifax explosion . The construction re-commenced in 1926 and was finished in 1928 . Since the completion of the construction, Pier 21 has become a symbol of becoming a Canadian citizen and has been named the “Gateway to Canada” by the many immigrants who sailed across the Atlantic .To quickly and easily spread families across Canada a railway system, connecting Halifax to the rest of Canada, was built near Pier 21 .
Before this port was opened Halifax had already become a major hub of entry into colonial Canada . By 1913, over 400 000 people were stopping through Halifax as they immigrated to Canada. During the 1920s, the original port that was being used for immigration was the small Pier 2 which quickly became overwhelmed by all the new immigrants . Unfortunately not too soon after the opening of Pier 21 the Great Depression hit Canada in 1929 . During this time of economic downturn, Canada was hit very hard resulting in millions of citizens losing their jobs . In addition to the collapse of the economy, Canada experienced its worst years in the agricultural industry due to the massive drought in the Prairies and plagues of grasshoppers . The knowledge of the current economic situation turned foreigners away from moving to Canada, with immigration ports only seeing around 20 000 until before the Second World War .
At the start of World War 2, Pier 21 was taken over by the Department of National Defence and became a send off point for over 500 000 servicemen who were sent off to war across the Atlantic . The next large influx of immigrants occurred after the war when Canadian soldiers returned with their wives they had married abroad (war brides) and their children . In total there were 48 000 war brides and 22 000 children that immigrated to Canada during the post war period to reunite with their Canadian husbands . During the years after World War 2, the government was quite hesitant in accepting new immigrants and refugees, resulting in many Canadians criticizing the immigration policies in Canada of being xenophobic . This is because Canadian immigration policies selected able bodied refugees, but presented obstacles for Jewish refugees and immigrants . The majority of foreigners came to Canada hoping for more opportunities, but many did not realize the influence immigration officials had on the destination or residency and employment appointment . With all that being said, Pier 21 has become a huge symbol to new Canadians who were hopeful for a better future . Over a million people immigrated through Pier 21, the majority coming from Britain, Ireland, Ukraine, Italy, Hungary, Netherlands and the rest of Europe . Did you know around 1 out of 5 Canadians have a direct link to Pier 21 ?
In the 1950s, air travel became a popular mode of transport internationally as jet engines became more popular and safer . This meant air travel became faster, smoother, and planes could be built larger . By the 1960s, flying became the preferred mode of transport for many resulting in a steep drop in people entering Canada through Pier 21 . In the 1950s, around 2600 immigrants entered through Pier 21, but that dropped to less than 1200 in 1970 leading to the eventual closure of the facility . The building was left closed until the 1980s and the Pier 21 Society lobbied for the site to be deemed as a National Historic Site and was converted into a museum . You can now visit Pier 21 and learn about all the families that moved through this building, you can even look up historical records of your own family’s history .
If I ever find myself on the east coast, I’ll definitely be checking out the Pier 21 Museum! Onto the Canadian Arctic, so grab a hat and some warm clothes because things are going to get chilly!
Mysteries of the Canadian North
Terror Bay, Nunavut
September 12, 2016
This is a very unique historical event, it happens in two parts, the first occurring in 1845 ! So what happened?
171 years ago HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England destined on an Expedition to find the Northwest Passage . The Northwest Passage was a theorized path through North America that could link the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. This path was the focus of many mariners and explorers for hundreds of years as it potentially would create a direct trade route to Asia .
The HMS Terror was led by Sir John Franklin, an experienced British Royal Navy officer and Arctic Explorer . By the time the quest to fully pass through the Northwest Passage arrived, the area had been mapped out to the point that only 500 kilometres were left to uncover . The boats that were used were the most technologically advanced for their time . The HMS Terror was designed to withstand the pressure of the Arctic sea ice and the ships were equipped with propellers and steam engines that came from the London and Greenwich Railway steam locomotives. These steam engines could help propel the ships around 4 knots through the icy waters . However, the steam engines were very heavy and required lots of coal to run, and the expedition was only supplied with 12 days worth of coal fuel, meaning its usage had to be minimized . Not only was this expedition discovering a new trade route, it was also using the most advanced technologies during the Regency Period . Sadly, this technology was not sufficient enough to fare the challenges of the Arctic Ocean in northern Canada, which even challenge 21st century technology . The last time the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were seen was off the coast of Greenland by some fisherman . After this point, there was little known about the fate of the sailors aboard and their massive ships . England sent out rescue missions to save the men but were never able to find them or their ships . The last record of the status of Terror’s crew was a note left in a cairn at Cape Herschel, the note contained two entries, the first rather optimistic on their situation, the second was more dire as it described how the crew had abandoned their ships that were trapped in the ice .
In August 2008, the Government of Canada announced that they were launching a project to find the HMS Erebus and Terror . This project would not have been possible without the traditional knowledge of the Inuit who had passed down stories of the HMS ships and their crew . The Inuit had significant amounts of information about the HMS ships, and the explorer John Rae, spoke to Inuk men about the expedition 6 years after it had disappeared . The Inuit told Rae about the starving crewmen in the Arctic and relics they found from the expedition . Despite these recounts, the British were unwilling to believe the report that Rae published after his meeting with the Inuit because they described some gruesome details that were rejected by British society .
Many years later, with the help of Inuit historian, Louie Kamookak, and the Inuit communities who were informed of the shipwreck, a more accurate location of the final place of the boats was determined . The final location of the Erebus was described somewhere between Grand Point and O’Reilly Island, while the Terror’s final place was more elusive to find . It is unlikely that the discovery of the shipwrecks would have been possible without the collaboration of the Inuit community, as they have the most knowledge of the Arctic landscape and historical oral records of the expedition .
Two years after the discovery of the Erebus, the Terror was found on a seabed in Terror Bay, Nunavut . The two ships have been preserved perfectly in the cold Arctic waters, which is very exciting to archaeologists and historians! This is mainly due to the sub zero water, the lack of light in the water, and low oxygen levels in this area . When the researchers sent down divers and cameras they were able to see the study of Sir John Franklin, dining ware, beds, and items left onboard the ship . Researchers return to this area every summer to learn more about the expedition and piece together what may have happened to the ill fated crew .
How neat, I hope we learn more about this expedition in the future! If you are interested in learning more check out the documentary by CBC Nature of Things that covers the expedition and the discovery of HMS Erebus here. If you’re someone who likes a thriller TV series you can also watch The Terror on AMC, which is based on this expedition.
Canada has so many stories to unfold, many which are still a mystery…This journey has been so enlightening and I hope you enjoyed Part 2 of this historical adventure through our waterways!
If you’d like to research more about these stories feel free to use the resources below. Do you feel inspired by these water stories? Get involved with Young Water Speaks a Storytelling Contest and attend their workshops to create your own water stories!