Commentary – Mad dogs and Englishmen

Joe McWilliams

Something I wrote 22 years ago and stumbled upon recently seems to resonate with present circumstances in the north and Canada generally.

It was called ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen,’ and was a reflection on Rudy Wiebe’s historical novel ‘A Discovery of Strangers.’ It seemed worth polishing off and re-printing, in light of the Canada 150 celebration and the conversations it stimulated. Here it is.

Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the noonday sun, Noel Coward wrote. He might have added the midnight sun, given the British lust for empire, trade, military advantage, map-making, civilizing the ‘savage’ and whatever else it was that led them to stick their noses into the northern parts of this continent in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The effects of indigenous dependency on European trade goods – rum in particular – was noted by young Robert Hood in his journal as he accompanied Lt. John Franklin on his first overland expedition to the ‘Polar Sea’ in 1819.

Hood, who would later be shot to death just before he died of starvation, boldly blamed European policy on the demoralization and misdirection of the Indians from their traditional pursuits.

This situation is nicely illustrated in Wiebe’s novel. Upon arriving at Fort Providence, Franklin seals a food-supply arrangement with the local Yellowknife people by getting them drunk and appealing to their love of hunting. Wiebe switches point of view back and forth between members of a native family and the English officers. Each is incomprehensible to the other.

To Franklin, the Indians’ lack of need for more than they have is troubling. The only way of harnessing their labour and loyalty is to get them hooked on trade goods.

“But they seem to want so little!” he complains.

The natives, on the other hand, regard the white man’s need to make maps and name things as useless and stupid. Not to mention dangerous. And they can’t understand why ‘Thick English’ and his men don’t seem to be aware that death is stalking them, when it’s so plain to see.

Wiebe does a terrific job of showing how the two points of view regarding the land were worlds apart. The English see it as something to be conquered and profited by; the natives see themselves as sort of offspring of the land, moving in a cycle of life and death dependent on the whim of the animal spirits.

In the midst of this great cultural gulf, the sensitive and romantic Robert Hood falls in love with Greenstockings. She’s the teenaged daughter of the Yellowknife elder Keskarrah, whose family spent a winter with the expedition. Wiebe fancies that in her own way she falls for Hood too – being so unlike any man she has known – even though she knows he will die because her mother has dreamed it.

Images of Keskarrah and the extraordinarily beautiful Greenstockings survive in Hood’s drawings, which have been published along with his journals. Wiebe used them as a basis for his story.

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