Wednesday night, three canoes washed up at Toronto's tony York Club. The largest was an 11-metre replica, built four years ago by the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., of the massive birchbark craft that once carried the Hudson's Bay Company's most powerful governor, Sir George Simpson, across his vast domains.
The second canoe was a 38-centimetre sterling-silver model, dating from about 1841, of the same vessel. The third was an action-packed image gracing the cover of Emperor of the North: Sir George Simpson and the Remarkable Story of the Hudson's Bay Company, a new biography by the curator of the Canadian Canoe Museum, James Raffan.
What brought these vessels together was a fundraiser for the museum, the launch of Raffan's book, a welcome back to Canada for the sterling-silver canoe and a chance to salute the 19th-century scoundrel who helped to shape this country.
Sir George Simpson oversaw the merging of HBC and the North West Company in 1821. He sucked unprecedented profits from the fur trade. And he did much to ensure that western lands north of the Columbia River remained in British hands. He did this through capitalistic insight, callousness and sheer will. Born to an unknown mother in Dingwall, Scotland, around 1792, he has been described by one Hudson's Bay Company chronicler, Peter C. Newman, as "a bastard by birth and by persuasion."
Raffan and his publisher, Phyllis Bruce/HarperCollins, borrowed the giant canoe from the museum for last night's festivities. "We needed about a dozen people to move it out of here," says Janice Griffith, the museum's general manager, speaking from Peterborough. Made of birchbark, with spruce-wood seams and cedar gunwales, the thing weighs almost 140 kilograms. But hauling it onto a trailer truck and then into the York Club was nothing compared with the feats the voyageurs regularly performed for Sir George - hoisting similarly sized canoes plus their packs, tents, food and trading goods along such gruelling routes as the 21-kilometre-long Methye Portage across the height of land dividing the Hudson Bay and Arctic Ocean watersheds.
As for the silver canoe, it was a gift to Sir George, commissioned by the Earl of Caledon from Garrard of London, silversmith to Queen Victoria, to commemorate a particularly manly and exciting voyage the two took in 1841, slaughtering buffalo as they went. After Sir George's death in 1860, the silver canoe disappeared from public view - until Raffan began researching his biography.
Researching the Simpson family genealogy is a tricky business. A portly man, 5-foot-6, with freckles and thinning red hair, Sir George had at least 13 children by eight different women, only one of whom was his wife. Raffan admits, "Sir George's behaviour was a constant shock to me - it ran like an electric current through the research."
Most of his women were aboriginal or Métis, and the governor referred to them in his private letters as "commodities" or "bits of brown." The man was an overt racist. He abandoned the women, aboriginal or white, once he had finished using them (though he did provide for his offspring). Moreover, Sir George, who was implicated in the murder of his own cousin, certainly bears some responsibility for the deaths of those employees lost to accidents, disease and exhaustion, because he maximized profits by downsizing the crews on his company canoes.
"He was a sociopath," Raffan says, "but my feelings about him went up and down. He was out on the trail in all weather. His stamina was remarkable."
The trail of Sir George drew Raffan to Scotland, where at least two of Sir George's own bastard children were raised and many of his legal descendants too. Raffan had seen a photocopy of an oil portrait of Sir George in a Simpson family history, which cited this portrait as the property of the Haddon family of Peeblesshire, Scotland. Raffan telephoned all the Peeblesshire Haddons until he reached one Sarah Haddon.
She had the painting, she said, and invited him to come and see it for himself. The portrait dominated the stairwell of her modest cottage, Raffan recalls. Then he asked if she had anything else belonging to her ancestor. Casually, she produced Sir George's aneroid barometer and a jeweller's loupe, a fine 19th-century lens for examining geological specimens. Her grandchildren liked to play with them, she said.
"Oh yes, one other thing," she added, rooting around in a closet. From a plastic bag, wrapped in a tea towel, she revealed the most glittering, gleaming piece of Canadiana that Raffan had ever seen - the silver canoe. She has since sold it for £42,000 ($84,282) to Canadian donors. The canoe will appear at museum fundraising dinners in Winnipeg and Calgary, and then permanently berth at the Peterborough institution after Oct. 20.
As for Raffan's Emperor of the North, it will leave most readers queasy about the character of one of the nation's shapers, but maybe that's what keeps Canadians modest: We have few national heroes. In any case, the book's real subject is what made his journeys possible. "The canoe was my way into this story and my way out," says Raffan, himself an avid canoeist since the age of 5. "The canoe took Sir George across this country, the canoe is of this country and it is still the most appropriate way of travelling across large parts of this country. … It has endured."