Canada – The Undeveloped North

WE have seen in foregoing pages the civilisation of Canada, starting in the east in Acadia, moving quickly westward to Quebec, thence more slowly onward to Ontario, through Manitoba to British Columbia. We see in the network of railways which surround Winnipeg, in the closely dotted townships throughout that great middle belt the story of prosperity and civilisation advancing by leaps and bounds to the amenities of civilised life, brought home to the settlers by the branch lines which run north and south of the main systems. Above this belt the branch lines of railway do not run, and there are fewer named rivers.

In the territory on the east of Hudson’s Bay there is a space which would accommodate the British Isles, which is to all intents and purposes unexplored. There is a vast expanse, 350 miles from north to south, the interior of which, even on the large scale maps, is shown by white paper.

To the west of the Hudson’s Bay, between it and the Great Bear Lake, there are vast stretches of country which have seldom been trodden by the foot of civilised man, only awaiting the influx of population and transport to awaken them to such productiveness as has hardly been dreamed of.

Spasmodically, and from time to time, this great no-man’s-land has been prospected, and from official inquiries and private prospectors we are able to form some idea of the possibilities.

To the east of Hudson’s Bay and to the north of Quebec lies the territory of Ungava. It is separated from the northern portion of Quebec by a line drawn from Hamilton Inlet on the coast of Labrador to the mouth of the Eastmaine River in Hudson’s Bay, with slight deviations to follow the course of the Hamilton River and the Eastmaine River. The area of the district is about 355,000 square miles, and does not include the strip along the Atlantic coast which is under the jurisdiction of Newfoundland.

Ungava is a large rolling plateau, from 1,000 to 2,000 feet in height except in the north part where it becomes somewhat lower. The soil is generally sandy, except in the middle of the peninsula where it becomes much better, and is, in fact, possible for agriculture. Beyond the northern timber limit small shrubs and plants grow. Fairly good vegetables and potatoes can be grown along the Eastmaine River and at Hamilton Inlet, and here and there oats and barley can be produced ; but the country will never be an agricultural country ; it is too cold, the soil is not suited to cereal crops, and there are no areas which could be called prairie land. Rocky, rough country is a fair description of Ungava. The climate is moderately cold even in summer time, the tree land stops short at a line drawn between Richmond gulf and the Leaf River which runs into Ungava Bay. White and black spruce, tamaracks and a few birch are to be found. Towards the head of Hamilton Inlet there is some good timber suitable for ships’ masts. There is valuable timber in the valleys of all the rivers running into Hamilton Inlet. The strips of timber country are confined mainly to the streams in belts of half a mile to a mile on each side. There is some difference of opinion as to the value of the timber, but expert lumbermen say that if it is only properly preserved it will be very valuable, and that the Hamilton River country will in time be one of the most famous timber districts in Canada. Enormous areas of timber are burnt up by careless fishermen and settlers who light fires in the summer to dry fish for winter use. These fires extend over large areas and many thousands of miles of valuable forest land have been burnt. In its present condition, Ungava is not a poor man’s land, since means of communication are so bad, and the climate is not available for growing the necessities of life with any certainty, at all events on an economical scale. The country will probably have to await its awakening by some large concern which can take hold of the district in a wholesale fashion, providing its employees or settlers with supplies whilst they are carrying out the schemes of the company.

The summers are short and the spring comes late. Even in the summer the climate is cold. In the interior during the summer time there are rain showers almost every day, and on the coast fogs are frequent. There are Hudson’s Bay posts scattered about the territory, and the best skins in the world are obtained in Labrador. The marten is a cheap fur, but there are otter, fox, mink, black bear, and in the far north, white bear. The animals are trapped by the Indians and Esquimos and sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company or to Rèvillon Frères, a French trading company which buys these furs from the trappers direct. The seal fisheries and the walrus fisheries in Hudson’s Bay and Hudson’s Strait occupy a good many adventurous fishermen, whilst the inland fisheries are a happy hunting-ground for the sportsmen, lake trout being caught there weighing as much as 50 or 60 lbs. White fish, pickerel, and the sucker are to be found in all the lakes, and salmon fisheries are also carried on in the district.

The iron bearing rock in Ungava is likely to prove a most important asset to this great northern territory. A large area of this extends from about the vicinity of the Hamilton River, northward to Ungava Bay direct in a straight line ; this belt is probably some 100 miles long and 200 or 300 miles wide southeast of the Bay. In addition, there are patches of iron ore on the west side of Ungava Bay and in other places. As a rule, these ores are not of a very high grade, but they run to 30 or 40 %, while some of the Labrador ores run as high as 60%.

It is highly probable that in the future these areas will come very much to the front. The only problem which confronts the pioneer is that of power and heat for his smelting works. There is neither coal, nor oil, nor natural gas in Ungava. There are, however, excellent water powers in the rivers. The falls at Hamilton Inlet are a good deal larger than Niagara Falls, and it is estimated that some 9,000,000 horse-power is running to waste daily, awaiting only the hand of man which shall tame it. It is quite possible that when this power has been harnessed the time will have come for the development of the iron ore.

At present the only means of communication is by canoe, following the waterways, and nothing weighty that can be of value in developing the district can at present be taken into or out of the country.


To the west of Hudson’s Bay another large area of the North West territory is awaiting development. It is most convenient to consider this in two divisions. The first division includes the territory of Keewatin on- the west of Hudson’s Bay ; and the second is from the western boundary of Keewatin to the Rocky Mountains, including the northern portions of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the triangular portion of British Columbia east of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Mackenzie Basin.

There is to the north of Lake Winnipeg an area of from 5,000 to 10,000 square miles of country adapted to agriculture. It is by no means such good country as is to be found to the south, and a large portion of it is wooded, rocky, and swampy. There are, however, considerable patches of arable and pasture land, which, with the valuable inland fisheries and the mineral deposits promise considerable development for this territory.

In the section with which we are dealing, wheat, barley, and a small amount of fruit and vegetables have been grown as far north as Norway House, on the north shore of Lake Winnipeg. Potatoes and turnips have been grown as far north as Fort Churchill on Hudson’s Bay, where also cattle are bred and excellent butter is made. This must be regarded as somewhat exceptional, since the north line of cultivation of the potato passes some distance to the south of Fort Churchill.

Huronion rocks occur at intervals, and as is usual with this geographical formation, many good minerals are to be found. Copper pyrites, and different sulphides are to be found. There is, too, a large area near Front Lake of norite rock similar to the formation in which the nickel deposits of Sudbury are to be found.

A large patch of the country in the northern part of Saskatchewan was prospected in 1908 by Mr. Frank Crean, whose report says that although the country is not entirely suitable for agricultural settlement through-out in its present state, it is capable of producing cereals and farm produce. When the swamps caused by lack of drainage have been cleared away the country will become much more healthy and certainly much more fruitful. At Portage Laloche, in latitude 56 degrees north, oats and barley have been grown at an altitude of 1,600 feet, and there are great possibilities of ranching along the river, where water and shelter are all at hand.

Game of all kinds abounds, and the Indians engaged in hunting for the Hudson’s Bay Company are prosperous as the result of their year’s labour. Poplar trees are to be found all over this tract, and, following the well-known rule of the western prairie country, their presence indicates good land. Near to Fort Churchill lies a district of great promise in mineral wealth.

It is to the great region north of the Saskatchewan valley and west of Keewatin which may broadly be described as the great Mackenzie Basin that the eyes of Canadian statesmen are turned for the future development of Canada.

The settlements here, in comparison with its area, are quite insignificant in number and in extent, but they have already shown the enormous possibilities of the territory as an agricultural and industrial country. It is claimed that there is in the Peace River section of this country as much good agricultural land fit for settle-ment, and as yet unexploited as is to be found settled in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. A careful estimate of the agricultural lands in this territory of the Mackenzie Basin places the area at not less than 100,000,000 acres.

To the average person it will be surprising that wheat, which is generally regarded as the valuable preserve of warm lands, can be grown quite near to the Arctic circle, where other conditions are favourable. It is a well-known fact to all authorities that grain is produced more abundantly as it approaches its northern limit, and it is a fact too, that the human species, as well as the lower animals, are more fruitful in the north than they are in the south. This rule applies also to wheat ; and the nearer grain is grown to its extreme north limit of production the better is the quality. Professor Saunders, twenty-five years ago, speaking before the Royal Geographical Society, showed his audience wheat grown in Kent and Surrey which contained an average of 41 grains to the fascicle, wheat grown at Ottawa which contained two to three grains, but wheat grown on the Peace River in 1875 contained five or six grains to the fascicle. Thus, if Ontario farmers, with their two or three grains to the fascicle can produce twenty five bushels of wheat to the acre, those of the Peace River should be able to produce over forty bushels to the acre, granted that the same acre produced the same number of stalks.

The climate is undoubtedly severe. At the same time the intensity of the winter cold has no effect on the vegetation of the country.

The winter may be taken to be about as severe as that of Manitoba, but since the country is not so exposed, the cold winds are not so trying to either vegetation or stock. Spring arrives with the most astonishing regularity, between the 15th and 20th of April without exception. It comes leaping across the country from the west at the rate of 250 miles a day, and once begun the warm weather continues, and the heat increases until the middle of August. Naturally the spring begins late and the winter sets in early, but owing to the great length of the day between latitudes 56 and 65 degrees vegetation is influenced by the sun on an average eighteen hours out of the twenty-four, thus in this north region at least two hours a day more summer sunlight than in Southern Canada is given to promote growth, with the result that vegetation shows the most extraordinary rapidity of growth, an earlier maturity, and a very high quality. It has been proved that the coolness of the nights in June and the early part of July has a good deal to do with the wonderful productiveness of vegetables and cereals in this part of the country.

The larger lakes and rivers seem to exert some influence in keeping off early summer and autumn frosts. Lac la Biche, on the heights above Edmonton, is notorious for the absence of autumn frosts. Isle de la Crosse post is another instance, and the reason ascribed in each case is the proximity of a large lake. There is a record of exceptional and severe frost all through Manitoba on August 18th which killed the potatoes, yet, on September 22nd of the same season potatoes were still found at the Isle de la Crosse, in latitude 56, green and unspoiled.

A great asset of the Mackenzie Basin is the existence of what are known as the Chinook winds, which extend from St. Paul on the coast north-westerly right down the Mackenzie Valley. This part of the country has been noted for the northward curve of the summer isothermals. The explanation of these winds is that the rain clouds of the American interior are drawn up by the sun in the southern Pacific. They are floated up on the north-east trade winds, and when these strike the coast of America to the south of California they are so hot that they have no power to give out their moisture, but go eastward and westward, and, as they pass over the land. raise the normal temperature of the whole region. Following up this course we find that the isothermal crosses over the Salt Lake valley, and, still going north, enters Canada in the valley of the Kootenay and on the east side of the Rocky Mountains about the 114th meridian. From the boundary of British Columbia this current passes up the Kootenay and the Simil Kameem through the Cache Creek country and the Babine Lake and enters the Mackenzie valley with its sixty thousand square miles of fruitful soil. In the middle of April the Peace River, in latitude 56, will have its banks covered with spring flowers, whilst 800 miles nearer the Equator no flowers are to be found. How far these Chinooks extend is still a matter for debate. They are mentioned by Sir John Richardson as existing near the Arctic circle, latitude 65, longitude about 115. They are to be found at Isle de la Crosse in latitude 56, and along the Peace and Smoky Rivers. What is certain is that the Chinook winds do not arise from local disturbances of barometric pressure, but a great indraft of moist, heated air in the nature of monsoons, drawn up, in the first place, from the south by the great American desert, and dispensed over the north during their course.

Just as spring comes in from the west so winter comes racing westwards at the same rate of about 250 miles a day.

Naturally the most serious drawback to this great North West, at present, is its distance from the haunts of mankind, and the difficulty of transport. As soon, however, as merchandise in any quantity is produced there is for its conveyance an immense natural waterway in the Peace River, an enormous body of water which winds its slow way from 500 to 700 feet below the level of the surrounding country. Where it enters the Rocky Mountains it sinks a thousand feet in ten miles so necessitating a portage. For nearly 800 miles below the lower end of this portage the river is still navigable, varying between 500 and 1,000 yards in width, still 500 feet below the normal level of the surrounding country. At the lowest point, near the mouth, where mud-bars begin to take the place of the gravel bottom, the river becomes shallow, but might yet be fit for stern wheel or river steamers of six feet or less in draft. In November, the river is closed by ice, but reopens quickly with the advance of spring towards the end of April.

The value of the Mackenzie as a mineral country is an ascertained fact, and many of the streams from the mountains northwards are auriferous.

The Mackenzie also from its headwaters to the Arctic Ocean is navigable to suitable steamers. Already the Hudson’s Bay Company’s steamer from Fort Churchill has made its way down the Mackenzie River nearly to the mouth. There is no doubt that it could have got further to the Arctic Sea if it had had a pilot who under-stood the passage. According to Sir John Franklin the total length of the Mackenzie from its source to the Arctic Ocean is 1,037 miles. It is a large river, flowing from the Great Salt Lake, with an average width of over a mile, and it maintains that breadth practically from source to mouth.

At Lac la Biche, where missionaries have set the example of cultivation, as they have nearly everywhere in the rest of the Mackenzie valley, there are excellent small farms round the lake, and Bishop Clut, in his evidence before a committee, considered that all the country round Lac la Biche and by the lesser Salt Lake, and all that on the Peace River and that on the Liard River was suitable for settlements.

Lakes are innumerable in the basin of the great Mackenzie, and all of them abound in fish of different kinds and of great size. White fish, for example, weighing at least 31 lbs, small trout from 4 lbs. to 10 lbs., and large trout from 10 lbs. to 35 lbs have been taken. In Clear Lake pike have been caught weighing from 25 lbs. to 35 lbs.

Musk ox of great size inhabit this region, the moose and the elk are found all over the forest region, while the beaver, and waterfowl of innumerable variety exist throughout the Mackenzie Basin and on the Arctic coast in the summer.

An interesting comparison of this country may be made with the Russian province of Vologda. This province is in the same latitude as the Peace River country ; its area is about 155,000 square miles, it is chiefly drained from the north, and is 750 miles in length and 350 miles in width. The Dwina River, which drains it, carries its produce to Archangel and thence by the White Sea, in the same fashion as might be done by the Mackenzie and the Arctic Sea. The winters are severe and the summers are warm in precisely the same fashion as in the north-west of Canada. In the province of Vologda are raised oats, barley, hemp, flax, and pulse. How much of this land there is in Canada must necessarily be a matter of guesswork, but it has been estimated that on the Peace River there are 25,000 square miles, in the Mackenzie valley, let us say, 25,000 square miles, in the headwaters of the Mackenzie and the Yukon west mountains another 30,000 square miles. That is to say, there is agricultural land sufficient to support a population of, say, 1,500,000 persons, and adding to this a quotum of fur-traders, men engaged in transport, store-keeping, trading, and so forth, one might say with moderation that this particular part of the country could support not less than 3,000,000 persons altogether.

Sooner or later the pressure of population in the more southern provinces will start a stream of emigration to the north-west. To meet the needs of this stream, or indeed to encourage it, the railways will run branch lines or even main lines through the Mackenzie Basin, and before long this territory will enter upon an era of development.