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Review

Simon Fraser: In Search of Modern British Columbia

By Stephen Hume

November 4, 2013

Review By Brett McGillivray

This book is not the traditional academic, well-documented research dissertation on the life of Simon Fraser. As Steven Hume states at the beginning, there was no intention of making this a “conventional biography.” This text is a narrative in which Hume traces the life and times of Simon Fraser for British Columbia’s sesquicentennial. There are no footnotes and few formal references in his account of this early North West Company explorer, but Hume has done the academic legwork in assessing over 350 texts, letters, journals, and reports, along with weaving in First Nations oral history that has been passed down from generation to generation. I expected to be immersed in the detailed life of Simon Fraser and his adventures, but there is much more in this book. Hume provides insight into Simon Fraser’s boyhood and his progression to full partnership with the North West Company as well as into the establishment of the first fur trade forts on this side of the Rockies. He details the treacherous and near-fatal journey down the river that bears Fraser’s name. 

The book is also a travelogue of people, places, and events in areas where Simon Fraser used to live and travel. At times it is encyclopaedic, dealing with various topics some of which bear little relation to the life of Simon Fraser; at other times it reads like a newspaper article (bits of it were originally published in the Vancouver Sun). It is also a personal story of Hume’s struggle to find reliable information on the life of Simon Fraser. He finds, as have many academics, that a great deal of Fraser’s life remains a mystery. Hume is an experienced writer with an impressive understanding of history, and he weaves together many stories (along with his own interpretations of Fraser’s life) to keep the reader interested and informed of both the past and the present.

The book comprises thirty chapters plus a valuable summation of the various First Nations encountered by Simon Fraser. As well, there are numerous illustrations, including pictures, maps, and documents, mainly from the provincial and federal archives, along with Vancouver Sun photos – all of which provide an important visual connection to the many stories. 

Simon Fraser has taken Hume four years and 20,000 kilometres to assemble. He takes us back to the original Fraser family farm site, which is where the states of New York and Vermont intersect. Fraser’s father was a Roman Catholic immigrant from Scotland who sided and fought for the British Loyalists in the US War of Independence. Hume gives us examples of Loyalist brutality and persecution in these turbulent times, during which Fraser’s father died in captivity, and he tells how the future explorer’s mother and seven children were forced to leave for Canada (British North America). The reader is reminded how important the Loyalists were to Canada: “these newcomers represented a massive infusion of intellectual and entrepreneurial capital” (66), which included the formation of the North West Company. Hume also does a superb job of making the reader aware of the radical differences between life now and life then: “Fraser lived in a world powered by wind, water and muscle” (13), whereas we live in a world of instant information and communication, where travel is measured in hours and minutes rather than weeks, months, and years.

There are few records of Simon Fraser’s journey across the Rockies, but Hume uses some seven chapters to trace his path and to immerse us in the lives and struggles of fur traders. He tells us how to build a birch-bark canoe, discusses the importance of the paddle, and indicates the precise ration of rum for each paddler at the end of the day. In his detailed description of a past way of life, Hume often interjects comments concerning how we have modified and transformed landscapes as well as comments aimed at the trivia buff (e.g., how the Dionne quintuplets were turned into a “human zoo” (94), how Flin Flon got its name from a science fiction novel, and the status of present-day energy issues such as the potential for building the Site C dam on the Peace River). We are also made aware of how, since Fraser’s day, global warming has dramatically changed climatic conditions. He describes the extreme winter conditions faced by fur traders, the differences in Native and non-Native values, the importance of women in the fur trade, and violence between First Nations.

Hume’s discussion of the voyage down the Fraser River relies upon Simon Fraser’s journal. We are offered insight into how difficult the river was to navigate by canoe, Fraser’s thoughts on food, and his confusion regarding whether or not they were actually on the Columbia River. We are informed of the importance of locations such as Fort Alexandria, which, in the 1830s, “was the metropolis of the Interior” (232); the devastating impact of smallpox epidemics on First Nations; and Fraser’s dependence upon First Nations to guide him down the river. This is the river that defeated Alexander Mackenzie, forcing him to go overland to the Pacific. Simon Fraser is determined, and the story Hume tells is a fascinating one of adventure, near-death experiences, and decisions to abandon canoes and portage around the Fraser River’s many rapids. Hume also does an admirable job of describing the life of First Nations and their view of Simon Fraser and his crew, including their speculation that “a white-skinned transformer had returned” (271).

It is questionable whether Simon Fraser actually saw the Pacific Ocean (i.e., the Strait of Georgia) as the friendly relationships he enjoyed upriver turned confrontational at the mouth of the river, forcing him to retreat. He did realize that this was not the Columbia River and he certainly realized that it was not an easy river to navigate for the purpose of transporting furs (this was a disappointment to him). However, he did not lose any of his men and did not kill any First Nations people. As Hume notes, Fraser was responsible for establishing the beginnings of modern British Columbia, transforming the land according to entrepreneurial and capitalist values. The downside of this transformation is that it ended the traditional ways of life of various Aboriginal populations.

Many chapters in this book are in bite-size pieces (likely because it was first designed as a newspaper publication), and there are chapters in which the link to Simon Fraser is somewhat tenuous. Nevertheless, there are good stories here, and Simon Fraser is well worth the read.