Thursday, April 27, 2017

W - Winnie the Pooh and Canada, Too

Okay, I wrote about this one before a few years ago. But 26 posts in one month is a lot, so you'll have to excuse me for reusing it. Plus it's a great story.

In 1914 a Canadian soldier from Winnipeg named Harry Colebourn was travelling to Quebec on his way to be shipped overseas. He kept a detailed journal of his trip, and after stopping the night in Port Arthur, Ontario he wrote the following:
"Left Port Arthur 7 a.m. In train all day. Bought bear $20."
I'm sure you, like myself, have many questions. Here are some of the answers:
  1. He bought the female bear cub from a hunter who had killed her mother.
  2. Colebourn was a veterinarian by trade, so him trying to help an animal is not unusual.
  3. Yes, he kept the bear.
  4. Yes, he brought it with him to basic training.
  5. Yes, he took it with him overseas.
That last one is important. Colebourn was shipped overseas to fight for England and he took an honest-to-god bear with him. I don't know if his officers were cool with this, or if they just decided not to f*ck with a guy who was travelling with a wild bear.

Yeah, I dunno either, Pierre.

Though he was obviously a badass (or maybe just nuts), Colebourn wasn't an asshole. When he shipped to the front lines in France he left the bear behind at the London Zoo. After the war Colebourn did post-grad work at the Royal College of Veterinary Surgery in London before returning to Winnipeg to open his own practice. The bear remained at the zoo and became possibly the most famous ursine in history.

Did I mention Colebourn named the bear "Winnipeg" after his hometown?  Or "Winnie," for short?

A certain A.A. Milne and his son Christopher Robin visited the London Zoo and fell in love with Winnie. In fact, Christopher Robin loved the bear so much that his father wrote many books of stories about Winnie's adventures to entertain him. The rest, as they say, is history. And countless billions of dollars in merchandising for Disney.

Also, Milne may have eaten his son. Allegedly.

There is a statue of Colebourn with Winnie the Pooh at the London Zoo, commemorating their strange but important place in literary history. There's an identical statue in Assiniboine Park in Winnipeg, to bring the story full circle.


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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Wednesday, April 26, 2017

V - Vancouver Beer Parlours

Prohibition of alcohol was common in Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century, though it was managed on a province-to-province and even town-by-town basis. The only nation-wide prohibition was from 1918-1920 as a temporary wartime measure. (Maybe to ship all the booze to the boys overseas? Who knows.) The ban was repealed province-by-province through the 20s, with Ontario abolishing prohibition by 1927, though Prince Edward Island held on from 1901 until 1948.

How in god's name anyone survived on that boring island for fifty years without booze is beyond me.

The west coast city of Vancouver, British Columbia retained its liquor ban for a few more years until 1925, when the city had completely lost control of alcohol within its borders. Still technically illegal, speakeasies popped up like mushrooms on every street corner, bribing cops and officials to keep that sweet, sweet illicit booze flowing. Rather than simply legalizing it and legislating it (like Canada is currently in the process of doing with marijuana), the government of the day decided to meet the drunks halfway:

And so the Vancouver beer parlour was born.

It wasn't a bar per se. The beer parlour only served beer. No spirits, no wine, just beer. And it was the only place to get beer, too. It was still illegal everywhere else. Not surprisingly, this wasn't a problem for anyone.

This picture keeps popping up in my research but I'm really not sure if it's authentic or some modern cosplayer in a crappy fake beard.

The beer parlours flourished, becoming centres for socializing and culture (if by culture you mean getting shitfaced). People got dressed up to go out to the parlour like they were attending church or the opera. They had other weird regulations, too, like having separate entrances for "Gentlemen" and "Ladies with Escorts," specifically for avoiding the dangerous mix of men, women and liquor.

Depicted here.

This all sounds like a cute, amusing old-timey story of weird stuff our great-great grandparents did, like painting themselves with radioactive makeup and taking photos of dead children. Except that the beer parlours continued until 1971, when liquor laws finally relaxed enough to lower the drinking age to 19, allow the sale of other types of alcohol, and finally abolish that "men can't drink with women" rule.

Some classy beer parlour patrons with the ghosts of the previous patrons who drank themselves to death.


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.
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Tuesday, April 25, 2017

U - Underground SNOLAB

Sudbury. A city in Northern Ontario so exciting that the top two attractions listed on the tourism website is a 6-screen discount movie theatre and the slots at the local race track. However, this sleepy (and cold) town holds a surprising secret deep below the surface: Two thousand and seventy metres beneath the city lies a sprawling underground laboratory that would be an awesome secret villain lair except that everyone knows about it.

Seriously, you can get a map on their website and everything.

For you non-metric folks out there, two thousand metres (2km) is about one-and-a-quarter miles, or six thousand, eight hundred feet. In solid bedrock.

SNOLAB (the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory) is located in a nickel mine in the cold Canadian north, and is the deepest clean room facility in the world. A clean room is a specialized laboratory with very low levels of dust and background radiation, necessary to perform certain very specialized and highly sensitive physics experiments. Until 2010 it was the deepest laboratory in the world, period, when it was surpassed by the 2.4km deep Jinping Underground Laboratory in China.

This has to be some sort of doomsday weapon, right?

Being located under so much solid rock provides invaluable shielding from the cosmic radiation that regularly bombards our planet but unfortunately doesn't give anyone superpowers. It does screw up physics experiments, though. To illustrate how important this depth is, SNOLAB and Jinpin receive 0.27 and 0.2 particles per square metre of cosmic radiation per day, respectively. This compares to fifteen million particles per square metre on the surface.

Seriously, how does no one develop superpowers? 

Unfortunately, because SNOLAB is located in an active mine, public tours are not available. However, their website offers a plethora of information, images and videos, and they have an extensive outreach program for grade schools. They also offer a workstudy co-op for undergraduate students. It's like they want to share science and education.

At this point I'll mention that the United States was supposed to build an ever deeper lab, but plans were abandoned after budget cuts in 2010. Ahem.


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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Monday, April 24, 2017

T - Toronto's Ill-Fated First Hanging

After the bleak and controversial topics of last week (treasonous nationalism, indigenous rights, and TWO separate cases of genocide), let's keep this week lighter. Monday's topic is... public execution.

Actually, it's still not as bad as last week's posts.

Back in 1798 Toronto was a small frontier town only five years old. It wasn't even called Toronto yet, it was still called York back then. They had a brand-new jail and hanging yard on King Street, a couple of blocks east from Yonge Street, and the local authorities were itching to use it.

This is not the York jailhouse from the story. This is the old Don Jail, which has it's own history of controversy and horror.

In October of that year, a couple of Irish immigrants named John Sullivan and Michael Flannery went on a drinking binge in Toronto's only tavern. Sullivan was illiterate, but Flannery was known as "Latin Mike" for his penchant of reciting Bible verses, and by all accounts was a pretty smart guy. This becomes important later.

When the money ran out, Flannery had the sparkling idea to forge a bank note for three shillings and nine pence (worth a little less than dollar, or twenty bucks in today's money). The bank accepted it and the boys continued their bender. They were soon found out, however, and when word came of their impending arrest Flannery immediately skipped town. Sullivan was not so lucky. He was arrested, tried and convicted of forgery, and sentenced to death.

For forging the equivalent of a twenty-dollar bill.

Is this colourful old lady worth your life?

The judge's ruling was scathing:
Sullivan, may all who behold you, and who shall hear of your crime, and of your unhappy fate, take warning from your example… [I] recommend to you to employ the few days that shall be allowed, of a life spent in wickedness, in humble and fervent prayer to almighty God…
Again, the dude was sentenced to death because his friend forged a twenty dollar bill. Sullivan was illiterate and couldn't write his own name. Obviously the town really, really wanted to try out their new hanging yard.

Again this is not from the York hanging (not many cameras back then). This is from Hull, Quebec, in 1902, not far from where I now work.

The problem was the hanging yard was so new, no one actually knew how to hang a person, and nobody was willing to try. They ultimately had to give $100 and a pardon to another criminal in the same jail, a man by the name of McKnight, to give it a whirl.

(I have been unable to determine what McKnight was arrested for, or how it compares to forging a f*cking $20 bill. Would it be worse if he did something really minor like jaywalking, or had murdered an entire churchful of nuns?)

Yeah, I dunno either, Pierre.

A crowd gathered in their Sunday best to watch the hanging (this was about 210 years before Netflix), and McKnight proved he also had no clue how to hang somebody. The first time the noose slipped off Sullivan's head. The second time the knot came undone. At this point even Sullivan himself was getting annoyed and impatient. It was reported that his last words were something along the lines of: 

"McKnight, I hope to God you got the rope right this time."

Turns out he did, and the third time was the charm.


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

S - Shanawdithit, Last of the Beothuk

A few days ago I talked about the Mi'kmaq, an Indigenous group in Newfoundland that were actually "native" to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The Beothuk, however, were the true natives of the Island province, able to trace their arrival to Newfoundland about 2000 years ago. They encountered the vikings when they arrived in 1000 AD (in the Norse sagas they referred to them as "skraelings"). They hunted and fished, lived and died on the Island for nearly twenty centuries. Their numbers were never large, peaking at around 2000 individuals in the 1500s.

And then the Europeans showed up and ruined everything.

It's the same story from everywhere else in the Americas. The Europeans brought new diseases which the Beothuk had no defence against. They cut off their traditional hunting and fishing lands. In some cases they actively warred and fought against the natives, and the Beothuk could not compete with the numbers and the superior technology of the Colonials.

The unusual detail with the Beothuk however, is that it is one of the rare instances where we can pinpoint the exact moment of the extinction of an entire race.

Beothuk iron tools. The Beothuk did not trade much with European settlers, but instead scavenged and recycled discarded objects.

Shanawdithit was born in Newfoundland in 1801, and by that time her people's traditional way of life was already dying, and their numbers dwindling rapidly. Most of her family members died of illness and starvation while she was young, and in 1819 her aunt, Demasduit, was captured by the English and brought to "civilization" in hopes that she could become a bridge between the Beothuk and the English. She refused, claiming that her people would sacrifice her if she returned, which may have been true; by this time the Beothuk knew that contact with the English would bring them disease, and they could not take any more chances.

Desmaduit died of tuberculosis in 1820. At that time it is believed there were only 31 Beothuk left.

Beothuk birch bark canoe. The high sides may have been for stability in rough water.

Shanawdithit, her mother and her sister were taken by the British in 1823 after the death of her father. Her mother and sister died of tuberculosis shortly thereafter, but Shanawditit held on for several more years. She came to St. John's, the capital of the Island, and worked as a maid and even learned to speak English. The government continued to hold out hope that she could be used as a connection to the native people, a people who quietly died out while Shanawditit lived in captivity. After she finally passed away of tuberculosis on June 6, 1829, no other Beothuk were ever seen on the island again. She was, very literally, the last of her people.

In recent years genetic tests on the remains of Shanawdithit and Demasduit have indicated that while they have distant relationships to the Mi'kmaq, the Beothuk DNA is indeed unique and does not appear anywhere else. They are a separate and distinct line of the human race that we watched and documented - not to mention helped - driven to extinction in the 1800s.


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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Friday, April 21, 2017

R - J.R. Robertson, Toronto's First Literary Pirate

John Ross Robertson was born in Toronto in 1841. As a child he collected pictures and historical memorabilia (so he was a nerd, basically), and in high school he started his own newspaper, which may have been the first school newspaper of its kind in Canada. He got into trouble with the school administration for printing negative pieces about them, and had to close and rename his paper several times. To be fair to Robertson, he was actually only chastising the school for their movie-villain-style schemes, like trying to tear down the school playground (which Robertson stopped).

After leaving school Robertson started his own print and publishing businesses as well as founded several papers and magazines. By 1865 he was city editor for the Globe, one of Toronto's (and the country's) top papers, which continues to this day as the Globe and Mail. He won numerous awards for journalism and was credited for "introducing to the paper the practice of writing crisp, short paragraphs about a multiplicity of local happenings, rather than sermon-like and wordy essays about outstanding events."

You know, basically the opposite of the way I write.

Preferring to be in charge, Robertson jumped ship just a year later to start his own paper, the Evening Telegraph (later the Evening Telegram). The Telegraph was characterized as news as entertainment, with colourful words, flashy ads, low price and catering to the "average, lower class family" with lowbrow, trashy stories. It was basically a tabloid, and also continues today in its spiritual successor, the Toronto Sun.

Which is also not much better than a tabloid.

The paper was hugely successful, and Robertson became one of Canada's first press barons. Just like today, the people who control the media control the masses, and so JR Robertson was a powerful, influential figure. He used this power to dabble in new enterprises, like rampant literary piracy.

With the rise of popular fiction, and since JRR owned his own printing presses, it was only natural that he would try his hand at book publishing. But instead of finding his own authors and new manuscripts, he just stole works that were already popular in the U.S. or Britain and sold them in Canada without the author or publisher's permission. Due to the lack of international copyright laws, Robertson made a fortune shamelessly reprinting these works. His "Robertson Cheap Editions" (seriously, that was the name) sold for 3 to 50 cents a copy, a fraction of the price of the legitimate volumes. Between 1877 and the early 1890s, it is estimated that Robertson sold up to 2 million copies of as many as 350 titles. He even serialized the works in the Telegram.

The 19th-century equivalent of Torrenting an ePub file.

Of course, what he was doing wasn't technically illegal, but it made him unpopular in certain circles, especially among British copyright lawyers. They argued that as a dominion of Great Britain, Canada should follow their copyright laws, which of course Canadians balked against. Prime Minister John Sparrow Thompson (no relation to Captain Jack Sparrow) appointed Robertson as lead to sort out the copyright laws and actually sent him to London to negotiate with the British, which spelled an end to the Robertson Cheap Editions. I imagine it would have been hard for Robertson to strike any kind of deal with the British while he was ripping them off at the same time.


Like many rich industrialist of his era, JR Robertson was a fascinating and controversial figure. I only touched on a fraction of his life today. If you want to know more, check out:


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.
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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Q - Qalipu Mi'kmaq First Nations Band

This one is still ongoing and is a very contentious issue back home in Newfoundland, so I'll try to stay as objective as possible.

The Mi'kmaq (sometimes spelled Mi'kmaw or Micmac) are an indigenous people of Eastern Canada, today numbering around 40,000 in Atlantic Canada and Quebec. In the early 2000s the Federal Government of Canada started a process to officially recognize the Qalipu Mi'kmaq people of Newfoundland, since they had never been officially documented and had no reserve lands. They started accepting applications for anyone who had indigenous blood and wanted to be considered for membership to the band.

They received over 100,000 applications, fully one-fifth the population of the entire province.

The Mi'kmaq had been coming to the island of Newfoundland for hunting and fishing for hundreds of years, and had commonly intermingled with the French settlers. In 1949, Newfoundland joined Confederation with Canada as the 10th Province. Part of the agreement to join the country was the province's agreement that there were no Mi'kmaq living on the Island. This was a blatant falsehood, for while their numbers had dwindled they were certainly not extinct. The reason for this decision is complicated. Indigenous people in Canada are governed by a law called the Indian Act, a contentious piece of legislature that decides how they are defined, their land rights, ability to govern themselves and so on. It is both a necessary and a massively racist system of laws, which the country has been amending, apologizing for and paying reparations against for decades.

Mi'kmaq Camp in Nova Scotia, c. 1857

In 1949, Canada didn't want to recognize a large influx of new "Status Indians" because it would cost them a fortune to provide social benefits to members in remote communities. Newfoundland didn't want anyone recognized as Status Indians because under the Act Indians weren't allowed to vote. There are no good records of exactly how many Mi'kmaq existed on the island in 1949 (since officially they didn't exist), but there were certainly some, though they were maligned and marginalized just like native people in the rest of North America.

For many years you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who admitted to be of Mi'kmaq heritage. And then, all of a sudden their numbers exploded when the government decided to allow them back into the fold. Why you may ask? An person optimistic about the nature of humanity would say it's because all those people were looking to reclaim their heritage. A more cynical person would say it's because of all the government social funding and tax benefits being a Status Indian provides.

Joe Jeddore, a Newfoundland Mi'kmaq guide, pre-1907
I guarantee everyone just called him "Indian Joe."

In 2011, after going through about 25,000 applications the Feds put the brakes on the program and told the Newfoundland Federation of Indians to change the eligibility requirements to be a member of the Qalipu band, because there was no way they were going to recognize so many members. The outstanding applications were summarily rejected, and previously reviewed applications were reevaluated. Eligibility was changed so that now not only did you have to have indigenous ancestors, but you had to live in certain areas and be an active member of the band. Even then, the criteria is not being vetted transparently or consistently. Some people who had already been granted Status are having it revoked. It also created the stunning situation where one sibling is an "Indian," but their brother or sister is not. Or even where a parent is not an "Indian," but their children are.

Full disclosure: This applies to my own family. My maternal grandfather was of Mi'kmaq descent. My sister and her children are recognized members of the band and are Status Indians. I'm probably going to have my status revoked.

This needless to say has caused a lot of controversy and bad blood. It's important to recognize that being a Status Indian is a legal recognition and does not define your heritage. You can still consider yourself Mi'kmaq and be a member of the band and take part in all their cultural activities. But no, you don't get the financial benefits that come along with it.

Whether that's right or wrong is up to the individual to decide.

(Photo credits today are from:


My A-to-Z Blogging Challenge theme for 2017 is Weird Canadian Facts and History. To see more blog posts, click here.

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