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  • The Empire of the St. Lawrence: A Study in Commerce and Politics
  • Donald Wright
The Empire of the St. Lawrence: A Study in Commerce and Politics. Donald Creighton. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002. Pp. xx, 441. $24.95

The conviction that he was uncovering a story bigger, more important, and more explanatory than the story of Canada's constitutional development, hit Donald Creighton suddenly, joyously, almost religiously. On a return trip to Toronto, as the train was moving slowly out of Ottawa along the canal, he experienced something like an epiphany. '"West, West," I thought, to the rhythm of the wheels. "We're going West." And I saw it all, in a flash. It was a moment of pure rapture.' Canadian history, he was now convinced, was the history of western expansion out of the St Lawrence River valley, of an expanding east-west trade network in such staples as fur, timber, and wheat. Making that expansion possible and allowing a relatively small number of men located in Montreal to build a commercial and ultimately territorial empire was the St Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. This river and this drainage basin connected the centre of the continent to the Atlantic Ocean and ultimately to Great Britain. As the only waterway to penetrate so consistently, relentlessly, and deeply into the heart of North America, its importance could not be overstated. It was, Creighton wrote, 'the fact of all facts in the history of the northern half of the continent'; 'it was the central truth of a religion'; 'it was a force in history.'

Published in December 1937, The Empire of the St. Lawrence struck an immediate and resonant chord. Hit by the originality and forcefulness of its argument and moved by the daring reach of its author's imagination, readers found themselves gripped from beginning to end. Arthur Lower called it 'brilliant.' Herbert Heaton from the University of Minnesota described it as 'a brilliant piece of analysis, synthesis, and interpretation.' Charles Stacey considered it 'a most important contribution to the literature of Canadian history.' Writing in the American Historical Review, Yale University's Gilbert Tucker called it 'an extremely good book and a really important contribution to the understanding of Canadian history.'

The Empire of the St. Lawrence really was what people said it was: big and bold and, above all, original. Before Creighton, no one had taken the merchant class seriously. Studying their interests, arguments, and vision over an extended period of time, he unpacked their world and then reassembled it in a tightly written and fast-moving narrative that sought not only to explain the past but to provide a rationale for Canada's separate existence in North America. Echoing Innis's conclusion in The Fur Trade, Creighton argued that 'the commercial state, like the Dominion of Canada which followed it, was not an artificial creation.' Throughout [End Page 555] the book he referred to 'the economy of the north' and cited its 'separateness' and 'independence.' He called the St Lawrence River trade system the 'Canadian system.' He even talked about 'northerners' and a 'northern people.' The Empire of the St. Lawrence was an extended answer to the existential question that had plagued successive generations of Canadians: to be, or not to be? But Creighton also knew that if Canada should 'be,' there are no sure things in history. If the commercial empire and later Canada were not artificial creations, neither were they inevitable or guaranteed to last forever. Canada might be logical, but it is not permanent.

Creighton divided his narrative into three chronological parts, with each part documenting the attempt by merchants to realize the logic of the St Lawrence and the Great Lakes: a vast commercial empire based on the staples trade. Yet each part ends in defeat. Following the American Revolution, the new international boundary dividing British North America from the United States mocked the unity of the St Lawrence River and cut the merchants off from the great hinterland of the fur trade south of Lake Erie between the Ohio and the Mississippi Rivers. Creighton described it as a 'boundary devoid of geographical and historical meaning which cut through the...


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