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What Do Winston Churchill and Sir Alexander Mackenzie Have in Common??

When I was 5’2" in Grade 8 (with 8 inches still to grow), I desperately wanted to be a star basketball player on Winston Churchill High School’s ‘British Bulldogs’.  Prime Minister Winston Churchill was known as a British Bulldog because of the courageous way that he stood up to Hitler’s tyranny.  In this last article of my trilogy on BC explorers (Fraser, Thompson, & Mackenzie), I give thanks for the life of a ‘Scottish Bulldog’ who through sheer tenacity was the first European to cross this continent north of Mexico.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie ranks as one of the most remarkable persons of North American wilderness history and, indeed, as one of the greatest travelers of all time.  His transcontinental crossing predated (and indeed inspired) the more famous Lewis and Clark American expedition by twelve years.  Even Bernard De Voto, the well-known Utah-born historian said of Mackenzie, "In courage, in the faculty of command, in ability to meet the unforeseen with resources of craft and skill, in the will that cannot be overborne, he has had no superior in the history of American exploration."

I remember singing around the YMCA Camp Elphinstone and Camp Howdy campfires: ‘This Land is your Land, This Land is My Land, from the Arctic Circle to the Great Lake Waters,…from the Atlantic Ocean to Vancouver Island, this Land was made for you and me". ’  In Mackenzie was realized the dream of a Canada stretching from sea to sea.  Beneath the lion and the unicorn supporting the coat of arms of Canada are the Latin words: A MARI USQUE AD MARE, taken from a Biblical text, ‘He shall have dominion also from sea to sea and from the river to the ends of the earth. Without Alexander Mackenzie (and his Nor’Wester friends Simon Fraser and David Thompson), Canada would have lost her entire Pacific Coast, being shut off from any access to the sea.

In 1764, Alexander Mackenzie was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, a windswept, rugged island in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland.  When Alexander was ten, his mom died.  Neighbours, knowing he had memorized long passages from the Bible, predicted that Alexander would become a clergyman. Through the local pastor’s library, he learned about astronomy and the use of telescopes.  At age 13, Alexander tabulated all the animal and plant life in the Hebrides, and he and his pastor tried unsuccessfully to get it published in London.

To escape the grinding poverty, his family, like thousands of other Highlanders, moved to the New World, only to become caught up in the American Revolution.  His father, like Simon Fraser’s dad, joined a United Empire Loyalist regiment near New York, before escaping with his family to Montreal. In those days, every one of Montreal’s 4000 inhabitants was involved in some way with the fur trade.  To young Alexander Mackenzie, the Montreal-based North West Company fur trade signified adventure, a chance to travel and explore new territory.

The heart of the fur industry was the voyageurs, who were the heroes and athletes of the 18th century.  As with the NHL, a voyageur was an old man at forty and forced to retire.
A good voyageur paddled 40 strokes to the minute and could keep up that pace from dawn to dusk with brief stops.  They had the reputation of being the finest canoeists in the world, who could travel anywhere.  Most of the North West Company’s 1,100 voyageurs were Canadians, which in those days meant that they were Quebec-born francophones.  The Northwest Company brought together a unique blend of Canadians and Scots like Simon Fraser and Alexander Mackenzie.  At the height of the North West Company, it had eight times as many men in Western Canada as the more cautious Hudson’s Bay Company.

While looking for the Pacific Ocean, Mackenzie discovered and charted the largest river in Canada, the 2,500-mile long Mackenzie River .  He reached the Arctic Ocean on July 14th, 1789 --the same day as the angry Paris mobs stormed the French Bastille. Mackenzie was so heartbroken over ending up at the wrong ocean that he named his river ‘The River of Disappointment.’

What is it that kept Alexander Mackenzie from just giving up and never trying again?  Click to find out more…

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