Today I write about pain.

Before I do that, however, I want you all to feel free to contact me. If you have problems with privacy i.e., you don’t want your comments to appear in public, please let me know when you post comments, or pm me on Messenger or you can email me at rogalb@shaw.ca.

Things can change very quickly these days and positive things do happen! Oh, I still have myeloma and I started chemo yesterday. That seems fine. The pain in my neck has attenuated too. Who knows why. I can feel it lurking around my cervical spine, but for now it’s keeping a respectful distance. I can actually type and stay relatively focussed. I pay for that by not taking as much hydromorphone. AND my kidney is back to normal…for an old guy like me anyway and that’s very good news. I was thinking I may need a wheelchair to get around and we were making arrangements for that, but for the moment, I’m good. I’m feeling okay at the moment, ten times better than I felt two days ago, but that’s how it goes with chronic pain. Things can easily go back to shitty in a flash. Of course I know that I’m an old guy with cancer and I can see the exit door over there just beyond the bright white light, but I can’t see the handle yet, so I think I have some time. Besides, I can put that to the back of my mind. It doesn’t help at all to focus on things I can’t inevitably change and stick to the things that can get me, and others, better quality of life now and for the near future.

So, pain. My last blog post was about Carolyn’s experiences at the Emergency Department here in Courtenay. My penultimate posts were about my visit to the oncologist in Victoria and my subsequent disastrous ER visit the following day. I sit here somewhat unable to piece together accurately in sequence what happened to me since last Wednesday. Truth is I’ve seen two specialists since then, have had a ct scan with another one scheduled for tomorrow which showed that I have severe disk degeneration in my neck that is, along with arthritis, creating the pain vortex in my neck. My neck pain has been a roller coaster of severity. I have a neck brace that helps with that too as you can see from the photo below. Hi!

My office

Now, this is where it gets interesting because my oncologist tells me that my neck pain has nothing to do with my myeloma. It has everything to do with my disk degeneration and arthritis. So, I ask: does the myeloma contribute at all to pain in my body? Of course it does, comes the answer. It attacks your bones. The ct scan did not find the right kinds of lesions on my cervical spine, so they were not the source of my neck pain. Well, okay. I guess I can go along with the argument that my nasty bulging disks are responsible. I mean I had surgery on my lower back decades ago to alleviate a ruptured disk problem so I’m familiar with that. Still, recently I’ve had over the top thoracic skeletal pain which really was caused by my myeloma so whatever. I’m getting a ct scan tomorrow to check that out among other things.

So, what I’ve been able to piece together through moments of excruciating pain and hallucinating sedation, is that the pain I’m experiencing the most severely seems to be concentrated in the bony/connective parts of my body that had already suffered trauma. I’m thinking specifically of the area on my left thorax where my kidney as removed, the lower back cervical area where I had a disk removed, the left heel where I had planers fasciitis, that sort of thing. My neck too and my shoulders where I had rotator cuff tears, both sides due to falls and long term overuse issues.

I started asking this question to whoever would listen: is there an association between myeloma and increased intensity of pain in areas of previous bone trauma? Answer: I don’t think so, but probably not. Question: Do you know of any research between myeloma and where it affects the body most? Answer: Not that I know of. I had a chat with my daughters about this. They’re no slouches when it comes to research: One of them works in the field of non-profit housing and the other in biomedical research. They are my truly trusted experts. But, I have access to a lot of material too because I’m still associated with North Island College as emeritus and have library privileges.

Okay, that still leaves me dealing with my own experience of pain and those of others (read the comment by Tanya Wood based on my last post), some of whom have chosen to remain anonymous. I’m especially concerned with Emergency Departments and with receptionists (gatekeepers) in GP offices who, I know are just doing their jobs, but who, when I call to simply ask that can the doctor just tell me if I can increase my dosage of hydromorphone says: “Well, the doctor will have to see you for that” To which I answer: I can barely move. I have excruciating pain and can barely get out of my chair. Can he just tell me quickly about increasing my already existing prescription with pills I already have?” “Well, no, the doctor will have to see you.” So, I couldn’t take anymore of that and told her we’d get back to them. Later, Carolyn called and talked to someone else who said someone would be in touch. My doctor called me later in the day when he had done his patient visits for the day, something he as often done in the past and I knew he would do again. So, all day I was left figuring out how many more hydromorphone pills to take before overdosing. I’m not at all suicidal, so that’s a concern. I’ve known of many people who have died from accidental overdoses. I wasn’t about to be one of them, but my pain was so intense it was a good thing I wasn’t standing at a subway station waiting for a train anytime last week. I may just have acted compulsively and jumped onto the tracks. Of course that’s a little hyperbole, but that’s okay among friends, isn’t it?

I wrote to Tanya Wood (who’s husband, Darren, died a couple of years from complications resulting from a tragic accident) in response to her heart wrenching comment that ER departments are microcosms of our culture. They operate using the same moral assumptions as everyone else in society. We have deep-seating cultural aversions to death and disease. Most of those are built on our huge biological insecurities. I paraphrase here Ernest Becker who wrote something like: Disease takes away our ability to enjoy the pleasures of life and death does that permanently. He calls death and disease the twin pillars of evil for us. [You need to read some of my early posts to get a sense of how brilliant I feel Becker was.]

So, in a sense, I’m not surprised at the cavalier attitude most staff members have towards people coming into Emergency departments everywhere. Don’t get me wrong. There are some very dedicated and caring medical staff working in ERs doing a mostly thankless job which, I’m sure, can be extremely rewarding at times too but the system is stacked against them and they will, I’m certain, be looking for different work soon if they don’t toe the line. And, of course, as I’ve already noted in a previous post that pain is invisible so ER staff can’t just take your word for it. Not only that, but if you come in really agitated that you’re in extreme pain and need some meds now they may tag you as a troublemaker and make you wait all that much longer for help. There’s a big screen tv in the ER waiting room at the Royal Jubilee Hospital explaining in great detail why you must wait and why. There are signs saying no foul language or threats or whatever will be tolerated. There are security people everywhere dressed just like police. I wonder what they would do if somebody with Turette’s Syndrome came in following a car crash or, as is quite common, some people can’t utter a full sentence without ‘fuck’ in it at least once. These people may just suffer from undeveloped communicative skills but they are probably not dangerous. The message is clear: if you want treatment here you had better stay calm, cool, and collected. Of course, precautions must be taken, but I’m not sure that blanket prohibitions are the way to do it.

Pain, in our culture, is associated with weakness and most people are loathe to talk about it even to the point of not seeing a doctor because they’re embarrassed about the location of their pain or don’t want to admit weakness. Weakness of any kind is just not acceptable. Do you see any weak superheroes in the movies? Well, some of them show some slight or passing weaknesses but they always triumph over them in the glorious light of their super strength. That’s in the movies. In Diehard movies the hero falls off of an eighteen storey building onto the top of a moving van below, rolls of of that onto the sidewalk where he encounters villains walking towards him shooting up a storm with their AR-15s (or whatever), gets hit, falls through the open door of a bar, sidles up to the bartender and asks for a scotch on the rocks. The young, gorgeous, female bartender gives him his drink and comments on the two gaping bullet wounds on his shoulder. He respond in true superhero in training fashion: “These, nah, just flesh wounds.”

Real heroes are immune to pain it seems so if you really want to be a superhero, boys and girls, don’t complain about pain!

Pain doesn’t kill. It’s a sign that something organic is out of whack and needs attention. Failure to attend to pain often results in dire consequences for the patient but any complaint of pain is not treated initially by medical staff as an organic issue, but rather as a moral one. We are all assumed to be moral degenerates unless proven otherwise by the cognoscenti. Of course that’s not true in every case, but the underlying assumptions are always there. Overlying all of this too is the assumption that there is an acceptable amount of demonstration allowed with different levels of injury. So, for a broken leg, some amount of whimpering is allowed, and for the pain I went in with some moaning and groaning is okay, but only when there’s movement happening otherwise sitting quietly is what’s expected. In any case they have a scale of acceptable pain demonstration. Don’t mess up their expectations and assumptions. But as I said, our reaction to pain culturally is really screwed up so you’d have to think that in an ER that would be doubly evident. It’s not right but that’s the way it is. Is there anything we can do about it? Maybe, but it’s complicated and requires a lot of knowledge and challenges to authority. Authority does not like being challenged. That itself is a challenge since authority has all the lawyers it wants to line up against you, often using your money. But lets poke the beast a little and see if it demonstrate any signs of weakness or pain.

I’m not dead yet, and I’m coming for you, VIHA, and related government departments and agencies. You’re trying to get rid of pathology services entirely in the North Island and that’s a travesty. Some of you in the business may need to retake your Hippocratic oath. More on this later. I need to do more research to know exactly what the situation is, but when I’m ready you’ll know about it.

So, for now, I’ve seen my oncologist, my kidney specialist, my pathologist and now I need to have my beer specialist on my team. I won’t be going out to see him anytime soon, but I heard he might just deliver. Damn, there’s so much more to say!

One of my previous posts about disability and people in wheelchairs. It might be of interest after reading this post.

Today I was going to write about pain, but I’m in too much pain to do it.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll be in less pain. I have a lot to write about my recent experience with pain but my neck pain is so bad right now I can’t look down and can barely move it from side to side. Tomorrow, I’ll try again. The docs found in a recent CT scan that I have severe disk degeneration in my neck. ‘They’ say that’s what causing my extreme pain at the moment and the pain cannot be attenuated by pain killers, including hydromorphone. I guess that cancer wasn’t enough for me.

In the meantime, as a bit of a primer, I’m reposting a blog post from earlier this year on the subject of pain.

The Conundrum of Pain…and Suffering: Part 1.

I’ve been thinking about writing this piece for a long time. It’s only now that I figured out how I wanted to organize my narrative. It’s complicated because there are so many aspects and approaches to both pain and suffering. The medical profession (and the medical ‘industry’) has its clear claim on the alleviation of pain and suffering. Philosophers and psychologists have also long been interested in the topic. Sociologists too. I won’t be quoting any sources this time. I will leave that for subsequent posts where I deal with specific scholarly and popular approaches to pain and suffering. To start, I want to suggest why I find pain and suffering of interesting.

Pain is not something that can be empirically determined. It cannot be objectively measured as far as I know. If you know otherwise, please let me know. That’s why doctors (MDs, that is) sometimes ask you: “On a scale of 1 to 10, how bad is your pain right now?” You answer: “Gee, I don’t know.” And you just throw out a number because it’s such a hard question to answer. You don’t want to say 2 because then what the hell are they doing in their office? You don’t want to say 10 unless you’re writhing in pain on the floor by the examination table. A 7 is usually good for attracting attention without getting ‘the look’. Still, your doctor may be wary.

You can look at anyone, I don’t care whether they have just been badly damaged in a car crash, they have arthritis, psoriasis, lumbago (don’t you just love that word?), and/or gout. You can impute that they’re in pain, but it’s not visible. Pain is not visible. You cannot see pain. It hides in the crevices, nooks and crannies of your body but nobody can see it so how do we know it’s really there? We may see a person with a massive slashing knife wound to the chest and we assume that person is in pain, but we never see the pain so we don’t have any way of determining its intensity or how much shock or other factors have mitigated or attenuated it.

Recently we (Carolyn and I) spent some time in a hospital emergency department because Carolyn needed an emergency appendectomy. All is much better now, but it was obvious that the medical staff was at a loss the first time we went to emerg (that’s what they call it, you know) to figure out what the cause of Carolyn’s pain might be. They may have even wondered whether or not her pain was psychosomatic. They poked and prodded her, took blood and did a CT scan. Nothing of significance was found. I don’t know what the staff thought at the time. They told her she was a conundrum and looked great on paper. In any case, we were sent home with instructions to take antibiotics, pain killers, etc. When over the next few days the pain got worse for Carolyn we went back to emerg after Carolyn was told by her family doctor that she had a classic case of appendicitis. After a few more hours sitting in waiting rooms and getting more tests including a second CT scan, it was determined that indeed, Carolyn had acute appendicitis (which we subsequently found out was evident on the first CT scan). Time for surgery for a ruptured appendix. This entire scenario was upsetting and did not need to happen. Surgery after our first visit would have been routine and we probably would have come home the same night. As it stood, Carolyn spent two days in the hospital recovering. Now, this was all nasty and everything, but I have questions about the presence of pain as Carolyn described it and the CT scan that showed an inflamed appendix. Did they operate because of the pain or because of the CT scan? The CT scan confirmed that there was an organic problem and the assumption that Carolyn was in pain may or may not have factored into the decision to operate. I’m not sure how that works.

Pain is not something that is determined objectively so how are medical personnel to know whether a person is in pain or is faking it? There are people out there who crave attention (or drugs) and will fake medical symptoms to get it. There are people who have what’s called indeterminate illnesses or diseases of indeterminate etiology like fibromyalgia. Some medical doctors and others associated with medicine still don’t believe that fibromyalgia is a thing. They argue that if only you’d relax, your pain would go away…that’s if you ever really had pain…wink, wink, nudge, nudge. It’s a tough call because pain is not visible. People may be grimacing and walking abnormally, and we assume they’re in pain, but we just don’t know for sure. There is probably more attention given to determining the etiology of pain in regular and emergency medicine than anything else. Guesswork has to play a major role along with targeted questioning. “Does it hurt here? No. Here? No. Then what about here? Okay, here then! Well then, we’ll just peel you off the ceiling now and figure out what to do for you. You will definitely need some painkilling meds. Get that IV hooked up. It’s certainly true that pain alone cannot trigger surgery. Just because I tell a doctor I’m in pain, that doesn’t justify her throwing me straight into the operating room. Subjective reports of pain must be supported by evidence of organic abnormality, or is it the other way around?

Killing pain is huge business. We don’t seem to like pain a lot unless we have a personality disorder and we’re masochistic. Big Pharma’s bread and butter is in killing pain. Opioids are huge business. They are used medically to mitigate physical pain symptoms, but they are also used on the street to deal with ‘psychic’ pain. [This is a topic for another blog post.]

Strangely enough, we often put ourselves through a lot of pain and suffering to accomplish a task that we’ve imposed on ourselves like running a marathon. Why run a marathon only to feel intense pain during and afterwards? What drives us to doing this kind of thing? [This is a topic for yet another blog post.]

Then, there are people, a very small minority, who cannot feel physical pain at all. They can put their hand on a hot stove element and not know that they are in trouble until they smell flesh burning. That’s not a scenario that appeals to me at all. In view of this it’s common to consider that pain has benefits in an evolutionary sense. It’s probably a damn good thing that we do feel pain. Too bad our pain is not obvious to others in an objective way. It would make life a lot less painful for a lot of us.

[Stay tuned. I learned today about myeloma and pain. I also learned that my kidney is fine and I can have beer and wine again.]

Ship (a canoe, really) of fools!

Ship of Fools.

Alright, I have a confession to make. I’m not always the most reasonable person around. The photo above is of our fifty-year-old, sixteen foot “Huron” canoe outfitted with outriggers, a mast and sail, along with a deep-cycle battery and an electric motor, and paddles of course. First off, it’s a canoe, not a sailboat, but it did sail very well in moderate to somewhat higher winds. It’s tied here to a stump on Buttle Lake near Ralph River Provincial Campground where we recently spent a few days. The lake was relatively calm. We probably paddled and used the motor to get to this spot not far away from the campground. 

On another day, however, we went out in relative calm and while we were out there, the wind blew up. It often does in the afternoons on Buttle Lake. We sailed very quickly to a spot down the lake called Auger Point, a three-kilometre run. Getting back from there was anything but pleasant. We should have known better. Happily, we had the motor that I cranked to full power but even with that we had to paddle at ramming speed to get back to the river mouth where we kept the boat tied up, maybe a kilometre to our camp site. That was one tiring run home. It would have been different had we been able to sail closer to the wind, but with the sail we had and the lack of a leeboard, we were in for a rough upwind fight. Carolyn and I are experienced canoeists and at no time did I feel like we were in trouble, but paddling as hard as we could was feasible even ten years ago, not so much now that I’m 72 and Carolyn is handicapped by arthritis in her hands. Still, we are strong paddlers and we made it without swearing and berating ourselves too much. Now, having done this once and also having promised ourselves to never do it again, what do we do? We go out there again on another day and get caught in the snottiest wind and wave conditions I think I’ve ever seen on the lake. What can I say? Again, we went out on a day that promised to be benign so we headed up the lake looking for a nice place to swim. We paddled down to a bay maybe four kilometers from the campground but there was someone on the beach playing music and fishing from shore. So, we headed down and across the lake to a bay still some distance from the campground where we knew we could skinny dip. As we enjoyed the beautiful lake water and the most enjoyable swim, the lake decided to turn against us, and the wind started blowing strongly from the north. We set out with the motor at half throttle, but we soon had to up that to full throttle and full on paddle to boot. Well, we’ve had some situations in the past where we paddled as hard as we could against a wind without making much headway at all. But we were young then and had much more energy and stamina than we do now. Coming around the point close to the campground we were hit with two-foot chop. That was fine as long as we were able to paddle directly into the wind, but that was not possible as we rounded the point moving east towards the campground. We were abreast to the wind, paddling as hard as we could with the assistance of the motor, and we were being beaten hard by the waves to the point where we started taking on water from the port side. Sensing that we probably couldn’t make it back to the river’s mouth where we would have preferred to leave the boat, we turned the boat downwind and took her into shore on a muddy, unpleasant part of the lakeshore, but still within easy walking distance to our campsite. That’s where she stayed overnight. 

The next morning, we took her around to the river’s mouth. We were exhausted, especially me, and I hurt everywhere. Silly us. After that episode, we got reasonable and didn’t do it again. Actually, we got our best swim of our stay on Buttle Lake a couple of days later with no trouble. 

The family joined us last Thursday and that was great, but I felt a pain in my right side and shoulder that was getting worse and worse. There’s no doubt in my mind that fighting the extreme winds on Buttle not once but twice contributed significantly to my injury. I was definitely injured. The pain got so bad (pushing 9.5 out of 10) that I was very relieved to know that I had some T3s in my toiletry bag. I took two and felt hardly any relief. Later, I took two more along with some CBD and THC (I have a prescription for them). I managed to sleep fitfully although some people might suggest I was not sleeping as much as in an altered state of mind. The next day the pain had not attenuated at all, and we had to leave the campsite and head home. I couldn’t help pack up at all and my son-in-law was conscripted to drive the truck home towing our old eighteen-foot Holidaire trailer. I could barely sit still on the way home, having to shift my weight often to try to lessen the pain. The drive home was uneventful, but I still hurt, easily pushing 6 out of 10. 

After being home for a bit and still at the end of my rope trying to deal with pain that prevented me from even taking a deep breath, I took two ibuprophen, went to bed for an hour or so and got up feeling fine. A miraculous recovery! I would have taken ibuprophen a lot earlier, but I was counselled in 2002 after my left kidney was removed because of cancer that I should avoid anti-inflammatory meds. I didn’t take any until this past weekend and just took two more a few minutes ago. The meds are still keeping the pain at bay, but I’m loathe to keep taking anti-inflammatory meds like ibuprophen because they are hard on the kidneys. So, tomorrow I call my doctor and make an appointment to see if there are any alternatives to ibuprophen I can take that might help mitigate acute pain. I’m used to chronic pain, but the acute pain brought on by the foolishness in our canoe was untouched by acetaminophen, even with codeine, and even supplemented with CBD and THC. My problem seemed to me clearly one of muscular inflammation. It’s clear that I need a solution to deal with acute pain because I can’t promise to always be reasonable in the future. My family was extremely supportive, and I love it for that, but I feel that I need to pull my own weight too. I will not always have my family there to support me if I get into unreasonable trouble again. I need good meds too!

Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights. Part 3: How Beaver were the Reason Canada Exists.

Human beings kill. We kill plants and animals at an incredible rate and transform their basic life elements into ourselves when we eat them. We cannot do otherwise. We must ingest other organisms to survive. We are generally omnivorous. That means we will shove anything and everything down our throats even if now and again we choke on something. So, we kill for food. We also kill for fur, bones, scientific research and just for fun. We seem to enjoy driving lead into other animals and into each other. We have institutions that encourage it, thousands of them. The market is one of the most important ones but the military is close behind as is factory farming both on land and water.

For this blog post, however, I want to focus on one historical incidence of our obsession with killing other animals, and it’s on beaver that I focus my attention here. This post is about our obsession with killing beaver leading to the creation of Canada.

I’ve already written about how the fur trade was initially (in the 16th Century) incidental to the fishery on the Grand Banks and the Gulf of St. Lawrence. From there, and moving into the 17th Century, the fur trade moved inland. Samuel de Champlain first arrived in the St. Lawrence River in 1603 and in the next couple of decades travelled up the Ottawa River, along a trade route that had existed long before contact, to the Mattawa, Lake Nippising, the French River and on to Georgian Bay, Lake Huron, and Lake Superior. In 1968, Parks Canada published a book by Eric W. Morse called Fur Trade Canoe Routes of Canada/Then and Now. With an introduction by Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who canoed with Morse on occasion, the book presents a detailed first hand exploration of historical fur trade routes and their conditions as of the publication of Morse’s book in 1968. The current landscape barely resembles the one extant when Champlain first explored it in the first half of the 17th Century. It seems we just couldn’t leave well enough alone. We killed off most of the beaver whose dams mitigated flooding and erosion and replaced them with concrete dams and culverts. What could go wrong? Ask Sudbury. It just declared a climate emergency. It sits at the epicentre of the historic beaver kill off.

Morse’s book clearly shows how the fur trade routes originating in the St. Lawrence essentially followed the southern edge of the Canadian Shield all the way to Lake Athabasca via Lake Superior, Rainy Lake, Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnipeg, the North Saskatchewan River, and winding it’s way into the Mackenzie River drainage system through La Loche in what is now northern Saskatchewan. In a sense, a shorter route to the interior was via Hudson’s Bay and it’s drainage system which included Lake Winnipeg, but which followed a number of routes inland depending on the time of year and the conditions at the time. The fur trade necessarily followed the geography of the rivers, lakes, and portages that would lead to the quickest and most efficient route to the money embedded in beaver fur. The further away from salt water the beaver had to be hunted because of their depletion along the established routes the more the trade cost in terms of infrastructure and human power. For the first hundred years until at least the 1650s, Europeans had not set foot in the interior as traders. Indigenous middlemen such as the Algonquin, the Huron and later the Odawa and others west of the Great Lakes, including the Chippewa, Ojibwa, Potawatomi and further west, the Dakota Sioux, the Assiniboine and the Cree. In the north, the Chipewyan were dominant. To the west of them the Strange, the Sikani and the Carrier among others east of the Rockies. The Tlingit provided important trade routes to the West Coast as did the Tahltan who were connected to the coast along the Stikine River, and other groups.

Every Indigenous group in what is now Canada coveted European trade goods the moment they first encountered them and did whatever it needed to do to get them including waging war with their neighbours or competitors wherever they might live. For instance, the Iroquois (as we know the Haudenosaunee) terrorized the Montagnais and other groups who trapped beaver and wished to trade with the Europeans along the St. Lawrence and down the Richelieu River to Lac Champlain and beyond. By 1650, the Iroquois (mostly the Mohawk) had routed the Huron and broken up their Georgian Bay trading empire. The Wendat (Huron) had earlier displaced the Algonquin. Once they became dependent on European trade goods, Indigenous peoples no longer had fetters in their hunt for beaver. They participated wholeheartedly in the industrial pursuit of beaver fur. Indigenous peoples were the workforce for the fur trade and were thus not deliberately eliminated. The Americans, in contrast, worked to systematically eradicate indigenous populations south of the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico because they were in the way of agricultural settlement moving west at an increasingly rapid rate. They did not succeed entirely but there is little left of pre-contact indigenous culture. Of course it’s true that there is very little left of European culture of the 15th Century either.

To follow the settlement of the west in the early 1870 with the creation of Manitoba and British Columbia, with Alberta and Saskatchewan in 1905 is to know that the area north of the 49th Parallel was to remain tied to the British Empire as a part of Canada. The Americans realized early that they could advantageously trade with the Northwest Company to bring furs through Michilimackinac. John Jacob Astor of the American Fur Company, the wealthiest American of the time arranged a deal where his company, the Michilimackinac Company, and the Northwest Company agreed to mutually respect ‘their’ territories. Astor was an astute businessman and negotiator. His strengths as a trader lay on the Pacific Coast and in the Lake Michigan area and he was more than willing to leave the north to the British (for a price). Ultimately the trade in beaver fur would be the base of his wealth, but it would not remain so. Astor made most of his wealth in New York real estate after the signs of the demise of the fur trade were too clear to ignore. Harold Innis writes:

“The northern half of North American remained British because of the importance of fur as as staple product. The continent of North America became divided into three areas: (1) to the north in what is now the Dominion of Canada producing for, (2) to the south in what were during the Civil War the secession states producing cotton, and (3) in the center the widely diversified economic territory including the Now England states and the coal and iron areas of the middle west demanding raw materials and a market. The staple-producing areas were closely dependent on industrial Europe, especially Great Britain. The fur-producing area was destined to remain British…

The Northwest Company and its successor the Hudson’s Bay Company established a centralized organization that covered the northern half of North America from the Atlantic to the Pacific…It is no mere accident that the present Dominion coincides roughly with the fur-trading areas of northern North America…The Northwest Company was the forerunner of the present confederation.” ( from The Fur Trade in Canada, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1930, page 396)

From this perspective, the true Fathers of Confederation are Alexander Mackenzie, David Thompson and Simon Fraser of the Northwest Company rather than John A. Macdonald and Etienne Cartier.

Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights. Part 2: Beaver fur makes nice hats especially after indigenous people have worn it for 15 months.

In my last post I wrote about the various biomes in North America and how Indigenous groups were adapted to the local conditions. It’s safe to say that we know very little about the thousands of years pre-contact in North America especially from the perspective of Indigenous people themselves. There are tons of accounts of European colonialism and the history of Europe is accessible to us all although it may not be as objective as some people think. The question is: Who gets into the history books? Why, kings and Queens, Knights, Bishops, and Popes. You’d think it was a giant chess game!

That said, and getting back to beaver, the trade in beaver fur was largely concentrated north of the 49th Parallel and in most cases, north of the 55th up to the barren lands of the Canadian Shield. In the south, beaver fur was of lighter and poorer quality that in the north and beaver were nowhere near as abundant. On the eastern seaboard, beaver were soon wiped out in the Hudson-Mohawk River system. By the mid-17th Century, the beaver were virtually wiped out along the eastern shores of North America they were so heavily trapped.

The hunt for beaver makes for a fantastic story because it is nowhere near as straightforward as it might seem. The image of a beaver graces our nickel in honour of its role in the creation of the country. See the beaver on the nickel:

It has a rightful place there, I believe, but it would be just as right to have it grace a one-pound British note or a Euro because the trade in beaver fur had as much of an impact on European economic development as it had in North America. During the 17th Century in Britain the mercantile capitalist elite and the gentry were able to capture the British government (we sometimes call it the Cromwellian Revolution) but the newly-created industrial capitalist class was just getting a full head of steam, and employed over fifty percent of the working population. The situation was not the same in France where the Absolutist Monarchy maintained a much higher grip on economic activity. The need in North America for European trade goods like knives, kettles, awls, guns and steel traps created a huge impetus for European industrial development and innovation. That impetus was the result of the North American Indigenous peoples’ desire or craving for tools that made their lives so much easier than they had been previously.

So, the beaver fur most sought after by European hat makers was called castor gras d’hiver or fat winter beaver which is also called coat beaver. It was fur that had been worn by indigenous people for fifteen to eighteen months, fur on the inside which tended to loosen the long guard hair leaving the soft, velvety ‘wool’. As I noted before, the early fur trade was incidental to the fishery on the St. Lawrence. Even in 1534 as Jacques Cartier sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Indigenes, probably Abenaki and other coastal groups he encountered, offered him coat beaver that they waved over their heads stuck on long poles. He traded with them in 1535 and 1541 meaning that they already had knowledge of the European market for beaver pelts before Cartier even showed up. No doubt Basque and other European fishing boats had landed on the coast and sailors had recognized the value of the clothes that the Indigenes wore and traded some European tools for a few skins. However, the fishers had no organization to exploit the fur trade so it stayed incidental to the fishery until well into the next century after the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in 1602 when he brought organization to the trade and build Québec in 1608. The Montagnais who lived north of the St. Lawrence traded with the Europeans at Tadoussac, having come down the Saguenay River fully clothed and leaving naked after trading the very clothes off their backs for European trade goods.

Another grade of beaver fur was called castor sec or parchment beaver. It was beaver that had not been worn but prepared immediately after the animal was killed, dried and readied for sale. Hat makers in Europe used both types of fur when making beaver hats like the ones below:

This photo is in the public domain.

Beaver hats were, for the most part, felted hats. That means that the beaver ‘wool’ was shaved from the beaver skin and then felted by a process of applying heat and moisture which causes the hairs to mat together to create a smooth ‘cloth’. Beaver hats in these styles were popular from 1550 until 1850 or so when Chinese silk became the fabric of choice in the making of hats for the well-to-do.*Incidentally, there is a Eurasian beaver (castor fiber) but it had been virtually wiped out in Europe by the mid-sixteenth century. The Russians were manufacturers of beaver hats too and they turned to new sources when the Eurasian beaver disappeared from their territories due to indiscriminate hunting and trapping. The Russian invasion of Siberia was largely due to the fur trade. My focus here, though, is on North America.

In my next post I trace the growth of the North American Fur trade as it spread across what we now know as Canada and its transformation of Indigenous groups into hunters and trappers or middlemen for the European trade.

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*The story of the European hat making industry and market is intriguing in itself. Many of the hat makers were in Spain and Portugal but the hats in many grades were sold all over Europe although at times they fell out of favour and the North American Fur trade faltered.

Beaver Tales, Colonialism and Science Pub Nights

So, the other day I made a thirty minute presentation to a science pub night on beavers and colonialism in the Masonic Hall in Cumberland, British Columbia. Yes, I did that. I was one of four presenters and I was the only one to talk about dead beavers. All the others talked about beavers in wetlands, their role in water retention, their dams, their family lives and their newer reputation as troublemakers, especially for municipal infrastructure, highways, farmers and others.

My job was to talk about the role of beaver in colonialism. My emphasis was on how the political structure we call Canada came about as a result of the spread of Western Civilization into and across North America. It’s a sordid tale of violence, intrigue, greed, adventure, religious proselytization, and general ineptitude wrapped around a cloak of rapidly spreading mercantile and industrial capitalist expansion and the attractiveness of new European tools and technology for the indigenous populations of North America. The globalization we experience today had its major early impetus in 16th Century European economics and politics. Everyone in Europe and North America experienced massive transformation during the period 1500 to 1900 AD but, I daresay, it’s possible to say that about virtually every period in human history (if it’s even reasonable to talk about ‘periods’ of human history, it being a process rather than a series of ‘periods’). What makes this four hundred year timeframe distinctive is how life and work in North America were transformed. It’s impossible to outline here how the various indigenous groups in North America experienced that transformation because there were (and still are) a number of distinctive biomes that demanded of the indigenous groups various and different forms of work and life. For instance, in the eastern part of North America at the time of contact, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) were agriculturalists, who along with their northern cousins, the Wendat (Huron) and other groups to the west of them, grew corn, squash, and beans along with, in some cases, tobacco and other crops. The indigenous people of the prairies had very different lifestyles based largely on the bison herds that roamed all over the prairie regions of the continent. The northern indigenous peoples such as the Assiniboine, the Cree and the Chipewyan (Dene) had lifestyles based on hunting and trapping beaver, fox, wolf, and especially moose (although it’s true that some Cree lived on the prairies, some in the parkland and some in the boreal forest). This kind of lifestyle extends from just north of the Great Lakes to the Rocky Mountains on a diagonal from south in Manitoba to northern British Columbia and the Yukon. The lifestyle is dependent on wetlands, rivers, lakes, forests of birch and maple. The diet of forest peoples is largely animal protein from a large variety of fur-bearing animals and fish.

The wetlands of ‘Canada’.

The West Coast indigenous groups were, like the Haudenosaunee, longhouse dwellers because of their relatively sedentary lives based on a relatively stable source of animal protein, berries and other types of edible plants, roots and mushrooms. The northerly indigenous groups were not agriculturalists, but the ones in what is now California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico were. The Hopi especially lived in Pueblo villages and practiced agriculture much like the Haudenosaunee. The Apache, Comanche and Sioux lived in teepees, portable and easily erected. That said, getting the poles for teepee construction required yearly displacements to more forested areas. Living in villages and settlements requires very different social institutions than are required in forest dwelling indigenous groups.

Beaver fur, the staple product par excellence that drove the colonial exploitation of the northern half of North America was preceded in its importance to Europeans only by cod fish and other marine species both mammalian and fish. Hundreds of European fishing vessels occupied the Grand Banks off Newfoundland and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the 16th Century. The beaver trade was incidental to the fishery for most of 16th Century and it wasn’t until Samuel de Champlain arrived in ‘Canada’ in 1602 that the beaver trade became a force in its own right.

Next post will deal with the importance of beaver for the indigenous populations around the St. Lawrence and on the eastern seaboard in the 17th Century. The hunt for beaver was to change forever the lives of the peoples of North America and those of Western Europe creating Canada along the way in its pre-war configuration.

Stories are Us.

Like trees in a forest, we too are rooted in the living mesh of another organism—in a web of story. We give life to the stories we tell, imagining entire worlds and preserving them on rock, paper, and silicon. Stories sustain us: they open paths of clarity in the chaos of existence, maintain a record of human thought, and grant us the power to shape our perceptions of reality. The coevolution of humans and stories may not be one of the oldest partnerships in the history of life on Earth, but it is certainly one of the most robust. As a psychic creature simultaneously parasitizing and nourishing the human mind, narrative was so thoroughly successful that it is now all but inextricable from language and thought. Stories live through us, and we live through stories.

By Ferris Jabr

From: The Story of Storytelling: What the hidden relationships of ancient folktales reveal about their evolution—and our own

Harpers, March 2019 issue

Stories may not have any relationship with ‘the truth’ but they often, if they touch a common thread of love, connection, fear and loathing, are profoundly compelling and can affect our behaviour in many ways.

For instance, the story that we live in a democracy. We’ve been telling ourselves that story for so long and so compellingly that we’ve come to believe it unreservedly. Our love affair with the thought of democracy makes me think of the young man who falls in love with the idea of falling in love. When he finally meets someone he thinks he’s in love with he is so smitten by the idea of love itself that he can’t see his love object for what she truly is, a gold digger and thief.

It’s true that we can live our entire lives in a shallow pool of thought looking through rose-coloured glasses, never seeing the world for what it is. Some of our stories may turn out to be true, but some of the most important ones will turn out to be no more connected to reality than Little Red Riding Hood. Can you tell which of the stories you believe are true and which are fiction? Does it really matter?