Canada’s mild West?
In 1978, the National Film Board released an animated short about a then relatively obscure train robber named Bill Miner. The film runs for barely a minute, but this cartoon tale of the man who invented the phrase “hands up” has stuck with me for all these years.
In fact, thirty-eight years later, I can nearly recite the script from memory.
In the film, Miner and his accomplices botch a sure-thing train robbery in early 1900s British Columbia. Because they snatch the wrong rail car, the bandits’ big score results in nothing more than “a few bottles of liver pills.” The tale ends with Miner sitting by a campfire, surrounded by a police posse. The narrator observes that his luck has run out; all Miner can do is follow the officer’s command: “‘Hands up,’ says the sergeant. ‘Hands up.’”
Miner’s grizzled mug graces our cover this issue, and the so-called “Gentleman Bandit” also figures prominently in our feature story, “Outlaws,” written by Calgary author Brian Brennan.
Brennan’s story ranges from the rough justice of the fur trade, to the gold-fever era of the Klondike and Cariboo rushes, to the whisky wars that forced the creation of the North West Mounted Police.
Along the way, Brennan introduces us to a host of hellraisers that you would never want to meet at high noon.
Some were Americans who, like Miner, saw Canadians as easy pickings and headed north to rob and murder their way to prosperity. Others were Canadians who drifted south in search of plunder.
Did you know that Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch gang included a gunslinger from Prince Edward Island? Or that one of America’s most notorious stagecoach robbers was a young woman from Ontario?
It’s true that the Canadian frontier was nowhere near as wild as America’s. But it’s also ironic that so many westerns produced by Hollywood — from The Revenant, to Unforgiven, to The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — are set in the United States but were filmed largely in Canada (mostly because it was cheaper).
Fortunately, Canada still has the vast prairie skies, forbidding badlands, and snow- capped mountains that figure so largely in the mythology of the Old West.
Elsewhere in this issue, we explore how Canada became the tolerant, multicultural nation it is today; we celebrate the astounding images of a groundbreaking female photographer from the 1930s; and we set sail with a rough crew of East Coast pirates that almost dragged Canada into the American Civil War.