Canada’s mild West?

Canada's History - - EDITOR’S NOTE -

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.

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