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Ch. 1 - Before the Dawn

We always speak of Canada as a new country. In one sense,
of course, this is true. The settlement of Europeans on
Canadian soil dates back only three hundred years.
Civilization in Canada is but a thing of yesterday, and
its written history, when placed beside the long millenniums
of the recorded annals of European and Eastern peoples,
seems but a little span.

But there is another sense in which the Dominion of
Canada, or at least part of it, is perhaps the oldest
country in the world. According to the Nebular Theory
the whole of our planet was once a fiery molten mass
gradually cooling and hardening itself into the globe we
know. On its surface moved and swayed a liquid sea glowing
with such a terrific heat that we can form no real idea
of its intensity. As the mass cooled, vast layers of
vapour, great beds of cloud, miles and miles in thickness,
were formed and hung over the face of the globe, obscuring
from its darkened surface the piercing beams of the sun.
Slowly the earth cooled, until great masses of solid
matter, rock as we call it, still penetrated with intense
heat, rose to the surface of the boiling sea. Forces of
inconceivable magnitude moved through the mass. The outer
surface of the globe as it cooled ripped and shrivelled
like a withering orange. Great ridges, the mountain
chains of to-day, were furrowed on its skin. Here in the
darkness of the prehistoric night there arose as the
oldest part of the surface of the earth the great rock
bed that lies in a huge crescent round the shores of
Hudson Bay, from Labrador to the unknown wilderness of
the barren lands of the Coppermine basin touching the
Arctic sea. The wanderer who stands to-day in the desolate
country of James Bay or Ungava is among the oldest
monuments of the world. The rugged rock which here and
there breaks through the thin soil of the infertile north
has lain on the spot from the very dawn of time. Millions
of years have probably elapsed since the cooling of the
outer crust of the globe produced the solid basis of our
continents.

The ancient formation which thus marks the beginnings of
the solid surface of the globe is commonly called by
geologists the Archaean rock, and the myriads of uncounted
years during which it slowly took shape are called the
Archaean age. But the word 'Archaean' itself tells us
nothing, being merely a Greek term meaning 'very old.'
This Archaean or original rock must necessarily have
extended all over the surface of our sphere as it cooled
from its molten form and contracted into the earth on
which we live. But in most places this rock lies deep
under the waters of the oceans, or buried below the heaped
up strata of the formations which the hand of time piled
thickly upon it. Only here and there can it still be seen
as surface rock or as rock that lies but a little distance
below the soil. In Canada, more than anywhere else in
the world, is this Archaean formation seen. On a geological
map it is marked as extending all round the basin of
Hudson Bay, from Labrador to the shores of the Arctic.
It covers the whole of the country which we call New
Ontario, and also the upper part of the province of
Quebec. Outside of this territory there was at the dawn
of time no other 'land' where North America now is, except
a long island of rock that marks the backbone of what
are now the Selkirk Mountains and a long ridge that is
now the mountain chain of the Alleghanies beside the
Atlantic slope.

Books on geology trace out for us the long successive
periods during which the earth's surface was formed. Even
in the Archaean age something in the form of life may
have appeared. Perhaps vast masses of dank seaweed
germinated as the earliest of plants in the steaming
oceans. The water warred against the land, tearing and
breaking at its rock formation and distributing it in
new strata, each buried beneath the next and holding fast
within it the fossilized remains that form the record of
its history. Huge fern plants spread their giant fronds
in the dank sunless atmospheres, to be buried later in
vast beds of decaying vegetation that form the coal-fields
of to-day.

Animal life began first, like the plants, in the bosom
of the ocean. From the slimy depths of the water life
crawled hideous to the land. Great reptiles dragged their
sluggish length through the tangled vegetation of the
jungle of giant ferns.

Through countless thousands of years, perhaps, this
gradual process went on. Nature, shifting its huge scenery,
depressed the ocean beds and piled up the dry land of
the continents. In place of the vast 'Continental Sea,'
which once filled the interior of North America, there
arose the great plateau or elevated plain that now runs
from the Mackenzie basin to the Gulf of Mexico. Instead
of the rushing waters of the inland sea, these waters
have narrowed into great rivers--the Mackenzie, the
Saskatchewan, the Mississippi--that swept the face of
the plateau and wore down the surface of the rock and
mountain slopes to spread their powdered fragments on
the broad level soil of the prairies of the west. With
each stage in the evolution of the land the forms of life
appear to have reached a higher development. In place of
the seaweed and the giant ferns of the dawn of time there
arose the maples, the beeches, and other waving trees
that we now see in the Canadian woods. The huge reptiles
in the jungle of the Carboniferous era passed out of
existence. In place of them came the birds, the
mammals,--the varied types of animal life which we now
know. Last in the scale of time and highest in point of
evolution, there appeared man.

We must not speak of the continents as having been made
once and for all in their present form. No doubt in the
countless centuries of geological evolution various parts
of the earth were alternately raised and depressed. Great
forests grew, and by some convulsion were buried beneath
the ocean, covered deep as they lay there with a sediment
of earth and rock, and at length raised again as the
waters retreated. The coal-beds of Cape Breton are the
remains of a forest buried beneath the sea. Below the
soil of Alberta is a vast jungle of vegetation, a dense
mass of giant fern trees. The Great Lakes were once part
of a much vaster body of water, far greater in extent
than they now are. The ancient shore-line of Lake Superior
may be traced five hundred feet above its present level.

In that early period the continents and islands which we
now see wholly separated were joined together at various
points. The British islands formed a connected part of
Europe. The Thames and the Rhine were one and the same
river, flowing towards the Arctic ocean over a plain that
is now the shallow sunken bed of the North Sea. It is
probable that during the last great age, the Quaternary,
as geologists call it, the upheaval of what is now the
region of Siberia and Alaska, made a continuous chain of
land from Asia to America. As the land was depressed
again it left behind it the islands in the Bering Sea,
like stepping-stones from shore to shore. In the same
way, there was perhaps a solid causeway of land from
Canada to Europe reaching out across the Northern Atlantic.
Baffin Island and other islands of the Canadian North
Sea, the great sub-continent of Greenland, Iceland, the
Faroe Islands, and the British Isles, all formed part of
this continuous chain.

As the last of the great changes, there came the Ice Age,
which profoundly affected the climate and soil of Canada,
and, when the ice retreated, left its surface much as we
see it now. During this period the whole of Canada from
the Atlantic to the Rocky Mountains lay buried under a
vast sheet of ice. Heaped up in immense masses over the
frozen surface of the Hudson Bay country, the ice, from
its own dead weight, slid sidewise to the south. As it
went it ground down the surface of the land into deep
furrows and channels; it cut into the solid rock like a
moving plough, and carried with it enormous masses of
loose stone and boulders which it threw broadcast over
the face of the country. These stones and boulders were
thus carried forty and fifty, and in some cases many
hundred miles before they were finally loosed and dropped
from the sheet of moving ice. In Ontario and Quebec and
New England great stones of the glacial drift are found
which weigh from one thousand to seven thousand tons.
They are deposited in some cases on what is now the summit
of hills and mountains, showing how deep the sheet of
ice must have been that could thus cover the entire
surface of the country, burying alike the valleys and
the hills. The mass of ice that moved slowly, century by
century, across the face of Southern Canada to New England
is estimated to have been in places a mile thick. The
limit to which it was carried went far south of the
boundaries of Canada. The path of the glacial drift is
traced by geologists as far down the Atlantic coast as
the present site of New York, and in the central plain
of the continent it extended to what is now the state of
Missouri.

Facts seem to support the theory that before the Great
Ice Age the climate of the northern part of Canada was
very different from what it is now. It is very probable
that a warm if not a torrid climate extended for hundreds
of miles northward of the now habitable limits of the
Dominion. The frozen islands of the Arctic seas were once
the seat of luxurious vegetation and teemed with life.
On Bathurst Island, which lies in the latitude of 76
degrees, and is thus six hundred miles north of the Arctic
Circle, there have been found the bones of huge lizards
that could only have lived in the jungles of an almost
tropical climate.

We cannot tell with any certainty just how and why these
great changes came about. But geologists have connected
them with the alternating rise and fall of the surface
of the northern continent and its altitude at various
times above the level of the sea. Thus it seems probable
that the glacial period with the ice sheet of which we
have spoken was brought about by a great elevation of
the land, accompanied by a change to intense cold. This
led to the formation of enormous masses of ice heaped up
so high that they presently collapsed and moved of their
own weight from the elevated land of the north where they
had been formed. Later on, the northern continent subsided
again and the ice sheet disappeared, but left behind it
an entirely different level and a different climate from
those of the earlier ages. The evidence of the later
movements of the land surface, and its rise and fall
after the close of the glacial epoch, may still easily
be traced. At a certain time after the Ice Age, the
surface sank so low that land which has since been lifted
up again to a considerable height was once the beach of
the ancient ocean. These beaches are readily distinguished
by the great quantities of sea shells that lie about,
often far distant from the present sea. Thus at Nachvak
in Labrador there is a beach fifteen hundred feet above
the ocean. Probably in this period after the Ice Age the
shores of Eastern Canada had sunk so low that the St
Lawrence was not a river at all, but a great gulf or arm
of the sea. The ancient shore can still be traced beside
the mountain at Montreal and on the hillsides round Lake
Ontario. Later on again the land rose, the ocean retreated,
and the rushing waters from the shrunken lakes made their
own path to the sea. In their foaming course to the lower
level they tore out the great gorge of Niagara, and tossed
and buffeted themselves over the unyielding ledges of
Lachine.

Mighty forces such as these made and fashioned the
continent on which we live.

Stephen Leacock

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