Canada, a hundred years ago - A brief reflection on the intertwining of disparate events

Canada, a hundred years ago - A brief reflection on the intertwining of disparate events
Posted on April 6, 2014 | Barry Kent MacKay | Written on April 6, 2014
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Op-Ed

One hundred years ago, here are some of the things that happened. The Royal Ontario Museum opened in Toronto, where, among other things, there is the world’s largest collection of preserved specimens of passenger pigeons, and where I have spent a considerable portion of my life, from childhood to senior citizenship, studying and researching and trying to learn about the natural world. 

In 1914, the last known passenger pigeon died, in a Cincinnati Zoo, and the species, which was once the most abundant bird in North America, was extinct.  

In May of that year a ship called The Empress of Ireland was accidentally rammed in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, by a Norwegian coal ship, taking 840 passengers and 172 crew members to a cold, watery grave.  It was the largest peacetime maritime disaster in Canadian history, just two years after the loss of the Titanic. 

But peacetime didn’t last, and 1914 saw the beginning of World War I, and humankind’s capacity for unbelievable brutality.  

Near where I live, Toronto, Babe Ruth hit his first ever home run in professional baseball in 1914.  The ball wound up in Lake Ontario, and was never recovered.  

And…in early April, 1914, the great sealing disaster occurred amid the ice and storms off the coast of Newfoundland. In two separate incidents during the same storm 252 men died, many horribly, and others were left permanently injured, a testimony, in my opinion, of values that place greed above life, itself, a basic madness inherent to the human condition. 

In 1914 an anti-seal hunt campaign was some five decades in the future, and wood-hulled vessels sailed amid ice-floes, ferrying men who had to pay for their births, their food, and in turn could earn money from the oil and pelts derived from killing baby harp seals.  There was no limit on the number killed.  It was dangerous, arduous work under horrific shipboard conditions, but it brought in money at a time when traditional fisheries were closed for the winter.  Ship owners skimmed off profits from the top, paying captains, leaving little for the sealers, many being lucky if they could find and kill enough seals to pay off their debts.  Between 1906 and 1914 five steamers of a fleet of 25 were crushed amid the floes.  Soon steel hulls would reduce the risks but 1914 would prove disastrous for sealers.  Every season was disastrous for seals.

What went wrong would take too long to explain here (see http://www.heritage.nf.ca/law/sealing_disaster.html) but put simply, many men were left on the ice during deadly cold and wind because, in part, the owner of one of the ships didn’t see the value of having a radio on board by which communications between two ships, could have established that the sealers were on the ice.  A radio had been tried the previous year, but when it was deemed to not have increased profits, was abandoned.  The safety of the men was not considered.  Meanwhile, in the Southern Cross floundered in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, weighed down by the number of pelts on board.  Perhaps, too, the captain wanted to win the award given for the first ship to return with a full load.   Either way, greed cost more human lives than any other disaster in sealing history.  As a result of that tragedy, a law was passed to limit any one ship to no more than 35,000 pelts.  

Had that level of carnage continued, the harp seal would have joined the passenger pigeon as being only a fading memory.

When World War I broke out British writer H.G. Wells called it “the war to end wars”, and the phrase, slightly altered (usually “the war to end all wars”, and attributed to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson) came to mean that such brutality as was seen was unthinkable.  But British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, was more accurate when he sarcastically said, “This war, like the next war, is a war to end war.”

War does not end. 

Neither does our undeclared war against wildlife, a major cause of the greatest loss of species since the dinosaurs died out some sixty odd million years ago.  

The coal ship that killed 1012 people in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, only months after simple greed sent the Southern Cross to the bottom in the same waters, was serving a demand that continues to grow.  Only just last week the World Health Organization released a report that 7 million premature human deaths in one year could be attributed to air pollution, of which coal burning is still a major cause.   A hundred years ago the concept of global climate change was unheard of, but now no day goes by when we don’t hear horror stories from some corner of the world, of weather-related death and destruction but we can’t afford, of course, to stop producing the very thing that is killing us.  

We, who spend so much time destroying so many animals and each other, are the deadliest force on the planet, and yet anyone seeking to bring change is subject to censure and ridicule.  

And what does Babe Ruth have to do with any of this?  Nothing, but as a baseball fan I thought it was a cool factoid.  His career, like that of so many athletes, artists, entertainers, academics and, yes, us “do-gooders” trying to change things for the better, show what we can do.  No one thought to retrieve the ball because no one knew how great he would be.   Big things have little beginnings and I hope all of us who advocate on behalf of others, of whatever species, can bring about needed change in how we do things. 

But the next hundred years do not look promising.

About The Author

Barry Kent MacKay is the Canadian representative of Born Free USA, as well as a director of Animal Alliance of Canada, Zoocheck, Species Survival Network, an experienced naturalist, conservationist and animal... More