Roughing It in the Bush

A Pioneer’s Story of Life in Canada in the 1830s


Susanna Strickland marries John Moodie, a junior officer at halfpay. Lacking the inheritance necessary to maintain the rank they were born to in Britain, they emigrate to Canada in the hope of ultimately achieving independence, status, and wealth. But in Upper Canada Susanna and John encounter hostility, hardship, and a steady decline into poverty. Susanna cannot help hating her new country.
A writer before she left home, and a sensitive and perceptive observer of both people and nature, she stays up at night after her labours, writing by candlelight. Some of this work will later find its way into Roughing It in the Bush, a book that will meet with disapproval in Canada for its all too realistic portrayal of the hardships awaiting settlers.

But Susanna Moodie is also a poet, a painter, and a romatic spirit, and neither she nor her husband allow poverty to destroy their indomitable spirit and determination. They find relief for their troubles in the awe-inspiring grandeur of pristine pine forests, lakes, and rivers, as they explore, hunt, and fish, and visit the natives.

In the 1830s the population of Upper Canada is a disparate and seemingly incompatible mixture. The newcomers are English, Scots, and Irish. Susanna Moodie is English; John Moodie is a Scot. At their first farm, near Cobourg, the Moodies encounter an already settled population, which is American, republican, egalitarian—and often extremely ignorant of the world and civilized ways. Many of the Yankees are impoverished late loyalists whose chief motive in coming to Canada was the promise of land—not loyalty to the Crown. They resent the British and see them as a threat to their values, and to their ownership of the country.

Among the British settlers are both masters and servants. The former, like John Moodie, are often the younger sons of the upper classes—used to commanding, unused to physical labour. The Americans, for their part, are determined not to be anybody’s servant and not to have any masters, and their spirit of independence and defiance rubs off on the British working classes the moment they set foot in the new land

The Yankee squatters that Susanna and John encounter, pride themselves on their ability to sponge, cheat, and steal from their neighbours. The first neighbour the Moodies meet is a young girl who comes bearing a jug which she demands be filled with whisky. A boy who runs from the Moodie home with a household impliment sings a patriotic song of defiance:“Hurrah for the Yankee Boys!”

The Yankees ridicule the Moodies for not sitting at the same table with their servants. But the Moodies regularly invite the Chippwa natives to their table, Susanna calling them “nature’s gentlemen” because of their honesty, pride, and sensibilities. Susanna discovers that Yankee egalitarianism does not extend to the blacks that have made their home in Upper Canada. Nor has escape to Canada saved some of these blacks from the same kind of torment they fled in the United States, including being hounded to death.

Like John Moodie, many of the farmers of the deep woods are soldiers. The government of Upper Canada is also composed mainly of soldiers, and though Britain herself is in the forefront of liberal ideas, the Gvernment of Upper Canada is not. Governor and Council are not ogliged to enact laws made by the elected Assembly. The old soldiers who govern, regard those who hold liberal ideas as traitors.

The Rebellion of 1837 is a pathetically comic attempt, on the part of several hundred men, most of American origin, to force the colony to adopt an American-tyle constitution. Among the grievances of William Lyon Mackenzie and the other rebels is the lack of self-government, the lack of independent judges, and the fact that sheriffs hold office during pleasure, and take part in the selection of juries. The Moodies themselves will later become the recipients of this kind of patronage. The soldiers on the forest farms, like John Moodie, are intensely loyal. They have no idea of the true state of polical affairs when they are called up to put down the rebellion.

But the chief struggles of this book are with nature, and with Susanna Moodie’s own self: “Many a hard battle had we to fight with old prejudices, and many proud swellings of the heart to subdue, before we could feel the least interest in the land of our adoption, or look upon it as our home ... I once viewed it with a hatred so intense that I longed to die.”

Susanna Moodie came to Canada with the prejudices of her time and class, and her cultural predilections manifest themselves in her writing. She regrets the passing of the native and the deleterious effects of civilization on native character, but, not surprisingly, without recognizing any personal responsibility in the process. The family’s fall into poverty, she believes, is the will of Providence, but the thoughts that lead Brian the hunter to question the existence of Providence, or at least of a benign Providence, are dismissed by Susanna as “the slumbering fires of his fatal malady.” The heroically self-sacrificing old Irishwoman—the servant Jenny—will not admit to one of the fundamental tenets of Christianity—that we are all sinners. Jenny, knowing little about theology, is not conscious of having done evil, and refuses to see herself as a sinner. Susanna cannot think that this is theologically corrext, but is nonetheless forced to recognize the innocence and down-to-earth common sense of the old woman’s immutable logic.

When the debts mount and poverty is at hand, the Moodies have nothing to fall back on but their own strength of limb and mind. Like Jenny, they must bend their backs to the task. They take up the axe and the hoe and they do the work that has to be done in order to feed their growing family. Poverty obliges Susanna to abandon her British pride of class. In the courage and patience and labour of the poor, whose fate she now shares, she finds true worth and dignity, and in her old selfless Irish servant— greatness.

Susanna learns not only to love her new country, but concludes that the social rules of the old world, serving merely to rank and separate people on the basis of accidentals such as wealth and education—are false. This realization reconciles her to her hard lot as a Canadian pioneer, and to an acceptance of her new country that will deepen to love and wonder, and that liberates her to deal effectively with the oppressive hardships of pioneering.

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Roughing It in the Bush