David Thompson was one of the greatest men you may have never learned about. We should be honouring his memory with a full-scale CBC re-enactment of his life so more Canadians know exactly who he was.
Thompson was born in England into poverty in 1770 and was forced into a school for disadvantaged young people. In his study of mathematics he was introduced to basic navigation skills, forming the foundation for his entire future.
He was sent to Canada at just 14 years old as part of a seven-year apprenticeship with the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), beginning in Churchill, Manitoba. Within 10 short years he proved himself to be an extraordinary surveyor and map maker.
He could often be found working with his sextant, a device that measures the angular distance between two visible objects. Essentially, he used the stars to navigate. HBC was happy to have Thompson’s talents, but they didn’t have him for long. He quit, disgusted with the way the company used alcohol in their fur trade with indigenous peoples.
Instead, he moved to their great rival, the North West Company, where he did most of his life’s work, travelling 88,000 kilometres in his exploration of North America. The North West Company employed Thompson’s incredible work ethic and unparalleled map-making skills.
Along the way, the surveyor and explorer was able to accomplish what he did without ever trading whisky. Instead, he immersed himself in the many indigenous cultures and languages in order to connect. He also decided to live among First Nations people wherever he encountered them, respecting their beliefs along the way. Not only did Thompson speak English and French, he also became fluent in several indigenous languages and customs.
First Nations’ people gave Thompson the name of “koo-koo-sint” or You Who Look at the Stars, from his constant use of his sextant, a device they saw as possessed of special powers.
In his travels Thompson met Charlotte Small in Alberta, a woman of Metis ancestry, life partner and mother to their 13 children.
Thompson became known as the greatest land geographer who ever lived. He transformed his breakthrough information and raw data into an extraordinary map of the Canadian West – an astonishing one fifth of the entire continent.
At ten feet by seven feet, the map was created with such detail and was considered so accurate that 100 years later it was still the basis for many of the maps issued by the federal government.
Thompson had arrived here when this land was known only as ‘Kanata,’ the Huron-Iroquois word for settlement. He died in 1857, 10 years before the colonization of this country was formalized into the political entity we know today as Canada.
His story is one of cooperation, collaboration, and of building friendships wherever he went – especially with indigenous people. He probably would have been dismayed with what men did afterwards with his great map, using it to overwhelm the land and the people who already lived there. They pushed an entirely foreign way of life onto others, rather than learning how to co-exist, as Thompson had, to learn from one another.
Thompson died at 87, poor, blind, and without official acknowledgement of his astounding life’s work. He is buried right beside his dedicated wife, Charlotte, who followed him just three months later, in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.
David Thompson is instructive for this country’s future. The way forward for Canada will be to build a nation that is inclusive, as he was; a nation inquisitive enough to reward innovation and perseverance, as he demonstrated in his work; a nation that values all of its people and supports their success. We must also be a nation of high moral character, as Thompson was on an individual level, guarding our sovereign right to chart our own path.
David Thompson and his great map showed us where we are.
In partnership with our indigenous citizens, we can now find out where we want to be.
–Roderick Benns is the author of five books and is the publisher of the Precarious Work Chronicle, a social purpose news site. To comment on this blog, visit Facebook or Twitter @roderickbenns