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Bernard Wood’s ‘Petawawa Paradox’ a finalist for book proposal prize

June 28, 2020

This is an excerpt from Re-Discovering Canada: The Petawawa Paradox by Bernard Wood, one of five finalists for the 2020 Penguin Random House MFA Prize. The prize, established by Penguin Random House Canada in partnership with Westwood Creative Artists literary agency, recognizes the best nonfiction book proposal by a University of King’s College MFA in Creative Nonfiction student in their graduating year, or by an alumnus.

Bernard Wood, who graduated with his MFA in May 2020, earned his commission in the army while studying history and international affairs. Heading two non-partisan national think-tanks, he was a prominent advisor, researcher and commentator on foreign policy and defence for fifteen years and Personal Representative of Canada’s prime minister in the fight against Apartheid. He later served as a senior international official in Paris and an award-winning evaluator. In this book Wood draws on his grounding in Canadian history, defence and military issues and his love affair with Canadian forests and waters, while immersing himself in natural and Indigenous history. 


The day is warm and breezy, a stone’s throw from where Tom Thomson sketched The Jackpine, his most iconic Canadian canvas. The water is rippled by water bugs, the only sounds our paddles and the lazy buzz of summer, and a subtle piney perfume wafts from shore. The calm is ruffled by a distant growl, and seconds later shattered as a Hercules military transport breaks over the trees a few hundred feet over our heads. We manage to keep calm and soon the plane is just a receding dot in the clear blue sky. But my young son and I have been reminded that one of Canada’s largest army bases, the home to one-third of its regular land forces, is the next-door neighbour to Ontario’s legendary Algonquin Park.

Petawawa is my window for re-discovering Canada, a place where the mystical grandeur of Nature meets the struggles, pain and resilience of Canada’s human history. This place was ground from the primeval Laurentian Shield by a massive flood, leaving the rock, sand, and grudging soil that explain the great pine forests, the wretched agriculture, and the wide, flat spaces for military training. It stands at a crossroads of Canada’s destiny, where the land and its First People felt the impact of alien explorers and fur traders, loggers and settlers and, for the last century, the guns and boots of Canada’s army.

Long before the white man, the region was crisscrossed by the thriving First Nations to and from the heart of the continent. But Champlain’s 1613 meeting here with the great chief Tessouat signalled the breach that would drag its peoples, Indigenous and settler, into European economies and geopolitics and the forging of a new state.

Four centuries later, Justice Murray Sinclair overturned our sunny view of Canada as a non-threatening, non-colonial country. His tone was calm and wise, but his words pulled no punches, built on 7,000 accounts of sickening cruelty and complicity. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission called by its name the colonialism and attempted cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples since Confederation and challenged us to re-learn with open minds the history of the Indigenous peoples of the land.

The story of the Algonquin people here is one of the most dramatic, but least known, among all the First Nations in the country. From its controlling position on the Great River, this proud nation was displaced, dispersed and nearly eliminated by waves of colonization, but somehow endured. The Algonquin saga runs like an underground stream through the last four centuries, surfacing now in Ontario’s largest land claim, which should mean that Canada’s capital will no longer stand on stolen ground.

Other hidden gems in the upper Ottawa valley reveal the contributions of women in the Canadian story, usually buried under the accounts written by and about the male half of the population, but the first European incursions are definitely stag affairs. Indigenous voices tell how they first pity the feckless European men and their strange priests, before the scramble for furs to make fancy European hats unleashes competitive invasions, spearheaded by intrepid voyageurs, coureurs de bois and traders. The idealistic John McLean, who set up the near-forgotten Hudson’s Bay post near Petawawa, chronicles the near-extermination of the beaver and the reduction of self-reliant people to dependency.

Supplying the demands of the British Navy in the Napoleonic Wars, the rich pine forests of the upper Ottawa valley create new “lumber kings” like John Rudolphus Booth and, in a fairy tale “royal” match, a Danish prince weds Booth’s granddaughter. Meanwhile, Booth’s thousands of “shantymen” toil in the woods all winter and then on perilous springtime log drives, relieved by brawling and debauchery in the “sin cities” of Ottawa and Quebec.

Three visionary bureaucrats seize a golden moment in the 1890s to set aside Canada’s treasured Algonquin Park, and the Park’s first female guide, Esther Keyser, lovingly tells its story through seventy years. With the fertile lowlands for settlement already taken up by British immigrants and American Loyalists, the late-coming colonizers in this isolated and rocky region are mainly Germans.  Great granddaughters take pride in their family’s hard life and debunk popular myths about the army’s seizure of their land and anti-German feeling during the wars.

Canada’s first great army base at Petawawa – the brainchild of Lord Dundonald, Britain’s last colonial commander – mirrors the country’s battles and growing pains through a tumultuous 115 years. From its first summers under canvas, a cavalcade of characters shows how “Pet” helped forge a colonial militia into a fighting force in the Great War and then “the best little army in the world” in World War II.  It has been home to famous regiments and part of Canada’s conventional wars, the Cold War, UN Peacekeeping and anti-terrorism as well as tragedies, scandals and emergency aid across the country in times of need.

In a new century, Petawawa sees the army damned in Somalia and then redeemed in Afghanistan, with a terrible price.  At a human level, children, spouses, soldiers and neighbors are the expert witnesses on the effects of conflicts abroad and the unique demands and rewards of the military way of life. At a national level, the army grapples with politics, war and social change as it plays a crucial role in Canada’s fights for autonomy and identity, national unity, and human rights in a constantly changing country.

It is quiet on the lake. The name of Petawawa rings with the rhythm of the river and the language of the First Peoples who hunted here for millennia, but they are only slowly returning. The woodland creatures are living out their daily struggle to survive: The beavers – Nature’s foresters – are back. The forest is deep but not virgin, and the wanderer who stumbles across rusted machinery and crumbling stone chimneys must try to imagine the sounds of the bygone loggers and settlers. But even today, behind the muffled thud of artillery and crackling small arms fire from the Camp, the wind sometimes seems to carry echoed shouts of soldiers bound for war and the groans of the prisoners of war and internees held here.