Monthly Archives: December 2014

Missinaba County in the Changing Face of Ontario

The Archives of Ontario, bless their hearts, have re-produced a set of maps from the Economic Atlas of Ontario / Atlas Économique de l’Ontario (W. G. Dean, Editor/ Directeur; G. J. Mathews, Cartographer/ Cartographe Printed 1969 by University of Toronto Press for the Government of Ontario) showing the Changing Fact of Ontario, and in particular, those showing “The Evolution of the District and County System 1788-1899”, which you may find at

This splendid resource makes it possible to show the gradual emergence of Missinaba County and its 18 townships, a testimony to the endurance and skill of 19th Century surveyors, the rigours of whose profession we can only imagine nowadays.

Let us take a moment to imagine. Their task was to draw straight lines across the entire face of the land, dividing it, in defiance of its myriad folds, undulations, indentations, lakes, ponds, swamps, and all the irregularities of Nature, into an essentially rectangular grid of townships, concessions and lots, the lot being the fundamental unit of settlement. People lived on lots, and still do. Legions of surveyors completed this task for the entire area of southern Ontario in a little over one hundred years, in spite of weather, biting flies, natural hazards, and all the other hardships of a life camped out in the bush. They were a hardy breed, and they went everywhere, taking notes along the way, enabling organized settlement, and leaving an invaluable record of the land as it was in its aboriginal state.

By the end of the 19th Century surveyors had created a tessilature that survives to the present day and is one of our most enduring pioneer artifacts, a part of our built heritage that is unlikely to be erased as long as people occupy the land. It looked, in the large, like this:


If you click on this you get a larger picture, which opens in a new window. The darkened area lying east of Lake Simcoe is Missinaba County, a fabled place. You see what I mean when I speak of it as part of “middle-Ontario”. The lines mark the boundaries of townships.

The following eight maps show how the tesselature evolved from its beginnings in the late 18th Century, when settlement began:









So there you have the provincial context for the evolution of Missinaba County, before it leaped into literary prominence in the early 1900’s. A lot happened before then, and a lot happened afterwards, and it’s still happening. Stephen Leacock has given us a brief snapshot of one short era, A fuller account is long overdue. And now it’s happening. We’ll begin at the beginning, go on to the end, and then stop.

I am grateful to the Archives of Ontario for making these maps available.


Missinaba County: Conversation I

These are the townships of Missinaba County, beginning with Mariposa Township, the focus of our interest, and spiralling out from there. Roll the names off your tongue and savour their sonority. Granted, some are more poetical than others, but taken together they ring a fine, hearty middle-Ontario change:

Mariposa … Eldon … Fenelon … Ops … Manvers … Cartwright … Reach … Brock … Thorah … Mara … Rama … Ryde … Longford … Digby … Laxton … Bexley … Carden … Dalton

In Ontario a township, as you probably know, is primally an artifact of surveying, and hence often sternly rectangular, except in those places where Nature and the authorities overcame the rectilinear pipe-dreams of the surveyors and allowed the boundaries to be traced by the shores of lakes or the courses of streams or rivers, as in Thorah, Mara, Rama, Cartright, and Mariposa, also Laxton and Bexley as conventionally defined. Missinaba County, however, a seething cauldron of unconventional definition, has allowed Laxton and Bexley to annex a portion of Somerville Township, and Torah, Mara and Rama to extend their jurisdictions out into the waters, in order to restore a semblance of rectilinearity to the shape of the County, bringing it into line with its neighbours to the east.

When I asked my host what area was thus encompassed, he replied: “Well, it might be a million acres, or it might not — a bit more maybe, or a bit less — it’s hard to say.” Josh Smith, you will recall, in the course of his election campaign in 1911, displayed the same insouciance in the presence of statistics. I was pleased to find that the old traditions lingered.

I did some quick calculations in my head. “So that would be about 4,000 square kilometres.”

“It might be,” agreed my host, “it very well might be, especially if I had any kind of an idea of what a square kilometre looks like.”

“It looks like about 250 acres.”

“Hm. Well, of course, when you think about it, or even if you don’t very much, what that looks like is going to depend on where it is. In Missinaba County it might look like good land, or it might look like rough land, or it might look like bush land, or it might look like rock land, or it might look like water, or it might look like some kind of a swampy mixture. It’s hard to say.”

“Bush land, scrub land, Cashel Township and Wallaston, Elzevir, McClure and Dunganon, green lands of Weslemkoon Lake, where a man might have some idea of what beauty is, and none deny him for miles,” I quoted.

“That’s east of here,” said my host. “The north part of Missinaba would be a bit like that, but down here, we got good land. What is it your poet calls it — ‘the fat south, with inches of black soil on Earth’s round belly’? That’s us, that’s Mariposa, apart from the swamps.”

“And how many residents?”

“Well now, it’s hard to say. In Mariposa maybe eight thousand, maybe more, maybe less. In the whole of Missinaba, maybe ten times that, maybe twelve. Call it a hundred thousand, more or less. It’s hard to say. It can depend on what you mean by a resident. Now you take Jacob down the road. He grows nothing but crops, and as soon as they’re in the bin he’s gone for the winter. Is he a resident the same way we are, that live here all the time? Or is he a seasonal, like the cottagers? The census says he’s a resident. Or what about the professor, who built that funny big place down by the lake and employs two men and a woman to look after it for him, and a contractor and crew every so often to build some more. The census says he’s not, but the truth is, he’s almost a local industry. He spends a darn sight more money around here than Jacob does, that’s for sure, and knows a lot more people. I’d say he’s a resident, but the census wouldn’t agree with me. When people move around so much, it’s hard to say who’s a resident of where. And maybe it doesn’t much matter.”

“How come you know so much about the census?”

“My wife’s a census-taker, has been for years. Actually, she’s a supervisor now. She knows all about it, and explains some of it to me. And we got high-speed internet out here. They publish all the tables, and I read them. I don’t necessarily take much stock in them, but I read them. Maybe I understand what they say, maybe I don’t. It’s hard to say.”

I am not yet sure how much conversation is possible when it’s hard to say. I look forward to finding out.

Re-Casting Stephen Leacock: Why Bother?

Why all the fuss? It’s not simply because Stephen Leacock appropriated the name of Mariposa, which happens to be a real place not at all like the one he lampooned.

Some time ago I began to be deeply troubled by Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town. I hasten to say that my affection for Stephen Leacock survived this challenge unscathed, and kept me performing those of his pieces that I like best for that purpose. In 2014, indeed, we (that is, Leslie and I; see built an entire concert around him, as we have done before and will do again. The best of his pieces perform very well indeed, and our audiences enjoy them. We particularly favour some pieces from Nonsense Novels and Literary Lapses, both early Leacock collections. We do not perform anything from Sunshine Sketches, although Leslie has done so in the past, before we formed our partnership.

I became troubled because at first I accepted that the work was what so many people, even competent critics, believe it to be: a satire, or perhaps a caricature, of small-town Ontario life, even perhaps of a specific small town, Orillia. I thought that Leacock was behaving outrageously by savaging the people of the place, or the kind of place, where he enjoyed his summer cottage. No wonder the people of Orillia were angry. Anger would be the correct emotion against a city professor who used the superficial acquaintance formed by a few years of seasonal visiting and summer cottaging to ridicule the locals.

That was not my principal difficulty, however. Unlike Stephen Leacock, who was a farm boy from south of Lake Simcoe, I grew up in a small town: Huntsville, some 90 kms north of Orillia and just as typical. You might think I would therefore share his point of view. Yet in Leacock’s townspeople I found no one I could recognize. Leacock’s Mariposans are fundamentally stupid, or at least simple-minded, manipulative or manipulable, and instinctively corrupt. The people I grew up with, performing the same roles as Leacock’s people, had their peculiarities sometimes, even amusing ones. Some were more likeable than others, some cleverer or not so clever, but they were not stupid. A great many were admirable in diverse ways. In the light of my experience, what Leacock wrote was a protracted, tasteless “Little Moron” joke, and by making it possible for a well-intentioned reader to believe that he might have been writing about real people he knew or even were his friends, he turned a light-hearted literary romp into a nasty, mean-spirited, patronizing little book. How could he possibly claim that he viewed these people with affection when he had treated them so badly? How could he be surprised at their anger?

I am sure, however, that he did not mean to write that kind of book. I think that he simply meant to be funny, and that the caricatures came entirely from his prolific imagination. Unfortunately, he borrowed some names and a location for them, which was a mistake and bad authorship. It’s one thing to decide that some real people are funny, and to make public fun of them. To do that can nasty, especially when those people have done you no harm. It is quite another to invent some funny people and invite readers to enjoy their antics. Sunshine Sketches is a comic book, a cartoon, like the Astérix books, with no greater grounding in real people. Taken that way the reader can quite legitimately enjoy the humour for what it is, and even savour the occasional flashes of satire for what they are: comments on the foibles of us all and not only people in small towns.

If you want positive assurance that Stephen Leacock was not a nasty, mean-spirited little man and an often careless and erratic humorist, then read some of his other works, when he was not trying to be funny. Read The Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice, for example, or his essay “To Every Child”, or his economic works, savour some of what he says there, and note its relevance to today. He was a lot better political economist, a lot better social philosopher, and a lot worse humorist, than his common reputation would tempt you to believe.

I’ll back up this assertion in a subsequent article.

Re-Casting Stephen Leacock: Geography I

Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town fills the discriminating reader with the conviction that Stephen Leacock was, concerning geography, frequently (a) confused, and (b) obfuscating. Whether this was deliberate or simply the result of his habitual carelessness remains a question for scholars to contest, and will no doubt so remain as long as graduate schools persist.

For example: He would have us believe that Mariposa is a town, which it is not. It is an Ontario township lacking any town with the population he gives to his Mariposa, that is, around 5,000 people. You may find it in the bottom southwest corner of what used to be Victoria County and is now the City of Kawartha Lakes. The southern edge of Mariposa Township is formed by the north end of Scugog Lake; Highway 7 between Manilla and the curve west of Lindsay bisects Mariposa Township about half-way way up.

Depending on where they live in the township, Mariposans may be close to Lindsay, Port Perry, or Beaverton. Perhaps Leacock’s Mariposa is a composite of these three, with perhaps some others thrown in such as Uxbridge, where he taught school for a while, or Orillia, where his mother had lived and where he eventually found his beloved cottage. His Mariposa is of course widely believed to be Orillia, a belief that cannot be supported by any credible evidence.

He would have us believe that Tecumseh [sic] Township forms part of Missinaba County, in fairly close proximity to Mariposa. This is not correct. Tecumseth Township is in Simcoe County, surrounding the Town of Alliston, but his Mariposa cannot be Alliston because Leacock never lived there and the town was too small in his day. He could not possibly have been thinking of the Town of Tecumseh, because it’s away southwest in Essex County. Or could he? Some graduate student will have to figure that out. Until I see proof I will persist in the belief that Mariposa is Mariposa, that the Town of Mariposa is either a composite or completely fictitious, and that Leacock’s “Tecumseh Township” is Mariposa Township.

It is interesting to note that the mid-point of a triangle whose points are Lindsay, Beaverton and Port Perry lies pleasingly close to Mariposa Station, in the middle of Mariposa Township, half-way between Oakwood and Little Britain, its two largest villages. Simple geometry adds weight to my conviction.

Leacock’s Town of Mariposa requires a lake, which he calls Lake Wissanotti, shallow enough for a sinking paddle- or side-wheeler to settle on the bottom without hazard to its passengers. Clearly Lake Scugog would do just as well as Lake Couchiching by this criterion, or even better.

Leacock is extremely coy about the extent and boundaries of Missinaba County, which may or may not be coterminous with the electoral Riding of Missinaba. It would make perfect sense that if the Town of Mariposa is a fictitious place in Mariposa Township within striking distance of Lake Scugog, and is the political and economic centre of the region, then the rest of Missinaba County would most probably surround Mariposa Township, and would have the conventional shape and composition of counties in that part of Ontario, being more or less rectangular, long and narrow, and made up of some number of townships.

I believe, therefore, that Missinaba County could very well run from Reach, Cartright and Manvers Townships in the south, surrounding Lake Scugog, to Ryde and Longford in the north, including the eastern shorelines of Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching, making eighteen Townships in all, with Mariposa Township smack in the middle of the bottom nine where most of the people live. And so I shall assume it to be. Orillia, while not included, is a close neighbour.

The following map comes courtesy of the Ministry of Transportation (MOT), in my young days more modestly called the Department of Highways.