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Land for nothing, clicks for fees

Updated: Dec 23, 2023

Earl Fowler

Free land was the draw, of course.

Practically free. Millions of square miles of pristine Canadian prairie was up for grabs for anyone who could come up with a measly ten bucks for a quarter section — 160 acres for you city folk, 64.7497 hectares for them thar young ’uns schooled only on the metric system.

An additional $10 would buy an option on an adjoining quarter. The catches — there’s always a catch (or two or three) — were that you had to be a) male, and b) agree to break the sod, build a shelter and live on the property in what is now Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta for at least six months of the year, and c) stick with the program for at least three years.

Meet those simple criteria, and the title to land now collectively worth many billions of dollars was yours. (The catch here is that anyone who took advantage of the original opportunity has been dead for decades; still, families who managed to hang on to the land through the passage of generations have made out like bandits.)

If the offer laid out in the 1882 Homestead Act by the second government headed by Conservative John A. Macdonald, even as tracks were being laid across the prairie by the Canadian Pacific Railway, wasn’t enough of an incentive, well, hold your horses there, Hoss. Home, home on the range was about to heat up like a cast iron wood stove. Do have a cow, man.

“FRUITFUL Manitoba,” blares the cover of a pamphlet prepared by the Manitoba Department of Agriculture and Immigration, circa 1892. “HOMES FOR MILLIONS: THE BEST WHEAT LAND AND THE RICHEST GRAZING COUNTRY UNDER THE SUN,” reads the bogus branding prepared for circulation in English-speaking countries next to enticing drawings of a sickle (later to be paired with a hammer as an international communist symbol), a man plowing furrows behind an ox, and a modestly bonneted woman watching dreamily as a state-of-the art threshing crew harvests a bumper wheat crop. “WESTWARD THE STAR OF EMPIRE TAKES ITS WAY.”

If you were stuck in a dismal textile factory or dangerous coal mine in 19th-century England, a dead-end banking job in Orillia or dreary haberdashery gig in Etobicoke, this unique chance to start over as your own boss might have landed like manna from a place where the skies are not cloudy all day, even if you didn’t know a bucksaw from a butter churn. Go west, young man.

The Liberal government of Wilfrid Laurier that took office in 1896 had a deeper understanding than its predecessor of the magic of public relations — that is to say, outrageous exaggerations, outright fabrications and outstandingly fake news.

The italicized bit below is from late journalist Heather Robertson’s largely forgotten 1974 gem of a book Salt of the Earth, whose spellbinding first-person accounts and early photos of Western Canadian homesteaders retain the power to transfix their descendants to this day.

The photos in particular teem with ghosts, broken furniture and gaping windows into the past like the slanting, long abandoned, eerily beautiful two-room sheds and lean-to shelters that anyone who drives across the plains can’t help but remark as the ruins somehow defy gravity to the susurrus of vanished frontier voices, sacred and otherworldly as any Old World menhir, dolmen or charnel house:

The (initial land) offer provoked a land rush and frantic speculation. Because of vast land grants given to the CPR, the Hudson’s Bay Company and private colonization syndicates who held the property for speculation, immigration was haphazard and sporadic for ten years following the building of the railway until Laurier’s Liberal government, realizing that the economic prosperity of Canada depended on prairie farmers as producers of grain and consumers of manufactured products, initiated a more aggressive policy in 1896.

Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton solicited his new settlers not only from Great Britain and eastern Canada, but also from the peasant and tenant farming population of eastern Europe, agricultural people he knew would adapt immediately to the hardships of homesteading and who would provide a solid, industrious and domestic base for a new agricultural economy in the West.

Sifton papered Europe with posters, pamphlets and advertisements promising free land in the golden west, an enchanted paradise of invigorating climate, bumper crops, booming cities and unlimited wealth. Hired journalists wrote glowing articles in the foreign press, immigration agents spoke in hired halls and distributed literature at country fairs, land seekers’ tours were arranged for the influential who received a fee for each new immigrant they delivered from their homeland.

Swedes, Germans, Ukrainians, English, Danes, Jews — they all came by the thousands. Discrimination was practised only against the sick, the insane and the Chinese, who could not bring their wives or families and who paid a $500 tax for the privilege of entering Canada.

Three things.

One is that there is obviously nothing new about good old-fashioned racism, political spin or “influencers” who will say anything for money. Hickory dickory dock, shills predate TikTok.

Second, a little context: The original North-West Territories — described by Robertson as “a wilderness inhabited by a few thousand nomadic Indians, settlements of Métis buffalo hunters, an agricultural colony at Red River and a handful of fur traders” — was purchased by the Canadian government in 1869 from the Hudson’s Bay Company for 300,000 pounds sterling, a pretty decent investment by any standard.

And just how had management of those millions of square miles of territory that, as even King George III recognized in the Royal Proclamation of 1763, properly belonged to Indigenous Peoples, wound up in the grasping hands of the HBC in the first place?

Ah, well. Follow the money. As ever.

After its incorporation by royal charter in 1670, what was then a fur trading business had been granted by the British government a commercial monopoly over the entire Hudson Bay drainage basin, a.k.a. Rupert’s Land, which comprised all of modern Manitoba and most of Saskatchewan, southern Alberta, northern parts of Ontario and Quebec, southern Nunavut and large tracts of what would become Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana. The Hudson’s Bay Company set itself up as a de facto government for two centuries, finally relinquishing control of the land to the two-year-old Dominion of Canada as part of a deed of surrender authorized by the Rupert’s Land Act of 1868.

All perfectly legal, of course. And what could be fairer or more equitable toward the original inhabitants of the West — by then thoroughly gutted by smallpox, cholera, malaria and other diseases to which they had little natural resistance, American whisky traders and the deliberate near annihilation of the bison — than to coerce them into signing one-sided treaties ceding the vast majority of prairie land (pacts with the Crown that settlers and governments routinely violated anyway and continue to flout whenever it suits the interests of parties in the dominant society)?

The provisional government declared by the Métis under leader Louis Riel after Macdonald’s administration refused to hear well-founded grievances about losing their land rights in what would become central and northern Saskatchewan was short-lived, once the Canadian militia arrived on the freshly laid CPR tracks to put down the North-West Resistance (or Rebellion, depending on your point of view) in the Battle of Batoche. Macdonald was always a stickler for some effing law and order when his party wasn’t taking bribes, so Riel was summarily and satisfactorily hanged after a two-day trial for treason in Regina in November 1885.

Riel’s First Nations allies were scattered and several chiefs thrown into prison. Quickly convicted of murdering white settlers, eight Indigenous men were also hanged that year at Battleford, which had been looted during the resistance, in what remains Canada’s largest mass hanging. Indigenous students from the town’s residential school were forced to watch as a warning of what could happen to them if they ever stepped out of line. The hanging judge had seen his own house looted and burned, so he wasn’t inclined to be merciful. Or overly judicious.

It would take until 1972 for the bodies of the executed to be discovered in an unmarked mass grave, and more than a century for Canada’s Métis and “non-status Indians” to be recognized as an aboriginal people with rights to any benefits at all.

Oh, and speaking of some effing law and order, the Royal Proclamation remains in force as a pillar of the Canadian Constitution (it’s enshrined in Section 23 of the Constitution Act, supposedly guaranteeing that nothing can terminate or diminish the Aboriginal rights outlined in the Proclamation). Given that the vast majority of land in what is now British Columbia has never been ceded in treaties, one might arrive at the not wholly outrageous conclusion that most non-Indigenous settlement in the province sits flagrantly on stolen land to this day. Our home on native land.

(A tangential, not wholly gratuitous aside: As loathsome as Netanyahu and his extremist, ultra-Orthodox allies are proving themselves to be yet again, Canadian protesters loudly insisting on the right of Palestinians to return to stolen land might want to stick their own country’s rapacious rap sheet in their peace pipes and suck on that for a while while endeavouring to remove beams the size of quarter sections from their eyes. How about “from sea to sea to sea” as a snappy reconciliation slogan, my fellow righteous and indignant Turtle Islanders?)

Third point — and so far as this essay goes — the important one: Between 1882 and the outbreak of the the First World War in 1914, more than two million people poured into Western Canada. The marketing scheme overseen by Clifford Sifton (for whose grandson, Michael Sifton, I would later toil as a lowly reporter at the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix) was a massive, unqualified success.

Robertson continues:

The people who came were landless — working people, artisans, failing businessmen, tenant farmers, the seventh sons of country gentlemen without property or occupation, reprobate scions of aristocratic families, preachers, orphans, the unmarried daughters of poor but respectable middle-class families, shepherds, pedlars, schoolmasters; the young seeking adventure, the old trying to find a means of setting their children up in life.

Some came with money and possessions — Limoges china and silver tea services, carpets, pianos and canaries in cages — others only a change of clothes rolled in their bedding, but life on the prairie made the bric-à-brac of old cultures redundant and absurd.

The settlers said that a homesteader had to lose everything before he could begin. They built their own sod shanty or log or frame shacks, broke their own sod and raised their own food: a man’s success was measured not by his accent or possessions but by his ability to survive.

As were a man’s failures.

Many were broken, driven out by drought or bankruptcy or despair; death was swift and capricious. Each homesteader, each family, was alone, miles from the nearest neighbour, a day’s journey from town, engaged in a life-and-death struggle, an existential confrontation with the land which gave each day, each hour personal significance. They endured. They lived by their wits, the skill of their hands and the strength of their backs, a Babel of races and cultures gritting their teeth against cold and pestilence and hunger, not ashamed of their soil-stained hands or faded clothes, not too proud to accept help from a stranger, building their schools and churches from scratch, knitting the community together with rituals and celebrations and games, repressing anger and hate, cultivating tolerance and order, maintaining, in spite of pain and labour and frustration, a fierce personal dignity.

Looking back on her childhood, my Great Aunt Frances recalled in a short supplement to my grandfather’s memoir how he and their brother Bob returned for her and their mother after selecting new homesteads in 1905. They had had little choice but to bail on their father’s unsuccessful earlier farm on what Grandpa ruefully described as “a pile of rocks” near the North Dakota border:

With our possessions loaded high on wagons and with pretty mother perched high on one load, (we) set out for the homesteads, which proved to be approximately forty miles west of Saskatoon on the bald, lonely prairie. The men herded the stock along and I chose to walk many miles with my loyal companion, Collie, the family dog who could not or would not ride the wagons. I recall the dust, the heat and mosquitoes and often think how courageous and uncomplaining my pretty mother was to leave her comfortable home and set out for she knew not where, nor what her lot nor that of her family might be! Our home here, a tent (no house for quite some time), pitched on what appeared to be the loneliest and barest stretch of land imaginable. Much of our household goods would not begin to fit in the tent and were piled nearby.

I was sad to see dear pretty mother burst into tears, and to daily witness her unhappiness as for example her shining well kept stove gradually rusted in the frequent rains, but then gradually the clouds lifted and more shelter was constructed and we grew to accept our hard life and to appreciate the little variations which made it bearable. I recall neighbours hearing of our coming, arranging a huge bonfire party at a nearby creek so that we might get acquainted and life would not be so lonesome for us. Also, one incident in our first days here, remains with me. It was during a rainstorm one evening when a man came across the prairie on foot and asked if his wife and young babe could share our tent and shelter. They were living under a wagon box! Like all true pioneers we were happy to do so and now I know what a comfort and cheer this association with another woman must have been. I enjoyed the baby very much.

My grandfather’s version:

When we hit Saskatoon in the first part of April 1905, the weather was like summer. We lived in tents until midsummer, then we got up a shelter. Driving the livestock it took nearly three days to go the forty miles. There were two bad mud-holes near where the town of Asquith now is, and one had to know what spots he could get through without being stuck in the mud. Lots of settlers that did not understand the markings went in and some had to carry their wagons through by pieces. There were sloughs of water everywhere and ducks, geese and wild turkeys were like flocks of sheep on the prairie. …

I think I have lived in the greatest period of world advancement in the last two or three thousand years. I have seen the flail used a little; the scythe to cut hay, drove oxen for three years — broke up my homestead with them. I proved up my homestead in a sod shack.

As settlers got to know their neighbours, largely through the establishment of one-room schoolhouses and utilitarian churches, the inevitable result was what Robertson refers to as “instant civilization, the compression of millennia into a single generation, the imposition of ready-made Victorian industrial culture on a land which had known only the chivalry of Indian warfare.”

Here’s my grandfather again:

Most districts started what was called a Literary Society. In some cases we had our local paper. … Social events included dances with local musicians generally taking part. In the Wheatfield District where I was, Jay Brew played first violin, Charley Peckenpaugh second violin, and Mrs. Charley Peckenpaugh played the organ. Dances started about 8 p.m. and broke up about 4 to 6 a.m. in the early morning; then there was less chance of getting lost in the drifting snow in the dark of night.

Oh, lawdie mama, those Friday nights, when Suzie wore her long-sleeve tops with high lace collars tight!

Drawing on diaries, letters, reminiscences and manuscripts recorded by early settlers and preserved in archive collections, Robertson’s book presents a series of remarkable, sometimes heartwarming, often harrowing accounts of settlers scrambling and scrabbling for food or water and shivering in uninsulated shacks where arctic winds blew through the cracks, freezing their blankets to sod walls.

Just finding your place in the early days was problematic. When the prairie, low hills and coulees look the same in all directions, it’s easy to lose all sense of direction, especially when the ground is covered by snow. I remember wandering through a pioneer cemetery by the banks of the South Saskatchewan River and coming across the headstone of “Edward Meeres, who lost his life in a blizzard in what is now the centre of Nutana,” the original European settlement on the east side of Saskatoon.

The lives of women — especially given their relative paucity on the prairie at this time — is a subject often glossed over in traditional histories on both sides of the border.

In an account she titled Log Cabin and We Two, the resigned, practical, mostly contented voice of Monica Hopkins — who homesteaded with her husband near what is now the hamlet of Priddis at the base of the foothills, southwest of Calgary — comes through as if we were meeting her over fresh bread and a four-pound tin of jam. Take a turn in the homemade rocker next to the scrub washboard and the old-timey “sad iron” heating on the wood stove. Take your shoes off. Sit a spell:

By now I realize that this is essentially a man’s country and that a woman has practically to sink her own identity and take on her husband’s interests. For a woman to come out here, and by “here” I mean isolated spots such as this, and not like country life would be fatal. There would be simply nothing for her to do.

It would be impossible for any woman to fill up her days doing housework, for in ninety-nine per cent of the houses here the necessary work can be done in a few hours daily and in many houses less than that, so she would have many hours on her hands that she would find hard to fill.

Books and sewing help out but more than that is needed and you can’t be out riding and visiting every day so that interest in her husband’s pursuits is absolutely necessary. Another thing I have found out that it is useless grousing over the inevitable. So many unexpected things turn up you might as well meet them with a smile. It makes things so much more pleasant all around. If you treat life as a joke and not take it too seriously then you’ll be happy here. If you don’t then Heaven help you, for no one else can!

Life was harder for some women than even Hopkins could have known. Here’s English-born journalist J.F.C. Wright, who worked for the Star-Phoenix in the Thirties, describing members of a Russian pacifist group pulling a plow in Manitoba’s Swan River Valley. Wright won a Governor General's Award in 1940 for Slava Bohu, his account (sometimes written from a first-person point of view) of living conditions among Canada's “folk-Protestant” Doukhobor community:

We are now plowing with 24 women to a plow. The women tried the spades digging, but plowing was easier and quicker. It is too late to sow grain this year. We have our faith in God. The trials will soon be over. But the worst is, not enough stock. Without animals nothing can be done. We are starting a new village over here. And so we must let those people for the new village have the horses to haul logs to build themselves human and animal shelter before winter comes again. And that means no rest for the animals — poor things. And to give them some rest, we humans hitch ourselves to the plows. All our men are busy; many are away to the towns and cities getting work on railway construction, they (toil) to earn money for the community fund.

The dearth of single, marriageable women in this “man’s country” was among the hardships endured by single men once they’d broken the land and managed to establish themselves. A lifetime of baked beans and batching suited some, including my grandfather’s three rancher uncles, but plenty of men who had overcome plagues of crop-destroying grasshoppers, droughts, hail storms, killer frosts and prairie fires were eventually undone by loneliness.

This account by a Joseph Heartwell is one of the saddest in Robertson’s book:

No story would be complete without its romance, not being a novelist I am unable to present you a spine-tingling story so I will stick close to the facts. In 1908, two attractive young ladies moved in as housekeepers for their brother or brothers. Following in the fall a handsome young widow and her two kiddies arrived to take over household duties for her brother. A not so young school teacher came to spend the winter with her parents in a district west of ours. The race was on.

Every single homesteader made the circuit once, myself included. Some made the second trip but they soon found out they lacked the qualifications and, as always, the two first-noted ladies captured their man. The young English lads paid their attention to the young widow. This narrowed down quickly to two, Wiles and his partner. They got themselves a nice driving outfit and then for over a year they took turn(s) about courting the young widow. Finally, Wiles faded out of the picture.

One day in 1909 my mother was on her way to Clark’s and when only a short way from home she noticed a rider and his horse dashing madly across the prairie. It passed a well-boring machine and came racing toward her and within a hundred yards of her, the rider toppled to the ground. Mother ran over and found it was Wiles. He was dead when she got there. After his partner had gone to work, he shaved, took a bath, attired himself in a nice black suit, drank a bottle of carbolic acid, jumped on a horse and raced into Eternity.

Madly off in all directions. Boom! Mic drop!

I know my Great Aunt Frances described my great-grandmother, an Irish immigrant, as her “dear pretty mother,” but I’ve seen photos of our progenitor as an older woman and — with no disrespect intended — I have to say Depression-era James Joyce springs immediately to mind. In drag. Only with coarsened hands and more manly arms.

But in the late 19th century in these here parts, pardner, he who hesitated was lost. This is my grandfather’s description of how his parents got together in what was then the Assiniboia District, one of the two historical divisions of the North-West Territories:

Girls were scarce at the time Mother arrived in that part, and I was talking to three old-timers up in their nineties around 1950 and they told me that they could have shot Dad when he in some way met her and in 1883 picked her out from amongst settlers that thought the sun rose and set on her. She was about the first school teacher in that part.

She was 18 at the time and he was 33, dad gummit. Their marriage would last till his death during the Great War, 32 years later.

Though he never made any real money, Grandpa (like his far more itinerant, less risk-aversive father) had an eye for business opportunities — which, I surmise, is why he became the first person in his district to own a Kodak Brownie, one of those early, simple cardboard box cameras with an elementary concave-convex lens. That generation of Kodak Brownies took 2 1⁄4-inch square pictures on No. 117 roll film. And in 1900, they were marketed for about a dollar apiece, almost as much of a steal as $10 quarter sections.

How was a rootin’-tootin’ young bachelor and or a wily old widower to go about attracting the attention of nubile girls and wily old widows back then, when there were none to be had for miles around? Unless you had family connections or were content to settle for second cousin Agatha, and she for you, the most practicable method was to put away a little cash for matrimonial ads in the newspapers back east or in the Old Country.

As is still the case today, the ads consisted of pithy text messages. But if the correspondence they engendered went well, photo exchanges would follow — the early agrarian equivalent of flipping through Tinder or Bumble profiles. You get the picture.

Opportunity was knocking for enterprising photographers with a knack for turning sow’s ears, as it were, into silk purses. Fees needn’t have been exorbitant for the camera equipment to quickly pay for itself.

If the photos weren’t deemed adequately appealing, the early 20th-century practice of ghosting a potential suitor thousands of miles away, simply by ceasing to answer his or her letters, was akin to the modern mania for swiping right on a dating app and moving on. Suivant, next.

Of the marriage-minded bachelor photos taken by my grandfather now in my possession, the one I like best — attached to this essay in the display box at the top — shows a couple of, well, let’s call them mature gentlemen sitting on chairs and resting their shoes on a wooden crate outside a simple home (let’s call it a shed) and enjoying a bottle of something spirited (let’s call it firewater hootch). They’re sporting their best vests and wearing jaunty hats; one, perhaps wishing to appear thoughtful, draws on a pipe.

Why these dashing swains supposed hoisting a bottle of rotgut would be an irresistible lure to the ladies is anyone’s guess; mine is that they were hoping to convey a degree of sophistication and material comfort, à la those urbane ads for Smirnoff or Gilbey’s Vodka you might remember seeing in glossy magazines like Playboy or Cosmopolitan.

I came up short in my quick search for Canadian lonely-hearts matrimonial ads from the period, though The Western Producer newspaper — a Saskatoon-based weekly that celebrated its centenary in August — still enjoys a well-earned reputation for helping farm couples find each other via its eagerly anticipated personal section.

But here are some period pitches from American newspapers helpfully curated by Then as now, hopeful women were placing them, too.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1899: “Widow, 44, Southerner, stranger, own home, West End, would like the hearthstone of her heart swept, and the cobwebs brushed away; matrimony.”

Atlanta Constitution, 1898: “Am 30, wealthy, lost mother, for whom I sacrificed youth, dread a lonely future, seek husband and true companion. Orphan.”

Minneapolis Tribune, 1904: “An old bachelor returning from the mines finds his old sweetheart married and old acquaintances scattered, desires lady acquaintance; object, marriage.”

Pittsburgh Press, 1921: “I am 27, employed by the government, have small but reasonable salary, will make some poor working girl, from 18 to 25, a good husband and a happy home; must be Protestant; no dancers, flirts, or streetwalkers need answer, object matrimony.”

So you may be a lover but you ain’t no dancer.

Legions of women from Central and Eastern Canada, the U.S. and Europe did wind up moving to Western Canada to marry their Prince Charmings and rural inamoratos, who might have been slightly torquing both their prospects and the glories of land spreading out so far and wide. Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside.

As a class, those old box camera images taken by amateurs like my grandfather, back when photography was little more than a fad, are less monumental than those taken by the experienced professionals renowned today as great frontier photographers. But nonetheless, the former provide valuable and a largely untapped testimony from a seminal time in Canadian history, and I’ll bet there are tens of thousands of negatives out there in neglected envelopes and boxes, just waiting to be developed, collected, displayed and adored.

“Almost every prairie village,” Robertson observes, “had its resident photographer whose studio was a little cubby over the furniture store or the meat market and who supplemented his income by running a bake shop or watch repair or oyster bar on the side.”

But if those old photos matter to us now, they were precious beyond words to contemporaries of the people in the images. Author, journalist, politician, Famous Five suffragist and social activist Nellie McClung — who played a pivotal role in helping secure the right of women to vote in Alberta and Manitoba in 1916 — vividly makes the point in her memoir, Clearing in the West: My Own Story:

We had two new pictures now, enlarged photographs of father and mother in heavy oak frames with a gilt edge, done by a travelling artist, who drove a team of mules and carried a few lines of tinware. Every family in the neighbourhood had taken advantage of his easy plan to secure a lasting work of art. You paid only for the frame and received the picture entirely for free, though this offer might be withdrawn any minute for he was doing this merely to get his work known. He said there was no nicer way to give one’s parents a pleasant surprise, and the pictures would be delivered in time for Christmas. When they came, we all had a surprise. We had thought that the seven dollars and thirty-five cents paid for both frames but we were wrong. Each one cost that amount and even at that the artist was losing money.

The pictures were accepted and hung on the log walls, and in the declivities behind them were kept tissue paper patterns, newspaper clippings and other semi-precious documents, thus relieving the congestion in the real archives, lodged in the lower regions of the clock, where notes, grain tickets, tax receipts were kept.

We may be ahead by a century, but those old family albums are still gold. Treasure them. This is where our vanished places lie. As Irish priest and poet John O’Donohue reminded us, “Everything depends upon the lens you use. Make your gaze beautiful.”

In my grandfather’s case, he soon chucked the farm for a general store, a post office and raising a family. By 1914, when the settler boom collapsed with the outbreak of war, and the sons of the early settlers found themselves marching back east to serve as cannon fodder in nightmares like Ypres and Passchendaele, Grandpa had moved on to mostly capturing family scenes with his Brownie in his spare time.

I’ve included a few images from his beautiful gaze below:

• A nail-hammering competition by district women festooned in the latest Eaton’s catalogue mail-order Edwardian fashions (that’s how they rolled in 1909; today we watch golf in sweatpants and Iron Maiden caps). • An early hockey game on one of those frozen, alkali sloughs (this is where the likes of Gordie Howe and Johnny Bower got started; Howe was born in a farmhouse as one of nine siblings, Bower’s father was himself a homesteader).

• Self-assured young lovers in a 1930s scene right out of Bonnie and Clyde.

• And one fond last look back, you durn lucky gals, at the sexiest men no longer alive. O tempora, o mores, O Canada!

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