Project Canterbury

Leaders of the Canadian Church
Edited by Canon Bertal Heeney

Toronto: Ryerson, 1943. 191 pp.


IT was night, very wet and chill. Most of the villagers drew closer to the fire. Few indeed were for going abroad--especially to a missionary meeting. Still, a stranger had come to the parish with a message of far off lands. The Vicar had announced him and the bell was now ringing out the call.

Among those who set off were three young men "whose hearts burned within them." Arriving at the hall they found a dreary sight-- only a few devoted women--the Vicar also, and the visitor. The Vicar was for postponing the meeting. There was such a poor attendance, could there be divine fervor? This was not, however, the mind of the missionary who had come to tell of the needs of a forgotten race. So he spoke and said, " I prefer, sir, to go on with my address --the few faithful deserve the message"; and thus was the matter settled.

Among the three young men who had entered was William Duncan, "a man whose heart God had touched." Not at once did he act, but the fire was kindled within him. There were obstacles in his way. He was a layman and doubted that the gate to the regular ministry might ever open to him. Besides, there was no great desire on his part to take Holy Orders.

One ray of hope, however, came to him through the darkness, he might become a school master in one of those far away native schools. This he resolved upon and, shortly after, offered himself to the Church Missionary Society and was accepted for training in their College at Highbury.


At this point let me introduce the name of another man who played a heroic part in the story of Duncan and his work for God on the Pacific Coast. I was sitting in General Synod one day during its sessions in Cody Memorial Hall, Toronto, when my attention was drawn to an Indian delegate of unusual stature and beauty. I spoke to him at the close of one of the sittings and asked of his Diocese and of his home. When he told me that he was one of the delegates from Caledonia and that his home was on the Queen Charlotte Islands, I mentioned my interest in Duncan and my desire to learn all I could about him.

His reply came in a most interesting way. He put his hand into his inside coat pocket and, drawing forth a small copy of the Book of Common Prayer, said, with the shy smile of an Indian, "My grandfather was given this by Admiral Prevost." "Admiral Prevost!" I replied with zest. "How wonderful, so the name of God's servant is still remembered!"

In the course of his naval duties, Rear-Admiral (then Captain) Prevost, R.N., had visited the Pacific Coast, and on returning home had pleaded with the Churchmen of England till William Duncan was sent forth to bear the torch of the Faith in Him who makes all things new for lands and races of every kind. It was in 1850 that the British Government despatched Prevost to look after her far flung interests in the north western Pacific. Vancouver had earlier encircled the fair and forested island which bears his name. Great explorers, such as Mackenzie and Fraser, had come from Canada, and trading posts had been established by the fur companies--the North West and the Hudson's Bay--but nothing had been done to bring the natives of the island and of the wild and mighty mainland to the knowledge of Christ. Prevost pleaded in such moving tones that even now their sound stirs the depths of men's spirits:

"The native population of these regions," he said, "probably amount to 60,000. It is a fact well calculated to arrest the attention, and to enlist in behalf of the proposed Mission the active sympathies of every sincere Christian, that this vast number of our fellow-subjects have remained in a state of heathen darkness and complete barbarism ever since the discovery and partial survey of their coasts by Vancouver in 1792-1794; and that no effort has yet been made for their moral or spiritual improvement, although, during the last forty years a most lucrative trade has been carried on with them by our fellow-countrymen."

The immediate outcome of this manly appeal was two gifts of £500. The Society was encouraged, and it cast eyes about for a man. The lot fell to William Duncan, and it was not long after the gifts had come in and the man had been found, that Prevost came again to the authorities and "offered free passage by H.M.S. Satellite to any missionary the Society could send out."

Duncan was ordered to make ready, and within ten days these two godly laymen were conversing together on the deck, and no doubt praying together in the cabin of the Satellite as she set her sails and her prow for the far regions of the west, where Christ was so much a stranger.

The two names--Prevost and Duncan--are forever linked in the redemptive efforts of Christ on the Pacific Coast. Both set a pace of holy endeavour for the laymen of our day and the days to come.


The voyage was a long one. It was by way of Cape Horn, and it was in winter. The sailing was from Plymouth, just before Christmas, 1856. and the arrival of the Satellite at Vancouver Island was in the lovely month of June,

1857. The spot was called Fort Victoria then and was the centre in the Hudson's Bay Company's vast affairs on the coast. The weather was wonderful at the time of their coming--the atmosphere a blending of the fragrance of land things with the salt tang of the sea. The country about was a wild Paradise.

The Fort consisted of a few dwellings and some out-houses for produce, the group being surrounded by a stockade. This palisaded structure of the Hudson's Bay Company has long since given place to the majestic Empress Hotel, where the Canadian Pacific Railway entertains its guests when winter rages on the Prairies.

So it chanced that H.M.S. Satellite cast anchor in the harbour at Victoria, and Duncan became the guest of the great fur trading company for several months on end. His objective was still five hundred miles away by sea and there was no means of reaching it at present. So like a wise man he bent his efforts toward picking up what he could of the language of the Indians. Meantime, the inmates of the Fort were for dissuading him from going further into the wilderness--but in vain. '' To Fort Simpson I was appointed and to Fort Simpson I will go."

After several months of impatient delay, this good man reached his destination. At the time, autumn had scarcely touched with its many colours the rich summer green of the mountainside where dwelt the Indian tribes whose pathetic condition in body and mind had roused the Christian soul of Captain Prevost.


Fort Simpson was well placed for trading-- that was its purpose. There was a village of Indians and a meeting place of tribes; there great rivers ran down to the sea and wonder-islands were scattered in the waters along the ocean shore. Trappers' families abode on the spot when they themselves were far inland in search of furs for the markets of the world.

The Fort itself had a kind of gallery or outlook round the top of the palisade where watch was kept by the Company's officers for marauders, and where defence was made when need arose. It was from this gallery that Dun-can, two days after his arrival, was given a first sight of his parishioners.

Immediately after dinner the second officer of the Fort, who had not been absent more than a minute, came rushing back to report that an Indian had just been murdered close to the Fort gates. On repairing to the gallery, I saw this shocking sight. Several Indians, with muskets in their hands, were hovering about the dying man, and one or two ventured to go near and assist him. He was shot in the right breast, and apparently dying, but seemingly conscious of what had happened. In a few minutes two Indians, looking as fierce as tigers, carrying muskets, came bounding to the spot, and, after ordering all away, one of them immediately fired at the poor fellow as he lay on the ground, and shot him in the arm. They then as quickly bounded away. The head chief was the murderer. Being irritated by some other chiefs while partly intoxicated, he vented his rage upon the first stranger that came in his way, and, after shooting him, ordered two of his men to finish the horrible deed.

During the winter which followed his arrival at Fort Simpson, Duncan hurried on with the language study. He also went visiting his congregation. The time was opportune, for the deep snow fell on the mighty forests making travel impossible for the hunters. They remained at home, and the log cabins were crowded with men, women, children and dogs.

"I have been inside 140 houses," he writes in January, "and I actually counted 2,l56 souls. The inhabitants are made up of nine tribes, all, however, speaking the same language, and there are many other tribes as well all living within fifty miles of this place." And yet no school, nor church, nor Gospel Hall.

"The reception I met with," he continues, "was truly wonderful. In some houses they could not be content until I took the chief place near the fire, and they always placed a mat upon a box for me to sit upon."

Here was a native courtesy and kindness,-- points of contact in human nature for the Gospel of the Grace of Christ, and Duncan was not slow to take advantage of the gifts of nature.


The language is of course the problem for the new missionary. It is the great barrier to immediate service. When spoken, native words become little torches in the native mind. Duncan became active at once, as we have noted, in acquiring the local tongue and within a year he was able to write his first message "in the language of the people." No wonder he exclaimed, " Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his Holy Name." Shortly afterwards he wrote in his diary, June 13, 1858:

Last week I finished translating my first address for the Indians. At once I set off to the first chief's home to deliver it. My heart quailed before the task. O those moments! But he had not failed--Nee, Nee, yes, yes. We understood said a poor woman, and felt it to be good.

So this good man went on for some time speaking the word from "house to house". Still, though he longed to preach to adults, he knew that the mind of the child is the way to the heart of the parent--even with the savages.

Soon the chief of the chiefs, named Legaic, offered the use of his considerable house for a school-room, and the little copper-faced, brown-eyed, black-haired girls and boys came shyly in goodly numbers. One little fellow wore nothing but a blanket about him. He was being trained for a medicine man and must needs go blanket-clad for a year after his initiation.

The interest in the school was great, and the first summer of his life at Fort Simpson was not over before Duncan resolved on building a school-house to meet the needs of his work. At first the Indians took coldly to the proposal but Duncan "patiently waited." In time the undertaking seized them and the whole camp became excited. "One morning I went to the building site and met upwards of forty Indians carrying wood." The bell on Fort Simpson rang out for breakfast but they were for going on with their work. "I will not eat," said one old man, "till the work is done."

Thus the outlook for Duncan, toward the end of his first year, was encouraging. Then arose the opposition of evil men. Self-interest is chief of the devils of the underworld. Satan will not relax his grip without a struggle. Strangely enough, Legaic, who had once offered his own dwelling for school-use, now set about thwarting the missionary in his wise endeavour. He first tried to secure a suspension of the school session during the great medicine festival. Duncan would not concede the request. Then was enacted one of the most dramatic scenes in missionary annals.

Legaic and a whole gang of medicine men with him came to the school and entered. I saw their point. It was to intimidate me by their strength and frightful appearance. Legaic himself broke out into furious language. Jumping from the seat he had just sat down upon he stamped his feet on the floor, and shouted at the top of his voice. . . . The Lord enabled me to stand calm and without the slightest fear. I told them in their own tongue that God was my Master.

This resolute stand on the part of Duncan enraged Legaic beyond bounds and murder stood out on the savage countenance. Suddenly, however, a calmer spirit entered him, for, at the moment of his most violent fury, he caught sight of Chah, an Indian, friendly to Duncan and one who often helped him with the language. Under Chah's blanket coat was concealed a revolver. Legaic knew that it was for him should he attack the missionary. The effect was subduing to his rage. The day was saved for Duncan and his school.


Owing to these and other disturbances Duncan resolved to leave the Fort and go to a spot on the sea coast known as Metlakahtla.

This name is a striking one and will always call up the good man, William Duncan, and the great centre of his work for God. It means the Bay of the Kahtla tribe who had formerly settled on its shores. The spot was beautiful in itself and its setting, as we may learn from the graphic words of Duncan who wrote of it the day he chose it for the new scene of his labours.

A narrow placid channel, studded with little promontories and pretty islands; a rich verdure, a waving forest, backed by lofty but densely-wooded mountains; a solemn stillness, broken only by the cries of happy birds flying over, or the more musical notes of little warblers near at hand. But how strangely did all this contrast with the sad reflections which the history of savage heathenism suggests! The thought that every foot of ground that I trod upon had been stained with horrid crime, that every little creek was associated with some dark tragedy, and those peaceful waters had often been stained with human blood, made my feelings soon change from delight to gloom. What would, indeed, those rocks unfold if all the horrid yells and cries of anguish they have echoed were but written? or who can even faintly picture the scenes of savage riot committed on these beaches when blood-thirsty marauders have returned with human heads for booty?

So after five years Duncan fled to Metlakahtla. He thought it was the only way of saving his new converts from the white men who, for various reasons, had come to live in this majestic fairyland of islands, of lifting seas, of high mountains, and great forests.

Of the wisdom of his line of action there may be some uncertainty but of the motive which inspired it there can be only one opinion.

It should be kept in mind also that Metlakahtla was not entirely a Duncan project, but one prompted by the Christian Indians as well. Perhaps that is what explains it. After all it was not the first time that new-born believers in Christ sought refuge from the wickedness of society in the solitary places of nature and in the dreams of Utopia.

The moment arrived at last for the enterprise. Duncan was up and about at an early hour.

The men of the native converts were stirred with a new excitement. The great school house at Fort Simpson was taken down-- plank by plank and log by log. There were no beasts of burden to haul them to the sea--so, strong men performed this arduous duty themselves, shouldering their loads with great joy. There a raft was made of the timbers, and the strange craft, on its stranger mission, set off to the new site of beauty and hope on the Bay of Metlakahtla. Duncan had begun to build a city of God in the great forests between the mountains and the sea.


It turned out that Metlakahtla was more than a refuge for Indians from civilized wickedness. In itself that was a good work, for the sins of white men were ruinous wherever they touched the native race. Drink stirs everything vile in any man be he white or red. It kindled everywhere destroying fires on the coast. White men drank and sold to the Indians for profit; vileness, madness and murder was the result. The native women as usual were the most painful sufferers. They were literally bought and sold for harlotry. The following extract gives a lurid and terrible picture as seen by Bishop Hills in and near Victoria when he arrived in 1860.

The tribes have much decreased since 1846. Their destruction is occasioned principally by drink and dissolute habits. Those nearest the whites are the worst. Slavery has increased; female slaves are in demand; distant tribes make war upon each other, and bring their female slaves to the market. You will hardly credit it, but it is strictly true, women are purchased as slaves to let them out for immoral purposes. A female slave has been known recently to be purchased for two hundred dollars. The Indians buy their wives, but slaves are more costly.

With such a picture as that before the mind it is not to be wondered at that Duncan fled from something akin to it in the region round about the scene of his labours at Fort Simpson.

His new venture was on the village plan. It was a community life that was set going. The spot chosen was in the beauty of nature. It also had associations--family associations; for Indians had lived there before they had moved near to Fort Simpson for the benefit of trade. The value of these attractions was not overlooked, but the life proper to the new community took shape in the mind of this remarkable man. So it must have its Church, and this in the place of honour, and next its school. How wise was he in calling the children to him, thus repeating in the rich forests by the Pacific, what his Master had done for little ones in the simple villages of Galilee. As for the adults, they were encouraged in home-making that family life might reflect Church life.

Duncan saw also the need of work for the development of Indian character. So, in the words of Jesus, "to every man his work," he taught them various trades and acquired trades himself that he might teach them to his converts. Thus it was a case of schools for the children; trades for the grown-ups; homes for all; and the House of God for everyone in the community. Industry for the people's sake who engaged in it was found profitable in coin as well as in character. Fair dealing was established and a market for furs and the handicrafts of the natives. There was a fund created for village improvements and the people took pride in doing for their little community. Instinctively self-government sprang up, a democracy. The community had the guiding mind of its founder, in government as in everything else, but guiding is not subversive of self-discipline and self-government. Duncan also persuaded the leading men among them to establish a village police force. This brought a sense of dignity and self-respect which worked like magic. Crime disappeared--evil went into darkness. The whole community was put on its honour, as well as on its good behaviour. Men do best when trusted to do well.

In time, and that not long, the industrial interests of this God-town in the wilderness called for its own shipping facilities. This was a reaction caused by the positive wickedness of public traders along the coast. The evidence on this point is abundant. Trading is a way of God among men, but without God it becomes a way of the devil. So it was here. In the main the great Hudson's Bay Company must be exonerated. Indeed, it is difficult to see how the Pacific Coast and all Western Canada could have come within the light of civilization had it not been for this remarkable Company, which on the whole was ever the friend of the Indian and the Missionary.

Still the fact remains that Duncan found it necessary to create shipping facilities for his colony which were controlled and operated by himself and his humble associates. This was not only a matter of directness in reaching markets but of fair dealing in the handling of cargo. So the Carolina was acquired and, as evidence of the need of the vessel for his work and of the wisdom of the undertaking, the government gave the sum of one hundred pounds toward her purchase. In time the natives themselves manned the craft and sailed her to and from Victoria and transacted their own affairs.

Here then was a garden in a wilderness, the work of one man: a Church bell ringing in witness to God-- a school in which little ones were taught of Him--homes where prayer was said daily--industries wherein only fairness was practised, and mutual benefit sought, and profits made for the general good. Yea, and on the deep green sea, and among the deep-green islands --a white ship was spreading her sails to the breezes, laden with native products of hunt and factory. All man's life is blessed by the knowledge of the true God, not only his inward and spiritual.


The personality of Duncan is illusive--probably as great a tribute as one could pay him-- and the secret is no small measure of his achievements. He was one of those men who so deport themselves as to give God scope. We have a tendency, most of us, to get in God's way. It was never so with Duncan. God's was the effective energy in his life and he gave it scope.

I will not speak of his courage--or of his love --both find abundant proof, even in the pages of this sketchy account of his life's work. It must be evident also that he was no mere zealot, but a man of parts. How quickly he mastered the language; how strongly he ruled the unruly. How he skilled himself in various crafts--rope-making, twine - spinning, brush- making--that he might teach them to the converts, and in the art of weaving too, and even in the use of each instrument in a band of twenty-one--for there must be music where there is Christ's religion. He taught his converts home-making and gardening, and above all Church-going and how to live community life. Indeed, the Church and the community were one life in two aspects and that one life brotherhood in Christ.

It is also significant of the man that the Government made Duncan a magistrate and the custodian of murderers among the Indians. The judge would say, to the criminal, "You must go to Mr. Duncan and live as he teaches you." The result of his qualities was that he became the master of the Indians and the friend of all in that region. They gave him their hearts as he had given them the knowledge of the way to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Once only in twenty-three years did he visit his mother country. It was in 1870 and, within the year, he had sailed home, worked steadily for his mission while there, and returned again to Metlakahtla. The reception given him, on his return, is touching and deeply revealing of the man and his grip on the hearts of his converts.

The ship on which I returned must needs stop at the mouth of the Skeena River for a time. My Indian friends at Metlakatla heard I was on board and sent a large canoe to fetch me home to Metlakatla.

The happy crew gave me a warm welcome--the canoe was set with sails so the men had time to talk, and they poured out one piece of news after another.

On sighting the village the flag was hoisted over our canoe as a signal that I was on board. I could see in the distance that flags were flying above the village and Indians hurrying down to the landing place.

Soon we reached the happy spot.

On my stepping out of the canoe--bang went a cannon and when barely on land another followed. A corps of constables discharged their muskets; all hats were doffed and there was a general rush to seize my hands. I was now hemmed in with the crowds of solemn faces--and eyes were glistening with tears of joy.

The children were all arranged in order as I passed up to the Mission House. I patted a few on the head, then almost overcome with feelings, I pressed my way to my house.

I ordered the Church bell to be rung. At once the crowd hurried thither and when I entered, it was full; such a sight! After a few minutes silence we joined in thanksgiving to God, after which I addressed the assembly for about twenty minutes. This concluded, I set off, accompanied by several leading Christian men, to visit the sick and the very aged, whom I was told were anxiously begging to see me. The scenes that followed were very affecting. Many assured me that they had constantly prayed to God to be spared to see me once again, and God had answered their prayers and revived their hearts, after much weeping. On finishing my visit I made up doses of medicine for several of the sick, and then sat down for a little refreshment.

Again my house becoming crowded, I sat down with about fifty for a general talk.

We lingered till midnight, but even then the village was lighted up, and the people all waiting to hear from the favoured fifty what I had communicated. Many did not go to bed at all, but stayed up all night talking over what they had heard.

Such is a brief account of my reception at Metlakahtla. I could not but reflect how different this to the reception I had among the same people in 1857. Then they were all afraid of me, and regarded with dread suspicion my every act. It was with feelings of contempt they approached me to hear God's word, and when I prayed amongst them, I prayed alone; none understood, none responded. Now how things have changed! Love has taken the place of fear, and light the place of darkness; and hundreds are intelligently able and devoutly willing to join me in prayer and praise to Almighty God. To God be all the praise and glory. AMEN.

Project Canterbury