Project Canterbury

The Far and Furry North

By the Rev. A.C. Garrioch

Manitoba: no publisher, 1925.

Chapter 11. Mr. Bernie Journeys to the Peace River

After Mr. Snow had gone northward in the spring Mr. Bernie remained in charge of the Mission at Fort Simpson for six weeks, and then when the MacKenzie River brigade went southward he joined it as far as Fort Chipewyan. Finding the Mission there vacant he took charge until the boats returned from the south with the annual supplies. During the few weeks of his stay there he again lived in the little house he had built, and the residents of the fort showed in their own undemonstrative way that they remembered his stay with them, and his work, and they were glad to see him back. The parents of the children he had taught hoped that he had returned to resume his educational work, and were disappointed on learning that his stay was to last only until autumn, when he was to go up the Peace River and establish a Mission among the Beaver Indians.

The Peace River brigade consisted of four boats, and was in charge of our old friend, Mr. George Stait. Their cargoes were to be divided among the five Peace River trading posts. These posts were at this time being in part supplied by a new route via Edmonton and Lesser Slave Lake.

It being in the month of September when this voyage up the Peace River was made, many flocks of ducks and geese were on the wing. And while going up the Quatre Fourches River, Mr. Bernie and a young Roman Catholic priest and a young and new clerk, Mr. Martin, did some shooting and several birds were brought down; but owing to the keenness and greenness of the two latter, it may be said that the boatmen got as good sport as did the sportsmen themselves.

The boats had just made their exit from the Quatre Fourches into the much wider Peace River when a large flock of wavies were noticed coming directly towards Mr. Stait's boat. The sail was up at the time and stretched to full capacity so as to make the most of a feeble wind. On came the wavies, rising slightly, but not swerving to right or left. Mr. Martin planted his feet firmly in the sternsheets, while the Père ducked under the sail to have full scope on the other side, and while making this move, in his hurry and excitement, he kicked Mr. Bernie's powder flask into the river. Just then, bang, bang, went Mr. Martin's gun; and a second later, bang, bang, went the Pere's gun, and the wavies all continued on their way, apparently frightened but not in the least hurt. Then the boatmen were convulsed with laughter, for it was seen that Mr. Martin had shot a hole through the sail the size of a dinner plate. Mr, Martin being only an Ookimasis (a little master), and so green at that, no one hesitated to laugh; and all that he could do was to stare at the hole and grin. The other two, who did not seem much disposed to laugh, were the two missionaries, for doubtless their thoughts were upon the powder flask now resting peacefully for all time at the bottom of the Peace River. When, therefore, the boisterous fun of the others had subsided, the Pere, speaking in his Frenchified English, said shamefacedly to Mr. Bernie, "Your poder is in de reever." "Yes," replied that gentleman, "I noticed it take the fatal plunge." That ended the incident, and the courteous speech with which Mr. Bernie was prepared to accept an apology from the Père was not needed, which goes to show that a man may be a priest or any other kind of a professional--and born a Frenchman at that--and yet fail to be a gentleman.

Though the Père had nothing further to say about the "poder in de reever," the crew of Mr. Stait's boat had, for they were not superior to the superstitious belief which may date back to the time of Jonah, that the casting overboard of something valuable will propitiate the god or spirit of the weather, and as the wounded sail at this time was only holding its own against the current, the boatmen expressed the hope that the powder flask might be accepted as an offering, and that the na-mooiva-na (fair wind) would soon beat the current. At this juncture a young fellow who owned a flint-lock which looked older than himself, said that to make sure, he would send his gun after the flask, as one was not of much use without the other. Then placing himself in position with one foot on the gunwale and the other on a package of goods, he grasped his gun near the muzzle, and looked around upon his companions who supposed that all this was but a joke; but when he had invoked the spirit of namoowana, he swung the gun three times round his head and then threw it with all his might towards the centre of the river. For an instant a gasp of astonishment interrupted the laughing as everyone gazed at the spot where the gun had disappeared. Then while preparations were being made to lower the sail and take to the tracking line, a strange thing happened--that kind of thing which happens just often enough to keep superstition alive. Suddenly someone who happened to look behind shouted "vent derriere!" And another shouted "namoowana!" and from that time and for the next five hours the boats made satisfactory speed against the current, while the delighted voyageurs lay back and wondered; some of them, no doubt, studying how they could touch up the story when regaling their friends with an account of their voyage. And in the meantime, Mr. Bernie reflected without one little crumb of comfort, that as most of the men were Roman Catholics, the man who kicked the powder into the river would probably get more credit for the fair wind than he who had furnished the ammunition.

On a lovely evening three weeks after leaving Fort Chipewyan, the fort where Mr. Findlay was in charge hove in sight. Here Mr. Bernie's voyage ended, as it was in this neighbourhood that he was to establish a Mission. Mr. George Kidd, still next in command to Mr. Findlay, was also stationed here; but it now required separate quarters to hold him and his, for since last heard from he had been to the Red River Settlement on a year's furlough, and while there had married Miss Linden, and now, like the Findlays, the Kidds were raising a family.

Through the kindness of Mr. Churchill and Mr. Findlay it had been arranged that Mr. Bernie was to be provided for in the fort for the first year, or in fact, until he erected a dwelling-house in connection with the Mission. This arrangement the Findlays carried out in a most generous manner, often impressing upon him the fact that he was their guest as well as the guest of the Company. Mr. Bernie had met Mr. Findlay before and had been well acquainted with Mrs. Findlay before her marriage. The year he spent with them was a most happy one. They had six children, who inherited the kind and likeable disposition of their parents, and it was a pleasure to Mr. Bernie to assist in their education. Mr. Findlay and Mr. Bernie were men of like spirit, and as they passed the long wintry evenings before the cheerful fire, often going far afield to find suitable subjects of conversation, there steadily grew up between them a strong and enduring friendship.

During the first month after his arrival Mr. Bernie's time was wholly taken up in teaching the Indians and ministering to their sick. By the end of that time they had all received their winter supplies and departed for their hunting grounds, leaving behind them the few who were too ill or too old to follow.

It was then that Mr. Bernie looked around and selected the site of the first Anglican Mission on the Peace River. He had often heard the Company's employees speak in praise of the scenery of the Peace River country, and the more he saw of it the more did he concur in their opinions.

In the land selected for the Mission, the scenery was pleasant, and a combination of bush and prairie and an undulating surface were alike favourable for housebuilding and the cultivation of the soil.

During the ten years spent in faithful work at this place he had some disappointing experiences, yet he never regretted having entered on missionary work, and when dark hours came to him, as they are bound to come to every earthly pilgrim, he could lift up his eyes and see the light still shining ahead.

He built a dwelling-house and a church, doing the greater part of the work in person. He also worked a small farm and was instrumental in the establishment of a good school.

These things were beneficial to the community of his own time, and he believed they would be a nucleus of greater things as the country developed; but in regard to the Tsaotini (Beaver people), whose temporal and spiritual betterment was the intention of the establishment of the Mission, he concluded by the time he had worked one year among them, that he was engaged in a forlorn hope. In the first place the whole tribe,was hopelessly impregnated with scrofula, and in the second place the Roman Catholic priest of the powder flask incident was located only two miles away, and who could blame the poor Beaver if being honestly perplexed, he halted between two opinions?

It did not appeal to Mr. Bernie as a worthy discharge of his duties as a missionary to try to undo the work of the Pere, yet from the nature of the case he found himself committed to a course which made it look as though such was the primary object. In his own perplexity over this question he could only hope and pray that from the teaching of both himself and the Père the poor Indian would grasp the saving truth that there is only one salvation for all, viz., that wrought out on the cross of Calvary.

When Mr. Bernie found out the awful extent to which the Beavers were affected with scrofula, he went seriously into the study of the whole matter, and, assisted by Mr. Findlay in securing data from the books of the Hudson's Bay Company, he arrived at the startling conclusion that if these Indians continued to be decimated by disease at the same rate as during the past half century, there would not be one left on the banks of the Peace River by the year 1950.

After this discovery of what was liable to happen, the next question was what could be done to prevent it?

Had the Hudson's Bay Company been able to carry out their monopolistic policy up to the time of the transfer, it would have been better for the health of the Beavers, for the keen opposition which the Company encountered on the Peace River was as hurtful to the Indians as to the Company's business. Add to this the fact that placer gold mining was at one time carried on in the upper waters of the Peace River; and if these things were not actually responsible for the beginning of the disease, they at least contributed to its spread.

At the time of the transfer anyone who knew the facts could not but see that the Beavers were in a bad way, and that if not helped they would perish quickly; and, of course, the obligation to help them now rested more with the Canadian Government than the Hudson's Bay Company. Be it said, however, the Company cheerfully co-operated with the Government, giving the benefit of its experience in as disinterested a manner as could reasonably have been expected. Having the facilities for doing so, they disbursed the bounty of the Government, which consisted largely of flour. When an Indian appeased his hunger on a half-baked bannock made only of flour and water, it was not conducive to health. Mr. Bernie never wondered when an Indian came to him with his hand over his stomach, saying, "A-ha-i, sa pot ta-ti!" (my stomach's sick). And often he could see that it was the beginning of the end, even though "yu oochu" (good medicine) was given and afforded temporary relief. With so little to help him and so much to help his disease, that Indian would not go on much longer until he would take to his bed, and as soon as he did that he would at once say, "I am going to die," and so he would.

One evening when this matter was being discussed after tea at the Findlay's, where the Kidds and Mr. Bernie were present, Mrs. Findlay said to her husband with emotion, "Oh, William, cannot something be done to save these poor creatures? Why do you not get up some kind of an agitation that will rouse the Government to do something more for the Beavers than simply put dough into their stomachs?"

To this Mr. Findlay replied, speaking seriously and with deliberation. "As an officer of the Hudson's Bay Company, which recently occupied much the position which the Canadian Government occupies today, I can sympathize with it, realizing the seriousness of the problem with which it is confronted as guardian of the Indian tribes, for it has to consult the will of the Whites as well as the wishes of the Indians. While it is true that both justice and compassion demand much in behalf of the Indian, the Government has to study the good of all, and even in the direction of charity or philanthropy must not lay itself open to the charge of being visionary and extravagant. In short, it has to keep itself within the bounds of practical statesmanship, and it would not do that very long were it to give way to the wishes of the Indians and some of their well-meaning friends."

"Now, Will," said Mrs. Findlay, "it is just like you to put in a word for the miserable sinner when he is on trial; but don't you think that this time you have excelled yourself? No doubt the Government likes to live; so do the Beavers, and it is up to the former not simply to live and let live, but to live and help live."

Mr. and Mrs. Kidd agreed with Mrs. Findlay. In fact all were agreed that help was urgently needed, and that the longer it was delayed the less effective it would be when given.

Mr. Bernie then spoke of the result of a correspondence he had had with a learned doctor. This doctor wrote that under ideal conditions the Beaver Indians could be cured of the malady in the course of two or three generations; but that in order to obtain such conditions it would first of all be necessary to produce a change of heart in the Whites, and in his opinion that was harder than curing scrofula. Practically this would be their answers to such a scheme--the cost would be too great: it would not be worth the trouble: such philanthropic schemes as we can afford to help must be susceptible of surer, quicker and larger results.

So ended this discussion on the physical salvation of the Beavers, and Mr. Bernie worked on among them as before, and sometimes wished for their sakes that he was a millionaire. For while a person who is helpless through sickness and poverty may listen to teaching about the prospect of eternal relief, naturally he will appreciate it more if meanwhile you can give him a foretaste in healing and food and clothing and warmth. It is hard for us to believe in the angels up there unless, once in a while, an angel ministers unto us down here. The help given by the good ladies of the fort was a ministration of angels. Take the following as an instance. A babe of a few months is very ill. It is the first-born of an apparently healthy young couple who are camped near the fort. Mr. Bernie, knowing it is dying, comes to see it once more. When he enters the lodge he finds the angels of mercy there before him. They had consulted together before now about the little one, and the best-known remedies had been freely provided; but all in vain. And now its last moment on earth draws near. The parents with bowed heads, and hand clasped in hand, are seated side by side on the ground, while their tears flow plentifully. As a sign of the inexpressible grief to which she has abandoned herself, the mother has allowed her abundant, raven-black hair to fall around her till it reaches the ground, almost completely covering her own body and that of her dying babe. And as the professional missionary looks from this pathetic sight to the tear-stained faces of his two fellow missionaries, he quietly says, we do need the help of the Omnipotent to enable us this day to throw out the Christian challenge, "Oh death, where is thy sting?" Then they three kneel together while he reads a short prayer from his Beaver Indian manual, commending the soul of the little one to the tender keeping of Na-gha Tgha (our Father).

There was no great satisfaction resulting from the relief work Mr. Bernie undertook, because too often it was a prolonging instead of a removing of misery. As a case in point, take that of a Beaver Indian girl fourteen years of age, who, owing to spinal trouble, could travel only on her hands and knees, and whose only relatives were a grandfather at least one hundred years of age, and an uncle who was a cripple. When these were going away in the autumn they told her to go to the English minister and ask his assistance. The outcome of this advice was that one fine afternoon in autumn she arrived at the Mission, having crawled two miles to get there. She looked up into Mr. Bernie's face as though amused at his surprise, and told him that in coming to him to be helped she had followed the advice of her grandfather. Mr. Bernie had been kind to the old man on account of his great age; but as he looked upon the helpless granddaughter seated on the ground outside his door, he regarded her presence there as an objectionable evidence of the old man's confidence in his friendship. He told the girl how impossible it would be for her to stay in the house, as he was quite alone, and that it was beyond his means to find her a lodge and furnish her with fuel and food. However, for the night he allowed her a corner in the kitchen, and by morning he had decided that he could not send her crawling away as she had come.

It ended in his making her a tent and furnishing her with clothes and bedding. During winter he took her three meals daily and supplied her with fuel. Every evening he held a short service with her, never omitting to sing a hymn. She grew more helpless towards spring, and died before the flowers were in bloom. She was the first to be buried beside the church.

A final case may be mentioned to show what was the usual prospect when ministering to a sick Beaver Indian. Among the Beavers of this district was a fine old couple who had had fourteen children, some of whom had grown to adult age; but when Mr. Bernie made their acquaintance they had only one left--their youngest--a son, then fifteen years of age and far gone in consumption, the disease of which the others had died. The affection of the parents for this last son was profoundly touching, and Mr. Bernie invoked every power human and divine in his behalf; but what was asked was not to be, and he passed on to the great beyond. After his body had been committed to the earth his father stood on the bank of the Peace River, and after looking at this ever rolling stream as though he in some way connected it with the passing away of his children, he raised his eyes to heaven and cried aloud his Nunc Dimittis, "Nun-ni Ti-ke-a-oo-li"--Thou maker of all things, Thou hast taken away my children, now take me also.

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