Project Canterbury

Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada

By the Rev. William Newton
Hon. Canon of Saskatchewan

London: Elliot Stock, 1897.

Chapter III. Early Difficulties

EDMONTON, Alberta, North-West Canada, is at the head of navigation on the North Saskatchewan River, which flows through Lake Winnipeg into Hudson Bay. Twenty years ago it was simply a fort, where hunters brought their furs, and received goods in exchange. On my arrival I found very few residents, and these were nearly all servants of the Hudson Bay Company. Nine miles from the fort were the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church, and the Catholics had, at that time, a church inside the fort itself. Within sight of the fort were also a Methodist chapel and a parsonage. The leading people at the fort were Methodists, and very zealous Methodists too. They did not often attend our services, nor did they encourage their servants to attend. At first, on looking around me, I asked myself what I was to do. I was far from civilization, and with only one or two posts in the year to bring me letters. I had at hand a tent, a surplice, a Prayer-Book, and a Bible. There was no parsonage, no church, nor any means for building either. I had been sent as a missionary to settlers. But where were they? I could not find such persons as we usually designate settlers. Beyond the mission-stations even a potato-patch was seldom to be seen, and a farm never.

Three or four persons had, in years gone by, been confirmed in the church at Manitoba, but these had become attendants on Methodist ministrations. It seemed as if I had come to upset Methodism, and to introduce religious strife into a distant, and not very devout, community. I would gladly have returned to other fields of labour, could I have been so directed, or had circumstances permitted. Then as to my means of subsistence. Two hundred pounds a year in Edmonton was equal to about fifty pounds a year in Ontario or in England. The usual price of flour was twenty-five dollars a bag, or five pounds sterling the hundredweight. Fifty cents, or two shillings, bought a pound of sugar or of salt. During the first two winters I bought barley for my mare, and it cost me one pound sterling for two bushels If the mare strayed away--and this she often did--then to fetch her from the plains cost me five dollars a day, or part of a day, as the case might be; but if the business took two days, a man expected two sovereigns as his pay. All my expenses were in the same proportion.

For a few days I received kindly hospitality at the fort, and then I removed into a log building, which was partly finished, and available by a mere accident. I used this both as a residence and as the church. As the winter was at hand, it was necessary for me to put this house into some sort of repair, and the difficulty I had was to secure both lumber and a carpenter. After some inquiry, I found a man who had recently arrived from Manitoba with his family, and I learned that he might be induced to do the job for me. The man was sent for.

'Can you do this job?' I asked.

'Well, I might,' he replied, 'if the pay is all right.'

'What do you want a day for this work?' I said.

'Well, I'll ax around, and see; it may be five dollars a day might pay me,' was the answer.

The man did not look a very active carpenter, but the work had to be done, and so I said:

'All right, you shall have five dollars a day; come to-morrow.'

Days passed, however, and no carpenter appeared. After awhile a large tent was pitched at a little distance from the house, and it was crowded with boys and girls of all ages; there were ten of them, and the carpenter was among them. Thinking, and hoping, that he had come to begin the work at last, I approached him with the question:

'Have you come to fix the house?'

'No,' he said,' I think not; the pay is not enough.'

'What do you want, then?' was the answer.

'Oh, food for my family, and five dollars a day.'

'What! food for all these?'


'How much will the food cost?'

'I do not know, but I must have food for my family.'

'Well, then, buy it out of the five dollars.'

'No, I can't; they want that in other ways.'

I need hardly say that this carpenter was not engaged on these impossible conditions.

The first winter I spent at Edmonton was a very cold and severe one, the frost often registering forty, and even fifty, degrees below zero. I was fortunate enough to obtain a small cooking stove at the fort, which, with the pipes, cost one hundred dollars, or twenty pounds sterling. This stove was not sufficient to warm the room, and it needed perpetual attention night and day, with the slight wood of the country, to keep us from freezing in our badly-built house. Often I tried to write, and placed the ink on the front of the stove in order that it might thaw; but before the pen could touch the paper and write a word the ink in the pen would be frozen, and writing exceedingly difficult. At this time my books had not arrived, and there was very little literature to be obtained. The days were short and the nights were long, so if there had been at command a large library, the books would have been of no practical use, for, besides the cold, we had no light, and could not procure any. Neither coal nor oil could be bought, and tallow for making candles cost fifty cents a pound, and only about two pounds could be purchased during the winter even at this price. To help in bearing the cold, I ordered a jacket of moose-skin and a pair of trousers. The charge was fifty dollars, and I actually paid forty-five. Some of these charges I have since compared with the charges made by traders for the necessaries of life up among the great newly-discovered lakes in Central Africa, such as Lakes Tanganyika and Victoria Nyanza, and it is a positive fact that we, in North-West America, then paid more for common goods than the missionaries did in the far African regions.

The reader may well imagine that life under such conditions of exile and solitude would not be considered a delightful state of human existence anywhere; and yet even here the dark cloud had its silver lining. From the first a few persons attended the services. Officials in the Hudson Bay Company's service were glad to renew old church associations as they passed to other forts. Camps of surveyors sought a little Sunday rest, and change from the monotony of their life on the prairies, in public worship after the manner of their fathers. Mounted police, who had just come into the country, and were located some eighteen or twenty miles away, were offered frequent services. Children were collected for instruction; the Indian tents were visited; and the banner of the Church was unfurled over a new, and vast, and hitherto unoccupied region.

Such occupations and thoughts made 'life worth living,' and I am thankful that the honour fell on me of being the pioneer missionary of what is now an extensive diocese.

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