Project Canterbury

Twenty Years on the Saskatchewan, N.W. Canada

By the Rev. William Newton
Hon. Canon of Saskatchewan

London: Elliot Stock, 1897.

Chapter IV. Dog-Train Experiences

DURING the winter of 1875, and the summer of 1876, the monotony of the missionary's life was broken by the occurrence of a few incidents. In such circumstances as I was then placed in, small things may seem to become very large. Few events can happen in so isolated a place as Edmonton then was, and when incidents do occur, they arc sure to get fixed on the memory. The Chief Factor of the Hudson Bay Fort spent this particular winter in the district. He would often pay me a visit, and even sometimes would come to dinner. Our usual food was pemmican, but on these special occasions we managed a little soup, or even went to the luxury of a pudding. The ingredients of these luxuries were of various kinds, and the cooking results were not always the same. But we expected little, and were more than satisfied if the dinner proved to be presentable. After dinner would come such conversations and confidences as can only be born out of the intimacies of times of solitude.

This winter, too, the surveyors were at work surveying for the Canada Pacific Railway through the passes of the Rocky Mountains, and they made their head-quarters at Edmonton. Now and then they came in, with their dog-trains, to do business, and then would take me back with them twenty, thirty, forty, and sometimes even fifty, miles on the survey line. On these occasions I was glad to hold services with the men; or on a week-night, after they had returned from their work, and finished their supper, to give them a lecture on some subject in which they were likely to be interested. These visits were often very pleasant to me, and I hope they were also helpful to the men who were in the camps that I visited.

At these camps there would be perhaps fifty persons, forming a company of the most varied kind, gathered from every part of the Dominion and of the British Isles. Their work was much the same from day to day, whether it was cold or warm, or whether it was wet or dry, and they found it exceedingly monotonous. Hence, a fresh face and a voice of kindness were always very welcome in the camp, and served to remind them of the world they had left so far away.

The gentlemen who led these camps were often very clever in their profession, and their manners were agreeable and refined, entitling them to much respect. When railroads are finished, and travellers are using them for comfortable and expeditious journeys, how little men think of the labour, and enterprise, and endurance of some of the best sons of Canada in doing the necessary pioneer work!

It was at this time that I had my first experience of travelling by a dog-train. You are wrapped up like a mummy, and placed in the cariole; a man stands or runs behind you and drives the dogs; you are perfectly quiet, and have nothing to do, either uphill, downhill, or on level ground, except to observe the dogs, the driver, and the scenery, and you are taken out at sunset, after having done your fifty or sixty miles, with very little either of discomfort or of weariness.

At the time I am writing there are very few dog-trains seen in this district; they have had their day, and are passing away, leaving the wise man to think of the compensations that attend upon all changed earthly conditions.

About this time I paid my first visit to the St. Albert Roman Catholic Mission, which was nine miles from the fort. It had been intimated to me that the Bishop's nephew was to be received into the priesthood, and that, if I would go and see the function, and take luncheon with the Bishop, it would be received as an act of politeness, and I could make acquaintance with the Roman clergy who would be gathered together on this occasion. I found a convenient church for such a far-off mission, and the service was rendered as in the front parts of Canada. There were perhaps twenty priests present, as well as many lay brothers and gray nuns, who were all actively employed in their several locations. It was a sight well worth seeing, but I could not help painfully realizing the fact that I, a solitary clergyman of the Church of England, had to do my best, with little support and no personal help, amid a half-breed and Indian population, which was surrounded by Catholic influences. On that and every occasion when I have met the Roman Catholic Bishop and his people, I am bound to say that I have received most graceful and kindly attentions.

Near by the house which I occupied, and used for the services, was the Methodist chapel, with the parsonage attached. On my arrival the minister had been removed to Victoria, seventy miles down the Saskatchewan River, and another minister was expected, along with the chairman of the district. In due time these gentlemen appeared. The chairman was invited to call on the clergyman, but no visit was paid in response to the invitation, and in due time a report was sent to the Conference people in Ontario, to the effect that this gentleman had seen the sad sight, in the far North-West, of clergymen of the Church of England, both at Prince Albert and at Edmonton, 'working day and night, not so much to call sinners to repentance, as to make Ritualists of Presbyterians and Methodists.' By these people our work was looked upon as an interference with their rights, and our presence was simply shocking. We were regarded as poachers who plunder the preserves of respectable families in well-regulated communities. The spirit of Dissent seems to be the same all the world over. It cries out for liberty, and shouts persecution, whenever it has a chance in England; and in the colonies, if it have in any respect the advantage of the Mother Church, it can put on the air of upstarts, and ape the manners which these, in popular estimation, are supposed to wear.

During this winter a most sad event occurred to Mr. McDougall, the chief Methodist missionary. He and his son were on the plains hunting buffaloes for their supply of meat. Towards the evening he left his son to seek the camp, that he might prepare supper. When his son arrived at the camp and called his father, he was not there. The night passed, and several days, and at last the body of the good missionary was found frozen, with the hands folded on the breast, and a calm smile upon the face, as if he had composed himself to rest. For his zeal in his work, and the manner of his death, the Methodists of Canada justly hold his memory in much respect and reverence.

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