Friday, January 2, 2015

The Lansdowne Letters: A Cold Morning on Satan's Highway

For my first northern post this year,
I’m sharing 
Dad’s letter about
a cold morning at school 
and an unexpected visit
from the Indian Agent.

My School
Photo by Don MacBeath,  October 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

For perspective, 
I’m quoting from a paper1
on northern teaching
my father wrote in the mid-1960s:
"The teacher is strictly on his own,
for usually he is the only government official 
within several hundred miles.  
The school inspector gets in usually
only two or three times a year,
and the teacher is lucky if he sees the 
agency supervisor once a month." 

My father wrote in his letter 
on Monday October 3, 1960:

Hello again: 
Today was considerably better 
from a reporter’s point of view, 
but not so hot 
from the point of view 
of personal comfort.  

This morning I jumped in my trusty canoe 
and took off for the mainland 
full of good intentions 
of starting the week off right 
with everything organized; 
but you know what they say about good intentions.  
The road to the hot place is paved with them.
Well, as of Monday morning, 
there are several new paving stones on Satan’s highway.

I slipped getting into the canoe 
and got my left leg 
wet up to the knee; 
but what the heck, 
I very seldom get across 
without getting 
one or more appendages wet, 
so that didn’t disturb me too much.


When I reached my school though, 
a real treat was in store for me.  

Somehow the spaces heaters 
had gotten blown out over the weekend, 
but the oil had not been turned off.  

I opened the stove to light it, 
and I smelt this strong smell of oil.  

I happened to have my flashlight with me, 
so I shined it in the stove, 
and the cotton-picking thing 
was about three quarters full of oil.  

Well, there I was 
with a school full of kids 
and a stove full of oil, 
and everything, school, kids, 
and stove as cold as charity.  

I said the Lord’s Prayer 
in spite of the way he had let me down, 
called the roll, and let my pupils go home for the morning. 

Then I went 
down to McRae’s 
and had a couple 
of cups of coffee 
to warm myself up.

Probably McRae's House
Photo by Don MacBeath,  October 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved


Then I went back across the water, 
changed into my old clothes, returned, 
and started to clean up the stoves.  
Duncan helped me. 

We took about 
three quarters 
of a bucket of oil 
from each stove.
Before we were finished, 
I was soot and oil 
from head to toe 
and smelled 
like an oil refinery.

Don MacBeath with Duncan McRae
Photographer Unknown,  October 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Just about the middle of the whole operation, 
who arrived at Lansdowne, but Mr. Gowan 
the Indian Agent from Nakina.  

I was glad he came in time to see 
all the difficulties under which I was operating.
He saw the makeshift desks that I was using 
and assured me that my desks would be in soon.

Right now 
I have ten homemade double desks that the Father loaned me, 
a card table and four chairs 
that I borrowed from
the nursing station, 
and a card table
that I borrowed from
the McRaes.

Students in Father Ouimet's
Homemade Desks
Photo by Don MacBeath,  September 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved


After I talked to Gowan, 
I came home and had a bath at the rectory, 
changed back into my clothes, had dinner, 
and went back in my canoe to open school for the afternoon.  

And I didn’t get my left foot wet this time.  
I got my right one wet instead.  
Oh well, it’s all in a day’s work.

To refer to the subject of desks again for a moment, 
along with the above-mentioned 
motley assortment of desks and tables, 
I have a rather unique kindergarten table for the beginners.  

The other day when I was coming home from school, 
I noticed a dozen sheets of plywood 
that the Department of Indian Affairs had shipped in 
to build a fish warehouse at Lansdowne House.  
There they were, big as life, 
sitting on the DOT wharf.  

I had an inspiration.  
I got two Indians to carry a sheet 
up to the school for me.  
Then I went down to see Bill Mitchell at the Bay, 
borrowed two low sawhorses, 
and carried them up to the school.  
I placed the sheet of plywood on the sawhorses
and had a swell kindergarten table for myself.  

The first thing Gowan asked me when he saw me 
was why I had taken his plywood.  
He wanted me to give it back to him immediately, 
but when he saw the use to which I was putting it, 
he decided I could keep it till my school furniture arrived.

I never cease to be amazed 
at how neatly 
the Indian children work.
Everything they do 
has to be done
to perfection, 
no halfway measures for them.

Students in Father Ouimet's
Homemade Desks
Photo by Don MacBeath,  September 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Whatever they do, 
they work at it till it is perfect 
and don’t want to be interrupted till it is finished.  

If fact, they don’t even want to 
go out for recess if they are doing something.  
If they start doing something late in the afternoon, 
it is quite a task to get rid of them at four o’clock 
when the school day ends.  
In this respect there is a lot more satisfaction 
working with Indian children than with white ones.  

I can’t figure out why they are so careless 
about their dress and personal cleanliness, 
and at the same time, 
so fussy about the work they do in school.  

I guess it isn’t so much being careless about clothes, etc., 
as being unable to do anything about it.  

Only a couple of the children, whose fathers happen 
to be better than ordinary hunters and trappers, 
have any sort of decent clothes.  
The rest of them just wear hand-me-downs 
from other children and other members of the family.  

And the shoes, 
I don’t know whether to laugh or cry about them.  
They don’t worry about fit at all.  
There is one little girl in grade two 
who is wandering around in a pair of loafers 
that would be too large for Sara.2  
She has them tied on so they won’t fall off.

Well, I guess that does it for another night.
Bye for now,
Love, Don.

My Father's Canoe Route
My father's cottage is between the white-colored church and rectory on the Father's Island.
Dad canoed back and forth between the island and the dock one or more times a day.
Dad's borrowed ten double homemade desks also made this trip by canoe.
Photo by Father Ouimet, circa1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

On the surface, I find Dad's letter entertaining;
but in it, I see hints of the unfolding tragedy
that was Lansdowne House in later years.

I've been researching the relationship
between the government
and the Fort Hope Band,
which includes the Ojibwa of Lansdowne House.

In the early 1960s
government policies and programs
for the Indians of Canada
operated without practicable objectives,
monitoring, or accountability, 
and their failures had devastating consequences
for the vulnerable Ojibwa in Northern Ontario.3

My father arrived in Lansdowne House
at a critical juncture in aboriginal history, 
when the local Ojibwa, 
with strong government encouragement,
were adapting their traditional lifestyle 
of hunting, fishing, and trapping
to life in a settled village.

In his letters I can see 
the changes playing out.

This is one reason why I believe
Dad’s letters are an important
record of that time.

1  MacBeath The Northern School Teacher 9
2  Sara:  My mother and Dad's wife
3  Driben and Trudeau When Freedom Is Lost:  
    The Dark Side of the Relationship between Government and the Fort Hope Band i

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue.


  1. Hey Louise, Happy New Year!
    I agree, this is a fascinating document.
    AND I think your Dad is SWELL!! Looks like it runs in the family. xx

    1. Happy New Year, Kay! And thanks! I'll be catching up on your blog asap! It's been a December to remember! I hope you, Richard, and Christopher had a lovely Christmas and New Year's together! Hugs!!!

  2. Happy new year to your sea. haha loved how he used "hot place" instead of hell. Perfectionist would be easy to read at least.

    1. I loved "hot place" too ~ It's so Dad! Have a happy day at your bay! A pat to the kitties as well!

  3. Reminds me of Laura Ingalls Wilder!

    1. Hi Susie! Thanks for your visit and kind words! Take care!

  4. LOL on the "hot place". I so enjoy your posts, your dad is fantastic...and so are you. :)

    1. You're such a sweetheart, Linda, and so encouraging! Hugs to you ~ Hope you're having a lovely Friday!

  5. What challenges your dad faced and always found a proper solution. What a guy! Being a teacher I can appreciate all his desks, children who didn't speak the language and a canoe trip every day...well I can't really relate to that. As always thank you for sharing.

    1. Thanks for your kind words and encouragement, Peggy! Happy Friday!

  6. Fascinating account by your father, Louise. It is a very sad and devastating story about the plight of aboriginal peoples of North America. And it continues today.
    What a treasure you find in your possession. You are doing it justice and with care and compassion, Louise.
    thanks for sharing this.

    1. Thank you, Jim! You always lift me up! You would not believe what I am finding in my research!!! And I think you'll be surprised at what's coming in my Northern posts down the road. Have a good one, my friend!!

  7. Great post, Louise! I love reading about your dad's adventures during that period. And I can see from his letters how fond he was of those kids. What an amazing experience he lived. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    1. Thanks, Martha! He did love his kiddos always! I was lucky throughout my education to have him as my teacher, and my mom too! For my father and I, our time in the North was a fabulous adventure! I will never forget it! Have a happy weekend!

  8. What a focus and desire for education. Now kids want computer games and fancy shoes.


    1. I think a lot of our kids today don't know what hardship is. I hope that your new year has gotten off to a good start, JJ!

  9. Thanks for posting another installment of these letters. They really are a fascinating and important glimpse into the history of the north, all done from such a personal perspective. Have you ever thought of publishing them?

    1. Thanks for you encouraging comment, David! I am working on a book, but since I've never written a book before, I'm splashing around a lot! I'll get there. I appreciate your interest! Have a good one!

  10. Wow! The dedication, work ethic, and love of learning, as shown in your dad's letters, run in your family, Louise. I am thoroughly enjoying reading your dad's letters and can;t wait until next time! Happy New Year!

    1. Thanks, Susan! You are always such a positive person! I'm so glad that you were my teammate for so many awesome years! Hugs!


Thank you for your comments! I appreciate them very much.