Friday, February 13, 2015

The Lansdowne Letters: Luring Teachers into the North

Curiosity prompted my father
to apply for a teaching position
he saw advertised in the summer of 1960.

The thought of teaching Indian children
at a Church of England Day School
in Lansdowne House on Lake Attawapiskat
had an aura of adventure about it.

Boreal Forest, Northern Ontario

At first, even finding a map that showed
the remote village deep in the boreal forest
of northern Ontario proved impossible.

Location of Lansdowne House
Sketch Based on Map of Ontario from 
Atlas of North America:
Space Age Portrait of a Continent
National Geographic 1985, pages 166-167.

My father said of his quick job offer:
"I was accepted almost instantaneously,
and although I like to think that this
was because of my qualifications, 
I imagine my speedy acceptance
by the Indian Affairs Branch
was largely attributable to the fact
that at that particular time, 
the Branch was desperate for teachers."

Future Northern Teacher and His Wife
Circa 1950
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

The fact is that it was difficult
for the Indian Affairs Branch 
to lure teachers into the isolated north.
Enticements included 
a generous paycheck,
an isolation allowance, 
and a furnished teacherage 
with heat and light supplied for 
between $40.00 and $60.00 a month.

Department of Transport Housing
Lansdowne House
A Teacherage Would Be Something Like This
Photo by Don MacBeath,  Fall of 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

The Indian Affairs Branch glossed over a few details: 

1.  There was nowhere to spend that excellent remuneration.

2.  Heating oil was hauled in 45-gallon drums
     over the frozen landscape and into the 
     northern villages by tractor train once a year.  
         (To see historical tractor train (cat train) photos click here)

     The teacher (or his ten year old daughter)
     had to go outside to the fuel drum and 
     hand pump the oil into a portable container
     to carry the fuel inside and pour it into the furnace.
     This was the most fun on dark -50º F nights,
     with the Indian dogs howling nearby. 

3.  Electric lights and power were provided
     by small Delco diesel generators
     with the diesel fuel hauled in
     by the same tractor trains.

     Unless, of course, there was no generator,
     and the teacher had to light his home
     with volatile kerosene lamps.


Modern Fuel Drums
(The drums 50 years ago looked just like these ~ minus the labels.)

Unfortunately for my father,
the Anglican teacherage in Lansdowne
had burned down the year before.
There was no place for our family to live.

Dad loved the North,
but more than anything,
he wanted us to join him.

Mr. Foss, the Indian Schools Inspector
assured my father at his orientation
in Sault Ste. Marie that a new teacherage
would be available for the 1961-62 school year.
Construction would take place
in the summer of 1961,  
once the building materials  
were hauled in by the tractor trains
in the winter of 1960-61. 

A Tractor Train
(also called Cat Train)
This train is carrying an actual house, not building materials. 

Dad kept trying to find out more
about the planned teacherage
from the government official
he saw most frequently,
the Nakina Indian Agent Gowan.
I'm sure my father's frustrating experiences 
trying to procure desks for his students
did not encourage positive thoughts
about the new teacherage.

On Friday, October 7, 1960
my father wrote to his mother about housing 
and educating his own children:
... The new teacherage 
that they are planning to build 
will be very nice from all the reports.  
However, I just wrote a letter to Foss 
about the size of the building.  
From what I can learn from Mr. Gowan, 
it will be pretty small for my family.  
Mr. Gowan wasn’t too sympathetic though.  
He said that they were hiring 
a teacher and not his family. 

This is a rather stupid attitude I think, 
for I certainly won’t stay here 
if I don’t get a decent place to live.  
I would be willing to stay for several years 
if they provided an adequate house, 
and I would think that it would be better for the Indians 
if they could have a teacher stay for a while, 
instead of having a new one every year.
Besides, they ought to be glad to get a teacher 
with my qualifications and experience 
who is willing to stay in an isolated place like this.  
pointed all this out to Foss when I wrote to him.

As far as the children’s’ education is concerned, 
I don’t foresee too much trouble.  
If all else fails, we can educate them using the 
Ontario Department of Education Correspondence Courses.  
After all, I am a teacher by profession, 
and I like to think that I am a fairly good one, 
enough to teach my own children if I have to.

Well, I must sign off now. ...
Bye now, love, Don.

FB Notes:  
1.  The rest of this letter was shared in last week's northern post.

2.  The You Tube video below shows a modern cat train (or tractor train as we called them in
     Lansdowne House).  It may help you imagine what a tractor train was like 50 years ago.

3.  You would not believe the shenanigans I went through to find and post this video!

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue


  1. Wonderful post, Louise! I can imagine how difficult it must have been to lure teachers to the north. Your father must have had that adventurous spirit that you have. And yes, it was stupid not being more accommodating to teachers where their family was concerned. Looking forward to more of these lovely posts...

    1. Thanks, Martha! Encouragement keeps me moving forward! I hope that your snowstorm has moved out. Poor Ron and Jim; they have been hammered! Have a great week!

  2. Isolation allowance, I guess, meant family not included, thus the small house.

    You are so fortunate to have all this record.

    1. Yes, that Peaches, and the fact that in my dad's case, the nearest small town with supplies was about 175 miles away by bush plane, and the only communication with the Outside was by short wave radio. Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

  3. Lugging all that stuff in there had to be a pain. Always waiting for it. Bet they were desperate for just about anything at times haha

    1. You're right about that, Pat. And when freeze-up or break-up was underway, no planes could get in or out which meant nothing got in or out. Stay safe ~ you Bluenosers are really getting hammered with storms.

  4. You would think they would want to provide for the whole family and keep teachers longer.

    1. Wouldn't you? There were a lot of serious problems created in the north by the relationship between the government and a vulnerable native population. Have a great week!

  5. And I sometimes feel Ron and I live in an isolated area!! lol
    Your father was a pioneer of sorts, Louise....and a good one at that. I am sure because of his persistence and perseverance he made it better for those who followed him.
    Curiosity certainly opened up an unforgettable life experience for your family, Louise.
    I am just realizing the potential that you may have here, Louise. I am sure you have thought of this too.
    This would make an excellent tv series on the CBC or PBS. No pressure!

    1. Haha, Jim! I'm feeling lots of pressure as it is! I have got to become faster and more efficient with my writing! But I do love a good challenge! You and Ron and Sophie Doodle and Pat Hatt, not to mention my family and other Maritimers are certainly in my thoughts as the latest storm bears down. I'm sure your larder is well stocked. Take care!

  6. Cool video, I enjoyed it! In 1950 Manitoba, my brother was brought home as a baby from the hospital in one of those enclosed snowmobiles with the caterpillar tracks. Of course, the words snowmobile or skidoo didn't exist then -- they were called "Bombardiers" after the Quebec manufacturer. Pronounced as an Anglicism of course -- Bomba DEER -- not in the proper French way -- Bom Bar Di EH.

    1. Loved this anecdote, Debra! I never got to ride in a bombardier. Father Ouimet had one, but I don't know what he used it for. He used his skidoo more. I used to pronounce it in the French way whenever I had to spell it; but, of course everyone said Bomba DEER.

  7. This is fascinating! I think this would make a great book. :) And your dad is amazing for going through all that to teach Indian children.

    1. Thanks, Chrys! He definitely took on a lot; but then he had five of his own children to rear and educate! My parents' dream was for all five of us to go to university. That's when four of us were girls living in a time and place that didn't see the need for girls to go to university. Have a good one!

  8. Dear Louise,

    Your father was an amazing man and I see much of him in you. Your posts are fascinating and very enjoyable. The video was very cool, too. :)

    1. Thank you, Linda! You are such a kind presence in this world! I hope you've had a fun weekend ~ maybe you got out to enjoy the snowy cold! Have a great week, my friend!

  9. Amazing stories Louise-- such an adventure for that era. Truly fascinating-- you should write a book about your Fathers experiences:)

    1. Hi Vicki! It's awesome to see you! I am wrestling with a manuscript, and eventually a book will emerge! My Friday posts are helping me sort out a lot of things! Have a great week!

  10. These are so precious, and your video, no matter how hard it was to find one like that, I truly appreciate it, Isolation in the utmost, such limited everyday facilities, things we take for granted today, running water, lighting, heating, and indoor bathrooms, I can only imagine your joy at flying over the vast areas, and searching for those tiny settlements. And the joy when supplies were delivered. Thanks all over again.

    1. Thanks for your encouragement, Nancy! Later, when my family arrived in Lansdowne House, one of my most favorite things was to meet the mail plane with my toboggan and pull our supplies home. I was ten and turned eleven. I knew I was living an adventure, and it was such a thrill! Have a happy week!

  11. Hey Fundy, Happy Friday :) I love the video you found ... I think Debra above will find the Bombardier connection very interesting !!! Hugs Barb

    1. Winkers ~ to steal a phrase from Ron! I'm waiting for the right time. I'm trying to let things unfold as they happened! Hugs, Sis! Love you!

  12. I so admire your dad's tenacity. He saw an oportunity to be a great teacher and took it despite all the challenges. So brave. I can't wait to hear of your adventures when you came to live with him. He seemed to take it all in stride.

    1. Hi Peggy! Are you walking in snow canyons with snow cliffs above your head? Wow, you have certainly been through it this winter! My family's adventures are coming, but as I said to my sister above, I'm letting our story unfold chronologically. Be safe and warm! I can just imagine you two sitting at the table off your kitchen, having something warm to drink, and watching the snow pile deeper. And of course, Sadie is right there with you! Hugs!

  13. The is soooo interesting
    It definitely needs to be shared via book and TV series

    1. I love you to pieces, Bertie! You have already published two books, and the wonderful teacher you were with severely handicapped and sick children has already been featured on the CBC! You got those fabulous abilities and skills from Mom and Dad!!!!! Have a good one, Sis! Hugs!

  14. Ao visitar alguns blogs me deparei com o seu, e quero dar-lhe os parabéns por partilhar o seu saber, gostei por isso deixo aqui um convite:
    Ficaria radiante se visita-se o meu blog, e leia alguma coisa, meu blog é um blog cristão que fala de diversos assuntos.
    É o Peregrino E Servo.
    Desejo muita paz e saúde.

    1. Obrigado por visitar minhas duas últimas postagens, António. Eu aprecio o seu comentário tipo. Eu vou estar parando por seu blog em breve. Tenha uma ótima semana!

      Thanks for visiting my two latest blog posts, António. I appreciate your kind comment. I'll be stopping by your blog shortly. Have a great week!

  15. I love reading your father's letters. So amazing you still have them! And how amazing is it, that he was actually willing to live so isolated with his family! Did it work out in the end that he actually did work there?

    Thank you so much for your wonderful, lovely comment on my last blog post! :)

    I hope you're having an amazing Sunday :)

    1. Thanks you, Beate! Yes, he worked there and in other places in the north. Best of all, we got to go north and share his adventure. I am having a wonderful Sunday, mostly because my hubby is here with me. He retires next Friday, and I am so excited about spending much more time with him! I think that you and Keith will be so happy thirty years in! Have a wonderful week!

  16. Your dad was one adventurous soul. Selfless too I must add.

    1. Hi SuperLux! My father and mother were selfless, a fact I came to understand more and more as I grew up. Have a great start to the week!

  17. It's amazing how old letters can bring forth so many emotions, isn't it?? I can't even imagine what it must feel like to read those letters :)

    1. Hi Keith! My emotions are all over the place as I work with my parents old letters. I loved Beate's latest post with your wedding photos. Your face was glowing, as was hers. It was lovely to be able to share parts of your special day through Beate's eyes! You are a lucky guy! But that does two ways too! Have a good one!

  18. Your father had a sense of adventure, but also a purpose which we would call a vocation in going to teach in the isolated north with the hope that his family would follow. He was practical too; canoeing, making those desks, managing the incoming supplies, the fuel, the heating and lighting. I admire him and look forward to learning more as you record this through his letters. It's good to know that you eventually joined him later on and shared the same lifestyle and experiences. Being able to understand and relate to one's parents in this way is special and emotional. I hope you have a good holiday in the sun which I believe is happening soon. We're going to Italy in a couple of weeks and looking forward to our month away.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Linda! My time in the north was one of the biggest adventures in my lifetime, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything! I hope you have a lovely time in Italy. We're headed to Honolulu for a month in about 10 days. It's an experiment to see how it feels to go that long. My hubby is tied of winter and longs to soak in the tropical sun ~ well, from under a tree looking at the tropical sun! With him retiring this Friday, a world of possibilities is opening up. Have a great day!

  19. Thanks for visiting my Journal via Ron, so I could turn around and visit your blog. Love it! So interesting it makes me want to know more.

  20. Oh thank you, Lori! I hope you are faring well and not disappearing into mounds of snow! Take care!

  21. Minus 60 ... wow! ;) That sure is 'nippy'. hehe

    Love hearing about your dad's adventures.

    1. Thanks, Trisha! I'm glad that you enjoy hearing about his adventures! The coldest weather I was in was -62º F with no wind. I missed my ride to school and walked. That was the one day I ever remembered us being allowed to stay in at recess while we were in the north.

  22. It's interesting that they had a term for the teacher's house. I have never heard the term "teacherage" before and it is not in the Oxford dictionary, so it must have been a term locally concocted. I guess it is kind of a take off on the term "vicarage" as a residence for the vicar.

    1. Hey David! Perhaps it was a take off on "vicarage." It's still used in the north today. As a matter of fact, the some of the teacherages are in very poor conditions. A lot of trouble with mould. Have a good one!

  23. Hello Fundy!
    Many-many thanks for your sweet and so enthusiastic comments on my blog!!
    You too make me laugh when you (or Terry) point out something!!!
    I am always quite impressed with your thorough details on your father's adventures,
    he must have had quite though times but also elating ones!...
    And every time I read about them, I feel guilty not to follow your footsteps in writing about my own grand-father's adventures building the very first cement factory in Central America...
    I believe cat trains are still in use today to move houses, especially in Canada... its was funny to see one this summer on a road in France!!
    Keep well and enjoy your week, dear friend!

    1. Hi, Noushka! It's always lovely to hear from my special French connection! Don't feel guilty! You are making a wonderful contribution to our knowledge about birds. Maybe one day when you are fogged in you can at least write down some details so that you can pass them on to your children. I am maddened about the lack of details on so many things! Why didn't I write down more and hound my relatives and friends for answers. Yes, cat trains are still used in Canada, and I'd still love to ride on one! Have a great week! XOXOX

  24. Having lived in an isolated locale (but by far not as isolated as this) I find this post very intriguing. We had odd forms of heat too.Kerosene, fire place and oil. Can't wait to your other posts on this topic. Thanks for sharing something that most of us know absolutely nothing about.

  25. Thank you for your kind comment, Stephanie! Have a good one!

  26. Your father was a great man and he was well qualified
    Thanks for sharing this post
    Buy Online Quality Papers for College

    1. Thank you for your kind comment, Tania! Have a good one!

  27. “Standing Into Danger: The Lansdowne Letters: Luring Teachers into the North”, Fundy Blue your article is interesting and I am going to forwarded it to some of my friends. Even if it isn’t saying anything particularly new, what it does say is worth repeating, and is rarely said in such succinct form.
    Great Job
    Fast Essay Done Online


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