Friday, October 23, 2015

The Lansdowne House Letters: Bushed

In my last northern post I shared how my father
approached the challenges of isolation and loneliness
in the remote village of Lansdowne House
in the wilderness of northwestern Ontario.
He focused on remaining busy and never letting himself go.

 The Wilderness of Northwestern Ontario

Before I, myself, went north,
I had no concept of what being cut off from civilization
for long periods of time meant.

I was entranced with the romance and mystery of the North:
Indians, coureur des bois, priests, vast landscapes,
northern nights with dancing skies, wolves, and
the monumental Hudson Bay Company
with its far-flung trading posts.

My Father's First Flight into the North
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Dad's and Mom's Descriptions
"This is a picture taken from the Norseman 
just as we were crossing the Albany River 
which is about half way between Nakina and LH. 
You can see the Albany River down to the right." (Dad)
"On way to Lansdowne House" (Mom)
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved  

Into the Storied North
Dad flies over it for the first time.
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue 
All Rights Reserved 

His Description
"View from window of Norseman showing woods and typical small lake.
We flew over thousands of them just like this."
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue 
All Rights Reserved 

The North drew me, as it had drawn my father and others.
I was an idealistic white ten year old
when I went into the wilderness in February 1961; 
but I'm sure that there were also white adults
who went into the northern bush fueled by idealism, 
a desire to make life better for the Indians,
and a longing to experience the mythical North.

And some, I'm guessing, were less prepared 
and less knowledgeable than I was,
with untested inner resources and personal fortitude.

A Lonely Sight:
Dad's Luggage Dumped on an Empty Beach
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue  
All Rights Reserved

Some misjudged their ability
to handle the challenge 
of leaving behind
all that was familiar
for the remote North.

And some of those
the bush broke.

They left bushed
and under very different circumstances 
from when they had arrived.

When I went to Lansdowne House,
I overheard bits and pieces of stories discussed 
by the adults within the tiny white community,
stories about forcibly removing bushed people
from different communities in the North.
I don't remember the details,
but I do remember their awareness
of the risks being in the North carried.

Reflections in Lake Attawapiskat
The Bush Around Lansdowne House
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue  
All Rights Reserved

Here is one incident that my father wrote about 
after he left the Indian Affairs Branch
in Sioux Lookout, Ontario:

"Another character we had let himself go
physically, emotionally, morally, and nutritionally.

"Oh, he always wore a white shirt and tie in school.
The only trouble was that the shirt 
he was wearing when he went in in September,
was the same one that he was wearing
when they took him out in March.
I don't think it had been off his back in the interim,
most certainly it had never been cleaned.

"This character started off by not caring 
about his personal appearance or  cleanliness.
This apparently threw him into a state of depression,
and he became very homesick and lonesome
for his wife and family.

"Then he got this ridiculous idea
that his wife was being unfaithful,
and he really hit the skids.

"He started making up to one of the squaws,
and a married one at that.
There was quite a scandal in the village.

"The husband came home from his trapline,
sized up the situation,
and forbade his wife to speak to the teacher.

"The squaw was apparently quite attracted to the teacher,
for she tried to shoot herself,
but only succeeded in shooting off a couple of fingers.

"As a result of the whole mess,
the teacher became exceedingly despondent,
and did not bother watching his diet to see 
that he was getting the necessary nutritional elements.

"In March, he became seriously ill,
and we had to send a plane in
to rush him him out to the hospital.

"The local hospital in Sioux Lookout couldn't diagnose
what was wrong with him,
and he was rushed to Winnipeg General Hospital.

"He had scurvy of all things -
the first case the hospital had dealt with
for goodness knows how long."

I share this anecdote to underscore
the challenges of living in the remote North
cut off from contact with the Outside.
Sometimes the only contact available 
was via shortwave radio,
if there was one in the community.

During his time in the North with the Indian Affairs Branch,
my father sometimes had to go into isolated places 
and remove or help remove white people 
who had suffered complete breakdowns.
It was a difficult task, made worse by the fact 
that the bushed person often did not want to come out.

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

In Honor of Canada's
New Prime Minister
Justin Trudeau:
The four MacBeath Girls supporting 
Justin Trudeau's father,
Pierre Elliot Trudeau,
when he ran successfully to become
Prime Minister of Canada in 1968.

Donnie, Bertie, Louise, and Barb  Freeport, on the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia
Photo Copy by Roberta MacBeath Heembrock
© All Rights Reserved

Links to Earlier Posts:

TLL: Lessons in Ojibway

TLL: In Isolation


1.  Language: 
     Today many people find the terms Indian and, certainly, squaw offensive.
      My father did not intend to be offensive.  These were the words used fifty years ago.

2.  Who?  Where?  When?  
     My father deliberately omitted information that would identify the teacher
     and the Indian woman when he wrote his account of the sad, painful event.
3.  Source of Anecdote:  
     My father recounted this event in an unpublished paper he wrote while attending
     St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, Nova Scotia in 1965 or 1966:
     The Northern School Teacher:
     A Hand Book to Be Issued to All New Entrants to the Teaching Profession 
     in Indian Schools in the Sioux Lookout Indian Agency 

And for Map Lovers Like Me:

Map of Northwestern Ontario
Showing the Attawapiskat and Albany Rivers
Inland from Akimiski Island in James Bay
The black dots record raccoon locations garnered from Indian trappers and other sources.


  1. Your father adapted and adjusted so well to being in isolation that I didn't think about those who didn't. Of course there were those who couldn't take the challenges of being that alone and away from their families. Your dad had to be a rock in his community.

    1. Hi Peggy! He was a rock as were the other white adults in Lansdowne House. Life for the Ojibwa living in the area was beyond harsh, although it was home to them. Many of them were rocks too. Have a lovely weekend, my friend! Hugs!

  2. Wow, that would have to be rough. Scurvy this day in age, even then, must be rare, I think I'll avoid scurvy and the north haha

    1. LOL! I, on the other hand, always thought my future was in the North. I intended to go North as an adult, and it never entered my head that I would end up in the USA. Have a great weekend, my friend!

  3. I imagine it does make some people go bonkers. Good thing that got that guy out of there when they did. Sounds like it could've gotten a lot worse.

    1. No kidding! I'm surprised that they didn't intervene sooner, but then, the educational part of the Indian Affairs Branch must have been desperate for teachers. Have a great weekend, Alex!

  4. You need huge inner strength to cope with the isolation and harsh conditions. But even today many who love alone in a huge city can be as isolated, not know any neighbours close by, and for all the mod cons we have, and much easier lifestyle, illness still happens. Your Dad was so forward thinking, and brave above all other things. Would it have been easy to get scurvy, without fresh fruit available?

    1. Happy Friday, Jean! Yes, you can be alone and cut off, while surrounded by people in a huge city. "Eleanor Rigby" just popped my mind. I think scurvy can develop in three or four months. I remember that we took vitamins in the North, and the Indian schools had a daily government-sponsored powdered milk and vitamin biscuit program for the children. One of my jobs at school was mixing up the powdered milk every morning, after (sometimes) carrying 10 gallons of boiled water to school for the milk. Dad couldn't always carry the water, so I was his stand-in. Most white people were vigilant about getting apples, bananas, oranges, and an occasional grape in LH. Nutrition was always a worry. But scurvy was rare at that time. Have a great weekend!

  5. Even today, the isolation of the North is challenging and now there's at least TV, DVDs, internet all thanks to satellite. Booze and drugs are real problems. How much worse it was in the 1960s when the isolation was even more profound.

    1. It's heart-breaking that it's still so difficult in the North., even with all our modern technology. I remember stories about the Indians breaking into the Hudson Bay post to get vanilla to drink. And now there is the added scourge of drugs. When I think of what has happened in First Nations communities in the North! And the plight of Aboriginal women! When people are despairing and hopeless, where do you think they're going to turn to try and ease the pain? White or Indian. I've heard stories about here on the high plains where people went mad with isolation; I'm sure that happened on the prairies too. I often wonder what went on behind closed doors in some of those isolated places. Thanks for your regular visits, Debra! I really appreciate them!

  6. Thank goodness you father had the sense to know what to do to survive and stay sane. I can see the importance he placed on these notes and letters to help him cope.
    you know what comes to mind when I read this, Louise? How the heck the astronauts survive up there. And more so when in the future they will be making settlements on Mars. I am sure they would be aware of the dangers.
    I love the pic of you girls in '68. That was the precise time I got involved in politics in Halifax.....helping elect the Liberal candidate and thus PET!!
    Your posts always make me think....THAT"S a good thing, Louise. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Jim! I always appreciate them!!! Dad did count on sending and receiving letters. Imagine, we couldn't even talk on the phone! It would take a special group of people to go up into space and travel to Mars to colonize the planet. At least in places like the ISS, astronauts can communicate with people on Earth. And right now I'm communicating with you, even though I can't sense you other than by reading your words. But that's how we became friends, and I think that's awesome! I think it's being cut off from contact for a long period that is so hard. Like poor Father Ouimet when he was further North on the shores of Hudson Bay ~ mail twice a year, or one, or none if the mail didn't get through!!! Friday Date Night is calling ~ gotta go! Hope you and Ron are doing something fun tonight!

  7. Louise, your father had an amazing ability to cope with the various difficulties and conditions that he encountered. Not many can do this. I love your 1968 photo! I was very happy when Justin Trudeau won the majority, I was rooting for him all the way! We need change here in Canada and I think that Justin will work hard to achieve this.

    I am always thrilled to see your posts, Louise! Thank you so much for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Linda! I was caught up in Trudeaumania in 1968. I campaigned for him, worked the phones in Wolfville, and got to meet him when he came to Kentville or New Minas. It was so exciting! I haven't worked the phonelines or gone door-to-door in several years now ~ burned out after a lot of political work in our union. Now, I'm hoping that Justin can have a great run as a leader! Hugs, my dear friend!

  8. This is a super interesting post. It serves so many purposes.

    It connects you to your father. If you have children or other family, this is a great connection for them too. Regular old readers like me can dig into it. And I imagine you've got a great setting for your stories through all this research..

    And I also like the use of pictures and short, brisk sentences.

    Thanks for sharing!


    1. Hi David! Thanks for your thoughtful comment! The writing feedback is very much appreciated! I was unable to have children, but I'm working on my family history for my wonderful nieces and nephews. And you're so right, this connects me deeply with my father! If I reach the point ~ which I will ~ that I publish my memoir, I plan to co-publish it with my father, even thought he died in 1984. I will self publish if I have to! Research ~ I started with a simple memoir, but the story became so much more than my family's history. I can't believe what I have found out! I may have two or three books here!

      I so enjoy your funny blog! Keep those great sports commentaries coming! Have a good one!

  9. What a wonderful post. It's true that Native Americans don't like it when other people use the term indians, but this was such a long tie ago and it's all too clear from the text that yor father never meant to offend anyone.

    I would go crazy being that isolated.

    1. Hey, BG! Thank you for your kind comment! I loved the North when I lived there, but I don't think I could live there now. I think I might go crazy too! Have a good one!

  10. Wow. This story reminds me of things I've read about British outposts in Africa or South Asia - how even in the bush or the middle of nowhere they would dress for dinner and observe societal protocols, to not "let themselves go". Your post makes it clear why this was important - so sad and yet so interesting that the teacher's downward slide began with a lack of personal care.

    (Written by someone still in her pajamas at 11:20 in the morning - the slippery slope!) :D

    1. LOL, Sue! I feel like my uniform is sweats! I always think of the British Raj in Indian when I read my father's letters. I'm not as disci;lined as he was! Have a lovely week, my friend!

  11. Great post, Louise. That photo of your Dad's luggage on the beach, I love that.

    1. Hi Kay! How lovely to see you! I've been missing you! Dad wrote somewhere that seeing that luggage on the beach was the loneliness feeling. It really brought home to him just how isolated he was. Have awesome week, my friend! Hugs!

  12. All this time that I've been reading these weekly posts, it never once dawned on me about others that may not have adapted as well as your father did. Wow. I can see now how easy it could be to break down in such isolation. That photo of the luggage on the beach says it all!

    1. Hey Martha! I often think about my Mom and how she handled it when we all got into Lansdowne House. But we left there, driven out by a forest fire, and she found herself living alone at an Indian fish camp with we five kiddos, and no way to contact Dad at all. Aside from John, Fritz,and Kokum living in the cabin next door there was no one ~ eight miles to the Hudson Bay post by boat, and there usually wasn't a boat, because John and Fritz were out fishing. And Kokum, their mother, spoke only Ojibway. Mom was courage personified! Thinking of you and George and hoping your house sells quickly! Hugs!

  13. My goodness, what shocking events!! It is a shame this happened to people and SCURVY??? Obviously wasn't getting his vitamin c!!!x

    1. Hi Kezzie! I think a lot of people went into the North anticipating good things and thought they could handle the isolation. No one would go up there thinking they would have a breakdown. My father had more examples. I was surprised when I checked on-line to find out scurvy could develop in three months.
      Happy Tuesday!

  14. I also think letter writing is important when you are home sick and away from family. I.expect the letters were v important to your Father's well being. I know all the letters I wrote and received kept me sane in Bali.x

    1. You're spot on Kezzie! The letters were critical. I love receiving letters to this day, so I should write more letters! Have a good one, my friend!


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