Friday, August 26, 2016

The Lansdowne Letters: Cursed

I remember when my father's Lansdowne Letter written on January 17, 1961 arrived.
It contained two of my father's Indian stories that had such a powerful impact on me.

His Indian stories had already propelled
idealistic me to act,
and I was well into a project
as a surprise for my father,
one that would powerfully impact
him in return.

Ten-Year Old Me
School Photo 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Dad's letter described two incidents that I have never forgotten,
although I find that my perspective has changed from that of my ten-year old self.

On Tuesday, January 17, 1961 
My father wrote to his extended family:

Hi There Again:
Today was just trouble from the word go.  
As you can see, I can’t even type right, 
why, it got so bad after a while, 
that I figured what else can happen?  

This question was answered for me before the end of the day, 
when an old Indian woman put a curse on me.  

I had cuffed her grandson on the ear in school, 
so she came down with someone who could speak
both Indian and English and proceeded to put this curse on me.  

Oh, it wasn’t one of their more serious curses,
just one that was calculated to cause me considerable inconvenience.

I am supposed
to get quite sick
for a couple of days
and not be able to eat,
or get out of bed,
or anything like this.  

Dad's Bed in His Two-Room Shack
Photo by Donald MacBeath 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

The amazing part of the whole thing is that
they put a lot of faith in curses and all such jazz.
Apparently anyone can put a curse on anyone else. 
But the older you are,
the more potent your curses are supposed to be.
This old gal was no spring chicken, I can assure you.

It will be interesting to see just how powerful her cursing powers are.  
If she really has the touch, I should learn it from her, and go visit S/L Lewis, shouldn’t I?

My Father's Classroom
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, 1960
Photo by Donald MacBeath 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

This reminds me of something I was reading 
in the medical records over at the nursing station the other day.  

I was helping Mike type up some of his records,
and I came across the case history of a woman who was mentally deranged,
or as the Indians put it, possessed of a Wintigo.

This is how they proceeded to treat the poor woman.
They cut a hole three feet square in the floor of the shack where they lived,
and then they dug a hole of the same dimensions under the shack
to a depth sufficient just to bring her head just above the floor of the shack,
and they put the poor creature in the hole
and there she stayed for over three years
coming up only to answer the call of nature.  

Apparently the calls of nature that she answered
when she was out of the hole were many and varied,
for the record states that during the period
that she spent in the hole, she bore two children.
She finally died of T.B.

This sounds like something that you would hear about during the Middle Ages,
but it happened in Canada, in the early forties or late thirties,
just about the beginning of the war.

A Mother and Child Under Happier Circumstances
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, 1960
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

As I started to say, this has been one hell of a day.
I came to school this morning to find both stoves out.
It was 33 below when I went to school this morning.  

After I got the stoves lit, I went down to the water hole; 
and, in the process, I managed to drive my ice pick
right through the ice and straight down to the bottom of the lake.
I had to buy a new one with my own money,
and they cost $7.50 each.  

After I got the hole opened, I managed to spill
half a bucket of real cold lake water down inside my right overshoe.
After this, one of the kids spilled ink down my shirtfront,
and I ripped my pants on a packing case. 
And all this before dinner yet!!!

I can’t remember just what happened to me after dinner,
other than the curse being put upon me,
but I had my moments in the afternoon also.

Well, I must sign off now and get to bed.
Bye now,
Love, Don.

Lansdowne House
Members of the Fort Hope Band watching a floatplane arrive
at the dock at Lansdowne house at Treaty Time, June 1956.

John Macfie Transparency  Reference Code: C 330-14-0-0-95  Archives of Ontario, I0012712  © Queen's Printer for Ontario
The materials on this website are protected by Crown copyright (unless otherwise indicated), which is held by the Queen's Printer for Ontario.  
If credit is given and Crown copyright is acknowledged,the materials may be reproduced for non-commercial purposes.

When I was ten, the things that struck me about the cursing incident
were how funny it was that my father had been cursed
and wondering if the curse would work on him.

Now what impacts me is my father writing,
"I had cuffed her grandson on the ear in school."

If I had ever physically hit a child in my twenty-five years
of teaching in an elementary school, I'd probably have lost my job.
But at the time my father wrote this letter,
corporal punishment was practiced, not only in the North,
but throughout all of Canada.

I have a vivid memory of eight-year old me 
standing at the front of my one-room school 
in Margaretsville, Nova Scotia.

I see the white faces of my kindergarten through grade six classmates
as my teacher strapped me with a leather strap:
three forceful smacks on each of my outstretched palms.
For passing a note.

My Siblings and I in Margaretsville, 1959
Donnie, Barbie, Me with Bertie, Gretchen (Our Dachshund), and Roy
Photo Likely by Donald MacBeath 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I remember the pain, the humiliation, and my fervent wish
that my parents wouldn't find out.
I had always been told that if I got in trouble at school,
I'd be in far worse trouble when I got home.
I also remember clenching my jaws and refusing to cry,
even though my eyes filled with tears.

Of course, my getting strapped in school was all over that tiny fishing village in no time.
Odd thing was, I didn't get into worse trouble at home.
My parents told me never to get caught passing another note,
or I would be in worse trouble at home.

Now I read my father's sentence with the knowledge of the horrific treatment
of Indigenous children throughout the Canadian North.
My strapping doesn't begin to compare
to what generations of them endured over many years.

I, in no way, condone my father's cuffing any child in any school;
but I will say, that as a teacher, my father usually managed
his students with rapport, humor and fairness.
It was rare for him to physically discipline students
whether as a teacher or as a principal.

The Anglican Church Mission School at Fort Hope, 1910
Ojibway children are still taught their own language by the English missionaries.

Note:  By using this photo, I am not implying that abuse was occurring in this instance.

As for the second incident, I have never been able to erase
the image of that poor woman stuck in a hole for the last three years of her life.
I was shocked as a ten-year old, but I am less shocked now.

I have come to realize that people everywhere in place and time
have grossly misunderstood and mistreated the mentally ill.

I will end with a question my father asked over fifty years ago
regarding the incident described in his January 17th letter:

"The whole event, including the birth of the two children
is recorded in detail at the nursing station at Lansdowne House,
and was confirmed to me by the resident priest.
What has never been explained to my satisfaction though is this:
If there was a nurse and if there was a priest at Lansdowne House,
why was this situation allowed to persist?"

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Bay of Fundy out of Westport, Brier Island
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved


1.   Mike Flaherty:
      Mike was the nurse at the nursing station in Lansdowne House,
      and he provided basic medical services for the White and Ojibway people
      who lived in the community.

2.  Wintigo:
      I am using my father's spelling, which is one of the many variations of this word.
      Wintigos occur throughout Anishinabe legends and mythology.  They are depicted in different
      ways:  as man-eating giants or as people possessed by a Wintigo for committing sins such as
      selfishness, gluttony, or cannibalism.  A wintigo's appearance is that of a huge ice-coated monster.
      Typically, the only escape for a person possessed by a wintigo was death. 

Ojibway Cosmos

3.   33 Below:  -33º F. = -36.1º C.
4.  My Father's Question:
     Source:  The Northern School Teacher (an unpublished handbook written by my father)

5.  Resident Priest:
     It was Father Ouimet who confirmed for my father that this incident had occurred as described
     in the nursing station records.  What is not clear is whether or not Father Ouimet was the
     resident priest at the Roman Catholic Mission when the woman was confined to the hole.

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Location of Neskantaga (Lansdowne House)
Human Rights Watch Report on the Safe Water Crisis 
in First Nations Communities in Ontario


  1. Louise, I love all your photos! Especially the one when you were 10 years old...beautiful! Yes, I remember corporal punishment in schools in the 1960's when I was a little girl. A teacher could spank a child who misbehaved, and never hesitated to do so. Thank you so much for sharing. It goes to show that we have come a long way since then...some of the progress is very good, some not so good, but a long has changed. Hugs to you, my cherished friend.

    1. Thank you, dear Linda! Often, finding images to illustrate these northern posts is time consuming ~ but then you know all about that because of the videos and inspirational images you post on your uplifting blog. I had teachers who spanked students in front of the class in school. Never happened to me, thank goodness! I'd much rather be strapped, because at least you summon a little dignity. We have come a long way, and it is for the better! Have a great Friday!!! Sending you lots of hugs and love!

  2. Like Linda, I enjoyed very much seeing this outstanding photo of you at 10!!
    Oh my, I would have had the same reactions about these 2 incredible stories that happened to your dad.
    But putting a living being in a whole for the last 3 years of her life is just too much to envisage. My God!
    You should put all this stuff in a book, not just on your blog!!
    You really are the only person I read through... when I have time to visit of course!!
    Dear Louise, keep well and warm hugs :)

    1. Hi, Noushka! It always brightens my day to hear from you! I am, albeit slowly, working on a book about all of this. It's slow going and these posts keep me grounded and moving forward. Thanks you for the kind comment about reading my blog. It lifted my spirits way up! Have a lovely weekend, my special friend ~ I hope you get some good time among your beloved birds! Sending you lots of love and hugs!

  3. How terrible to be stuck in that hole, insane or not. And that she had two children means someone took advantage of her.
    Teachers were allowed to spank us when I was in school. I sometimes think they should still be allowed.

    1. Hi, Alex! I can't imagine enduring a situation like that Ojibway woman experienced. I assumed that it was her husband that fathered her children; but now you've given me something worse to ponder.

      And yes, I admit, there are moments in teaching when I've thought that a swift smack on the butt might be effective in handling someone misbehaving. However, that is always a fleeting reaction; I remember only too well times I was cracked with a ruler and that one time being strapped. I think there are much more effective ways of dealing with misbehavior.

      I really enjoyed your piece on alternate worlds. I forgot to say in my comment that Tolkien wrote a famous essay ("On Fairy-Stories") about creating secondary worlds, which he termed Sub-creation. He considered this the highest form of art because humans were sub-creating as the Creator created. It's one of the definitive works on fantasy as a genre. The essay is long and not the easiest reading, but it is thought provoking and has a serious tie-in to Christianity. You might find it interesting if you ever have some really spare time! LOL

  4. Oh yes, how our values and mores have changed in 50 years! That's a good thing.

    1. It is a good thing, Debra! I wouldn't want to go back to those times for anything! I've finished Kinew's book, "The Reason I Walk." He refers to the sweat lodge a number of times, but he refers to the sundance ceremony more. Both are important to Anishinabe spiritual beliefs. Have a great weekend!

  5. Still amazes me how umm crazy people could be with all the curse hocus pocus. Years in a hole would be awful. Does sound like something out of the middle ages. Like the whole, "if you float your a witch and get burned at the stake, if you sink and drown your not a witch." Umm yeah, that's productive.

    1. Thank goodness we're are slowly climbing out of the primordial slime as a species! I'd rather drown than burn at a stake. Talk about a no win, horrendous situation! I'm afraid that mankind is becoming more inventive in torture today, and that is not a good thing! At least we have people fighting for human rights on a global scale. Have a great weekend, my friend!

  6. Oh were things different when we were in school, eh Louise?
    And when you father was teaching, things were different then as well.
    My first 'strap' was when I was was 7 and in grade two. My friend and I, along with both the girls school and the boys school, were at benediction in church after lunch.....something struck us funny and we couldn't control our laughing is our lives depended on it!
    OUCH! Did that strap hurt! Especially as it reached up onto my wrist. Left a lasting impression on me.
    You have hit a number of important points here....punishment in schools back then, mental illness, and responsibility of the church and state. I must say that the 'white' culture wasn't much better in it's treatment of those poor souls with mental illness.
    Another 'letter' packed with food for thought, Louise.

    1. Oh Lord, you have my sympathy, Jim! I can remember laughing like that! I used to sing in the choir at the Wolfville Baptist Church when Professor Gmeiner was the choir director and organist. I could see the whole congregations, and sometimes those giggle fits would kick in. I'd bite my tongue and cheeks, dig my nails into my arm, anything to try and stifle those giggles! Yup, that strap did reach up to the wrist! I'm so glad that those days are behind us now!

      Yes, the treatment of mental illness by the medical profession wasn't much better then: electrical shocks, lobotomies, mental asylums. Of course now we're more humane. We toss the mentally ill out onto the street to become homeless and panhandle ~ while saving taxes and excoriating them at the same time!!!! Makes me proud to have "evolved."

      "Food for thought" is my favorite diet, Jim! Have a great weekend, my friend!

  7. Mental illness, sometimes now as then, the great unknown. Now with tablets, capsules, and more, all the health professionals will hope to treat and cure, and if not, to keep in institutions, or if perhaps maybe somewhat well enough, let the patients into the community, where they flounder and struggle.A little authority goes a long way, far too far , in my opinion, and every person is entitled to fair and honest treatment. Maybe for those years, that lady had many frequent toilet trips, maybe overnight sometimes, and I hope this was true.Be in good spirits, Louise, lately I try and ignore anything that will be stressful or upset me, and although my little bit will never ever make the whole world a safe place, that tiny bit of understanding and generosity might help. This week it was giving some golden daffs to friends. Greetings from a very windy place down here.

    1. Hi Jean! How lovely that you are brightening the world by giving golden daffies to friends. They've always been special flowers to my mother and me, because when I was born, Dad gave Mom a bunch of daffodils.

      I'm a big believer in the cumulative power of lots of regular people doing their bit to spread a little understanding and generosity. I would always tell myself to "make their day" when I was teaching. So whenever I was going down the hall and met kiddos from any grade or class I tried to make them smile. I had particular fun with the kindies. And I always had a ready hug or more hugs for any kiddo who wanted one. Don't underestimate the value of what you see as a "tiny bit!" It snowballs when others pass on that tiny bit. I feel the same way about my recycling effort! Haha!

      I hope my blog isn't stressing or upsetting you too much! I know the last few posts have had some rough content. But I need to tell this story! Thank you for your kind and thoughtful comment! Hang on tight and don't blow away! Sending you a big hug!

  8. Thanks goodness things have changed in schools over the years. When I was an elementary school child, it was still going on. I never got into enough trouble to get 'the strap' or 'the ruler' but other kids I know did. And it was horrifying. We still have a long way to go with the mentally ill. They are still suffering abuse and mistreatment. We must work harder to change things.

    Another wonderful post, Louise! I so enjoy these. Thanks for sharing them!

    1. Thanks, Martha! You're right on both counts. Thank goodness strapping is gone from most schools, and yes, we really must work harder to change things for people who are mentally ill.

  9. Interesting stories but also disturbing.

    1. These events were disturbing to me as a child, and they still disturb me today. Often I think that Canada's Aboriginals are America's Blacks. We have so far to go to understand the people we share the Earth with.

  10. I never was strapped in school but I distinctly remember a teacher who carried a ruler with her on her treck around the classroom and used it to smack hands that weren't holding a pencil correctly. I'm sure your father only used physical force (and not much of it) when it was necessary. Even when I was teaching spankings by the principal was still carried on.

    1. That's what my teacher in a Roman Catholic school used to do when I was in Grade 1 in Atholville, New Brunswick. As a teacher of cursive, I have to grit my teeth when I see someone holding his or her pencil incorrectly and trying to write in some awful and inefficient way. LOL Now the elementary schools are no longer teaching cursive. It went the way of spankings, but unlike spanking, that was not a a good thing. Have a great weekend, Peggy!


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