Friday, February 3, 2017

The Lansdowne Letters: A Cardinal Rule of the North

Extending hospitality was a cardinal rule 
in remote communities of the North a half century ago,  
and tiny Lansdowne House was no exception.
It is amazing how much socializing and entertaining
went on among its twenty-two white people
(fourteen adults and eight children).

A Social Evening at the Roman Catholic Mission
Father Ouimet, Don MacBeath, Brother Bernier, and Mr. Baker (a Prospector)
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Fall 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I say white people, because at that time
whites and Ojibway didn't mix socially, 
except at special events, during church, 
or at the movies at the Roman Catholic Mission.

My father had a good relationship with the Ojibway in the community,
but the reality was that the Ojibway rarely visited white homes,
and white adults rarely visited Ojibway homes unless on official business.

My father, who worked for the Department of Indian Affairs,
was operating under prohibitions which he articulated
in his handbook The Northern School Teacher.  
Two regulations that northern teachers strictly adhered to were
"No fraternizing with Indians of Opposite Sex"
and "No drinking with Indians on or off school property."

Bill Mitchell Talks with an Ojibway Man
Hudson's Bay Store, Lansdowne House
Photo by Donald MacBeath, Fall 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

As a girl of ten, my interactions with Ojibway children took place primarily at school,
although we frequently played with the Kitchejohn girls outside our home.

As for my best friends Simon and George,
they were six or seven years older than I,
and it would have been inappropriate for us
in both cultures to associate outside of school.
Furthermore, as older teenagers, 
the two boys had increasing responsibilities at home.

The Ojibway treated my family with courtesy and kindness.
The adults quickly realized our family was unaware of
some of the inherent dangers in the bush,
and they kept a sharp eye on us when we were outside playing.

If Baby Bertie so much as stumbled or sat down playing outside,
any nearby Ojibway adult came running,
usually with a stick of wood or other weapon,
for fear of a dog attacking her.
Stories of Indian dogs mauling or killing white children
circulated around the north, and even I had heard them.

Sled Dog ~ Not All Were Tied On

Most days in Lansdowne House were routine ones,
and life for us quickly settled into a pleasant rhythm,
with the white adults socializing among themselves
and entertaining visitors from the Outside.

On Thursday, March 9, 1961 my mother wrote 
to her mother-in-law, Myrtle MacBeath:

Dear Mother:-
Another week has flown by.  
Mr. Pratt, Assistant Manager
for Indian Affairs, 
was down to Lansdowne
for nearly a week
and came in for a couple
of evenings to visit us.  

Sally (MacDonald) MacBeath
Acadia University, 1947
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

The first time was to show us the plans 
for our new house they are building 
and to ask for any suggestions for color schemes.  
They meant to get them from me when I arrived in Nakina, 
but decided I would be too tired.  

They suggested colors that were used in the last house they built,
so we said we wouldn’t make any changes.  
The plans look very nice, and it will be modern with electricity,
running water, bathroom complete with plumbing, etc.

We played bridge with Uno and Mr. Pratt Tuesday night, 
and Uno and I beat them.  The score was very close. 

Wednesday night Don and I went
to the Mitchell’s for bridge.  
We had a nice time.  
Mrs. Mitchell is quite a talker.  

She has been in the North since
she married when she was nineteen.  
She is somewhere in her fifties,
I believe, and looks very young. 

Mrs. Mitchell, Wife of  Bill Mitchell
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Her husband came from Aberdeen Scotland
about thirty-five years ago, 
and he had lived in the North all that time.  

They have a very nice home.  
They have three children,
a boy and girl in their twenties and a boy twelve. 

Mr. Mitchell and I beat Don and Mrs. Mitchell.  
The score was very close again though.

Don had to go to Nakina overnight on school business.  
When they took off they flew low over the house to bid us good-bye. 

Mike came in to light the lamps for me, 
and if Don is detained by weather tomorrow, 
the men will get together and bring us over water. 

A Modern DeHavilland DC-6 "Twin Otter"
The North Relied on Bush Pilots and Their Bush Planes

I am teaching school tomorrow morning,
perhaps in the afternoon too.  
Maureen is looking after Roberta for me.  
It will be quite an experience, 
for I imagine the Indian children won’t talk to me.  
All the Indians here are very friendly.

Don was unable to write for he didn’t know until this morning 
that he would be leaving for Nakina.  
I assured him that I would write and tell you the news.  

The children are all fine and happy.  
Don bought them a toboggan, 
and it is hard to get them in the house 
they love it outside so much.  
They are building a toboggan run below the house.

I must close now and get off the mail and finish up the supply list.
I find it difficult to figure out exactly what we need, 
but after a month of it I imagine it will come automatically.  
I make all our bread except for the odd loaf.

I hope you and Aunt Maude are well.  
Louise had letters started, but didn’t finish them.  
We had to have everything in order 
so we could get an early start tomorrow morning.

With love,

Donnie and I, Still Tobogganing
Photo by a niece or nephew, Christmas Eve, 2016
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

My mother's newsy letter looks ordinary on the surface,
but it points to some real differences from life on the Outside.

Hospitality is one of them.  
My father wrote of this in his handbook:
"When you are in the north be hospitable to all transient guests
such as pilots, missionaries, Indian Affairs Branch officials,
Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Ontario Provincial Police, and others.

"Always offer coffee or tea and invite them for a meal.
If guests of this nature have to stay overnight
always offer them a place to sleep.

"All travelers in the north carry sleeping bags and air mattresses,
and a chesterfield or even a smooth floor in a warm room will suffice.  

"The need for hospitality can not be over emphasized.
Travel in the north depends upon mutual hospitality,
and from a practical point of view,
you never know when you may be forced
to accept the hospitality of someone else."

Have Bed, Will Travel

During early 1961 we had a number of pilots and priests
bunking on the chesterfield in our living room.
I'm guessing that Mr. Pratt spent his week staying at the mission
or with Dad's former roommate Uno.

Guaranteed Mr. Pratt made the rounds to visit
all the white people in Lansdowne House
for coffee or tea, a meal, or an evening of bridge.

The only place outside of northern Ontario 
that my family experienced the level
of hospitality we enjoyed in Lansdowne House
was in the outports of Newfoundland.

There too, people lived on the edge
with unreliable access to larger communities and services.
The most generous and compassionate people I have met
are among those who had the least.
When your very life might depend on another's hospitality,
you were hospitable under any circumstance.

I'll get to some other differences between the north and the Outside in my next post.

An Evening of Cards
Uno and Brian
Photo by Donald MacBeath, Winter 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue.

1.  Our New House:  
     The teacherage in Lansdowne House had burned down before my father arrived in the community.
     That is why he had to room with Uno and why we couldn't join him, until he got permission to use
     the Forestry building.

2.  Sleeping Bags:  
     Fifty years ago sleeping bags were not the mummy-shaped marvels of lightweight fabric,
     waterproof synthetic down, and advanced construction available today.  In Lansdowne House our
     family slept in sleeping bags rated for Arctic weather down to -30 ºF or -34ºC, similar to the
     Woods Arctic Eiderdown Sleeping Robe pictured above.  The sleeping bags were toasty warm,
     and they had an outside flap sewn to the top of the bag that we could pull over our heads and
     shoulders.  Our house had a stove fueled by oil which my father kept turned low at night.

3.  A Personal Note:
     I am on the road again which is why this post is late today.  I may not have access to internet for
     the next day or two.  I will respond to comments and visit your posts as soon as I can.

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Map of Canada
Highlighting Ontario

Location of Lansdowne House
Wikimedia   edited

Lansdowne House
Sketch by M. Louise Barbour
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Peninsula and Island
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario
Credit: Canada. Dept. of Indian Affairs and Northern Development 
Library and Archives Canada:  PA-094992

Rough Sketch of Lansdowne House
by Donald MacBeath, Fall 1960
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

This sketch shows the Father's Island and the tip of the "Mainland" peninsula
that contained the community of Lansdowne House.

2 ~ Dad's and Uno's Shack
12 ~ Hudson Bay Store
14 ~ Mitchells' House
18 ~ MacRaes' House
22 ~ Site for the New Teacherage
between Dad's School and the Nursing Station
29 ~ Usual Path of My Canoe


  1. I have found with sleeping bags, with duck or goose down, poly fill and/or other synthetic ones, you need lots of warm layers underneath. Even newspapers if you happen to camp overnight on the back of a ute ( Utility truck), cold metal was not the right base.Were the planes ever delayed? Our family waited at Kamloops in B.C. a long time this morning, finally after the grader and de-icer did their job, flew to Vancouver. A mad dash to board in time, only for another almost 2 hour delay. It seems Vancouver has snow to very low levels!! The joy of having the most wonderful skiing holiday. Love your Friday story, as always.

  2. absolutely beautiful writing dear friend!!!

    Hospitality is the thing along with so many other precious traditions which is you can say "Gone with the wind"
    how strict the rules were then about having relationship with Indians i saw such stuff only in movies and read in books.
    Under such circumstances it was obvious to keep eye on you[children] as the environment seemed superstitious .
    while reading this i remember an very old woman who lived in my native village in 1980 .Her son moved to city near village with his family and visited her once a week.she did not go with them and stayed in her old clay home that's roof was weak.
    They belonged to a race who was [according to village people ]was low and her husband was a gutter cleaner and people did not treated them equally and respectfully .As young girl[ten] i used to visit her [with the permission of my mother ] bring her a pot of drinking water from the tube well [no water supply was there then] brought her food from our home and sit for while to listen her [she was in her nineties]it pleased me to make her smile and happy.Though it caused trouble in our relationship to other relatives who were already angry for my admission to school.
    Love is vast .It is BASE of the CREATION of this UNIVERSE .and this is the only relation between humanity i believe.
    our skin colors and our thought vary due to the gene pool we make by grouping ,when they break all is equal and beautiful .This makes our creator happy with us.
    wishing you a safe journey my dear friend!
    take great care.
    sending you hugs and best wishes.

  3. Another wonderful post about a different world. I am sure hopsitliaty was important and in the world without TV and internet, such social interaction was probably craved. Travel safely!

  4. Never knew the rules were so strict. With not much to do hospitality probably was a prerequisite for staying sane. Good that the Indians kept a close eye too. Nice of them to do. haha all you need is a bed indeed. travel away.

  5. Somehow I'm not surprised that mixing socially with the natives was discouraged. Being hospitable was smart though - loners probably didn't survive up north.
    Glad the two of you still enjoy sledding.

  6. Sharing fun time with other adults must have been super important for those few on the island. They were in their own world really and had to make time for work and play. I loved the pictures of you on the tobaggan That must have brought back so many memories for you.

  7. Unfortunately, kids being mauled or killed by dogs is still a problem on many reserves. Dogs often run free, breed and produce essentially wild packs of untamed, half-starved dogs. Many reserves used to have what was called "Dog Days." That's when the RCMP would designate a day for everyone had to tie up their personal dogs at home. Then they'd go around and shoot any roaming dog they found. That's how they kept the numbers down. Nowadays, dog rescue societies object to this practice and try to rescue the dogs instead, bringing them to cities for socialization and adoption.

  8. Fascinating insight into a life very different from my own.

  9. It's a shame not much cultural mixing went along

  10. I enjoying reading these posts. You take me into another time and cultural lifestyle. I admire your father for his dedication and work. I can only imagine the real dangers out in the wilderness.

    I have not been on a toboggan in some time. It sure brought back some happy memories.

    Safe travels...your journey is amazing.

  11. I know what you mean about the people who have the least sharing the most. Too often, wealth takes away compassion. I imagine most travelers who needed a place to stay were welcome guests because they brought news with them and had different life stories to share.


  12. That golden rule of the north saved many lives I am sure!
    I had forgotten that your mother was a teacher as well, Louise. Did she 'fill in' often for your father?

    Nothing is better than playing outside in the cold winter! invigorating and one doesn't even notice how cold it is.

  13. All this is so fascinating to me, Louise. I know it was daily life for all of you, but there's a lot of excitement and adventure in it! How fun that you are still tobogganing. You must have some fond memories of it from your childhood.

  14. Times have changed a lot over the years.

  15. Wonderful details, and I could read on and on. Simpler times, for sure. Everything was different in the 60s. I wonder what my dad would have thought of the internet and all the information at your fingertips. My mum would love that she could watch movies on an ipad while in bed. Thank you, Louise.


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