Friday, April 14, 2017

The Lansdowne Letters: Deprivation

When I was a girl and I wanted to know what a word meant, I had two choices.
I could ask someone, or I could look the word up in a dictionary.
I learned early on, certainly by grade two,
not to ask my father for the meaning of a word.
His invariable response was, “Look it up in the dictionary.”

We only had one dictionary, a massive Funk and Wagnalls
with over a thousand thin pages filled with small black text and illustrations.
It was heavy, but I never really appreciated how heavy,
until at sixteen, I knocked out my sister Barbie with ours.

A Funk and Wagnalls Dictionary

To look up a word like deprivation was a nuisance for ten-year-old me,
and it usually led to a chain of words like deprive, destitute,
and dispossessed in my search for meaning.

I could intellectually understand a word like deprivation from our dictionary,
but I didn’t grasp the fullness of the word
until I saw deprivation with my own eyes in Lansdowne House.
Reality delivered a gut-punch.

A Remote Winter Landscape
The Father's Island
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I found it difficult to accept the living conditions of my Ojibwa friends.
My family had it hard.  
We had no electricity, no running water, no functioning toilet,
and we five children shared bunks in one of the four rooms in the forestry house;
but our home was luxurious when compared to the homes of my friends.

They lived in wood and tarpaper shacks.
Few were more than one room hovels
in which twelve and fourteen people crowded together.
Often the only piece of furniture was the wood stove
in the center of the log shack.

I slept in a down-filled Arctic sleeping bag on a bunkbed.
My friends slept on heaps of blankets and furs thrown in the corners of their shacks.

At night my father kept the oil burner going full blast
to drive out the cold of the sub-Arctic night.
My friends slept at 35 and 45 below zero in unheated homes.

The Forestry House
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

My mother always served  us hot and nutritious meals.
Granted the potatoes, milk, and sometimes eggs were powdered,
and all our vegetables came out of cans.
Meat was whatever chunk of beef or pork
my father could hack with an axe
out of the buckets of frozen meat he kept on our roof,
out of the reach of the starving Indian dogs;
along with canned Spam and bully beef;
but the food was satisfying and regular.

My Ojibwa friends ate irregularly, mostly scraps of rabbit, moose meat, or fish
supplemented with porridge, canned milk, and lard which they bought at the Bay.
Many were malnourished, some starving.
Without the daily ration of milk and bannock received at school,
more children would have suffered vitamin and mineral deficiency diseases
and worse hunger.

Seen Through Donnie's Eyes
The Forestry House, Lansdowne House, 1961
Drawing by Donalda MacBeath
Text:  Dear Nana, This is a picture of our home.
Note:  Indian Gods (Dogs), Buckets of Meat Hung from the Eaves, 
a Box of Groceries on the Roof,
and the Weather Vane on the Chimney
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

My brother, sisters, and I bathed once a week
in a round galvanized steel tub filled with water
which my mother heated on our gas stove.
My friends rarely bathed at all.

I had a home filled with books, toys, and music.
My friends had nothing.

I made few friends among the Ojibwa girls.
Ojibway society is male-dominated,
and from birth Ojibwa women were trained to remain in the background.
While the Ojibwa girls my age talked and played games with my younger sisters,
my brother and I wrestled and ran with the boys.

Consequently my best friend in Lansdowne House was Simon.
Simon was seventeen years old and in grade four, one of my father’s star pupils.
Simon had passed every grade in school,
but there had only been an Anglican school in the village for the previous four years.

Some of Dad's Boys at School
Simon (right) and George (second from right)
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Normally a First Nations child had to attend school for two or three years
before his teacher could start teaching him any academic subjects.
The language barrier, cultural differences, parental apathy or hostility,
and resentment at being cooped up in the classroom
all interfered with a child’s ability to learn.

As my father used to say, to my current embarrassment,
“It takes about one year just to housebreak an Indian child,
and another to teach him enough basic English to establish communication with him."

As a result many of the Ojibwa and Cree children
in the northern fly-in communities were one to two years behind,
even if there had been schools in their villages longer than they had been in attendance.

Simon had twelve brothers and sisters,
a number of whom were in school with me.
They all lived in a one room shack with no electricity, running water, or sanitary facilities.

Their father was dying from muscular dystrophy
and could no longer work the winter traplines,
so the family subsisted on welfare.

Their only entertainment was the twice weekly movie shown on the Father’s Island,
usually an old Tom Nix western or The Three Stooges.  
Had Simon’s father been able to work, 
Simon wouldn't have been in school.
He’d have been working the winter traplines with his father.

The Three Stooges
L to R: Moe Howard, Curly Howard, Larry Fine

Simon used to talk to me about life.
At seventeen he was curious about the outside world and had a strong desire to learn,
but Sally and Spot on Pleasant Street didn’t help him much.

Simon had been Outside once.
A rabid sled dog had bitten him,
and he had been flown to Sioux Lookout for a series of rabies shots.
The trip was the highlight of his life. 

Coming in for a Landing
Sioux Lookout, Ontario, Canada
Photo by Donald MacBeath, 1961or 1962
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Simon was smart, and he would have liked to further his education,
but he was too old to remain in school much longer.  

There was sickness everywhere:
malnutrition, muscular dystrophy, and tuberculosis.
The homes were crawling with lice,
and the school children were periodically deloused
by the nurse whether they liked it or not.

Some of the Ojibwa, especially females,
suffered from an hereditary disorder that deformed their hip joints.
They hobbled along lurching from side to side,
the women often burdened down with tikinogans, water, or wood.

Childhood diseases such as chicken pox were disastrous
because they could culminate in pneumonia and death.

Mother with Baby in a Tikinogan
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, Canada
Photo by Donald MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I observed the living conditions of the Ojibwa around me,
and I gleaned more listening to quiet conversations
among my parents and their friends
over morning coffee or evening bridge;
but my raw, emotional understanding of deprivation 
came from my conversations with Simon.

Deprivation is more than the lack of basic necessities
such as adequate food, shelter, and potable water.
Over time, deprivation damages the psyche and ravages hope.

Simon and his classmates were the generation caught in a drastic transition.
Up until the early 1960s, the Ojibwa in Lansdowne House lived off the land,
following their traditional lifestyle of hunting, trapping, and fishing.  

The  government, in its attempt to prepare aboriginal people
for assimilation into mainstream white Canada, built schools
and encouraged the First Nations to abandon their ancestral lifestyles and settle in villages.
Their cultures were derided and their languages were discouraged.  

The white adults in our village facilitated the transition in various ways
and regarded white culture as superior to the primitive ways of the Indians.
But I, through Simon’s eyes, saw the changes as a loss of hope.

Simon wasn’t learning the skills he needed to follow the traditional livelihood of his people,
and he was not acquiring the education he needed to survive in mainstream society.
He didn’t fit into the old ways, and he didn’t fit into the new.
With no economic opportunity, no jobs, and nowhere to go to get a job,
Simon faced a bleak future.  

I don’t remember the exact words of our long ago, heart-to-heart conversations,
but I still feel his discouragement and hopelessness.

The collapse of the Ojibwa’s traditional lifestyle was sudden,
and before the end of the 1960s, the people in Lansdowne House
spiraled down into welfare dependency.  
By the early 1970s the social fabric of the community had unraveled, 
and the Ojibwa floundered in a quagmire of violence, vandalism, and substance abuse
in a squalid environment of derelict buildings, trash, and oil drums.

Lansdowne House became one of the most violent
and hopeless native communities in northern Ontario.

When Freedom Is Lost:
The Dark Side of the Relationship Between Government and the Fort Hope Band
by Paul Driben and Robert S. Trudeau, 1983

Rusted Surface of an Oil Drum
Flickr ~ Petur  License

I think of the children I knew, and I wonder what has happened to them.  
I can’t imagine what they must have endured,
for life during the last fifty years in Lansdowne House has been harsh and challenging.  

I think of Daisy and Fannie and Nellie and George,
but most of all I think of Simon.
He was my first real friend, the first one with whom
I exchanged thoughts and feelings of consequence.  

Deprivation was no longer a word, but a reality with the faces of friends.
I began to sense the injustice and the indifference of a random world
where some are born into so much and others into so little.
I wondered why, and I have still not found a satisfactory answer.       

Maureen McRae
Father's Island, Lansdowne House
Roman Catholic Church, Windcharger, and Dad and and Uno's Shack in Background
Photo by Don MacBeath
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

Beautiful Cove on Long island,
in the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Surrounded by Water
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Lansdowne House, Ontario, Canada


  1. Goes to show that there are whole levels of deprivation that we never even think of. We think we have it bad and then we look at others surrounding us and it really opens our eyes. I couldn't imagine, well I could, but wouldn't want to live such a way of life.

    1. Oh, and you must have been really ticked off to knock her out lol

    2. I think about how fortunate I have been every single day. The phrase "There, but for the grace of God, go I," but then I wonder what kind of a God would grace me over someone else just as deserving.

      Oh yes, I was really mad at Barb. Mom and Dad had gone from Sherbrooke to Halifax to shop and had left me in charge of my siblings. Roy and Barbie refused to do anything I said. I was having a rough day, and Barb said, "Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah! Having a bad day?" I literally saw red and bashed her with our Funk and Wagnalls. When my vision cleared she was laid out on the floor unconscious. Fortunately not for long! Overcoming my volcanic anger, which erupted in rare, but sudden explosions was a real achievement for me in my early 30s.

      Have a good one!

  2. A sad but probably too frequent of a story as one culture over-rides another.

    1. You see this same sad story the world over. Fortunately the First Nations peoples of Canada are turning the tide in their quest for self-determination. This is not an easy or a quick thing to do. I think the long, paternalistic treatment of indigenous people is Canada's shame. I have to believe it will get better, not just in Canada, but around the world. Although the world looks pretty scary right now. Have a good one, my friend!

  3. So sad that they slept in such frigid temperatures without heat. Your photos are lovely, as always. Happy Easter to you, my cherished friend.

    1. Happy Easter to you too, dear Linda! You always brighten my day!

  4. A truly heartbreaking post, Louise. And it's not like the situation is much improved these days.

    1. It hasn't improved much a half century later, but I see hope in the First Nations peoples progress in their struggle for self-determination. Happy Easter, my friend!

  5. Squalid is the word that comes to me, and when I was at primary school, there was a Maori family that lived several miles away, a tin shack, probably dirt floor, a stream nearby for water, but so hard working. And, after reading your words, I wonder where they are now, One boy who came and helped my Dad very occasionally on our farm, was a few years older then me, the others all about my age or younger. Your words have great insight, looking back is never easy, and changes cannot always be best for everyone. Have a joyous Easter, where-ever you are.

    1. Happy Easter, Nancy! Thanks for sharing about the Maori in your childhood farm area. The story of indigenous people who were shoved aside by others is depressingly similar. I hope all is well with you and Hugh. I'm home, but my best friend and husband came to visit for a week while Terry was in Las Vegas playing in a pickleball tournament. It was quite a fun week, and everything slid. Now I'm playing catchup again. One of these days I'll pull ahead. Have a lovely Easter!!!

  6. I'm glad I got chicken pox out of the way. The only downside to being "immune" to it is that later in life it comes back as shingles

    1. There is always the shingles shot, Adam! I had both chicken pox and the vaccine, so we'll see. I remember my great uncle Chester suffering terribly from shingles when I was a small child. Happy Easter to you and Daisy.

  7. life has different faces for different people and gradually you learnt the true meaning of this word.
    i am glad that in 1970 the lifestyle of the people of that area had some good changes [i hope strongly]
    Simon and all who lived like him sound familiar to me because i too observed such community and miseries of their living.
    no one is made for specific situations like this ,their are so many examples in the world where people started journey from nothing to something larger than life even .
    Hope all you observe did not effect in any kind of negative way such as frustration or anxiety

    1. Hi, Baili! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. You have a wise and grounded understanding of life, and I always appreciate hearing what you have to say.

      Simon and a few other close Ojibwa and Metis friends had a deep and long-lasting effect on me. They changed my life forever. They made me aware, early on, of the great injustices of this world and of how blessed I was. They deepened my empathy and compassion.

      I didn't become anyone famous or have a high-powered career, but throughout my life I have always spoken up when I think something is wrong, often publicly with a powerful impact, and I have worked to make things better for my students and colleagues.

      But because of Simon and others I will write about in my blog, I have carried a sadness in my heart throughout my life. I always knew I would write about it, and now finally I have the time. I hope all is well with you, your husband, your sons, and family. Take care my friend! Sending you hugs!

  8. So sad, so very sad!! And, I don't think it has improved much either! I think that's so sad to think about! This entire situation is horrible!
    ( I hope you had a very Happy Easter! Big Hugs!)

    1. Thanks, Stacy; I did have a happy Easter! The current Lansdowne House site has been under a boil water order for twenty-two years, and it has been through a terrible suicide crisis among its young people in the past few years. There is hope though, in that the Ojibwa people are standing up for their rights and their heritage. They are no longer beaten down by the paternalistic attitudes of white government and church, although many problems still exist. The Ring of Fire chromite deposits could be developed responsibly with the respectful and valuable input of the Matawa First Nations in the area. The proposed mines have the potential of bringing jobs and infrastructure to this remote area, but the development has to be done in an environmentally sensitive manner, for this is a rare large and valuable wetland environment. Have a good one!

  9. this just makes me so sad...wonder where they are now and what their lives are like..

    1. Hey, YDG! Good to see you! I'm working up the courage to contact the Ojibwa in Neskantaga (Lansdowne House). I kept it all buried inside for so long. I hope all is well with you!

  10. This is quite a story, Fundy--a tragic one. Thank you for opening up and telling it. Wouldn't it be a miracle if having the information out, there could be positive changes?

    1. It would be a miracle, clee! Right now I'm working on the miracle of getting this tough memoir written! thanks for stopping by!

  11. I sometimes wonder about childhood friends, but not like this. What a hard, different circumstance. Too often the government thinks they know what is best, and they're never right. We've seen that time and time again. As tragic as it is, I thank you for sharing this story. It's definitely eye opening.

    1. Thanks for your encouraging comment, Crystal. I've lived with the story I'm slowly sharing all of my life, and it's difficult to be objective. The harder parts are coming. Take care!

  12. This was a difficult read, Louise. So heartbreaking. And the conditions are still difficult. I can only imagine how difficult it is to climb out of such deprivation and such hopelessness.

    1. Hi, Martha! My friends in Lansdowne House have haunted me over the years. I'm getting closer to the point when I am going to contact Lansdowne House and try to arrange to fly up there. The community has had a rough half century, but the good thing is that the First Nations peoples are finding their voice and fighting for their right to self-determination. Have a good one, my friend!


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