Friday, May 26, 2017

The Lansdowne Letters: A Difficult Day

Thursday, March 9, 1961 must have been a quite day for my parents.
They went from an uneventful and enjoyable evening
playing bridge with Bill and Rhea Mitchell the night before
to the "Starving Indians of Lansdowne House" story
exploding in their lives on the 9th.

Events happened quickly, and I have been trying to piece them together
based on my parents' letters and my fragmented memories.

A Rare Photo of Our Parents with Us (before Bertie)
Ready to Ride on the Maid of the Mist at Niagara Falls, circa 1958
Dad and Mom (back) with Donnie, Roy, Louise (Me), and Barbie
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

As best as I can reconstruct at this point, 
Mr. Gowan, the Indian Agent from the Nakina Agency Office, 
flew into and out of Lansdowne House that Thursday morning
to question the community's two teachers, Uno Manilla and my father,
about the newspaper articles hitting the Canadian press.

Upon returning to Nakina a confused and frustrated Gowan
then read a newspaper article naming my father
as the Lansdowne House teacher writing letters
about the deplorable living conditions of the Indians.

My father said in his March 16th extended family letter
that Gowan immediately dispatched a "real snarly letter" to him.
In his unpublished handbook my father wrote
that Gowan got on the air and blistered the airways
because Gowan's opinion of him was "certainly not of the highest."

Since the only way to immediately dispatch a letter
to Lansdowne House at that time was by telegraph,
I'm guessing that Gowan fired off his letter by telegraph to the Hudson's Bay post
and followed it up by a blistering shortwave radio call to my father at the post. 

© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

That prompted my sometimes fiery-tempered father
to write his own "snarly" and "sarcastic" letter
to Gowan which, fortunately, he decided not to mail.

I imagine him at his desk at school
hurriedly scratching it down on paper 
in his characteristic, almost unreadable handwriting,
then balling it up and pitching it into a wastebasket.

At that point he returned home to find out if his wife could shed any light
on how the content of his personal letters had landed in the press.

My mother was correct when she raised the possibility
that the "Starving Indians of Lansdowne House" story
had its origin in my fifth grade Red Cross Project
in tiny Smith's Cove Elementary School in rural Nova Scotia.

The realization was staggering to my parents.
They called me in from playing outside,
and in their panic they hit me with a barrage of questions:
"What did you say?  What did you do?  Who did you tell?"

My agitated father paced back and forth in our tiny kitchen,
unable to contain his nervous energy,
while my worried mother stood by the kitchen counter, 
her dark eyes large in her pale face.


My Parents' Graduation Photos
Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, 1950  
    My mother did not actually graduate until 1967 
because of the sudden death of Dad's father and my arrival.
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Their dismay was palpable, and I knew that something bad had happened,
something that shook my parents' confidence and could upend our lives.

"The Indians, what did you say about the Indians?" my father barked.

"In your speech to your class, during your Red Cross Project,"
my mother added more calmly.

My mind rocketed back to that first week in January
when I had won a prize in school for giving the best speech in my class,
that speech that initiated my Red Cross Project,
that speech that mentioned the starving baby in the tikinogin,
the one with a distended belly and matchstick arms and legs.

"I just raised clothes for the starving Indians,"
I cried, dissolving into frightened tears.

Drawing on the unfathomable reservoir
of strength and courage
she possessed throughout her life,
my mother went to me
and folded me into her arms.

"It's okay, Weesie.  
It's going to be okay.  
You've done nothing wrong."

Her soothing words calmed
my father down enough
that we were able to sit
at the kitchen table
and sort out what had happened.

Sara Margaret (MacDonald) MacBeath
Acadia University, Wolfville, Circa 1950
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

I had been sharing my father's Lansdowne Letters in my class
at school throughout the fall and winter. 

I gave a speech about the starving Indians in Lansdowne House in early January.
It impacted my classmates and teacher enough 
that we decided to help the Indians as a Junior Red Cross project.

We wanted to collect food, but my teacher Miss Sidey suggested
that clothes might be more practical to donate to the Red Cross
because they wouldn't spoil and were easier to transport.
We organized a clothing drive and gathered
five huge cartons of winter clothing for the Indians.

Meanwhile Dad had obtained permission
from the Department of Lands and Forests 
for us to live in their house in Lansdowne House 
and suddenly we were on our way North,
just as my teacher was arranging to send the cartons of clothing
to the provincial Red Cross headquarters in Halifax.

Immigrant Children with Red Cross Port Workers
at Halifax's Famous Pier 21
Nova Scotia, Canada, 1948

With all that my mother had to do to pack and to prepare
to travel to the North with five young children,
she never had a chance to talk with Miss Sidey before we left.
My parents weren't sure how the press got the story,
but it must have been through my teacher Miss Sidey.

Dad returned to the Hudson's Bay post to talk the situation over with Bill Mitchell
while Mom got my brother and sisters inside and fed.
That was my mother, comforting and serving food while weathering any storm.

When Mitchell suggested that Dad fly out to talk to Gowan personally,
he must have hitched a free ride on an Austin Airways flight
that happened to pass through Lansdowne House later that afternoon.
My mother wrote that the pilot flew low over our house
to bid us good-bye as the plane headed for Nakina.

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

I think the way people rallied around my father
and helped our family during this difficult time
was a measure of how well-liked and well-respected he was.

They all pitched in:
from Mitchell and Austin Airways,
to Mike who came to light the kerosene lamps for us that evening,
to Maureen who watched Bertie the following day while my mother taught,
to Mike, Duncan, and Milt who were ready to bring water to us 
if Dad were delayed by bad weather in Nakina.

While Dad spent an anxious night at the Nakina Hotel,
Mom put Barbie and Bertie to bed
and organized Donnie, Roy, and me to write letters to Nana.
Then she kept her promise to Dad and wrote a letter to his mother
sharing the family news, but never mentioning why Dad had to fly to Nakina.

Anticipating her first time teaching she wrote to her mother-in-law:
"I am teaching school tomorrow morning, perhaps in the afternoon too.  ...  
It will be quite an experience for I imagine the Indian children won't talk to me.
All the Indians here are very friendly."

In my Lansdowne Letter posts, I've shared much more about my father than my mother,
largely because I am working with his letters, papers, and photographs
and because he was the Indian teacher with the career
and she was the one at home running the household.

My Mother and Father Leaving Smith's Cove Baptist Church
in a Rain of Confetti after Their Wedding
Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia, September 4, 1948
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

But, like many mothers around the world, my mother was remarkable.
In Lansdowne House she faced challenges from poor health,
to financial insecurity, to managing a home with with no running water or electricity.
Yet through it all she sheltered us in an environment rich with love, security, and happiness.

From the moment she told me, "It's okay, Weesie.  It's going to be okay," 
she acted as if it were, hiding all the worries swirling inside her.
She distracted us with letter writing, even as she anticipated walking into
a multi-grade classroom filled with Ojibway children and four of her own ~
with no training, no experience, and no time to prepare. 

The gift she gave me
that day was reassurance.

I was able to return to
more appropriate pursuits
like anticipating my birthday party
and tobogganing outside,
rather than worrying
about the newspaper scandal
and jeopardizing my father's job.

A Small Moment of Happiness
My Mother and Me
Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada, Summer 1952
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

My Parents, Don and Sara MacBeath (right)
with Unknown Friends
Acadia University, Wolfville, Circa 1948
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Meanwhile "my" five large cartons had traveled
to Red Cross Headquarters in Halifax.
Unsure what to do with them, the Red Cross
contacted the RCAF Maritime Command in Halifax.

Because of the apparent urgency of the situation in Lansdowne House,
and because my father was a former officer in the Royal Canadian Air Force,
the Commanding Air Officer of Maritime Command
authorized the airlifting of the cartons of clothing to RCAF Transport Command
in Trenton in southern Ontario en route to Lansdowne House.

Modern Royal Canadian Air Force
Boeing CC-117 Globemaster
a military transport plane on approach to Canadian Forces Base, Trenton, 2009 
Note:  To see an RCAF Maritime Command plane of 1961 vintage click here.

To be continued ...

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

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

1.  Bill and Rhea Mitchell:
     Bill was the manager of the Hudson's Bay Post in Lansdowne House and married to Rhea.

2.  My father's unpublished handbook:
     The Northern School Teacher:  A Hand Book To Be Issued To All New
     Entrants To The Teaching Profession In The Indian Schools In The Sioux Lookout Indian Agency, 1966.

3.  Telegraphs and Shortwave Radios:
     To the best of my knowledge, the only place that had both a telegraph machine and a shortwave radio
     in Lansdowne House was the Hudson's Bay Post.  Because of its nature, Bill Mitchell would have gotten
     the telegram to my father immediately. 

4.  Prize Winning Speech:  The Lansdowne Letters: Disappointing News
5.  My Red Cross Project:  The Lansdowne Letters: Keepers and Burners
7.  Miss Sidey:
     Miss Isabel Sarah Sidey, my fifth grade teacher at Smith's Cove Elementary School.  Obituary

8.   Mike O'Flaherty:  
      Mike was the nurse at the nursing station in Lansdowne House and a good friend of my parents.

9.  Duncan and Maureen McRae:
     Duncan worked for the Department of Transport, and one of his duties was running the weather
     station in Lansdowne House.  He and his wife Maureen were good friends with my parents.

10.  Milt MacMahon:
      Milt MacMahon was the other DOT employee in Lansdowne House.

11.  Airlift:
      Information from The Digby Courier article:  "Smith's Cove Residents Aid Family in the North,"  March 16,

12.  Accuracy:
     I am not a trained historical researcher, but I am doing my best to track down accurate and corroborating sources.
     If there are any mistakes in facts I've presented in this post, they are mine alone.

For Map Lovers Like Me:

Route Map for Austin Airways, 1985
with Lansdowne House west of James Bay

Location of Smith's Cove and Halifax

Location of Canadian Forces Base Trenton
MLA 7th Edition:  Haycock, Ronald G.  Canadian Forces Base Trenton.
  The Canadian Encyclopedia.  Toronto:  Historical Canada, 2006.
Web 8 Feb 2006.

Canada   Wikimedia


  1. It's been my experience and observation in life that NOTHING brings punishment down on your head more quickly or more surely than telling the truth. It's a sonovabitch for sure, but c'est la friggin vie!

    1. C'est la vie, for sure, Debra! Wishing you and your Rare One a happy weekend!

  2. And they treated those clothes as urgent? Well, a mess for sure, but it still came together.

    1. Yes, they did ~ until things got stalled waiting for favorable weather! Have a good weekend, my friend! btw, I am enjoying the IWSG anthology very much!

  3. What the heck did Gowan have to fear if he felt 'all was well' with the First Nations people? And that he was doing his job!
    It takes a child's sensitivity to see what was needed and do something about it!!
    Way to go, Weesie!!!

    1. Hi, Jim! You are so perceptive! Wishing you and Ron and sweet Ms SD a great weekend!

  4. And I eagerly wait for the next instalment. You did that in such good intention, and after all, the clothing did finally get delivered. Huge distances, unimaginable ways for that to be arranged, compared with how easy it is today.And your Mum, shining through it all, a beacon of safety in the troubled days. I love the maps, and New Zealand can fit into Ontario 4 times!!!And Canada is 37 times larger than all of NZ.

    1. Wow, thanks for the NZ statistics! That really puts it into perspective! I hope that all is well with you, Hugh, and kitties! Take care, my friend!

  5. That plane reminds me of one from an airshow in my youth. I doubt it was as large but it looked miltary-like in my memory. We got to tour the inside and that's where I learned that moving the controls up meant down and down meant up

    1. Airshows are such fun, Adam! I didn't know that about the controls. I've sat in the seat next to the pilot in a number of bush planes, but I was so busy looking at everything else that I don't remember if I ever realized that up was down and down up. Have a great Memorial Weekend with Daisy!

  6. haha they must have really thought those clothes urgent to get them there that fast. Only trying to help and away things flew, literally, too. But getting back to tobogganing and birthday is good indeed.

    1. More to come, Pat ~ LOL! I'm getting quite a kick out of "The Connective" ~ about 80% through. I thought I'd have it finished by now, but I've had quite a week ~ sleepover visitors, helping friends move, tons of household things. I'm really enjoying Travis, Billy and the other kids. You've certainly captured what it is like to be that age. I find myself thinking about my brother and I at that age when we believed anything was possible and we could defeat evil if it showed up. I'm looking forward to a laid back Memorial Weekend. Thank goodness Wednesday is the 31st and not the 1st ~ gives me more time to get my IWSG post done. You are my hero ~ I don't know how you do it!!!! Have a good one!

    2. I guess having the mind of a child helps me get into that mindframe easy enough lol glad it is enjoyed. Staying far ahead, keeps me out of dread.

  7. Louise, I absolutely love all your old family photos! Thank you so much for sharing, and I hope you have a fantastic weekend.

    1. Thanks, dear Linda! I'm glad that you enjoy the photos. I laugh every time I look at the one of us getting ready to ride on the Maid of the Mist. I am having a lovely quiet weekend which is absolutely what I need after the crazy, but wonderful, week I just had! Wishing you a-great-rest-of the weekend too! Sending you love and hugs!

  8. Such a brouhaha over a little girl's honesty. No doubt they SHOULD have been doing more to help and that's the reason for the upset.


    1. Happy Memorial Weekend, Janie! I hope that you are having a happy and relaxing time. Yes, the government should have been doing more. The story of the relationship between the government and the First Nations peoples is tragic and sordid. Things haven't improved much with some of the most basic things. Take water. It was bad when I was there, and currently Neskantaga (Lansdowne House) is under a boil water order and has been for the last 22 years! One of the reasons that I'm writing my memoir is that I want to tell this story. there is more to come! Have a great week!

  9. I find your posts riveting as I lean into the screen to feel the words and the times. Your family faced many challenges. Your memories and your father's notes and letters make this a fantastic true story. Thank you so much!

    1. Thank you for reading my posts, Truedessa! Sharing the story of my family's time in the North has been very rewarding for me!

  10. P.S The photos are great, I had to smile had the raincoats you wore back in 1958 on the Maid of the Mist. I took that ride a few years back and I wore a yellow rain poncho. It was amazing to be so close to the falls the thunderous roar of the water. Did you walk behind the falls as well?

    1. I had forgotten about walking behind the falls! Thanks for bringing back that memory. Yellow ponchos sound much nicer, than the black raincoats we were issued back then. I crack up every time I look at Barbie who was the youngest at that time. Have a great week!

  11. It would be good time to see things happened in past. Will feel happy by seeing the photos of our sweet old memories:)

    1. Thanks for your kind comment, WW! My family photos do make me feel happy! Have a good one!

  12. What a remarkable story! Sounds like everyone was more comfortable with the truth being hidden. Once you opened that can of worms - BOOM - there goes the comfortable silence. If there was nothing to hide, surely there wouldn't have been this type of reaction. Good for you, Louise! All these posts make for an amazing book and also an amazing TV series!

    1. Thanks you for your encouragement, Martha! Anyone in government was more comfortable with the truth being hidden, for sure! More to come! Have a good evening!

  13. You were and are an amazingly courageous and intelligent person my friend!
    I am grateful that i found your wonderful place to know you better.

    You collected, composed and presented so well as I can feel the vibration of 9th March 1961 in your life.
    I am completely familiar with the coperation that you loving mother showed that day by taking you in her arms and calming your father whose worries were obvious.
    I loved the photos specially the wedding one how precious!
    I respect and appreciate the way your mom stood strong and unshaken by her family and took great part in her little girl's big cause.
    She was marvellous indeed.
    Looking forward to what happened next about your father 's job.

    1. Hi, Baili! I hope that you are feeling stronger and have less pain today ~ and that you are resting!!! Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Mothers are the unsung heroines of this world. I think of your mother walking across the hills to bring you lunch at school, her supporting your letters to the radio station, and her determination that you would have a good education. We are both daughters of amazing and strong women, and we have lived fulfilling lives because of them. I'm glad that you enjoyed the wedding photo. I have all these precious family photos sitting in albums and no one seeing them. I love sharing them on my blog. It's one way for my extended family to enjoy them too. Take care, Baili! Don't push too hard. Listen to your husband and your body. All too soon you will be back at caring for your family and home. Sending you hugs!

  14. I love all your photos, but that one with you and your mom, is so special!
    Wow, what stories you have shared with us! I'm proud of you for saying the truth! I can't wait to read more! Big Hugs!


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