Friday, July 7, 2017

The Lansdowne Letters: A Different Way of Thinking

When my family lived in Lansdowne House in 1961,
the Ojibwa of the region and other First Nations people
throughout Ontario were viewed as inferior to the white man.

A pervasive paternalism on the part of the church and the government
tainted relationships between white people and aboriginal people.
First Nations cultures, languages, customs, and lifestyles were derided,
and the native people experienced a cruel prejudice
that grew out of the white man's sense of superiority
and his misunderstanding of the First Nations peoples.

Sometimes, when I read my father's words about his experiences in the North
I cringe at his paternalistic tone toward the Ojibwa he lived among,
and other times I appreciate his empathy for them.

My Father's Words
Photo by Louise Barbour 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

In his unpublished handbook for new teachers in Indian schools
in the Sioux Lookout Indian Agency,
my father wrote a brief overview of the history of the "bush Indians"
who lived in the vast wilderness of Northern Ontario
and of how their history shaped them very differently
from the white men who pushed into their lands.

My father wrote:
“The bush Indians are wonderful people.
They are cheerful, loyal, faithful, resourceful, and honest,
according to their own standards.
Their standards differ considerably from ours though, and therein lies
the cause of most of the friction between whites and Indians in the bush,
which gives rise to many of the charges that the Indians
are shiftless, unreliable and dishonest, rogues,
thinking only of the present and giving no thought to the future.

It is only natural that the Indian tends to live
only in the present, with no thought for the future.
For thousands of years the Indian led a very precarious existence
in which the future was something which very few Indians
were fortunate to experience to any great degree.

Infant and child mortality was exceedingly high,
and an Indian was very fortunate just to reach adulthood.
Up until very recent times, the percentage of Indian babies which survived
infancy and childhood and reached manhood was less than 25%.

Some of Dad's Ojibway Boys
Lansdowne House, Northern Ontario, 1960
Photo by Don MacBeath 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

Upon reaching adulthood, the Indian’s chance of longevity
decreased rapidly with every winter he successfully endured.
The winters were times of the most severe hardship and deprivations,
which took a dreadful toll of human lives, children and adults as well.

Summer was the only enjoyable period
in an otherwise very bleak existence.
The Indians loved summer, and still do.

Summer was the time for play,
for the renewing of old friendships,
and the forming of new ones.
It was also the time for courtship and marriage,
feasting and dancing.

Summertime in Lansdowne House
Canoeing on Lake Attawapiskat near the Village, 1961
Photo by Don MacBeath 
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved

True, there was the coming winter to prepare for, but other than
laying enough aside to assure survival at the subsistence level,
the Indian made no long-range plans for the future.

There was no need to.  Very few survived to old age,
and those who did were cared for by their relatives and children.
There were no cars to be bought, no mortgages to be paid off,
or no retirement plans or educational plans to be financed through savings.

With the coming of the Hudson’s Bay Company, even the necessity
of putting aside a small store of supplies for the winter was removed.
The Honourable Company encouraged the debt system.

The Indians were encouraged to get what they needed
for the winter on credit and to pay for it the next spring
out of the proceeds of their trapping endeavors.
They were also encouraged to spend any surplus
on enjoyment during the summer.

Indians trade furs at a Hudson's Bay Company trading post in the 1800s.
Unknown artist from 1800

It speaks well for the inherent honesty of the Indian
that the Hudson’s Bay Company operating as it does
on the debt system was able to prosper and flourish.

It is small wonder that the Indian,
brought up in an environment like this for centuries,
has developed the philosophy of the grasshopper,
rather than the philosophy of the ant.

This debt system of the Hudson’s Bay Company has led to the development
of a system of values which is the direct opposite to that of the white man.

A white man’s success is judged by the amount
of worldly possessions he is able to accumulate.
The Indian’s success, on the other hand, is judged by the amount
of debt that he is allowed to contract at the Hudson’s Bay post.

The Indian who is granted $500.00 debt by the post Factor in the fall,
is considered by the other Indians to be five times as worthy
as the Indian who is only granted $100.00 worth of debt.

I wonder if the current practices of finance buying
and the phenomenal growth of small loan companies in recent years
is not an indication that the white man is gradually
coming around to the Indian point of view.

Ojibwa Teepee
Kenora, Ontario, 1922

The Indian, even today, does not have a highly developed
sense of ownership and private property.
I guess this results from the centuries when there was
no such thing as private ownership, only tribal ownership.
This poorly developed sense of private ownership has led
to many accusations of dishonesty and theft against the Indians.

I had a hard time getting accustomed to this myself when I first came up north.
If I left a shovel, or a hammer, or a wrench outside,
chances are it would not be there when I went back after it.
I would usually find it around one of the shacks,
if I looked for it, for no effort would be made to conceal it.  

Why should they conceal it?  They were not stealing it,
only using it because they happened to need it, and it was available.
Obviously I did not need the article, for I left it unattended;
and they needed it, so they took it.  It was as simple as that.

This used to bug me, till I realized that actually
the Indians fully understood the arrangement to be reciprocal.
I was perfectly welcome to anything they had
without the formalities of asking for it.

There was from my point of view only one fly
in this otherwise idealistic ointment.
I had just about everything I needed,
while most of the Indians had hardly anything they needed.

There were three things which you just did not borrow
without asking permission first:
a man’s snowshoes, canoe and paddle, and gun."

Cree Indian, Albany River, with unfinished canoe
The National Archives UK
Catalogue Reference: CO 1069/279
Flickr    License  

My father recognized that many of the prejudicial labels
applied to First Nations people were the result of white people
not understanding aboriginal history or the culture that developed from it.

But as empathetic and compassionate as he was,
my father worked for the Educational Division of the Indian Affairs Branch,
and the primary goal of Indian education was the ultimate integration
of the Indian population into the white population.

The longer my father worked for the Indian Affairs Branch,
the more difficult it became for him to handle his dissonance
arising from implementing the Branch's educational goals
and observing the effects of the Branch's policies
on the Ojibwa, Cree, and Saulteaux throughout Northern Ontario.

This dissonance became one of the reasons
my father did not return to the north and the Branch
after a year's leave of absence due to a serious illness.

Till next time ~
Fundy Blue

On the Shore of the Annapolis Basin
Smith's Cove, Nova Scotia, Canada
July 24, 2016
© M. Louise (MacBeath) Barbour/Fundy Blue
All Rights Reserved


1.  Bush Indians:
     My father used this term to collectively describe all the First Nations people who lived in
     Northern Ontario, the largest groups of whom were Ojibwa and Cree.

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, pages 27-29.

3.  The Honourable Company:
     Sometimes my father and others referred to the Hudson's Bay Company as "The Honorable
     Company."  It may come from the phrase "the Honourable Company of Merchants-Adventurers
     Trading into Hudson's Bay," the original source of which I have yet to track down.

4.  Post Factor:
     Historically "factors," mercantile fiduciaries or agents, received and sold goods on commission at
     Hudson's Bay posts or "factories" scattered throughout the vast region of rivers and streams
     draining into Hudson Bay.   Wikipedia

For Map Lovers Like Me:
Location of Lansdowne House
Known Today as Neskantaga


  1. I can so understand their way of philosophy, when life was fragile, you lived from one season to the next, and did not have to save money for a new vehicle, to pay the mortgage, or buy food. Being self sufficient , we could all do with many lessons in that way. Then along came new ways, how hard it must have been for them. In an isolated area in the North Island, many years ago, where predominantly Maori lived, reliant on wood stoves, candles, water from a stream, the older ladies were scared when power was installed, turn on a switch and a light was shining, the stove top was hot, too scary to comprehend. This was near Ruatahuna, where we have camped and stayed many times. Your Dad was a whizz with words, and you have that talent too.( p.s.My Dad and Mum both were good with the written word )

    1. Good morning, Jean! I'm guessing that you might be enjoying tomorrow's coffee while I'm enjoying today's which to you would be yesterday's. Time and all it's aspects fascinates me. At least we don't have to deal with relativistic time!

      We could learn a great deal from aboriginal people around the world, if we could set aside our arrogance and paternalism about the superiority of our western ways. More and more it is the aboriginal people who are advocates for the environment and preserving ecosystems.

      I'm am thrilled to see native people finding their political voices and standing up for their rights. Yes they have made mistakes and there are plenty of problems among native groups, but when you consider how far they have come after centuries of mistreatment, it's amazing.

      Your story about the Maori near Ruatahuna reminded me of when the telephone arrived in our outport in Newfoundland. Our neighbor across the street, a very macho, ebullient man of 40 some years, walked over to our kitchen and asked my mother to call him on the phone. He was wary of it and wanted someone he really trusted to call him first. So Mom watched him return home and stand by the phone, then gave him a call. For the first day, people were reticent to use their phones, and then suddenly, OMG, usage exploded, and the Westporters never looked back! Dad finally had to get rid of our phone, because the school kids took great delight in ringing him up every morning and asking, "Is there any school for we today?"

      The transition from a traditional to a mid-century western lifestyle had devastating effects on aboriginal people in Northern Ontario and around Canada. It was very hard on them, and fifty some years later, it is still very difficult on them. Lansdowne House (Neskantaga) and other isolated communities in the North have been experiencing a horrific suicide crisis in recent years.

  2. Such a fascinating post, Louise! And how lovely that you have so many of your father's letters! These are treasures, and it is so kind of you to share these wonderful memories! I hope you have a fantastic weekend, dear friend. Much love and hugs to you.

    1. Much love and hugs to you, Linda! I am anticipating a wonderful weekend! I'm about to realize a thirty-year plus desire, and I am excited about it. It means no internet for four days, but it will be worth it. I'm glad that you enjoyed this post. I was so tired when I went to bed at 1:45 am last night, that I forgot to give this post a title! LOL I'm not as good at pulling a late night to finish something as I was a half century ago. Bigger LOL I often feel like I'm surfing a big wave a long way as I go through my day. Take care!

  3. A simple way to live and yet probably less stressful than ours. They didn't worry about getting stuff - they shared stuff.
    I think we've come fully into the concept of how far in debt can one go...

    1. Hi, Alex! Since the Ojibwa lived in the fully moment, in some ways their ways were less stressful than our; but I would argue that starving or freezing to death in the winter was pretty stressful. Boy have we ever discovered debt, from an individual, to a national, to a global level. Man, I hate debt. If I can't pay for something in full, I don't get it. Having lived in places like Northern Ontario, rural Nova Scotia, and outport Newfoundland, I am not a material girl. I have a nice home and everything I need, for which I am grateful, but material things are not what is important in life.

  4. I could detect the sarcasm your father was conveying in his use of "the Honourable Company" in this instance.

    1. Oh you are so right, Debra. Even though Dad was a good friend of the HBC manager and admired him and valued his experience and advice, my father did not think too much of the mercantile system that kept native people in debt. Same game played all over the world, from the merchants of St. John's to the company towns in coal country, to the "sea slaves" on fishing boats: a powerful few exploit the lives and rights of others in the name of profit. Okay, so now my prejudices are showing. LOL Have a great weekend with your Rare One, Debra!

  5. Never knew that about them and debt. $500 in debt is nothing now. I know people with $100,000 in debt, not counting a mortgage. White people sure lost that whole look to the future thing, if they ever had it. More of an illusion as they tried to pretend they were superior and some still do. Pffft to all the crap, rather be debt free and less stress than have loads of crap. Thinking in the moment can get you through, which is sure what they had to do.

    1. I'm with you, Pat! I can't bear debt, and so much stuff is crap. I have lived debt free, except for a mortgage, for decades, and my husband and I have saved like crazy. We have not had to live with financial stress, like so many others, and for that I am grateful. Have a great, non-stressful weekend, my friend. I try to imagine you contemplatively procrastinating, but that's almost impossible! LOL

  6. Your father, Louise, certainly painted a contrasting image of two cultures in his handbook.
    I know it would have only been a matter of time, but what if the Europeans had not set out to explore and conquer the world!?
    He also brings to light the chauvinistic/paternalistic attitude that pervaded white society back then. Thank goodness we have come a long way and heading (mostly) in a positive direction.

    1. Hi, Jim! I am very proud of Canada, and all that has been accomplished so far in righting wrongs that were done to aboriginal people in the past. We have a ways to go, and it will certainly take time for First Nations people to surmount all that has happened to them over the past few centuries. Different issue, different rights ~ but I was thrilled to see photos of Justin Trudeau marching in the gay pride parade in Toronto. What a fabulous Prime Minister! Hope all is well with you, Ron, and Ms SD! Have a good one, my friend!

  7. This life was most likely less stressful than the lives most people have today. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for you thoughtful comment. Gina! Have a good one!

  8. I recently read a philosopher's thoughts about living (don't remember the philosopher's name) which basically stated that to live in the past can bring depression, to live in the future can bring anxiety, but to live in the present can bring peace. I think I agree!

    1. I agree too, Susan. Really all we have is the present moment. Have a great weekend, my friend! I'm looking forward to seeing you and Diane very soon!

  9. reading your writings is therapy to my soul dear friend!

    your father acknowledged and respected the original people of that land and i adore him and respect him for this from the bottom of my heart.
    since childhood i watched horrible movies in which white man's cruel behavior based on his false sense of superiority was filmed terribly and left an unpleasant affect on my heart and deep sympathy for red Indians and black people of that age .

    it is relief that such painful approach is decreasing gradually and more people believe in equality and have respect for humanity on total.

    like features and colors thoughts are also product of gene pool and i think it is breaking away slowly .

    as for as it belongs to the sense of ownership i will again say it too is inherited virtue .Red Indians sound to still enjoy their carefree attitude towards life and this livelihood is their treasure best they can have .

    I am basically a villager .in twenty two years of my marriage i saw a gradual crwling of my family to better and than to a luxurious life .i admire it though but inside me a little girl of village still starve for a clay house which's roof dripped during rains and mother put pot under it .it was difficult living still my soul calls for it along which comes a feeling of carefree and freedom from materialistic hold

    1. I'm hearing that roof dripping raindrops into a pot in your childhood home, Baile. It must have been a comforting sound as you fell asleep, knowing your mother was there taking care of you. If we are fortunate in this world, we had parents who surrounded us with love and security ~ those are invaluable feelings that far surpass any material things.

      I think as we get older our minds think more and more about our childhood homes. That pull of home is strong. We moved a lot during my childhood, so "home" for me was my grandmother's home in Smith's Cove. My great grandmother and lots of great aunts and uncles lived in Smith's Cove too. My grandmother's home was a converted carriage house where horse-drawn carriages and gear was kept. My grandfather was a carpenter, and he moved the carriage house from its original site across the road to his land and renovated it to make a home that sheltered generations of our family for nearly 100 years. It's gone now, but it will always be in my heart.

      Thanks for your kind words about my father. He saw the common humanity in all kinds of people, and he tried to understand the differences among people by looking at the reasons behind the differences. I am glad that we are moving into a more inclusive time when people are valued for their qualities rather than their physical characteristics.

      I hope that it is not unbearably hot where you are, and if it is, I hope you are finding some relief. It's hot by our standards here in Colorado, but we live near the top of a hill, so we can throw open all the windows and doors and get a delicious cross-breeze blowing through. Take care my friend! Sending you lots of love and hugs!

  10. LOVE this post! Your Dad made astute observations and I appreciate you sharing them here.
    When the Indians were given beads for the island of Manhattan, they must have looked at them in amazement. Okay, thanks very much, they must have thought...but no one can own the land, it belongs to us all!

    1. Wow! It's wonderful to see you, Kay!!! I'm so glad that you enjoyed this post. I'm never sure how people will respond. You've made a very valid point about what the Indians must have thought way back then. I was reading on some of the treaties signed by First Nations people in Canada. The government promised things it never expected to have to follow through on. The government actually thought that the First Nations people would all die and that that would solve the Indian problem. Whoops! Surprise! They didn't die, and they're coming back stronger and stronger now.

      I hope that all is well with you, Richard, and Christopher. I'm sorry I haven't been by your blog recently. I'm barely keeping my nose above water in blogging. I'll return your visit and catch up today!

  11. I find this so interesting!! I am learning so much through you Louise! I am so happy you have so much from your childhood, like your father's letters! I hate debt!! Debt to me, equals being controlled by someone!! Big Hugs!

    1. Big hugs back at you, Stacy! Thanks for your kind words! I am really fortunate in that I have many things from my childhood. I hate debt too! I hope that you are having a lovely week! Take care, my artistic friend!

  12. Another wonderful post, I can feel the plight of the times. I imagine the winters to be harsh and if no food is stored away, living in the moment can be very difficult. I knew that they would often extend credit with the hope of a great return on furs, as I am sure they sold them for more than they paid.

    Thank you for sharing your stories and thoughts!

    1. Thank you, Truedessa! I always appreciate your comments. The winters in Northern Ontario were long, and the temperatures were well below zero. The only way the northern Ojibwa survived was to disperse throughout the bush in small family groups in an effort to subsist off winter game ~ in a large-game poor region. If they survived the winter, then they would come together in larger groups when plant food and fish could be had to supplement game. I think they must have had a rich spiritual/mythological heritage to help them through such difficult times. Have a great evening, my friend!

  13. As your father got to know these people personally, he must have had conflicting feelings. I really enjoy reading these posts and getting a glimpse of what was going on back then.

    I'm way behind and trying to catch up on your blog!


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