Following Farley Mowat’s bestselling memoir, Otherwise, the literary lion returns with an unexpected triumph
Eastern Passage is a new and captivating piece of the puzzle of Farley Mowat’s life: the years from his return from the north in the late 1940s to his discovery of Newfoundland and his love affair with the sea in the 1950s. This was a time in which he wrote his first books and weathered his first storms of controversy, a time when he was discovering himself through experiences that, as he writes, "go to the heart of who and what I was" during his formative years as a writer and activist.
In the 1950s, with his career taking off but his first marriage troubled, Farley Mowat buys a piece of land northwest of Toronto and attempts to settle down. His accounts of building his home are by turns hilarious and affecting, while the insights into his early work and his relationship with his publishers offer a rare glimpse into the inner workings of a writer’s career.
But in the end, his restless soul could not be pinned to one place, and when his father offered him a chance to sail down the St. Lawrence, he jumped at it, not realizing that his journey would bring him face to face with one of Canada’s more shocking secrets – one most of us still don’t know today. This horrific incident, recalling as it did the lingering aftermath of war, and from which it took the area decades to recover, would forge the final tempering of Mowat as the activist we know today.
Farley Mowat grows wiser and more courageous with each passing year, and Eastern Passage is a funny, astute, and moving book that reveals that there is more yet to this fascinating and beloved figure than we think we know.
|Publisher:||McClelland & Stewart|
|Sold by:||Random House|
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IN FROM THE COLD
We had been waiting almost a month for Gunnar’s plane when, on the first day of October, I stepped out of the cabin to find the nearby gravel ridges alive with dense flocks of ptarmigan making their way south ahead of winter. When I paddled off to haul the net upon which we were now largely dependent for food, I had to break through a scum of ice that had formed overnight. There could be no doubt about it – if we were not picked up within the next few days, we would be marooned for another six or seven weeks until, and if, a ski-equipped plane could land on the frozen bay.
We woke on October 9 to a falling thermometer, a plunging barometer, and a sky darkening with snow clouds. A storm was brewing, and even the usually irrepressible Tegpa was reluctant to go outside until, just before noon, he flung himself at the cabin door in a paroxysm of barking.
Seconds later the Norseman roared low over the crest of the Ghost Hills and slammed down on Windy Bay, its floats shattering the skim ice like a hardball smashing a plate-glass window. Gunnar had finally arrived. Although more than a month late, he offered no explanation or apology. When I pressed for one, he replied casually:
“Pranged a drifting oil barrel on take-off a while back. Buggered a float and this old bitch pretty near sank. Took a while to patch her up. But what the hell, let’s get the show on the fuckin’ road!”
Time was always of the essence with Gunnar. I heaved our gear (it didn’t amount to much) on board, while Fran and Tegpa squeezed into the cramped little cabin even as Gunnar began opening the throttle and Andy shouted his goodbyes.
“Gonna be tight gettin’ to Brochet before dark,” Gunnar yelled to Fran and me. “Might have to spend the night on some godforsaken moose pond the middle of nowhere. But what the hell, there’s a bottle of rum in the back pocket of my seat. Have yourselves a snort . . . just don’t be givin’ that damn dog none! Don’t want no drunken dog aboard!”
Fran and I got a close-up of the world below us that day because there was a head wind to deal with, and in order to conserve gas Gunnar kept the Norseman, as he said later, “close enough to the goddamn trees if they’d been cherry trees we coulda’ picked a goddamn basketful.”
We flew on, fighting the wind while a shaggy carpet of spruce and Jack pine dotted with lakes and fragmented by streams and rivers slid by close beneath. Then abruptly we were over open water and Gunnar was shouting that this was Reindeer Lake.
A hundred and fifty miles long and fifty wide, contained by several thousand miles of convoluted shoreline, Reindeer Lake was the centre of the ancestral wintering ground for what in 1948 may have been as many as a quarter of a million Barren Ground caribou. The area was also home to about three hundred humans – Woodland Crees, Chipewyans (Dene), Metis, and a scattering of white trappers. There were only two settlements – a small one at the appropriately named South End, and Brochet, only slightly larger and at the north end.
Brochet was not much to look at as Gunnar slammed the plane down on the bay in front of the settlement. Two dozen log shanties squatted haphazardly along half a mile of sandy foreshore and three sketchily fenced compounds enclosed a handful of frame structures. Two of the compounds were owned by competing trading firms; the third belonged to the Roman Catholic mission and boasted a grand new church, the glitter of whose sixty-foot steeple encased in sheet metal could be seen miles away.
Having visited Brochet on two previous occasions, I was not dismayed. Frances may have been, but was so relieved to have escaped from the Barren Lands and at finding herself comfortingly surrounded by trees again that not even the coolness of our reception daunted her.
We clambered ashore under the glacial gaze of foxy-faced and soutane-clad Fr. André Darveaux, second-in-command of the Roman Catholic mission; aging Jim Cummins, a former trapper who was now the game warden for a region encompassing about fifty thousand square miles; and willowy Jim Johnson, clerk of a trading post belonging to an entrepreneur named Isaac Schieff, who lived several hundred miles farther south. Neither of Brochet’s most prominent residents – Bill Garbut, the long-time manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s sprawling, white-painted, red-roofed trading post, and white-haired Fr. Joseph Egenolf, head of the mission and the uncrowned king of the Reindeer Lake country – was in evidence.
Nominally, Brochet’s population included about 250 aboriginals and people of mixed blood, but most of these spent the better part of the year widely dispersed at fishing stations and winter camps. The day we arrived, fewer than two dozen were at the settlement and none showed any desire to be friendly with Fran or me, though they did seem much taken by Tegpa, whose impressive appearance and assured behaviour was in marked contrast to that of their own dogs.
Brochet possessed two of the three elements that made up the ruling triumvirate of most northern Canadian communities in those days. The missionaries and traders were well established, but the usually ubiquitous detachment of Royal Canadian Mounted Police was absent. There were, however, two soldiers of the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals operating a weather station as part of an extensive surveillance system being constructed across the top of the continent to contain the godless communists of the Soviet Union. As a recent survivor of the Second World War bitterly averse to being sucked into another world holocaust, I would have kept my distance from the “weather station” had not my employer decreed otherwise.
A letter from the federal Department of Mines and Resources had been awaiting my arrival at Brochet. From it I learned that Andy and I (no mention made of my wife) were to winter with the soldiers in a small barracks attached to the station. However, when I approached the corporal in charge about this he told me he was under strict orders to deny civilian access to his high-security installation. The most he was prepared to do was let me send a radiogram to my department, apprising my employer of the situation and asking for instructions.
These came four days later, brusquely ordering me to make my own arrangements. Fran was indignant – though I was not.
“Typical SNAFU,” I told her. “Situation Normal All Fucked Up. Fact is, we’re probably lucky to be left to our own devices.”
She was not easily reassured, or perhaps she glimpsed an opportunity.
“They don’t seem to care what happens to us. Mightn’t it be best if you resigned the job and we just went on home?”
“I’m not going to do that, Fran. The cement heads have screwed up as usual, but we’ll get by. I’ll have a gab with the old game warden. Seems like a decent kind. Might help us out.”
Jim Cummins wasn’t much help on that front, but I did find out why our reception had been so reserved.
“Brochet heard you was coming, couple of months ago. Schieff’s manager spread the word you’d been up to some shady business – you and Charlie Schweder, when you canoed through here last summer. Said the Mounties was looking into it. You really pissed Isaac off when you bought your supplies for the rest of your trip from the Bay instead of from him. I’d like to help you and your pretty missus, but I got to stay neutral here . . . you understand?”
I thought to see what could be done for us by the Hudson’s Bay Company but the manager was away on a journey to South End.
Winter was almost upon us, and we were without shelter and had no stocks of food or fuel. Moreover we felt more and more like interlopers in a tightly knit and unwelcoming community. Our prospects did not seem bright as we sought temporary shelter in a shack that was already occupied by a horde of red-backed mice. They, at least, welcomed us, acting as if we and our sleeping bags (especially our sleeping bags) were a gift from the gods.
We were rescued by Father Egenolf, big-nosed, white-haired, lean as a whippet, with a bony handshake that could have crushed a baseball. He came striding through our doorway one morning, his rust-coloured soutane hanging about his ankles, to tell us he had just returned from a distant fish camp where he had been netting a winter’s supply of whitefish and lake trout for the three human and fifteen canine residents of his mission.
The Egg (as he was familiarly called, though never to his face) and I had met briefly during the summer of 1947. Now he gave me a tepid smile but lit up like a lantern as he grasped Fran’s hand and kissed it with Gallic fervour.
“Hélas! Here is a demoiselle in distress, non? I shall rescue her!”
Soutane swirling, he led us to a log cabin belonging to a Cree family currently wintering at South End.
Eighteen feet square and one storey high, the cabin had one room and a tiny, windowless attic. The logs had been plastered with a yellowish mixture of mud and dry grass but most of this had fallen off, exposing numerous cracks and gaps. The tarpaper on the steeply pitched roof was in tatters and the panes in the three small windows cracked and grimy. The only furniture was a battered cast-iron cookstove at the far end of a room floored with rough-hewn planks and ankle-deep in debris.
Father Egenolf arranged for us to rent this, the only unoccupied house in Brochet, for five dollars a month. The price was certainly right.
Having found a home for us, the Egg also provided a rusty, metal-framed bed, a lumpy mattress, and a splintered table. Then he gave us a month’s supply of firewood. Despite being surrounded by the world’s largest forest, firewood was precious stuff because most suitable trees within ten miles of Brochet had long since been consumed.
We still had to acquire a supply of basic food stuffs (flour, sugar, baking powder, oatmeal, bacon, and lard), together with everything else needed to keep us alive until spring. Neither of the trading posts had much to offer, most of their staples having already been purchased and carried off to camps and cabins on winter traplines. And Schieff’s manager refused to let us have even a small portion of what remained in his store.
We had better luck at the Bay. Its manager – big, bluff British expatriate Bill Garbut – was initially wary of me but his elfin wife, Renée, immediately took to Fran. She loaned Fran priceless items of household equipment and winter clothing, while Bill gave me access to what remained of his post’s stock and, at Renée’s prodding, even provided scarce food supplies from their own private storeroom. Our acquisitions included fifty one-pound blocks of butter that had gone rancid and been “condemned” to be used as dog feed. I bought the lot, paying only a token sum, having discovered the rancidity was mainly restricted to the surface of the blocks, leaving the inner portion reasonably edible.
We spent the next few weeks furiously engaged in homemaking. Almost everything we needed was in short supply or non-existent, so we made do. Tools were few and primitive, yet we eventually put together a home that was not only comfortable but even stylish – by Brochet standards.
The smoke-grimed ceiling and dingy walls became resplendent with canary-yellow canoe enamel. I patched together cupboards, shelves, two chairs, and a kitchen counter from scraps of old packing cases, and Fran made curtains from the cheap but colourful cotton prints the Bay sold as women’s dress goods. I sealed off the attic with layers of wrapping paper, converting it into a deep-freeze for caribou, fish, ptarmigan, rabbits, even a hind quarter of moose kindly sent our way by the game warden. I rolled several new layers of tarpaper over the roof and nailed saplings on top as protection from blizzards and winter gales. I caulked the log walls inside and out with strips of waste sacking and finally piled sand high against the foundation logs to keep out the worst winter drafts and all but the most persistent voles and mice.
Water and sanitation presented special problems. In summer every household supplied itself with water scooped by the pailful from the lake, and in winter from holes chopped through the lake ice, which froze to a thickness of several feet.
Toilets were non-existent, except in the traders’ homes, some of which boasted chemical lavatories. The rest of us made do with vestigial outhouses sited anywhere from a dozen feet to a dozen yards from the cabins they served. Ours was a doorless, roofless construct with three skeletal walls and a horizontal pole bridging a shallow hole. It wasn’t even really ours. Rather, it was a communal facility used by anybody and everybody living nearby. It was also a favourite hangout for some of Brochet’s many stray and hungry dogs.
The prospect of my wife having to wait in line during a howling blizzard with the temperature at forty degrees below zero weighed heavily upon me. So I installed an empty ten-gallon lard pail in our attic that I made accessible by means of a trap door in the ceiling and a spruce-pole ladder. With the temperature well below zero, the attic was no place to linger: the cold up there quickly froze everything solid. Once a week I wrestled the icy pail down from its eyrie, rolled it outside and away from the house, then thawed it for an hour or more over an open fire so I could empty it.
The thawing of the bucket always drew an audience. A circle of ravenous dogs would form around me, drawing closer and closer until I drove them back with threatening gestures and shouts. A few human youngsters might also be present, watchful but, like the dogs, silent. They bestowed a descriptive name upon me – one still remembered when, twenty-six years later, I revisited Brochet in the company of Manitoba’s then-premier, Edward Schreyer.
On that occasion a grinning Cree man amongst those gathered at the float dock to greet the dignitaries was heard to say, “So . . . Dogsoup Maker come back, eh? Wonder what he going to cook this time?”
Winter was in full swing before the first ski-equipped plane risked touching down on the ice at Brochet. It brought mail – including a stiff reprimand from my employer for having wasted my time and taxpayers’ money the previous summer trying to ameliorate the desperate conditions of the Inuit I had encountered in southern Keewatin Territory. The letter concluded with these words:
“You are herewith instructed to refrain from meddling in matters outside your jurisdiction and to leave all such matters to competent authority.”
To say I was upset by this would be to put it far too mildly. I railed against the ignorance and stupidity of the Ottawa mandarins, until Frances pulled me up.
“They probably will fire you if you carry on like this, though I don’t suppose that will stop you. . . . Maybe you ought to quit this job now, then we could go back home where you could tell the papers what you’ve found out.”
I had only recently been told by Father Egenolf’s assistant of a mass grave for about forty Chipewyan men, women, and children who had perished in or near the settlement the previous spring of some unidentified disease. One that never was identified because the government doctor for the district was not able to find time to visit Brochet until a month after the lethal epidemic had run its course.
“We lose half our Idthen Eldeli [People of the Caribou] here and out at the camps,” the young priest told me, smiling sadly. “Eh bien. They live like dogs, les pauvres. Peut-être it is better if the Lord takes them to His House for then they will be saved.”
With these words sticking in my craw, I thought long and hard about what Fran had suggested. Should I tell my bosses in Ottawa to go to hell? And try writing something for the press about the abominable treatment of the native peoples I was seeing?
I had something else to think about as well. Having spent nearly five years as a sanctioned killer of my own kind, I was becoming increasingly averse to killing any living thing except to maintain the lives of me and mine. I was especially reluctant to slaughter caribou and wolves, as was required of me “in the interest of amassing scientific knowledge.” But I was finding it hard to abandon the ambition I had nurtured since childhood of becoming a professional zoologist.
It was Hobson’s choice, and the days slipped by without me making a decision.
Clock time had very little significance to those wintering in a community like Brochet. Our day began at dawn when, rousted by Tegpa’s cold nose thrust into my face, I would scramble out of bed, rush to the cookstove, light the kindling I had carefully arranged the night before, then scoot back to the comfort of the double sleeping bag I shared with Fran to wait until the frigid cabin had warmed up at least to the freezing point.
When we could no longer see the frosty vapour of our breath, we would get up and, having broken the ice in the bucket, have a brief wash. Thereafter Fran would cook breakfast, usually cornmeal or oatmeal porridge with a slice or two of cold deer meat on the side, and our own homemade bread washed down by tea thickened and sweetened with evaporated milk.
As breakfast cooked, I would trot down to the lake armed with a twenty-pound iron bar flattened at one end in the form of a chisel, with which I would bash through the six or seven inches of new ice that had sealed our “well” during the night. Then, while Tegpa did his rounds, asserting and advertising his mastery over the local canines, I would shuttle five-gallon buckets of water back to the cabin.
Breakfast over, Fran would tackle her household chores, cooking, cleaning, mending our clothing, and doing the washing, while keeping the stove parsimoniously stoked with precious firewood, which was always in short supply. In the afternoons, weather permitting, she might snowshoe the half mile to the Bay for something she needed, or just to visit Renée. Or she might visit one of our closer neighbours, there to drink endless mugs of tea with the women and children while wrestling with the difficulty of trying to converse in a mixture of English, Cree, and Dene.
If the weather was reasonable (not more than thirty below and no blizzard blowing), I would strap on snowshoes and, accompanied by Tegpa, set off to check my trapline, which, to the bewilderment of the locals, consisted of fifty ordinary household mouse traps set under logs, tree stumps, or at inscrutable little holes in the snow. I did this because I was under instructions from my employer to “collect representative small mammals for taxonomic purposes and population analysis.”
Tegpa and I regularly travelled ten or fifteen miles through frost-brittle Jack pine forest counting caribou and wolves (as much by their tracks as by their physical presence), and keeping a sharp lookout for ptarmigan or chicken (sharp-tailed grouse), which could be potted with a .22, not as specimens but to help fill our stomachs. Also I always carried a short axe in case we might come upon a stand of birch or tamarack previous generations had somehow overlooked.
I loved these excursions, as did Tegpa, and though we may not have learned a great deal about the specified “study species,” we made the acquaintance of whisky-jacks (Canada jays), boreal chickadees, occasional ladder-backed woodpeckers, a porcupine, a great grey owl, and, on one truly momentous occasion, a wolverine, who looked us over challengingly from a few yards away until I unslung my .22, whereupon he pissed contemptuously in our direction before slogging off, belly deep in snow, with never a backward glance.
On occasion, I might join one of the local trappers in his carriole (a toboggan with built-up canvas sides, hauled by dogs) for a trip to a fish cache or trapping cabin as much as fifty miles away in the labyrinthine world of Reindeer Lake’s boreal forest. On such excursions, I saw herds of caribou numbering as many as two or three hundred spending the daylight hours far out on the lake ice, where they could see would-be hunters, human or lupine, long before these could approach close enough to be a threat.
I had been instructed to “collect” up to a hundred caribou of all ages, together with as many wolves as I could shoot, trap, or poison, and had been provided with rifles, steel leghold traps, and cyanide bait for this purpose. I had been further instructed to dissect and minutely examine every specimen procured. External and internal parasites were to be identified, counted, and preserved in alcohol. The condition and state of development of sexual organs was to be ascertained, and a full range of foetuses preserved for future study. Stomach and bowel contents were to be analyzed – and so it went, ad nauseam.
I failed to comply.
Perhaps I refrained because of the growing conviction that studying animals alive in their own undisturbed habitat might reveal more truths about them than could be uncovered by gun and scalpel. I killed only one caribou during my time at Brochet, and it died not for Science but to provide food for the three of us. Moreover, I killed no wolves, nor did I make any attempt to do so.
During the long winter evenings Fran and I were often visited by neighbours, both white and native, or went visiting them. Few owned radios so conversation was the entertainment. They were exceptional storytellers, and even most of the youngsters had good tales to tell. After these visits, I would sometimes stay up past midnight, scribbling notes about travellers, hunters, missionaries, trappers, lovers, and losers; about Cree, Idthen Eldeli, Metis and whites, and the lives they led.
A bent toward writing was increasingly preoccupying me, and Fran’s suggestion that I might have it in me to become a full-time writer seemed almost credible. I began spending a lot more time at my portable typewriter than in filling notebooks with scientific data as a dedicated biologist would have done. Of particular moment, I started expanding an account I had sketched earlier about the terrible events the year before that had decimated the Barren Land Inuit – especially the Ihalmiut of the Kazan River country.
By mid-November I had what I thought might be a publishable account of this disaster so, with Fran’s encouragement and acting on the assumption that I might as well start at the top, I titled it Eskimo Spring, addressed it to the editor of the prestigious Atlantic Monthly magazine in Boston, USA, and sent it off with the next mail plane.
Then, feeling cocky at having perhaps loosened the fetters binding me to Ottawa, I decided to take a week off and travel by dog team to South End, a hundred and fifty miles away to see how the caribou, wolves, and people to the south were making out.
I borrowed a dog team and carriole from Shorty Laird, a white trapper temporarily laid up with a bad leg, and made ready to depart one crystalline morning with the mercury registering thirty below and just a breath of wind.
Shorty’s eight dogs had been tied up for three weeks and were wild to run. It took me and two teenaged helpers half an hour to manhandle them into the harness, attaching them to the fifteen-foot-long carriole, which held my grub box, fifty pounds of frozen fish for dog feed, my sleeping bag and rifle, and a small packsack of odds and ends. I had tied the carriole to a stump while we harnessed the dogs, but somebody prematurely slipped the securing knot and, before I could jump aboard, the dogs were off like cannonballs. A fifty-foot brake rope was always towed behind the carriole in case of such emergencies, and I just managed to grab the free end as it whipped by and wrap it around one wrist, after which I was dragged through the settlement on my back at about thirty miles an hour.
Somehow I managed to swing myself around so I could use my feet as a brake. This got me nowhere and, once the dogs had dragged me onto the slick lake ice, there remained no further possibility of stopping or even slowing them. Nevertheless, I hung on for perhaps a quarter of a mile, while my arms felt as if they were being wrenched from their sockets; then I let go.
I got shakily to my feet as carriole and dogs grew small in the distance. Looking back, I could see a small troop of neighbours ranged along the shore, motionless as gargoyles but undoubtedly enjoying to the full the spectacular discomfiture of the tenderfoot.
As I limped grimly back to make arrangements for a search team to pursue the runaways, I knew I had secured a permanent place in Brochet’s panoply of stories.
The cold intensified as December settled in, and the mud chinking of our cabin could not keep it out. Although the indoor temperature at waist level remained tolerable, water spilled on the floor froze almost immediately.
Slipping on a patch of this instant ice brought me inspiration. I began saving our waste water, which I then heated in galvanized pails on the back of the stove. When I had a couple of full pails ready, I would carry them outside, add as much snow as possible, then slather this slush on the outer walls of the house, where it froze instantly. When our cabin was ice-sheathed up to the level of the ceiling, it became much more liveable. Soon almost every cabin in Brochet acquired similar igloo-like armour and my stock went up a little.
In mid-December a small bush plane belonging to one of Isaac Schieff’s many interlocking little companies slithered to a halt on the ice of Brochet Bay to unload freight for his trading post, together with some mail.
There were letters for both Fran and me – not all bearing good news. A stiffly worded epistle from the University of Toronto informed me that my college had decided not to let me complete my current year extramurally – an arrangement that had been agreed upon before I went north in the spring of 1947. I was on notice that if I wanted a degree I would have to resume classes in Toronto by mid-January of the coming year.
Fran was outraged by what we both felt was a low blow, but I had mixed feelings. I had always known that a career in science would require me to obtain a bachelor’s degree, then a master’s, and finally a doctorate, but this academic climb to success had never had any attraction for me. Now I was tempted to use this setback as an excuse for abandoning academe altogether and becoming an unfettered “naturalist” able – perhaps – to make a living studying the wild ones alive and in the wild. I might have done it then and there had not Frances been dubious.
Schieff’s plane’s principal cargo was liquor, and most of the customers celebrated fiercely over the next several days and nights, turning Brochet into Bedlam. Guns blasted salutes at all hours – and not all were aimed at nothing. To Father Egenolf’s helpless fury, several bullet holes appeared in the steeple of his new church.
Fights erupted between employees and adherents of the Bay and of Schieff’s company. Combatants included white and Metis trappers, together with drifters from a commercial fishing venture Schieff had started. The hullabaloo was enough to put the caribou and wolf populations to flight and even to persuade many of the resident ravens to seek safety in the woods.
One night, when the temperature had sunk to forty-five below zero, two Metis men failed to find their way home after a bash at Schieff’s and froze to death. I thought it a wonder more did not meet a similar fate. Indeed, Fran and I thawed out and resuscitated one unfortunate who, wearing little more than a flannel shirt and torn trousers, passed out in a snowdrift near our cabin. Had Tegpa not drawn our attention to him, he might never have awakened.
Our concern about what was going on was not shared by others. When I spoke about it to Jim Cummins, the game warden, who was also the magistrate, he offered this nonchalant advice.
“Don’t let it bother you. If people gets enough liquor into them they’ll stay warm even if hell freezes over. Anyhow, this lot of booze’ll run out soon enough, then they’ll quiet down.”
Binge drinking and wild parties were not the worst of it. Fran was unnerved and I was infuriated by the hostility unleashed by some “under-the-influence” white residents. One evening Schieff’s manager (whom I will call Belson) barged into our home to announce belligerently that he had come for Tegpa, whom he fancied as a new leader of his dog team and had already several times tried to buy. I had always refused, so now he tried a different tack.
“Your goddamn husky’s been into my fish shed stuffing his gut. Either you pay me twenty-five bucks for the fish he stole and turn him over to me for my team . . . or I’ll shoot the fucker dead first chance I get.”
He then stamped out of the cabin, sweeping Fran’s china teapot (a precious loan from Renée Garbut) off the kitchen counter, shattering it into tiny fragments. When I told the usually affable Bill Garbut about this incident, his benevolent expression hardened into a scowl.
“That son of a bitch would shoot his own mother for the fun of it. The way he screws the natives – and it’s more ways than one – makes me puke. . . . Let me tell you a little story about him.
“There used to be a Chip kid here with a wizened-up arm from polio he got when he was a baby. He had epilepsy too – took fits. He wasn’t too smart but he always tried to do his best. His family was part of the Hatchet Lake band but Nazee – that was his name – couldn’t make it out on the land with the rest of them so the mission was supposed to be looking after him.
“He got by, running errands and doing odd jobs nobody else would do. A lot of them for Belson, who paid the kid with spoiled stuff from his store nobody would buy.
“Winter evenings, Belson and his cronies – white trappers and the like – would amuse themselves giving Nazee lemon extract and when he was tipsy – the stuff’s three-quarters alcohol – make him strip to the buff and dance round a red-hot pot-belly stove. Crippled like he was, he would sometimes fall against the stove.
“Then they’d give him some more extract, and get out the marking hammer.
“You know what that is, don’t you? Hammer with sharp little nails set into its head, used to bash a fox skin or any fur to make a pattern into it. Kind of a trademark that shows the skin belongs to your outfit.
“Those bastards would pay Nazee with shots of extract, or sometimes a nickel or even a dime, to let them bash him with Schieff’s hammer. Mostly they’d do it on his backside, but sometimes on his crippled arm or his legs, under his clothes where it wouldn’t show.
“When I got wind of that, I sent for the boy and when Renée and I saw the brand hammered into that wizened arm I sent a message down to Belson offering to shoot him if he done it again. When I told Egenolf about it, he just shrugged and said it was in God’s hands. The sanctimonious old bugger! I sure and hell knew whose hands that kid was in, and it wasn’t God’s!
“Renée wanted us to keep the kid around but I couldn’t do that because Company policy don’t run to charity. Anyhow, the kid went someplace else. Don’t know where. But that bastard Belson’s still around! I keep hoping somebody’ll fill him full of lead.”
During this drunken period, the native people kept a low profile and some withdrew to their bush camps. They even stayed clear of Fran and me. I wondered why, but concluded they probably thought we whites were all alike. Perhaps we gave them occasion to think so. After the Garbuts threw a party to celebrate the first anniversary of our marriage, I wrote in my journal:
The main refreshment was punch made of about a quart of grain alcohol from my scientific supplies, a couple of bottles of Vat 69 out of Bill’s private stock, a lot of Renée’s homemade beer, some cans of grapefruit segments, a bottle of maple syrup, some mouldy lemons, and a good big dollop of cayenne pepper. After a few mugs of this Bill was reborn as an Apache and danced wildly about to music he made himself – the mating call of a bull moose.
Some Crees just in from South End with fur to trade found the post door locked and our lot whooping it up inside. They stood outside the frosted windows peering in at the antics of the “master race.” Wonder what they thought of it all. Don’t think I’ll ask.
Jim Cummins had been right about one thing: when the planeload of liquor was gone, Brochet quieted down. Hardly a soul was to be seen outdoors during the brief daylight hours and at night even the occupied cabins seemed to belong to an abandoned settlement. Almost the only sign of life was underfed dogs drifting about like disembodied spirits.
The next plane to arrive was a Norseman chartered by the federal Department of Indian Affairs. It brought in a Dr. Robert Yule on the last of four visits scheduled for 1948 to provide for the medical requirements of the natives who lived at or traded to Brochet. Amiable, middle-aged Dr. Yule might have chosen a better time to perform his duties. On the day he arrived, there were fewer than twenty natives in the settlement – the rest being far away at winter camps or on their traplines. Had the good doctor chosen to delay his visit until the Christmas season, the entire population of the region would have been gathered here. He and his plane stayed with us exactly twenty-five minutes – Bill Garbut timed it – while the doctor saw (but did not treat) a Dene youth with a broken leg that had already begun to set crookedly, and several elderly people to whom he handed out large white pills he carried loose in his pocket. They looked like after-dinner mints but Bill claimed they were laxatives. Then he gave us all a smiling farewell and flew back to his home in The Pas.
His departure left me seething, for he had been responsible for the health of the natives of the region during the fearful epidemic in the spring of 1947 when at least two hundred men, women, and children – an accurate count was never made – perished of a disease that was never diagnosed because no doctor visited any of the afflicted camps. But I had visited several of them while making the canoe journey between Reindeer and Nueltin Lakes four months after the dying and had seen many of the hurriedly made graves which now housed the inhabitants of those otherwise-deserted sites.
The memory of those graves and the mass grave Father Darveaux had told me about impelled me to write a report about the abominable way the natives of this region were being treated. I detailed the government’s failure to provide medical aid or help of any sort during the 1947 epidemic and concluded my tirade with a bald account of the treatment the crippled boy, Nazee, had received.
Before sending my outburst to my superiors in Ottawa, I showed it to Bill Garbut. He said little, other than to ask my permission to make a copy of the Nazee story. I was not surprised when, a few days later, he told me he had arranged to have the copy mailed anonymously from Winnipeg to Isaac Schieff.
“That money-grubbing old bugger hired Belson after the Bay fired him for frigging with the mail. Schieff knew he was no damn good. Maybe this’ll give him some second thoughts. He’s scared shitless of the press.”
Within a week, the moccasin telegraph was spreading the news that Belson was being replaced by Schieff’s son as manager at Brochet.
By mid-December, with Christmas fast approaching, Brochet was filling up.
One by one the empty cabins are sprouting smoke from their tin chimneys as the human and dog population swells. It’s a rather mysterious phenomenon because they all seem to arrive in the middle of the night. You wake up in the morning and there they are! Tents are going up too, which means the Barren Land Chips have begun to arrive all the way from Nueltin Lake. The traders are busier than beavers. Lots of activity and lots of chicanery as furs are swapped for gewgaws, gadgets, and sometimes even useful stuff like food and ammunition.
A week later I wrote:
The settlement is overflowing with a couple of hundred adults and at least sixty children. The trading posts are jam-packed from morning until night. Brochet Bay looks like a dog rodeo, with teams racing over it every direction and sled tracks as thick as threads in a white handkerchief. The mission is doing a roaring business too, collecting furs for tithes, hearing confessions, selling pardons, and, I wouldn’t doubt, indulgences.
Although it’s running mostly on tea now instead of booze, which has pretty well run out, the social life never seems to stop. Candles and oil lanterns burn all night in every cabin and the natives, most of whom haven’t seen each other for a couple of months, just never seem to get enough visiting. Dog teams are as thick as taxis in New York and cries of “Hew” and “Haw” (left and right) sound like a hassle of mad ravens. The teams compete for right of way and there are glorious free-for-all dog fights with lots of cursing in Cree, Chip, English, and canine. When we go walkabout we carry good thick sticks to keep the dog mob at bay. At night there is a deafening cacophony from two or three hundred hungry dogs each wanting another chunk of whitefish or caribou. Little mountains of crushed bones, fish scales, deer hair, and dog shit grow like mushrooms around every dog tethering post. Things were actually quieter around here when the booze was on the go.
Christmas is the main celebration of the year because winter dog travel makes it possible for almost everyone – men, women, youngsters, and old folks – to come to Brochet even from the most distant camps. But though most of the natives are nominally Christians – Catholics – neither religion nor trade is the principal draw. The big attraction is human companionship: the need and opportunity to renew the sense of belonging to a family, clan, or tribe.
Christmas becomes the time, and Brochet the place for far-flung and wandering people to see and touch one another; a time for young guys and gals to make out, with marriage often the outcome; a time and place for old folk to circulate and pass on the knowledge they’ve acquired; a time for storytelling, dances, “socials.” A time and place for the renewal and repair of the human fabric.
There is something else as well.
This annual get-together is almost certainly fuelled by an ancient, maybe instinctive, need to renew the allegiance that not only binds human beings to one another, but cements all living things into the single, super-entity that constitutes life on earth.
These people are doing what their pagan ancestors (and ours too) used to do every year at the time of the winter solstice: they are refurbishing and strengthening their essential connections to the mother-with-a-thousand-names who is the mother of us all.
For nearly two thousand years Christianity has been trying to make over this celebration, and refashion it into a weapon we can use in our ongoing war to subjugate all the world and (madmen’s dream!) even the universe, to serve our boundless ambitions and insatiable desires.
This isn’t the kind of dream my native neighbours seem to have. I believe they’d be content with what they had, with their old ways and old beliefs – if only we’d let them.
Nineteen forty-nine was almost upon us, but Frances and I had not yet decided what course to steer.
One morning while I was out on the bay chipping at nearly a foot of new ice that had formed in our well overnight, I saw the corporal from the weather station knocking on the door of our cabin. He had brought us a radiogram. By the time I got back with the water, he was gone but Fran wordlessly handed me the flimsy. Unlike most government communications, this one was concise and to the point.
AS OF DECEMBER THIRTY ONE YOUR SERVICES HAVE BEEN DEEMED REDUNDANT
R A GIBSON
DEPUTY COMMISSIONER NORTHWEST TERRITORIES OF CANADA AND DEPUTY MINISTER DEPARTMENT OF MINES AND RESOURCES CANADA
“Looks like they got my report,” I said a little ruefully.
Fran was half smiling, half crying. “Well, what now?”
“As if you didn’t know,” I said and kissed her. “Goodbye, Brushy . . . Hello Toronto. Hope Tegpa can handle it!”
Our removal was neither quickly nor easily arranged. Pulling up the rootlets we had established and packing our few belongings did not take long, but finding a plane to take us out was more demanding. The Schieff Norseman seemed the obvious answer, but the post’s new manager equivocated until it was obvious we were never going to be flown out by his company’s plane. Eventually I arranged for a charter from Flin Flon, but a week of fierce storms intervened before a plane could pick us up.
January 5th. Lovely day, clear, bright, and, thank God, no wind. We’re bunking in with the Garbuts while we wait, but this morning we walked back to the cabin to say goodbye. Bit of a heart-breaker, those tacky chintz curtains, the egg-yellow walls with the bare spots where we had pinned up pictures cut from old magazines, all the stuff we made and did to help the old place turn itself into a home. Now all of a sudden it’s empty as a biscuit tin. I hope the Moiestie family comes back and lives in it again. It won’t last long without people.*
* When I revisited Brochet in 1974, the house was still standing. It was the last log building still in use, all the others having been replaced with prefabricated plywood boxes. A young Cree couple was camping in it until they, too, could acquire a modern box.