Manitoba Historical Society
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Recollections of an Indian Missionary

by Rev. Maurice Sanderson, D.D.

Manitoba Pageant, September 1959, Volume 5, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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I was born at the Fairford Indian Reserve in Manitoba, on the 5th of April in the year 1877.

Both my parents were Crees. My father was born at Cumberland House, on the Saskatchewan River in what is now the Province of Saskatchewan, in the year 1826, but was brought by his parents to the Red River Settlement while yet an infant, where they settled, and where he grew up. My mother’s parents came from Moose Factory, on James Bay, in what is now known as Northern Ontario, but as her father was employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company and moved about from time to time to different posts, she was born at Lac Seul in North-western Ontario. While she was yet a child the family moved to the Red River at what is now St. Andrews, Man. There they settled and that is where my mother grew up.

I got my start in school at the Mission School at Fairford and attended there until I was twelve years of age. Then I left home to go to an Industrial School for Indian children near Winnipeg. It was not an institution of correction, as the name seems to be understood now-a-days. Perhaps a better word to use would be Technical School, but at that time the name Industrial was used because trades or other occupations were taught, as well as classroom work. I took up the printing trade and worked at it for six years.

At the end of that time, armed with a letter or recommendation from the principal of the school, I went to the city to look for a job in some printing establishment. Before I got to the first place I had in mind, I met an old clergyman whom I had known from the time I was a boy. He stopped and asked me where I was going. When I told him my errand, he asked if I had ever thought of going in for the ministry of the Church.

Now, the ministry of the Church was one thing I had always had in my mind, even as a boy — to be a missionary among my own people. I could see even then the need for missionaries to the Indians, but how it was to come about for me to take the necessary training, I had no idea. My father, though making a comfortable living as a small farmer on the reserve, had not the means to help me through college, and of course I had none of my own. When, therefore, I met my old friend, and he asked me if I had ever thought of going into the ministry, I could truthfully, and not on the spur of the moment, tell him what had long been in my thoughts. After a short talk, he said that he was just on his way to a meeting, but for me not to do anything more just now about trying to find a job, and to come and see him at his home the next day.

I could hardly wait for the next day, wondering what might be in store, but it came at last, and in good time I was at my good friend’s home. Without much waste of time, he told me that he had arranged for me to enter St. John’s College, Winnipeg, and asked when I could come. Not having many worldly goods to arrange for, I told him I could come in two days’ time. I entered St. John’s College in September, 1896. In 1902 I was ordained into the ministry of the Anglican Church in St. John’s Cathedral by Archbishop Machray.

I met with a rather amusing incident the first Sunday after my ordination. Some preparation had to be made before I left for my first appointment and this made it necessary for me to spend another week in town, and the Sunday between I was sent to take service at a small church in the country. Just before the service began, two young men came in and sat in one of the back pews. There was nothing strange about that, but what I did find strange was the way they kept their eyes fixed on me all through the service. It pleased me, of course, to think that I was making some impression and holding the attention of at least two of my congregation. After the service I took the opportunity of having a word or two with the congregation as they left. My two attentive friends were the last two to go, but they stopped and asked if I had time, would I go over and see them at their own home. It was just a one-roomed house, and they had made it very comfortable and home-like, but what struck me when I went in was the number of weapons that decorated the walls — shotguns and rifles and revolvers, and even a sword or two. I didn’t ask them, but I wondered why so many deadly weapons. Then they told me the story.

They were two English boys, who, after much thought, had decided to seek their fortune in a new country, and chose Canada in which to make the venture. They knew very little about the country, but when they decided on Canada, they read up on what they could find about it, and among their reading was some wild and woolly stuff that told of painted warriors and scalping Indians, always on the war-path and brandishing tomahawks and scalping knives. Truly a fearsome country for peace-loving people to try and make a home. So they must come prepared to sell their precious lives as dearly as possible in case some marauding Indians made a raid on their poor unsuspecting selves. What interested them was that the first Indian they saw in Canada was a clergyman of their own Church, and I don’t think he gave them any cause for alarm.

My first appointment after ordination was the Lac Seul Mission in Northwestern Ontario, and in the newly formed Diocese of Keewatin. It was a large mission and included several out-stations, and that meant a large territory, which, in turn involved much travelling, for besides the Mission stations, the Indians were visited at their trapping grounds in winter.

After ten years at Lac Seul, I took charge of a newly-formed mission, namely the Peguis Mission in the Diocese of Rupert’s Land. After nearly ten years there, I returned to Lac Seul, but was there only a year when I was put in charge of the Indian Missions in the southern part of the Diocese of Keewatin. That took in a very large territory, and meant much travelling. In order to be nearer the centre of the work, I moved to Kenora and made my home there. Besides other advantages, it meant schooling for my children, who before that had to be sent away from home for their education. I remained at Kenora for nearly twenty years.

By this time, I was nearing forty years in the mission field, and beginning to feel the strain of much hard travelling on account of advancing years.

I then moved back to Lac Seul and remained for four years; the reason for the move was that there was not so much travelling to do. In 1944 I took the opportunity offered to take charge of the Fairford Mission, my old home Mission that I had left as a boy of twelve, nearly fifty-five years before. There I ended nearly fifty years in the active ministry of the Church, and went to live with my three sons who were employed in the gold mines at Red Lake, Ontario.

But my work was not yet done, for I carried on the services of the Church for nearly eight years, because of the vacancy in the Mission that then existed. I took my last regular service on Easter Day of this year.

I did most of my travelling by snowshoe and dog-team in winter, and by canoe and paddle in summer, but also by train and car and gas boat wherever possible and latterly by plane when that mode of travel came into more general use. The latter was a quick and convenient way to travel where there were no railways or motor cars, but even with the planes, there were still places I had to visit that called for the old way of travel, that is by snowshoe and canoe.

In so much travelling over wind-swept lakes and through forest trails, and through blinding blizzards in winter, across rough and stormy lakes, and running foaming rapids in frail canoes in summer, it was inevitable that things did not always run as smoothly as one hoped. I don’t think I ever took any fool-hardy chances, and if I did take any risks it was from necessity and I always came safely through them.

I remember once travelling across a large lake — many miles across — when a blizzard struck when I was still ten miles out. There were times when I couldn’t even see my lead dog. Then night came on, no sign of stars or moon to guide me and I was all alone with only my dogs for company in that howling, shrieking blizzard and blinding snow. Just before darkness fell, I came to a crack in the ice that ran right across my way, and stretched for miles on either side. I spent a lot of valuable time looking for a safe place to cross, but at last I found a place where I thought I might be able to. make it. There was just a thin sheet of ice over it, and this was one time when I had to take a chance. Even the dogs seemed to sense the danger, but I persuaded them by cracking of whip and voice to make a dash for it. We made it all right, but I could see the water coming up behind me as we passed over the thin ice. I was on the toboggan, of course, which acted like a plank when one ventures on dangerous ice.

At long last I began to feel the snow getting deeper under me. That told me that we were getting near the shore where the snow began to pile up, and sure enough, a little farther and we hit land. By following the shore and keeping in the lee of the bush, we came to the Indian village that I was making for and all was well.

On another occasion, I had to make a trip of some distance rather late in November, and took a man with me in case I met with some difficulty at that season of the year, and we sure had lots. On our way back, the weather that up to that time had remained fine, turned bad. Thick clouds began to gather, and the wind shifted to the north. We were still twenty miles from home when we made camp that night. During the night the storm broke and when we woke up in the morning we found ourselves covered with a thick blanket of snow. I never carried a tent except in the summer as a protection from rain. For three days the storm raged with the high winds that whipped the lake into wild high waves. At the end of the third day, we ate the last morsel of food we had, though we had tried to make it last out as long as possible. But we still had tea. We rolled in our bedding that night hoping that the storm would blow itself out, but when we awoke next morning it was still blowing, though the snow had stopped. All we had for breakfast was tea. There was not a sign of any living thing around, though we sought them in the bush, not even a squirrel or a whiskey jack. We couldn’t stay there without food, and besides, when the wind went down the Lake might freeze, and to wait several days without food for the ice to get strong enough to travel on, offered a poor prospect. There was only one other thing to do, and that was to get away from there as quickly as possible. Loading our stuff into the canoe, and with one more mug of hot tea, we launched out. How that frail canoe bounced about on the rough waves, but it began to get heavy as the splashing water froze on to it as it fell. The same thing happened to me as I was at the bow of the canoe and got every splash. Travelling under those conditions was hard work, and of course we were just paddling — no outboard motors in those days. Empty stomachs made it a lot harder. About every two hours we would land and “boil the kettle.” Though we made a round in the bush there was nothing to be seen that would serve for food. The storm had driven everything under cover. Then we came to a deep bay running many miles inland, but only three miles across. We decided to risk the three miles of rough water. We had been travelling on rough water before, but were near land all the time, but in this case it was crossing a deep bay with no land near, and if the water got too rough there was no shelter to run to.

It was getting late in the short autumn afternoon when we got across without mishap, and on rounding the point — there in a little sandy cove lay a birchbark canoe, and nestling among the shelter of pine trees a birchbark wigwam, with a little curl of blue smoke coming out at the top. What a pleasant sight and feeling, for even my hunger didn’t seem so acute when I saw that. There was also a dog that gave warning to the inmates that strangers had arrived.

When I pushed my way through an opening that had a piece of canvas hanging over it to serve for door, and stood inside, the good lady of the wigwam uttered an exclamation of surprise. Her first words were, “What happened?” for I was just about covered with ice. I ignored her question and said, “We’re hungry.”

After a good meal of boiled whitefish and potatoes and bannock, we set out again, only this time we had several large whitefish that our kind friends supplied in case we had to stop on the way for a meal, for we still had ten miles to paddle before we reached home. Towards evening, the wind began to calm down, and the clouds cleared away. We knew the lake would freeze, so we kept on going till we came to the end of our journey long after midnight. As we paddled along, we could see that ice was beginning to form on the water, but let it freeze, we were just about home. When I looked at the lake later that morning, it was covered with ice. We got home just in time.

Page revised: 14 August 2013

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