In the Land of the Black Bear
In the mid nineteen eighties, after I had retired from my permanent teaching post, Neil Wylie, a retired Forrester and sometime student at the College of New Caledonia, proposed a project of translation which would have us jointly translating a book by an Oblate French Missionary who had spent a great part of his life among the Aboriginal people of British Columbia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Neil had done considerable research into regional history and knew that Adrien Gabriel Morice had written a memoir in French, recounting his life and work among several Aboriginal groups. Father Morice sent this memoir to his former Parish in France as a means of soliciting support and funds for continuing his missionary work in British Columbia’s interior. Since there was no English translation of the text we would undertake the task.
We each had a half of the book Au Pays de l’Ours Noir which over the next 2 years we translated. The exercise was fascinating for I had only a passing knowledge of Father Morice gained from reading his accounts of his dealings with a variety of First Nation people in a library series for use in Public Schools. When I first arrived in Prince George in 1969 I had consulted the library to gain some knowledge of the Aboriginal people in the region of the Central and Northern Interior of British Columbia. On reading his opinions of the people with whom he was dealing I came away with a rather negative impression of Father Morice who appeared arrogant and dismissive, even cruel in his characterization of whole groups of people. I was also shocked that this unedited material was a source of information for schools. It was demeaning to Aboriginals and simply validated stereotypical thinking. He had his favourite tribes, those who were more cooperative or less resistant to his ministrations. Biases abound in his descriptions and opinions of some of the Nations among whom he moves.
Despite my disdain for the tone of many of the passages I had read, the project that Neil proposed seemed worthy enough and engaging as an exercise in keeping and expanding my language skills. Moreover for all the arrogance that Father Morice demonstrated in those volumes, he did have a great impact on the Northern Interior. He studied the Carrier language, became fluent in it and adapted Cree syllabics to create a writing system for the language of the Carrier people. His name endures on provincial maps through geographical features in the Bulkley region: Moricetown, Morice River and Morice Lake. Our eurocentric culture has thus conferred importance beyond the real value of the contributions made by the Oblate Missionary in the region.
Father Morice was earnest if misguided. He was naturally enough a creature of his time and of his origins. He carried dutifully and patronizingly the White Man’s Burden to bring the glories of European cultural enlightenment to the uninstructed and to promote the beneficent light of Christianity among the Aboriginal people while eradicating their spirituality. It appears that an extra measure of personal arrogance was also an integral part of the package that he brought with him from France. Earnestness notwithstanding, it is increasingly evident that the efforts of the institutions of governments and the Church among Aboriginals were careless and shortsighted and the overall results are an unmitigated disaster.
Whatever prejudices and preconceptions Father Morice brought to his accounts of missionary work in British Columbia the stories from the Land of the Black Bear give a fascinating glimpse of life in remote settlements in the Province in the nineteenth century.
Father Morice’s title for his book is an interesting one. The Black Bear is ubiquitous in North America, consequently to use this animal to represent a particular and specific area of North America may seem odd. It must be said that the book was destined for consumption in France of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. North American exotism and the wilderness could probably best be displayed with the awesome imagery of the Black Bear. The courageous missionary living in privation from civilized European comforts amid the dangers of the primordial wilderness in an relatively unexplored new territory would be more likely to get the admiration and financial support of the faithful. Adrien Gabriel Morice was projecting courage and machismo as well as piety and self sacrifice in exchange for support from Mother Church.
For the next cycle of blogs our life in The Northern Interior of British Columbia will carry the title In the Land of the Black Bear. I will also select and alternate some passages from Father Morice’s publication with the title Au Pays de l’Ours Noir. I borrow the title from Father Morice and the trickle down machismo because it seems engaging and suggestive of the raw qualities that lay beyond the edges of communities in the Northern Interior of British of this fascinatingly diverse Province: Supernatural B.C.
The photo above is a tongue-in-cheek attempt to challenge the conventional. The Spirit Bear, aka the Kermode Bear is in fact a Black Bear, a well disguised Black Bear (not an albino) which has its territory in a relatively small area on the central and north Coast of British Columbia. What you see is not always what you get.