Au Pays de l’Ours Noir: Part 2

Excerpt from Au Pays de l’Ours Noir

Dispatches of a Missionary 1897, by Father

Adrien Gabriel Morice

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Translated by Neil Wylie and Garry Girvan

Among the Chilcotin People

Dispatches from a French Missionary, Father Adrien Gabriel Morice to his former parish in France to ask for support in his work among the First Nations in British Columbia.

 Among the Chilcotin People

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Fraser River south of Prince George to Soda Creek and Williams Lake, BC. (Click on image to magnify)

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 I have said that these Natives had been unavoidably deprived of the visits of the missionaries of Williams Lake. The principal cause of this apparent abandonment was not so much the distance which separated them from the mission, as the Fraser River which at certain seasons is an uncrossable barrier for the missionary. The Fraser is the great arterial river of British Columbia, and from Soda Creek to Fort Yale, a distance of about 400 miles, is a real torrent, its rapidity staggering. To cross it, men and baggage must be trusted to a hollowed out trunk of a tree, complimented by the name of “canoe” while the horse follows swimming as best it can.  However, this operation, though always rather dangerous is not of a nature to stop the missionary. Because of the mountainous nature of the country and the enormous blankets of snow which pile up on the north side, the river is subject to frequent and very considerable risings* so it ofter happens that the canoe which you thought was moored fast has been carried away by the stream, and then there is no crossing or recrossing.

It was this consideration, along with others, that led Mons. D’Herbomez to allow the Missionary to the Chilcotin people to go and spend some time with them so as to get them to build a church (they hadn’t a single one yet) and a house for the Priest.

With this objective I went to see them in the Spring of 1883 in the company of the Rev. Father Guertin, whom I was succeeding, and together we chose the site  which seemed most favourable to us for the church and the house. I told them the day when they would have to come and fetch me and and promised them that the Rev. Father Blanchet who is past master of building churches in the wild would come to direct their labours.

Of this preliminary visit I recall no incident particularly worth remembering except that we owed it to guiding Providence who watches especially over the missionary that we were not drowned while crossing the Fraser.

I think that we had arrived on the fifth of April. The River was full of ice except at the place where were going to cross. Seeing this, my guide Father Guertin asked: “You see the state of that ice? Do you feel brave enough to try to cross anyway?

“If you try I will follow,” I replied.

Then arming himself with an enormous stick he used it to sound the ice in all directions after which he decided to try the crossing.

On the appointed day, two chiefs with two of their men came to the mission to fetch us. They had promised to have the necessary materials prepared for the construction of the church, but between my first visit and the time when they came to fetch me, the murder of the two Chinese and the trouble which followed intervened.  This stirring of the blood had caused the promises made to the Priest to be forgotten. It even seemed that their hurry to come and fetch us proceeded less from their religious zeal than from reasons of politics.

Indeed on their arrival at the mission they had nothing more pressing than to tell me of the troubles which afflicted their Country. They told me how their hearts were sick because the Whites had come to arrest their men to take them far away to the stronghouse (the prison). Then the Great Chief, Anarem, told me that a number of his people had fled into the forest for fear of suffering the same fate and to put an end to the uncertainty which weighed upon them. He asked me to write…to whom?, quite simply to the Queen. The brave Man had learned that the Whites of this Country had for supreme Chief, a being , someone man or woman, that everyone called “Queen” and he imagined, without doubt, that she would quickly grant me everything that I might ask her! Not having as high an opinion of my influence with Her Britannic Majesty as the chief, I did no more than promise to write to to Dr. Vowell, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs, if after examination I saw that his cause was just.

Now please, Dear Reader, leave for a moment the smiling countryside of “la Belle France”: in your company I will go over again my first important journey to the home of the Indians.

We are at the 2nd day of July 1883, auspicious day since it is the Feast of the Visitation, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, and the anniversary of my ordination. It is already nine o’clock in the morning, it is time to be off.

We first descend the Mission Valley, follow the length of Williams Lake from one end to the other, and soon we are five or six miles of the Fraser. If there was a canoe on the bank, we could soon be over; but the current took away the one had been there two months ago. In order to be able to cross we must go upstream to Soda Creek and so lengthen our route by some sixty miles.

But no use to waste our time in vain regret: In the face of ill fortune a good heart. Ahead the way is steep: forward! In climbing we will have a foretaste of the numerous ascents that we will have to make for the rest of the journey. Our horses kick up the dust, pant with exertion and seem to be begging for mercy.

Finally there we are on the top. Now apart from some ravines which we will have to cross, we will have a fairly good road.

When I say “road” do not imagine anyway traced by the hand of man. I mean here quite simply the narrow path opened by the hooves of horses or the moccasins of the Natives: a path so primitive that in many places it needs the practiced eye of the Native to find it.

We enter the forest. It is carpeted with flowers, with wild berries and strawberries whose scent seems to invite us to halt a moment or two.

In brief, traversing these woods would be very agreeable were it not for the branches of trees which whip us in the face, and above all, for the clouds of dust which the horses send flying. Of course those who are not at the head of the caravan must swallow a good part of it. Another trouble, the good Father Blanchet, a veteran, 65 years old, soon finds that he is out of practice on horse back and when we reach Soda Creek that evening he complains of fatigue. The next day and throughout the rest of the journey he is obliged to go on foot so as not to make his condition worse.

At Soda Creek we are put up by Mr. P. Dunlevy whose wife is an excellent Catholic.

The next day after following the bank for half a mile without the shadow of a path, among thorns and bush, we cross the Fraser; But this operation is not always so easy. When I crossed the River at the same place coming back from my last journey, the ice rim which bordered it (the River) formed a kind of rampart twelve feet wide on either side, crossable only in a (small) gap made in it. The ice flows which the current carried down in great numbers threatened at every moment to capsize our frail craft.

In clambering up the mountain slope which forms the other side of the Fraser, one of my companions saw a bear and two (big horn) sheep and wished he had brought rifle and ammunition.

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* Incredible as it may seem, in May 1894 the Fraser rose more than 100 feet in certain parts of its course.

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