Au Pays de l’Ours Noir: Part 8

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

Fort Alexandra and Quesnel

Towards the end of 1883 Mons. d’Herbomez had added three more Carrier villages tot those already in my charge. While enlarging my sphere of action, this measure of his Excellency imposed new duties on me. I already knew all the Chilcotins individually and I was beginning to speak their language.Their needs were familiar to me and I knew their faults as well as their good qualities. I left to go to make acquaintance  with my new parishes.

That is how I found myself towards the middle of July 1884 at Fort Alexandra, the first of the new places I had to visit.

In this country a ‘fort’ means simply a trading post managed by the Hudson Bay Company, a commercial society which has long enjoyed a monopoly in the trade of furs in the north of British Columbia. Formerly when the Native was considered dangerous, these establishments were surrounded by a palisade with bastions, from which they get their name of “fort”. Only one of them still has these fortifications of another age. There the Indians come to change their skins of beaver, bear, marten or fox for the clothes and staples that they need.

Fort Alexandra was formerly the most important post in the interior. From there the brigade of big boats and barges used to set out up the river top distribute the goods tothe forts in the region of the lakes to the north. It has long since been abandoned. Quesnel, forty miles up the Fraser, has succeeded it as trading depot.

Though we say it to the shame of modern civilization, the proximity of the White man has been fatal to the Aboriginals. The intoxicating liquors and licentious habits of the Company’s employees, and of others too has almost wiped out aboriginal population of these two posts. Today, Fort Alexandra can count only a handful of Carrier, while of the hundreds who formerly peopled the region around Quesnel, it would be surprising if seventy or eighty are still there.

On my first visit to the Carriers of Fort Alexandra it was natural that I should put up my tent near them, and they were camped at the time quite close to one of the two Whites of the place.

These two representatives of our race are the stumbling blocks of the poor Children of the Woods. They both  sell spirits, l’eau des Blancs, and as they are the only Whites here it is evident that they count on the the indigenous clientele for their livelihood, and that in spite of the prohibitive laws of the Province. Of course they deny it; one of them even has the decorative title of Justice of the Peace, juge de paix, and as such is charged with seeing that the law is carried out. But, auri sacra fames (that accursed hunger for money), what would some people do to gain their miserable pittance! It is notorious that he not only connives at contraventions which he ought to punish, but he himself sells drinks to the Natives.

So we were camped in the vicinity of one of these two Whites. The Indians treated me as a guest and were listening to me with attention when the sound of a fire alarm came to disturb our evening calm. A hour later we learned that in a moment of drunkenness, the alcohol trafficker had fired a shot from his rifle at one of my people and wounded him in the head. This incident provided something to think about for all and for me it inspired a sermon straight from (real) life.

The Carrier of Fort Alexandra live on the left bank of the Fraser. A certain number of Chilcotion have established themselves on the right bank a mile or two from the River. My second visit was for them, and the results of my preaching with them were satisfactory enough.

From there I had to go to Quesnel. I did it not by the road which follows the Fraser on its left bank, but on a trail which, besides shortening the distance, would save me the trouble of recrossing the Fraser. A Chilcotin was to accompany me but since he could not find his horse in time, I decided to go on ahead.

All went well for the first seven or eight miles. Then the trail became so poorly marked that I had all the trouble in the world to find it. Clearly the safest thing was to wait for my man. Hour followed hour without his appearing. Out of patience, I had the temerity to go on anyway, thinking that he would not fail to hurry when he saw the sun going down towards the horizon.

“A native on horseback is like the wind, like lightening,” I said to myself. “My Chilcotin will soon join me.” It was imprudence on my part, I was going to suffer for it.

Soon the trail became so hard to see that I lost myself in the forest. May the good Lord pardon me! I put the whole fault on my horse, who wanting company for the journey, went forward only reluctantly and it seemed  that he did not look out for the hoof prints of other horses which had made the trail. Also I treated him without pity and pressed him through the thickets and over the trunks of trees lying on the ground, hoping by that to find the way which I had lost. Of course that was no use, it only took me further away.

Meanwhile  night was coming on and the stars were already shining in the the sky without lighting it sufficiently to be of any help to me. But what to do now? Useless to think of sleeping here, my blankets were left behind, and my man not knowing what had become of me, could have already have pushed on to Quesnel. So who would guess my predicament? Who would think of coming to my aid?

I remembered that my life was devoted to the order of Mary Immaculate and I prayed this good Mother to help me. Then I clambered again on to the horse, urged my mount   and left her free to to guide herself on her own. Five minutes later I was on the trail and was galloping back along the way which I had followed so unsuccessfully during the day.

About midnight I came out of the woods into a small clearing where I came upon a pile of hay and my Native sleeping on it snoring like a blacksmith’s bellows.

In spite of this adventure we found ourselves the next evening in Quesnel where I repeated for the the Indians of the place what I had done for their brothers at Fort Alexandra.

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