Very little investigation has been made in Canada of the native races, and what has been done had been under the auspices of foreign institutions. The opportunities for such studies are fast disappearing. Under advancing settlement and rapid development of the country the native is disappearing, or coming under the influence of the white man’s civilization. If the information concerning the native races is ever to be secured and preserved, action must be taken very soon, or it will be too late.
—GEOLOGICAL SURVEY OF CANADA, 1908
One morning in early july 1911, an odd little man walked into a saloon on the shore of the mighty Mackenzie River and dipped his filthy fingers in a sugar bowl. John Hornby was just twenty-seven years old, five feet four inches tall, and barely one hundred pounds, but in the north country he was, among white men at least, a legend. Once, it was said, he ran next to a horse for fifty miles, trotting sideways, like a wolf. Another time, on a bet for a bottle of whiskey, he ran one hundred miles in under twenty-four hours. And Hornby was not a drinking man. His instincts most resembled a trapper’s, but he loved animals and hated traps. He never hunted except for food, and often, like the native people with whom he traveled, he went without eating for days at a time. He probably knew the Barren Lands, the country in which he lived, more intimately than any other white man in history.
Hornby had fierce blue eyes that seemed to always be focused on something off in the far distance. Exactly why Hornby decided to explore Canada’s north country has been lost to history. He may have ventured north with vague notions of finding gold, but the Klondike rush had long since dried up. He may have been lured by rumors of vast giveaways of land, which the government had promised in an effort to populate the north. More likely he went north to go north, to see what he could see.
John Hornby did not like darkening the doorways of Fort Norman, the dreary oupost that comprised little more than a Hudson’s Bay Company store, the Anglican Mission of the Holy Trinity, and the Catholic Mission of Saint-Thérèse. Even among the usual rough men who passed through such places, Hornby stood out for his disinterest in the trimmings of civilized society. He didn’t need the company of white men, and he usually did as much as he could to avoid them. He was happiest living among the Barren Land Indians, chopping wood, carrying water, stalking caribou. But the previous summer, Hornby had had a stirring experience. Scouting territory north of Great Bear Lake, he had come upon a group of people he believed to be the last in North America to have remained outside the reach of white explorers. They were not Indians; they were Eskimos who had followed the caribou inland from Coronation Gulf, some 150 miles to the northeast. Hornby had been so excited by his discovery that he had written a letter to the only other permanent European resident of the Barren Lands: the priest in charge of the Mission of Saint-Thérèse. “We have met a party of Eskimos who come every year,” Hornby’s letter said. “The Eskimos come at the end of August and leave when the first snow falls. They seem very intelligent.” The letter then sounded a somber note. “The Eskimos and Indians are frightened of each other and it would be dangerous for Indians to try and meet Eskimos without having a white man with them, because the Eskimos have a bad opinion of the Indians. If you intend sending someone to meet the Eskimos, we shall be pleased to give you all the help we can.”1
Word of Hornby’s letter moved through Canada’s northwest Catholic missions and quickly landed in the hands of Gabriel Breynat, a man so exhuberant about wilderness missionary work that he had been made bishop for all of northwestern Canada by the age of thirty-two. Breynat had made his reputation ministering to Dog Rib, Hare Skin, and Slave Lake Indians, but for nearly a decade he had been praying for the chance to extend his missionary work to the continent’s northernmost people. “No one knows how many they are, or what they are like,” he had written the oblate chapter general seven years before, “but we would like to send a few specimens to Paradise.”
Breynat had also begun to worry that the Catholic Church might be beaten to the region by the Church of England. Just as French and British trappers had battled for territory all over the Canadian west, so did their churches compete, often using the language and strategies of warfare, for their nationals and the natives with whom they traded. They established outposts. They recruited hardy missionaries and sent them out as scouts. In the Canadian hinterlands, Europe’s age-old religious struggle found a new battleground. “We have against us here, a silent, vexatious and persistent opposition on the part of a handful of Protestants, freemasons and materialists, old-fashioned adherents of Darwinian theories who think they are in the vanguard of progress,” a Catholic missionary would write some years later. “Souls cost dear, and they have to be gained one by one.”2
The subtleties of the conflict between Catholics and Protestants, of course, were often lost on the Eskimos. They had a hard enough time understanding that these strange men in black robes were holy men and not just another batch of traders.
To say the least, bringing religion to Eskimos would require talents that were not part of the typical seminarian’s training. The territory between the church’s northern outposts and the central Arctic coast were virtually unmapped. Even the survival techniques that missionaries had learned through their work with Indians would be of limited value. There would be no building a log church on the Arctic coast, which sat at least a hundred miles above the tree line. And what would these people think of European religion, when many of them had never even met a European?
Nonetheless, when Bishop Breynat read John Hornby’s letter, he could sense the veil lifting over the northland. Hornby’s letter “had every appearance of an invitation from heaven,” Breynat wrote. And he had just the man for the job.3
Father Jean-Baptiste Rouvière was a small-boned, dark-haired man with melancholic eyes set deeply behind prominent cheekbones. He had a sensitive mouth and an expression that seemed not dour but resigned, as if he had come to terms with the difficult but rewarding life of remote missionary work. Rouvière had been born on November 11, 1881, in Mende, France, to Jean Rouvière and Marie-Anne Cladel. After his traditional studies, he entered the novitiate of Notre-Dame de l’Osier on September 23, 1901, took vows at Liège on August 15, 1903, and was ordained as a priest three years later. In 1907 he transferred to the Northwest Territories, spending his first four years at Fort Providence on Great Slave Lake, then moving to Fort Good Hope, about one hundred river miles north of Fort Norman.
To Breynat, Rouvière seemed to have a number of qualities that would serve him well in the Far North. He was patient. Deliberate. Slow to anger. He had a certain seriousness of purpose that Breynat considered appropriate to a country that for many months of the year was cloaked in darkness. On the other hand, Rouvière was, as Breynat had been upon his own arrival from France, utterly inexperienced. Natives acknowledged that learning the skills needed to survive in their country took a lifetime. Rouvière had arrived in northern Canada as an adult, with few skills and no experience living outside a temperate European climate. The warmest clothing he had was made of wool. He planned to live through winters that would kill a sheep in a day. And though he had been ministering to Indians living near Fort Good Hope, Rouvière had spent little time away from the relative security of a mission in the middle of the Mackenzie River’s busy trading route. Compared to where he would end up, the posts along the Mackenzie were practically crowded.
Yet like all Europeans who came to the Arctic, Rouvière seemed both enamored of and intimidated by the breadth of the land. Vast open spaces of any kind—save the odd belt of mountains running through Switzerland or between Spain and France—had been in exceedingly short supply in Europe for centuries. Dropped into a world where forests blanketed many thousands of square miles—where trees might cover a landmass as large as France—colonists were shaken to their bones. A young priest, in other words, could be forgiven his early trepidation.
Bishop Breynat showed his young priest the letter he had received from John Hornby, and asked Rouvière if he would be willing to take the church’s work into the Barren Lands, and from there to the Arctic coast. Though Rouvière would be on his own, at least initially, Breynat promised to try to find him a companion. “I will do everything I can to send someone to keep you company next year,” he said. In the meantime, Rouvière could at least count on help from Hornby. To Breynat’s delight, Rouvière agreed to the challenge with happiness in his eyes, a smile on his lips, and a quote from Isaiah: Ecce ego, mitte me. Here I am, send me forth.
as a young missionary trying to navigate the people and places of Canada’s vast wilderness, Father Rouvière knew he was standing on the shoulders of some of the church’s most adventurous men. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate had been founded in Provence in 1816 by Eugène de Mazenod, who would later become bishop of Marseilles. They first came to Montreal from France in 1842, and within three years had already placed a missionary at Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca, five hundred miles to the north of Edmonton. In 1853, a priest named Father Henri Grollier became the first priest to visit the Eskimos, and seven years later he even managed to perform four baptisms at Fort McPherson. But compared to Rouvière’s overland assignment, this had been relatively easy, requiring only a trip to the mouth of the Mackenzie River. Grollier was to die in his prime near the Arctic Circle, after founding the mission of Our Lady of Hope. “I die happy,” he said on his deathbed. “I have seen the cross planted at the extremities of the earth.”4
In 1865, a priest named Father Petitot made it to the Arctic coast with a Hudson’s Bay Company man and met several Eskimo families. Just three years later, Petitot began suffering from a “painful disease”—doubtless a kind of darkness-induced psychosis—that manifested as an obsessive terror of being killed by Eskimos. Overtaken by a fit, Petitot abandoned his canoe and his gear and fled south. He was not the first European to become traumatized by the sheer emotional difficulty of living through months of total darkness. Nor would he be the last.5
as it did in other remote corners of the globe, Arctic missionary work presented the Catholic Church with both real opportunity and real expense, and calls went out from early on to support this difficult work. “The great Catholic Church cannot be too generously supported, and great rewards hereafter must be in store for all those who ungrudgingly by acts of self-sacrifice aid on Christ’s work on earth,” a Catholic newspaper reported. “Without a thought for personal comfort, these Oblate Fathers harness their dogs and render all that great comfort which they alone can give, giving all the last sacraments so that a happy death shall be theirs. Yes, it is a touching sight, all too frequent, as epidemics are not rare in the Far North. Indians are a delicate race, and their human frames will not stand much in the way of the various fever outbreaks.” The article did not mention that whites were the likely source of the epidemics. Native people were only “delicate” in the face of European viruses to which they had never needed to be immune.6
Indeed, during the winter of 1899, Breynat and the Indians suffered a terrifying epidemic of influenza. Breynat could do nothing. People began dying in large numbers, often before he could arrive to offer last rites. How the virus first infected the community is unclear, but foreign illnesses routinely followed European settlers into native regions, often with disastrous results. With their immune systems unaccustomed to the microbes, people died in swaths.
With so little firewood, and no way to dig graves in the frozen ground, bodies began to pile up. Those who did not succumb found themselves with still less food, and fewer people to find it. Those who had taken to Breynat’s religion seemed resigned to their fate. “Father,” an elderly Indian said to Breynat. “I have never suffered so much before. The Almighty is punishing us. But it will only be for a day. Look at us: don’t we scold our children? Give them a clout sometimes, a bit of a spanking? But it’s for their good. Well, our Father in Heaven does the same with us. We have displeased Him. That’s why He corrects us. But it won’t be forever. It’s for our great good.”7
by the time Father Rouvière set off for Eskimo country, the Catholic Church had already converted most of the Indians living around Great Bear Lake. The Anglican Church, by comparison, had only a half dozen churches north of Edmonton, and seemed to be struggling to keep up. Finding someone up to the task of proselytizing among the Eskimos had become one of Bishop Breynat’s most passionate ideas. Had he had fewer responsibilities, Breynat might have done the work himself. By the time he approached Father Rouvière, Breynat must have seen something of himself in the young priest. He could only hope that Rouvière would be as enthusiastic about his work as Breynat had remained about his own. No one in the Catholic Church knew more about the challenges of ministering to people in the Far North than Breynat, who over the next fifty years would become known as “the Flying Bishop” for winging around the Arctic in a single-engine plane.8
For Breynat, as for all missionaries in remote areas, there had been significant challenges along the way. Up in the Barren Lands, Indians would arrive at the settlements shortly before Christmas, and would stay for only a week or two. Though most had long since been converted to Catholicism and many attended church, they came primarily to trade furs for tea and tobacco, cartridges and shot, axes, knives, and needles. Breynat was fascinated by his new charges and the ingeunuity with which they navigated their lives. Their summer clothes were made of caribou hide, its hair scraped off with a piece of bone. Brains were rubbed on the hide to make it supple, and it was smoked for rain resistance. Their winter clothes were similar but were worn with the animal’s hair left in place. Young animals, including those that had been stillborn, provided a luxurious material for hoods. Skin clothing, Breynat would find, could keep a human body warm in weather reaching forty below zero, yet was never too heavy to wear traveling on foot. Tents were also made of caribou skins and were left empty, except for a few packages of meat. Family members squatted on their heels around a stove in the center of the tent and lay down at night side by side, fully dressed and wrapped in a blanket or caribou-skin gown. Breynat called his charges “the Caribou-Eaters.” The Indians referred to Breynat equally simply: “Yalt’yi gozh aze sin”: There’s a new little praying man.