In his memoir Growing Up North, Bradburn shares a fascinating narrative about his memories growing up in the small, isolated community of Oxford House, Manitoba. In a world where Cree was the only spoken language, Bradburn relays details about the fur trade in Canada, the history of the Cree nation, and the lives of the people in his family and the Oxford House community. With freedom to play and study as he wished, Bradburn details how he persevered through challenges, experienced many adventures, and learned independence after he was sent away to attend school.
Growing Up North provides an unforgettable glimpse into the life of a little boy who grew up during a time when the air was clean, fish filled the lakes, and everyone shared the joys of living in the great northland.
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Read an Excerpt
Growing Up North
By Morris Bradburn
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Morris Bradburn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNorway House, Manitoba
I have many fond memories of my childhood from when my mother and I visited Grandma Nellie Poker in Norway House, Manitoba. It was during a hot summer day in Norway House, while I was walking by the power-generating building when I saw the local power house operator remove a soft drink from a soft drink cooler. I watched him open the drink as it gave a hissing sound, which aroused my curiosity. He noticed that I was watching him. He put some more coins into the machine and took one more out and offered me the bottled drink that he called Orange Crush. The first gulp I took was the best thing I had ever tasted, and I was hooked. From then on, I used all my allowance money each week to purchase soft drinks from the Hudson's Bay store. That morning was also the first time I tasted a banana and grapes, which I also liked very much. It's strange how some of the first experiences of tastes will always be etched permanently into one's memory.
That same day was also the first time I saw a motor vehicle on wheels. It was being driven across the field near the residential and day schools. It was a half-ton truck that was owned by the Norway House Indian Agent. I felt very fortunate to get a ride on this truck, as I had begged and pestered the driver so much that day that he finally gave in and let me ride in the box. I was so thrilled to ride in that truck that I didn't want the ride to end, and the driver finally threatened to throw me off the truck if I didn't get off when we arrived at the other end of the field, where he had to load some material for a building. This was one of the happiest events of that particular Norway House summer. I was five years old.
When it was near time for me to be born, my mother; my father; and my sister, Nellie, travelled from Oxford House to Norway House by canoe—a distance of 186 kilometres (115.58 miles)—to reach the nearest hospital. I was born at this hospital during the summer of 1944. The hospital was situated on an Indian reservation just north of the Hudson's Bay fort in the area known as Rossville. The reservation was named Rossville in honour of the Hudson's Bay Company's chief factor, Donald Ross, in 1829. My father established a business in the fur trade at Oxford House, which was why we lived there. Everyone at Oxford House spoke Cree, the main dialect of the people. My mother spoke only Cree since she was taught to read and write in the Cree language. My father, on the other hand, spoke both Cree and English; as an orphan, he had been educated in an English school. everyone who lived in Oxford House and Norway House spoke Cree. The only time English was spoken was when outsiders from the south, such as missionaries and medical personnel, came to our community. Some of the community leaders, including the chief, could speak a little English to get by. We spoke Cree in our home.
Every summer thereafter until I was nine, my mother, my father, and I would travel to Norway House to visit my maternal grandmother Nellie Poker and my mother's large extended family. While there, my father would work at his warehouse in the same community to receive freight for his store at Oxford House, Manitoba. The merchandise he received was shipped from Winnipeg on the lake boats that crossed Lake Winnipeg, the sixth largest freshwater lake in Canada and the eleventh largest freshwater lake in the world. Then it was stored at the warehouse my father had built at Norway House. The freight for the store included food, hardware, clothing, fabrics, and tools. There were also traps and snares that the trappers used to trap their fur for trade. My father would forward this freight to his trading post using many canoes, which were linked together by rope and known as canoe trains. With loaded canoes, the trip to Oxford House, Manitoba, would cover 186 kilometres. Occasionally, the canoe trains were delayed at many of the lake crossings as a result of high winds causing high waves on the lakes. A loaded canoe sat lower in the water, and as a result, only about 15.24 centimetres (6 inches) of it was above the water line.
The Norway House community, located in northern Manitoba, was where my mother was born and where my grandmother, Nellie Poker, lived. I enjoyed the summers in Norway House, as Grandma and every one of my mother's sisters and relatives made my mother, father, and I feel so welcome in their community. I got to meet many cousins, and we became playmates during those summer months, exploring the shores along the community together. We spent most of the summer swimming and playing under the old bridge that crossed the small creek by Grandma's house. Grandma would often take mom and me visiting other people within the community, and this would sometimes take up most of the afternoon. mom and I spent a lot of time visiting her sisters. Sometimes they would all come over to Grandma's house for the day, and Grandma's yard would be a beehive of activity as all the kids played games together. Sometimes my mother allowed me to go with one of her sisters and their children to the local store or out to visit other families. This was so much fun since I got to play and learn new games while visiting other children. Each evening following the supper hour, Grandma would gather everyone for her evening devotion and prayer.
When I reached the age of seven, I was allowed to venture out on my own to walk to one of my cousin's homes to play. My cousin's family lived a few houses down the shoreline from my grandmother's home. There were no roads in Norway House back then, and everyone traveled by flat-bottomed boat or canoe. If one could not get a boat ride, he or she simply walked along the lake shore to his or her destination. The evenings were spent visiting people, the young folks listening to stories the older men told. I used to enjoy that very much. My cousins and I would often visit these old boys just to be entertained by their storytelling, and doing so soon became my favourite pastime. My favourite person was an old gentleman named Donald Houle. Donald ran a small candy store out of his home, and I guess that is why I enjoyed going to his place. We would munch on candies while listening to stories. Most of the stories were folklore or stories that taught a lesson.
One story I remember was about bears and how they lost their long, fluffy tails. One day, the bears set out to do some fishing on a lake near their home. When they arrived, they were surprised to see that the lake had frozen over the previous night; so they walked out onto the clear, thin ice just to see if the ice was thick enough to support their weight. While they were on the lake, they were able to see fish swimming along the lake bottom, so they all sat down to watch. They were so interested in what was going on that they didn't realize they had sat there most of the day. When it was time to leave, they couldn't get up, as their warm tails had melted into the ice and the ice had refrozen. They tried several times to pull their tails out from different directions without success. Finally, the head bear suggested they help each other by pulling hard in hopes of releasing their tails. When they did this, the greater part of their tails was torn off, leaving them with a small stub for a tail. The following spring, their young were all born with short, stubby tails. So to this day, every bear has a short tail. I think the lesson here was to maintain your focus on your goals and to always mind your own business and not get sidetracked by what everyone else is doing.
The old gentlemen of the community would gather every night in someone's home, and we made sure we asked one of them during the daytime where he was going to meet that evening so we kids could come and join them. When these old men told stories of their past or someone's adventure, we would be so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. When it was time to go home for the night, we would discuss the stories we'd heard on our way home. I always hoped that my life would be as interesting as these old gentlemen's lives had been.
Mr. Joe Keeper from Norway House, Manitoba, was well known as a Canadian veteran, who had received a military medal for bravery, and an Olympian. I met him when I was a child during the summers we spent in Norway House. Later, during my teen years, I would see him walking to the Rossville United Church, and he would stop to talk to me. He knew my parents, and he often asked about them. Looking back now, I feel privileged for having met this man, for he instilled in me the desire to take on the challenges that allowed me to fulfill my dreams. He told me that we should never get discouraged when we fail to reach our goals the first time, for there will always be another opportunity. Mr. Keeper was best known for being a middle-distance runner. He set a Canadian record for running 10 miles (16.09 kilometres) in 54 minutes and 50 seconds in 1911 in Fort William, Ontario, before he was named to the Canadian Olympic team that went to the games in Stockholm, Sweden.
The Norway House community was located 456 kilometres (283.35 miles) north of Winnipeg, Manitoba, on the eastern channel of the Nelson River, about 30 kilometres (18.64 miles) north of Lake Winnipeg. The Nelson River and the Jack River flowed through the community, which was located on the shores of Playgreen Lake. These waters provided the early fur traders with many natural passages between the community of Norway House and other communities. My family and I travelled by canoe to Norway House from our home at Oxford House using these same natural water passages along the Nelson and Hayes River systems. My father used these water passages to transport his supplies for his trading post in Oxford House, Manitoba.
The Hudson's Bay Company built a trading post in Norway House on crown land, mainly for the fur trade, in 1814. The post was established on an island, which became known as Fort Island. The Archway Warehouse, jail, and the remains of the powder magazine can still be seen today. The Hudson's Bay Company hired craftsmen from the country of Norway to build the fort (1840–1841). Norway House community was named in these Norwegians' honour.
Missionary James Evans built the original Methodist church building on the Norway House Indian reservation in 1840. My parents were married in this church, and this was where my grandparents and their family worshipped. My parents and I attended this church during the summers we visited my grandmother. The church burnt down and was rebuilt on the same location in 1932. A new church building has now been erected behind the old church building, replacing it as the main sanctuary. The original church building is being kept as a historic structure. Evans is credited with creating the "syllabics" writing system in the Cree language in 1840 with the help of the Norway House Cree. As a young girl, my mother was taught to use the syllabics system, and she used it to communicate with her family by mail. The church hymnals had both the Cree syllabics and the English language.
Many things were happening in the world when I arrived on this earth in 1944. The Second World War was raging in Europe. Winston Churchill was the prime minster of Britain. The thirty-second American president was Franklin d. Roosevelt. The prime minister of Canada was Mackenzie King, and the premier of Manitoba was Stuart Garson, who also acted as the provincial treasurer. The Norway House Rossville reserve chief was Jacob Menow.
The war had taken its toll on everyone; many of the men who had left to fight in the war were reported missing in action or were killed. My father had to ration sugar and other products in his store because of our government's regulations and the shortages the country was experiencing. This was especially hard for dad; he didn't like the idea of rationing since it would cause hardship for many of his customers. The families that trapped fur-bearing animals for a living purchased their goods once during the fall to last them all winter on their traplines—land areas set aside by the government to permit licensed trappers to harvest fur-bearing animals. Good news was hard to come by, and any news on the positive side was always appreciated. My parents would listen to the CBC news at noon every day to hear world news.
That fall, one piece of news was well received. History was made when an American aviator, Ann B. Baumgartner, became the first woman to fly a United States Army Air Force jet plane when she conducted an evaluation flight on the turbo-jet powered Bell YP-59A on October 14, 1944. She was the assistant operations officer in the fighter test section as a member of the Women Air Force Service Pilots program. Every woman must have felt proud upon hearing that news. The other good news was that the Manitoba government announced a record surplus during the summer of 1944.
So it seemed I was not the only blessing that summer. Considering all that was happening in this world, I am sure the highlight of my parent's lives was my coming into this world during that summer. I like to think that maybe all the hardships so many were facing were forgotten for a little while and that my arrival brought a little joy into my family's lives when I became the seventh and youngest child of our family.
Chapter TwoMy Father
It seemed that I was always getting into trouble when I went into my father's shop. I couldn't keep my hands off his tools, and I knew he took great care ensuring that each tool was cleaned, sharpened, and put back in its storage location. If he couldn't find something, he would call for me and ask if I had taken any tools from his shop. I would have to confess that I had played with the tool he was looking for; usually, I had left it where I had been playing. I didn't know then why he would get angry with me for misplacing or losing his tools. When I think back now, I realize he had to order the tools from the south and they probably took weeks or months to arrive, not to mention the cost, as we were located in an isolated community. I remember once, when my brothers were helping my father repair his motor toboggan (a snowmobile that looked like a toboggan from a distance, which was powered by a two-cylinder Indian motorcycle, air-cooled engine with a three-speed transmission) in the shop, I picked up the large pry bar they had been using, as I thought it would make a good spear. As I started walking towards the door, dad saw me and called after me to drop it.
It just so happed that I was walking past a set of batteries dad and my brothers had removed from the machine they were working on, and as I let the bar go, it landed on the batteries, contacting both battery posts. I became scared when the batteries started hissing and sparking and caught fire. When my father saw what was happening, he immediately removed the bar and assisted me out the shop door. I think I only touched the floor twice on my way to the door on the far end of the building. I don't know if I did much damage to the batteries, but he had the machine running again the following morning.
Dad must have been very forgiving and had a lot of patience with me. He continued to show his love for me and would spend a lot of time with me; he would take me with him when he went across the lake to the post office or to visit his friends, and I got to ride is his snow machine, which was always a thrill. Years later, he would take my brothers and me on his hunting trips, and I will always remember the good times we had just talking and sitting around the campfire after a good meal he had cooked. Sometimes, my brothers and I would sit and talk long after my dad had gone to sleep. Those were good times.
Excerpted from Growing Up North by Morris Bradburn Copyright © 2011 by Morris Bradburn. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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