Thursday, 13 October 2011

Minitonas, Bowsman and Birch River, Manitoba

Before entering Theology we all knew that a) we would be expected to spend each summer on a Pastoral Charge somewhere and b) when we were ordained we would be "settled" in a Pastoral Charge somewhere - and, in all likelihood, it would be a 'somewhere' in a Prairie Province. We jested about this frequently talking about 'Left Overshoe', Saskatchewan - a fictitious community - and about Spuzzum which was "Beyond Hope and Half Way to Hell". The latter is a real place - a tiny Indian community a few miles north of Hope in the Fraser Canyon but not as far as the narrowing of that chasm which is known as Hell's Gate.

Therefore, after spending a summer on the Giscome Pastoral Charge near Prince George and the Namu Cannery on the B.C. Coast, I was not at all surprised to learn that I was being sent to a Pastoral Charge in Manitoba which consisted of three small agricultural communities.

Back in 1957 or 1958, during my vacation, I had taken a Greyhound bus to Banff, Calgary, Edmonton, Jasper and back to Vancouver. While the Alberta part of this tour was on the prairie, it was not all that far from the Rockies. Therefore, this was going to be my first real experience of 'Big Sky Country'.

From Vancouver I drove east on the Trans-Canada Highway to Regina,
Saskatchewan, north to Saskatoon and then southeast to the village of Theodore - the hometown of my brother-in-law, Hubert, and where his stepmother still lived. From there I turned northeast through Kamsack and Canora to Swan River, Manitoba.

Swan River had a population of around 5,000 people and a United Church of Canada congregation that was large enough to be completely self-sufficient. Bowsman was seven miles north of Swan River, Birch River a further ten miles north, and Minitonas nine miles east of Swan River and just south of the highway that led to the small city of Dauphin. First, I drove to Bowsman where my supervisor - the Rev Jim Liles - lived with his family and where I spent the night.

If you look at a map you will see that Swan River is fairly far north - relatively speaking. So, while there, I was able to witness the glorious phenomena of the Northern Lights. They are breathtakingly beautiful.

The next morning Jim took me to Minitonas and to where I was to live for the
following four months - a room above the town cafe. My landlords were the Nemetcheks, a Czech family who were members of the local Pentecostal church. I ate many of my meals in their cafe and learned a little about their culture.

They had children of which two were boys. This was 1969 when long hair - and the Beatles - were in vogue. However, the boys' hair was always short and gave me the impression that a bowl had been placed over their respective heads and all hair below the rim of the bowl had been shaved off.

Eating in the cafe often meant that I heard the maxims from the parent - especially that cities were evil places (Winnipeg was a real 'den of iniquity' - reminding me of the theology of that lad who worked with us in the apple orchard in Tasmania).

One Sunday I was in the cafe eating lunch when a young man walked in who sported one of the most magnificent heads of groomed hair that I have ever seen. He worked in a man's hair salon in Winnipeg with the son of the elderly Czech couple who lived upstairs next to my room and he had a message for them from their son. He was given instructions on how to find his friend's parents so he left. Once he was out of earshot the host let out a diatribe about the sinfulness of people who made a living by cutting the hair of men and then dared to look like he did!

Like many larger communities, Swan River hosted an agricultural fair during August. The Minitonas Hotel - diagonally across the street from the cafe - brought in a band from Winnipeg for the week. Each night I tried to fall asleep while the band played - and the customers 'sang' - "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands". I came to loathe that song! Minitonas was a 'church town' - but some of those residents certainly could party!

The United Church was but one of five churches in that village. There were the Anglicans, the Roman Catholics. Plymouth Brethren, German Baptists and the breakaway from the latter - the Pentecostals. The German Baptist church was immediately across the street from the United and it was huge. However, we had a man on the Official Board of our congregation who was a gift from the Baptists. One Saturday night he had 'tied one on' and then, as was his custom, went to church with his wife the next morning. He was called down front to confess his terribly sinful misdeeds of the night before and ask forgiveness from the Pastor and congregation. Instead he walked out and crossed the street to our building.

Like in Giscome and Namu I quickly made friends and met some great people. Among them were the Ames family who lived just south of Minitonas. The oldest son, Cecil, became my right hand man in organizing and running the daily vacation Bible Schools which were held throughout the month of August. Next to Cecil in age was Dougie who was 14 or 15 at that time. He was a strong lad with an engaging laugh

He was a member of an Air Cadet group in Swan River, and - on the weekend at the end of May and while a number of us were in Brandon at the Annual General Conference of the Manitoba United Churches - the Air Cadet group drove north to a gathering of Air Cadets at The Pas. Along that route the highway passed by a quarry where they stopped for a break. The day was hot and there was water in the pits so some went for a dip. Doug - being Doug - dove right in but did not re-surface.

While the air temperature was quite warm and all of the ice had melted, the temperature of the water in that quarry was still quite cold. In spite of Doug's great physique, it was thought that the shock of the freezing cold water towards the bottom of the pit killed him.

His family was a large one and his was the first death in three generations. We had arrived back from Brandon on the Sunday evening and I had gone to bed. I was awakened in the morning by the message that Jim Liles was waiting downstairs for me. We drove out to the Ames' place where the women folk were in the house while the men were out in the yard. One of the grandfathers asked Jim that unanswerable question - "Why did God take Dougie?" The answer, of course, was that Doug had done something which was foolishly dangerous but that was not the reply for the moment. I cannot remember now what Jim's response was to that question.

This tragedy happened more than forty years ago and, for many many years, I could remember the sound of Doug's laugh.

A week or so before the tragedy the Young Peoples' Group from Minitonas had gone up to Bowsman for a painting bee (the fence around the manse needed some touching up). The day had been warm and sunny but, suddenly, a cold wind began to blow out of the northeast. There was an older gentleman who, when somebody commented positively about the lovely warm spring weather, had responded, "We haven't experienced the 'Crow Winter' yet!" I had no idea what he meant until the morning after the fence painting. We awoke to a snow covered world! After that the weather remained warm.

The valley around Bowsman was rich agricultural land - as it was around Minitonas - but Birch River was situated on the edge of the Pine Mountains (north central Manitoba is bisected by a number of 'mountain ranges' - Riding Mountain, Duck Mountains, Pine Mountains - all of which are remnants of mountain ranges which were eroded and now no more than high hills). Therefore the farmland there was marginal.

The Duck Mountains were a few miles south of Minitonas. Up there was Wellman Lake along the shore of which all of the churches owned and maintained summer camps. The United Church of Canada camp was near the western end of the lake. Across from the camp was a bay the south shore of which was a mass of bulrushes and other reedy plants. The outdoor chapel was arranged so that the preacher was standing with his/her back to the lake while the campers were sitting facing the orator and, thus, the water. During a service being conducted by a theological student the congregation began giggling and then guffawing. The preacher had no idea what was causing the amusement until he turned around.

A couple were in a canoe fishing. The canoe was paddled closer to the far shore - only there was a pair of loons who had their nest there. The canoe and occupants were perceived as a threat so they were trying to drive the nuisance away. I love loons.

In a river that was about ten miles north of Minitonas there was a swimming hole which was much used during the summer months. One evening I took a carload of young people out there and, like everybody else, I drove right down the dirt road and parked beside the water. The air was close and a thunderstorm did blow over. Everybody ran for his/her car and drove quickly up the bank - which was fairly high above us. Mine was the last car to leave and I held my breath. I made it! The drive back to Minitonas was through torrential downpours and constant lightning flashes.

While at Minitonas I did have two short breaks.

During the first one I drove down to Winnipeg and visited that city for the first time. I saw the 'Golden Boy' on the roof of the Provincial Legislature and I visited the Riel Memorial. For readers who are not familiar with Canadian history, the Metis - 'half breeds' (usually French and Indian) - who were not fully accepted by the white settlers nor the full blood Indians, rebelled during the 1870s /'80s. Their leader was Louis Riel who was caught and hung by the British authorities. Now he is looked upon as a Canadian hero who did his share in ensuring that Canada would become a democracy.

The second trip away was to visit the hometown of my brother-in-law, Leo Poirier, who was born in the mining town of Flin Flon. The prospector who found the metal (gold?) named the site after a comic book character very popular in the early 20th Century - 'Flintabitty Flonatin'. The name was shortened to Flin Flon and a statue of the cartoon character sits beside the highway at the turnoff into the town.

While I was at Minitonas Mom and her Aunt Edith Robinson rode in a Greyhound bus to Theodore where they visited Alice Brown (Hubert's stepmother). I knew that they were coming for a visit so I asked around for someone who could host them for a couple of days.

In the Minitonas congregation there were seven elderly widows. One of them was Mrs. Dalton who had immigrated from England with her new husband and they homesteaded land not far from the town. Mr Dalton had passed on so his widow had sold the farm and moved into town. Here. for me, was one of those "It's a small world" occasions.

Mrs. Dalton's granddaughter had graduated in medicine and practiced at the hospital in Bella Bella. I had met her a number of times during the previous summer.

Mom and Aunt Edith were warmly welcomed by the congregations.

Then it came time for me to return to Union College and my studies. At the same time a problem developed. Beginning on the morning that I left Minitonas, my car began acting up by backfiring frequently with the motor cutting out. I visited a lot of service stations between Swan River and Vancouver!

However, I had promised Alice Brown that I would drive her to visit her daughter, Yvonne, who was married to an airman who was stationed at the RCAF base in Cold Lake, Alberta. Therefore I stopped in Theodore to pick her up and we drove northwest.

As I have lived for a number of years in eastern Canada, I have driven across the Prairies many times - and paid more than one visit to that Pastoral charge. I hold all of the people there - and in the other areas - in the highest esteem. Sure - there were reprobates among them but, by and large, all were/are lovely people.

Alice had a sister who lived in Saskatoon so we had to stop there on our way. I had some anxious moments on back roads and while climbing hills (the most direct route to Cold Lake was to leave the highway and use the back roads in order to connect with the highway from Edmonton to Grande Centre and Cold Lake).

I had not seen Yvonne since that visit to B.C. when she was a small girl and had never met her husband - however, it was a good visit.

Leaving their home on the base I stopped at a garage in Grand Centre to have the car checked once again and then to continue on to Edmonton and Jasper. Beyond Jasper and Mount Robson - the highest peak in the Canadian Rockies - I turned south at Tete Jaune Cache and drove down the North Thompson Valley to Little Fort and then up over the hills to 100 Mile House and a visit with Alda and her family.

Much to my relief, I arrived safely in Vancouver and took my car into a Ford dealership where it was traded for a used Ford Fairlane. The Falcon was a good little car but it was time for it to be retired.

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