Monday, 10 October 2011


In the previous blog I neglected to mention any of the other young men who were living at Union College while I was there. In particular, Terry Shaw who was a new resident in 1967 (just like I was) and whose journey through those four years paralleled mine - only, while I was in Theology, he was in Education.

For much of the time at Union, his room was next to mine and, at around 11:00 PM, I would hear his coffee pot gurgling so I would go next door for a late night cup of java and a chat.

Towards the end of this blog Terry will appear and we will share a 'journey through fire' together.

Studying for the ministry in the United Church of Canada meant that I had agreed to certain courses of study and, also, summer employment as a Student Clergy. It was in that capacity that I had been assigned to the semi-rural parish of Giscome near Prince George and then, during the summer of 1968, to the fish cannery community of Namu on the B.C. Coast.

I had two options of travel to my assignment - aircraft to Port Hardy at the northern end of Vancouver Island and a small float plane to Namu, or by a passenger/freight boat to Bella Bella and then a float plane or fish boat to Namu.

I opted for the latter and left Vancouver one morning for the two day and night trip with fairly frequent stops to unload freight, mail and passengers.

Bella Bella is a fair-sized First Nation community on an island about midway up the coast between Vancouver Island and Haida Gwai (formerly named 'The Queen Charlotte Islands'). The first Caucasian people there established a school and a hospital and it is the home for a few hundred people. While larger settlements could have more than one denominational facility, at Bella Bella only the United Church of Canada was established. Not only did the church look after the spiritual needs of the people, it supplied school teachers and established a regional hospital. The nurses at that hospital were Caucasian girls who came from all over - even from the New England States - and many of them fell in love with local boys resulting in inter-racial marriages. More about that later.

The United Church of Canada plane. This photo was taken at Nimpkish Lake and two years after I was at he cannery but I saw it more than once while I was at Namu.

About a two hour boat ride - or a twenty minute flight - southeast of there - and on the mainland - was the cannery community of Namu. This was to be my home for four wonderful months. The largest part of the population were First Nation folk with a handful of Caucasians who were the technicians in the cannery and the community.

The cannery was at the mouth of the small Namu River with the Pacific Ocean to the west and huge mountainous forests to the north, east and south.

The cannery was pretty large while, behind it and off to the north side, were neat little bungalows and a school. The cottages were inhabited by Caucasian folk while First Nation people were forced to live in tenement like structures on the other side of the Namu River to the south. This bothered me a great deal but there was nothing that I could do about that. Past the Indian Village was Japtown (where Japanese had spent their summers before World War II) and an oil - boat refueling - dock.

Upon arrival the Cannery Manager gave me a choice - work in the office or accept the position of Recreation Director for the community. I opted for the latter which led to a rich and fun-filled summer.

There was a large recreation hall under my purview so, along with volunteers from both the Caucasian and the First Nation communities, activities were organized. There were movies (I would select them from a catalog issued by a movie distributor in Vancouver), bingo nights and a bowling league in the little three lane alley.

I could not handle all of this alone so I appointed a couple of helpers. Chief among them was a First Nations fellow, Clifford Starr. Some of the other folk warned me that Cliff was not at all reliable and could be dishonest. I placed my trust in him and, except for his penchant for booze-ups - along with a difficult marriage - he was no trouble at all. I trusted him so, as he liked and trusted me, he was never dishonest.

I had to select movies for Friday and Saturday evening showings as well as one suitable for the children to see. Often I showed the kid's movie on Thursday evening when many of the fish boats were in. As I was the manager of the entire event, I could never be still long enough to see all of any of the films. This was true of the evening when a spooky film was being shown so, when it came to the matinee on Saturday, I thought that some of the scenes could be pretty scarey for the youngest viewers. Therefore I stood along the wall just in case one or more of the youngsters freaked out. Because of my busyness Thursday evening I had not seen all of the film - especially the scene where a large spider was suddenly on the screen. I don't like spiders so I jumped and the six-year-old sitting in the aisle seat looked at me and asked, "Are you scared, Ernie?"

There was a footbridge across the little Namu River connecting the cannery site with the 'Indian Village', the marine supply docks and 'Japtown' where Japanese people had lived before World War II. After dark no white men were allowed over that bridge except for the RCMP officer assigned to the community during the canning season and myself.

While the cannery was in operation all of the First Nation people from their mid-teens and up worked. Kids who were not yet old enough to work babysat while three 'grandmothers' were paid by the cannery to sit on the bridge to insure that no tykes came into harms way - like wandering around the machinery in the cannery.

I have wonderful memories of those grandmothers - Kitty Carpenter, Linda Humchitt and Maggie Windsor. Kitty was Kwakiutl from Alert Bay on Cormorant Island which lies just off of the town of Port McNeil on Vancouver Island. The Kwakiutl people are thought of as the most war-like of all of the tribes along the West Coast and, historically, they were enemies of the Bella Bella. Kitty did encounter tension - but she was a large statuesque woman and nobody messed with her! Linda Humchitt was Bella Bella and she was known for having a penchant for Caucasian men. More about that later! The third person assigned to the bridge was Maggie Windsor - a much respected and very sweet grandmother (also a Bella Bella). 

Another person assigned to Namu that summer was the RCMP officer, Brian. He was from the Terrace Detachment up north and, as a reward for being in an isolated community for that summer, his next assignment was to the Detachment in Langley - a farming community in the Fraser Valley and an outer suburb of Vancouver. Brian and I hit it off right from the start - we always sat next to each other while eating in the Mess Hall.

One night, a couple of hours after I had gone to bed and to sleep, I was awakened by a loud knocking at my door. It was Brian who needed my help.

A First Nation lad had been mixing drugs with alcohol and had gone off his head. He had been arrested and put into the community's sole jail cell. Brian could not stand guard on him all night so would I do that for him while he slept? I did. He returned to the jail until I could get up, dressed and over there. The lad was still very much up and was violent. He hurled invectives at me and spat continually. The anteroom to the jail was very tiny so I could not escape his spittle (because it was damp and cool, I was wearing a dark grey trench coat over my other clothes and it became covered by his phlegm). I thank God for Linda Humchitt - she heard that I was standing jail duty and suspected what I was being subjected to so she came to sit with me. Her presence - resented at first by the felon - did calm him and he fell asleep so she and I had some peace until Brian was able to relieve us the next morning.

This incident occurred in August and I was called upon again before the summer ended. An ex-con showed up in the community and tried to break into the office safe. He was arrested and placed into the cell and, as he was resigned to his fate, he did not make a fuss but went to sleep. I was able to doze in my chair.

Later I received a pay cheque from the RCMP paying me for the hours I spent as 'jail guard'.

It was really a glorious summer with lots of sunshine and, for the Coast, not too much rain. Off shore we could watch the Alaskan cruise ships passing by and. closer in, the yachts and other pleasure craft. As I have mentioned, there was an 'oil dock' to the south of the community (next to Japtown) and tourists would stop there in order to 'gas up' their boats. 1968 was before concerns for the environment became paramount so the cannery officials were free to dump the offal from the plant into the salt chuck. Naturally this attracted birds of prey including bald eagles. Many of the American tourists were nonplussed - what were 'Their Birds' doing in Canada?

A bald eagle waiting - with its sharp eyesight - for prey to come into view.  This terrain is NOT near Namu but further down the coast and the use of this photo is through the courtesy of Michael W. who lives in Vancouver.

On Sunday afternoons a boat would dock at the cannery to load frozen salmon to take to Vancouver for shipment elsewhere. This was a freight boat with room for luxury staterooms that were rented to tourists who wanted to see the Coast up to the B.C.-Yukon-Alaskan border - but not Alaska itself. The loading of the frozen fish would take anywhere from one to four hours so the tourists would get off of the boat to walk around.

The entire community was linked by boardwalks which led everywhere. The tourists could wander as they pleased - going as far as the small lake that fed the Namu River - but they were not allowed across the bridge into the 'Indian Village'. What I knew - but the tourists did not - was the treasure trove of Indian art to be found over there. The whale (killer whale) and the bald eagle figured largely in their folklore and depictions of these 'gods' were magnificent. Incidentally, I have said that these accommodations were tenements but many of them that I visited were spotlessly clean.

Most of the Indians had a huge sense of humor and, when the frozen fish boat came in, they would stand with me and josh about scalping parties and the like, Back then there was a comic strip in the daily paper called 'Tumbleweeds'. I loved the humor depicted there - and so did they.

From what I was taught by my Dad and Granddad I tried to never show racial bias - and was astounded when I encountered it coming from the other side.

There was a young woman who had grown up on a smaller island next to Bella Bella. Her father was the manager of a B.C. Packers depot and store there. While she was a girl she would travel over to the bigger island every day to attend school - usually the only Caucasian child who attended. When she reached adulthood she went away to study nursing, gained her RN degree, and returned to Bella Bella where she married one of the native boys - actually, her wedding had been the day after I arrived in Bella Bella. As the Rev. Doug Archibald - my Supervisor - was the officiant, I had attended.

It was a bowling league night and Liz was asking who was going to the big wedding in Bella Bella on the following Saturday. One of the Indian men responded with, "What wedding?" Liz recited the names of the two couples (two Caucasian girls from New England who were marrying two native boys) and he responded with, "Jeez, more half breeds"! I was shocked but then thought - 'Why not? Caucasians are not the only people who are bigoted'!

There was a small cafe attached to the side of the mess hall which was operated by Eva - the wife of the stationary engineer - who, for years, had looked after a remote lighthouse along the coast of Vancouver Island. Eva was known for her vulgarities. One evening the cannery closed earlier and just after the evening bowling had finished. I decided to drop into the cafe for a milkshake and sat on a stool along the counter while the 'Grannies' - who had also finished work - were seated in a booth. When they had finished Linda Humchitt went to pay their tab. Eva said to Linda. "I have the mattress that you wanted." Linda asked, "What mattress?" Eva replied, "I heard that one of the women in the Indian village was looking for an extra mattress and I thought that it was you." Linda came back with, "It wasn't me who was looking for one - besides, Ernie and I are not sleeping together anymore!" I howled with laughter while Eva's jaw dropped. I found that hilarious - and another proof of how much I was appreciated by the First Nation folk.

                    The UC of Canada aircraft being paddled to where it is to be moored.

I have mentioned the small lake that fed the Namu River. It was reached easily by a boardwalk and, around it, were walking trails. Many hours were spent with the Indian men and boys swimming in that lake. Also, the fishing there was good.

Labor Day came and it was time to return to Vancouver and College. I booked a seat on a float plane flight down to Port Hardy which is very near the northern tip of Vancouver Island, My college buddy, Terry Shaw, was waiting there with my car (he had spent his summer in the logging communities between Port Hardy and Campbell River and had had the loan of my car).

We headed out along what was mainly gravel and dirt logging roads passing through the various logging communities along the way. The southern most community was Vernon Camp. A 'slash fire' had been lit in order to clear the brush left after the logging. Unfortunately, that fire had gotten out of control. As it was the beginning of a long weekend there were others who were trying to get down to civilization so we were formed into a convoy to be led through the danger zone.

It is really weird to be driving - with ones heart in ones mouth - through a forest fire!

A postscript - the visit of two of the women whom I had met there who wanted to meet Mom. I am not bragging in this last paragraph but sharing the awe that I felt then - and still do.

Maggie Windsor was one of the matriarchs of the Bella Bella people and both she and Linda Humchitt wanted to have tea with my mother. I met each of them separately in Vancouver and took them out to Coquitlam. Mom was most pleased to meet them. With Maggie it was merely a visit but Linda had a daughter with her and she wanted to go on up the Fraser Valley to the resort hotel at Harrison Hot Springs. I took them there and we went for a dip in the hot springs pool.

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