I have always experienced a special feeling with people I have encountered living off an island. As theJamaican celebration for tourists song goes, “Come to my island, you never want to leave.”
And Fort George, as it was called and still is on certain 3-D versions of the world globe, was certainly no exception. Quite to the contrary. The first time I set foot there was in 1968. Attending Laval University that year (I was 17 or not so old), majoring in administration, I was given the assignment in my macro-economy course of estimating the level of efficiency of a specific federal department.
I was given a prime choice of departments, as it turned out to be Indian “Affairs.” A Club Med for civil servants, as for every $1.00 of subsidy, 99 cents went into administrative costs, the penny remaining being the only true benefit to Natives.
In Fort George for the first time, I was myself quite impressed that in my own province live these forgotten people (as they were labelled then by a squadron of anthropologists).
At the end of World War II there were only 600 Crees left on the island from the hardship years of rationing war-time measures. Of these, the majority weren’t aware of the war’s existence until after the fact. It had already been several decades that education had been imposed on the children under the care of the church mission.
The first day of school was held at St-Philip’s Mission in 1907. The mission was one of several disseminated throughout the vast dioceses of the land of Rupert, which extended from Ungava Bay to the Canadian Rockies along with Hudson’s Bay Co. Outposts such as Moose Factory and the surrounding of Winnipeg.
The first Archbishop of Rupert, David Anderson, paddled for 26 days to reach Moose Factory from Red River (southern Ontario). Reverend Watkins was the first member of the clergy to set foot in Fort George. It turned out he wasn’t the first Christian missionary though, as he discovered the local Hudson’s Bay manager’s wife had been rather busy preparing people to be either baptised or married.
The first baptism was celebrated by Rev. Watkins on Oct. 24th, 1852. He remained there for the next five years. Familiarizing himself with the Cree language, he translated parts of the New Testament and this created the first Cree dictionary (in 1865), which even revised later still remains the basic modern Cree syllabex.
Twenty one years went by without a priest following Watkins’ departure. Then Fort George welcomed Rev. Thomas, an Anglican priest who remained only a few weeks.
He was quite an exceptional individual, having been consecrated to priesthood in England. He snowshoed from Moose Factory to Great Whale, a 400-mile distance, sleeping under the stars at temperatures averaging-370.
Living in Fort George in 1971 certainly had a special “cachet,” as there was neither electricity nor running water. The following years spent there left me filled with dear memories.
A few houses are left standing following the relocation of the town more than a decade ago. The one we were occupying was graciously offered to us by Clifford Dick along with an addition a dearly departed friend, Gordon Bates, helped me build. Both are still intact.
Every summer a gathering is held to commemorate the good old days of living off an island that stands as a monument to an old way of life. To each and all, I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and wish you a Happy New Year.