Archives for category: Canadian aboriginal history


Oxford House Hats

The men and boys of Oxford House, northern Manitoba.
1926 Photo by Rev. J.A.C. Kell

Easter was the time when the Swampy Cree of Oxford House, Manitoba came back from winter camp. You had to find just the right hat to make you feel ready for the season of beginning all over again.

They had gone far into the bush, lived in shacks, shot duck and moose, and fished for themselves and their dogs. They were more healthy and contented when they were out in the bush than on the reserve because they had meat to eat. The missionary had given their fathers their school exercise books and made them promise to have their children look at them at least once a day.

Now spring was here and, with it, came travelers from the south. Eager to make some money, the men and boys tried to make a good impression. Strong and swift-footed, with valuable knowledge of nature and skills as craftsmen, they were indispensable as guides to carry the outsiders’ gear, paddle and portage canoes and navigate the trails through the bush. They would also exchange meat for white man’s food such as jam.

Where Did They Get Their Hats From?
Each man or boy in the photo has his own style and no two hats are the same. I suspect they came out of the bales of clothing which were sent up to the reservation from church congregations in the south who wanted to help the aboriginal people. The influence of the new age of aviation was detectable in some of the hat styles.

Look at this Historical Photo:
Chief Jeremiah Chubb is standing second from the left in the back row. He is the one who “although not musical, played the organ as best he could for the church services” (A Book of Kells).

His right hand man, Bobbie Chubb, is standing — on Jeremiah’s right. He liked to brag and had a good sense of humor, which my mother (the missionary’s wife) adored.

One night when he was at mission house, he told her that his children were not let out of the house at night because he locked the door at 10 p.m. Then he looked at his watch and said: “To-night I have locked myself out.”

Which hat in this historical photo appeals to you most?

What’s your new Easter hat like? What’s its attitude and what does it rhyme with?

Thank you for spending some of your precious time reading this post. Please browse around from tip to toe on the Home archive and, if you will, comment.

Happy Reading & Writing from Cozybookbasics!

Margaret Kell Virany, author of:

A Book of Kells: Growing Up in an Ego Void.  A compelling account of the unique northern adventures of a romantic, idealistic sailor and his war bride living with the Cree in the roaring twenties. Followed up by their youngest daughter’s confessions of a preacher’s kid.

Kathleen’s Cariole Ride.  A loving tribute to my mother’s bravery in coming alone to Canada as a war bride and living her honeymoon years on a northern Aboriginal reservation.  12 photos.

Eating at Church. One hundred and seventy-five recipes from the labor of love of 58 contributors who belong to two congregations in the Ottawa River Valley that perpetuate a long tradition of delicious, practical, time-proven meals prepared for and eaten with others.

Background information is available on my website; books may be purchased on Amazon.

Canada's First Nations third edition cover

Storyteller of the Ages painted by Ojibway shaman Norval Morrisseau depicts the eloquent, sinewy tongue that bound the people together.

Homo sapiens sapiens (doubly wise man) began to arrive in North and South America some time after his origin 50,000 years ago. When the first contacts arrived from the Old World to the New they found people living patterns of life that had evolved over tens of thousands of years. In her book, Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding People from Earliest Times, Olive Dickason detects values that popped up among them in spite of hundreds of thousands of different locations, family groups, languages, climates and settings. Major assumptions gave them a framework to live in that met social and individual needs; we can speak of an American civilization in the same sense as of a European civilization.

1. Sharing

  • The people, whether mobile or sedentary, emphasized the group as well as the self. Land, like air and water, was for the benefit of everyone and so was communally owned.

2. Culture & Storytelling

  • Cultural knowledge  was the property of those ‘in the know‘, a jealously guarded privilege selectively passed on through the generations. Their history was passed on orally by storytellers.

3. Egalitarianism

  • They were egalitarian to the extent allowed by their sexual division of labor and responsibility. (An offshoot, in French Canada, was that this prevented celibacy. A consequence of clearly defined roles was a major factor in the harmony inside certain encampments.)

4. Consensus

  • The leaders’ role was to represent the common will; not only were they not equipped to use force; they would have quickly lost their positions if they had tried. This lent extreme importance to eloquence, the power to persuade; a chief’s authority was in his tongue’s end. The centrality of ‘the word’ was signaled by the importance of keeping it, once given.

5. Giving

  • Goods were accumulated to be given away on ceremonial occasions. The value of goods was appreciated but prestige was more important than the accumulation of wealth as such. Acquiring goods required generosity, among other virtues. Gifts were a social and diplomatic obligation. They were essential for sealing agreements and alliances with other people. Without gifts, negotiations were not even possible. Treaties, once agreed on, were not regarded as self-sustaining. To be kept alive, they needed to be fed every once in a while by ceremonial exchanges.

6. Humor

  • Humor was one of the first characteristics to be reported of New World peoples. It was highly valued; they highly approved of anything that provoked laughter. They rejoiced when they had an abundance, even of articles of little value. They had to know how to keep their spirits up in the face of starvation.

7. Hospitality

  • They all observed the law of hospitality, the violation of which was considered a crime. It could be carried to the point of self-impoverishment.

8. Unity

  • Belief in the unity of all living things was central to Amerindian and Inuit myths. The unity of the universe (although filled with powers of various types and importance) meant that all living beings were related — indeed were ‘people,’ some of whom were human — and had minds.

9. Harmony

  • Of utmost importance was harmony, the maintenance of which was by no means automatic. Peaceful co-operation could be shattered by violent confrontations with malevolent, destructive powers.

10. Trickiness

  • The demands of life could make it necessary to break the rules; hence the importance in Native legend and myth of the trickster, who could be an individual but could also be an aspect of the Creator or world force.

Native people were so noisy on Canada’s Parliament Hill last July 1st Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t kick off 150th birthday celebrations until after he visited their protest teepee and assured them they are at the top of his agenda. The Hill symbolizes land never ceded by Native people and a million other grievances. The newly amplified native voice springs from Olive Patricia Dickason’s seminal book that gives them their history and identity. Canada’s First Nations: A History of Founding Peoples From Earliest Times was my summer reading project but it will take me until the end of this sesquicentennial year to finish.

  • I met Olive 60 years ago when she was Women’s Editor of the Toronto Globe & Mail and I called on her in my job as public relations officer for the
    Metropolitan Toronto YMCA and National Council of YMCAs.
  • In 1998 we ran into each other in the cafeteria of the National Library & Archives building in Ottawa and lunched together. She told me about her early life “living off the land” in northern Manitoba and gave me good advice for the book I was writing.
  • Her father  Frank Leonard Williamson, an emigrant from the UK, was a successful business man in Winnipeg until he lost his money in the Great Depression. He moved his wife and two girls Olive and Alice to his one remaining asset, a bush property in the inter lakes region.
  • Their Métis mother Phoebe Philomena Côté taught them how to trap, fish, hunt and gather. She was descended from an aboriginal woman and a Frenchman who settled in Canada in 1634. With shining eyes, Olive fondly recalled those long walks up and down to check the traplines in all weather. She felt very lucky to have lived such a free, outdoor life in her adolescent years.
  • The survival skills she learned enabled her to succeed in later life: assess each situation as it arises, use common sense, be realistic, don’t give up nor play games. 
  • A Scottish remittance man, a classical scholar, lived along the same trapline and let Olive borrow his books and newspapers, including current issues of the Times of London. She read them all and they had discussions on the ideas of Plato and Marx; otherwise she completed grade ten in correspondence courses.
  •  When Olive was 17 years old, she left the bush to further her education. She met Athol Murray, the priest who was setting up Notre Dame Academy (affiliated with the University of Ottawa) in Wilcox, Saskatchewan.
  • He asked her what she wanted to do and she said, “Go to university but I have no money.” He said, “Don’t worry about that.” She finished high school and graduated with a BA in philosophy and French in 1943.
  • She got a job as a reporter for the Leader-Post in Regina, covered women’s and aboriginal issues and decided to aim to become a women’s editor in the male-dominated field. She did not find out about her Métis heritage until her mother introduced her to her relatives in the area.
  • She became passionate about learning more Canadian aboriginal history and was very upset to discover nothing was written about it in books. One day she would right that wrong.
  • Olive built her career while simultaneously supporting her three daughters from a failed marriage. She was a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press, Women’s Editor of the Montreal Gazette and then Women’s Editor of the Toronto Globe & Mail.
  • In 1967 she became Chief of Information Services at the National Gallery in Ottawa, so I sometimes saw her at monthly meetings of the Media Club. Her first book, Indian Arts in Canada, won three design-concept awards; then she switched to academia.
  • At age 52 she got an MA at U of O despite resistance to the idea of studying in a field of history that didn’t exist because no one had done it before; aboriginals had only an oral tradition. Professor Cornelius Jaenan from Belgium was the only one willing to be her advisor.
  • He suggested she narrow her thesis topic to Louisburg and the Indians: A Study in Imperial Race Relations 1713-1760. He was able to get the Smithsonian Institution’s native American anthropologist/historian Wilcomb Washburn to adjudicate her work.
  • U of O now accepted Olive to complete a PhD in Canadian Aboriginal History (the field she had invented), which she did in 1977. That same year her earlier thesis was revised and published under the title of The Myth of the Savage and the Beginnings of French Colonization in the Americas to great academic and popular acclaim. 
  • Next she combined writing a series of books with her growing career as a history professor at the U of O and the University of Alberta. She became a full professor of history there in 1985 and stayed until 1992, two years past the mandatory retirement age which she had challenged in the courts, saying it violated the Province’s code of individual rights.
  • She won at the lower level but lost in the Supreme Court of Canada. The university made arrangements to give her temporary appointments to fill in for absent professors so she could stay long enough to finish her book, Canada’s First Nations.
  • Her meticulous research included visiting the Paris Archives to look at  mounds of paper resources of transactions and letters. She spent a year at the Newberry Library in Chicago on a Senior Rockefeller Fellowship, consulting scores of professional experts from other institutions related to Amerindians’ history.
  • She attended three important conferences organized by First Nations’ people in Canada. The treasured, signed Oxford University Press third edition copy I have came out in 2002 but I had no idea she was such a celebrity when she came to a humble heritage fashion show at our church that year with a mutual Media Club friend.
  • The last time I saw her before she died at age 90 in 2011 was at an 2006 exhibition of Norval Morrisseau’s paintings at the National Gallery. It was the first time this Olive-sensitized country had given an aboriginal artist his own show. She used one of his paintings, Storyteller of the Ages, on the cover of the third edition of her book. It was a privilege to view the show with her and chat on the way home in our car.
  • She still loved to walk in the fresh air and, I hope, relish her success. Her textbook, A Concise History of Canada’s First Nations, is in all Canadian high schools and her works are on university curricula all over the world.
  • She was awarded an Order of Canada, Lifetime Aboriginal Achievement Award and received many honorary degrees. Most of all she was a supremely intelligent, beautiful human being who linked all the citizens of our country to its long-neglected ancient history.

The day we ate lunch together she told me the family history I was writing would be a better book if I actually went to see the Indian reservation in northern Manitoba where my parents lived in the late 1920’s. In her spirit, and the spirit of the people who have always lived there, I will still try to find a way of doing that. I’m sure Olive could have.  I’ll walk along a winter trapline in her memory. When I come home I’ll be able to right a wrong and do justice to the first nation people whom I portrayed only through secondhand sources.