45 Years in Labrador

by Rev. W. W. Perrett

of the Moravian Mission, Labrador



 
At this season of the year my thoughts will wander back to Labrador in spite of the many attractions of life in England. And I suppose it is not really to be wondered at, when I remember that during the past 45 years I have spent 41 winters with my Eskimo friends and only four winters in England.

Conditions are so very different in the two countries. Think of the difference in climate, think of the difference in the conditions of the two races of people. As I weigh matters up I find that in many respects I prefer life in isolated Labrador.
 
Of course Labrador has disadvantages, but really they are only small. To my mind they're greatly outweighed by the advantages of living among a most friendly, hospitable people and of trying to bring a little joy and pleasure into their lives by ministering to both their bodily and spiritual wants.
 
I remember my last Christmas in England eight years ago. It was rather a dull time, that is, when I compare it with the very enjoyable Christmases I have spent in Labrador. Here in England the festive season is short; it comes and goes and is soon forgotten. On our Mission Stations in North Labrador preparations for Christmas begin early, for there are many presents to be sorted out and tied up ready for young and old, presents that have come from overseas.
 
Such presents, and indeed all the necessary supplies for the Mission and for the Eskimos, are brought out by steamer from England or Newfoundland during the short summer when the sea is free of ice. For over 150 years the Mission was regularly supplied by our own missionary ships, which usually bore the name "Harmony". Owing to change of conditions in Labrador, this service has been discontinued, and we are dependent on the smaller mail steamer which runs from St. John's, Newfoundland, to Labrador about every three weeks during the summer, and on the Hudson's Bay Company's ship which makes two voyages every summer. In Northern Labrador the winter ice breaks up about the end of June or beginning of July, but the Arctic drift ice is apt to block the coast till towards the middle of August. This of course makes navigation both dangerous and difficult. By the middle of October winter has already set in again, and no captain likes to be sailing his vessel in Labrador waters after October.

 
By the end of October many of the Eskimo families have left their homes at the Mission stations and gone into the bays or to some of the outer islands to their winter residences. These residences are generally small wood or turf huts, built for convenience but not for comfort. Such families are away for their autumn hunts; some hunting seals, others trapping foxes, minks, otters or other fur-bearing animals. In these huts they live for two or three months, just one or two families together, miles away from their nearest neighbors, trying to gather their harvest from sea or land. Isolation means nothing to them, in fact they prefer it, for they endeavour to avoid encroaching on each other's hunting grounds.
 
As Christmas draws near children and parents alike begin to get anxious. Will the sea freeze over and the ice be strong enough to get back to the Mission station for Christmas? It would be such a disappointment if they could not be there for the much-looked-forward-to festive season.
 
The time draws nearer still, the nights get colder, a very thin crust of ice forms on the sea, though that will probably be broken up during the day by the heavy wind. But a last daylight reveals a wide expanse of smooth ice among the islands. Winter has come to stay.
 
Before the ice is really safe the men are out on it, feeling their way, so to speak, with their ice chisels, looking for holes of water where seals have gathered and come to the surface for breath. Sometimes hundreds of seals are caught in the ice in this way and the hunters then make good catches. The ice meanwhile is hourly getting thicker, and hope is rising in the hearts of the children that there will be a road for them to travel over.
 
You see we have no land roads in Labrador. While travelling we avoid the land as much as possible and travel over the sea ice. Land travel is usually slow work owing to the deep snow among the trees and bushes, which prevent it from being drifted hard by the wind. Finally word is passed round that the ice is fairly safe; fairly safe, that is, for an Eskimo to travel over.
 
So now dogs are harnessed, bedding is rolled up in a bundle and put on the sledge, a few necessary pots and pans and perhaps the carcase of a seal are lashed on, the christmas tree must by no means be forgotten, and the family starts for the Mission Station.
 
But it is a slow, cold, more or less dangerous journey. The ice is still very thin in places and the sledge may break through. The salt has already worked to the surface of the ice and makes hauling very heavy for the dogs. The temperature is low and the wind very keen, and special attention has to be paid to the nose and cheeks to prevent Jack Frost from getting a bite.
 
But the family is not alarmed or discouraged by such small matters. They are heading for the Mission station, a day's journey or perhaps a two days' journey away, for the warm and brightly lighted church where a couple of Christmas trees will be decorated with candles, and for the company of fellow-countrymen, relations and friends.
 
And what a welcome the travelers receive on their arrival! The sledge has already been sighted from a distance and the young folk run out to greet the travelers. Mother and children are hurried in to a neighbor's house to have a good meal of either cooked or frozen seal meat and blubber, with maybe cranberries, mixed with cod liver oil as dessert.
 
Willing helpers lend a hand to unharness the dogs and unleash the load and carry it into the house, and soon the experiences of the past month or two are being related. Brother Tom has caught a few foxes, and among them he has a beautiful silver fox skin, so he will be able to buy sufficient flour and tobacco for the winter. Uncle Sam has netted a fair number of seals and will not only have meat and blubber enough for himself and his team of dogs but will be able to help others. Cousin Mark has had no sucess; there was a good sign of foxes and minks in his trapping path, but he couldn't seem to catch them. A wolverine too cute to get caught kept robbing his traps and putting them out of order, and altogether his efforts to earn a few dollars have not been successful. Yes, there is cheering news and there is saddening news, but who would let these things disturb them at such a time?
 
But it is Christmas Eve and at half past four the church bell rings; and who ever would think of staying away from that service? It is the service of the year. Old and young are well washed and brushed, yes, a thorough spring clean of home and person has taken place. All are out to enjoy to the full one of the happiest services I have ever attended. Christmas hymns are sung, the story of Christ's birth is read, the choir renders an anthem, prayer is offered, and we feel that, like shepherds of Bethlehem, we hear "the heavenly host praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men".
 
As we sing another hymn the vestry door opens and the native helpers march in with trays of lighted candles, each candle stuck in an apple or an orange or maybe in a humble turnip from the Mission garden. Every child, down to the baby in arms, receives a candle, and the bigger ones stand and sing in their native tongue the praises of the Light of the world, the Christ child.
 
I doubt whether there is a more hearty, a more cheerful and cheering service held anywhere than the Christmas Eve service in Northern Labrador. One feels that the hearts of the Eskimos are in their worship and that they realise they too have a share in Him who was "born ... a Saviour, Christ the Lord". Before leaving the church the congregation, all standing, and led by the organ and string band, sing : "Silent night, holiest night" in Eskimo, then all troop home feeling really joyful and glad of heart.
 
But it is still Christmas Eve and the festivities are not yet over. All - from the 80 years old grandfather down to the tiny tots - are bubbling over in expectation of a visit from their dear old friend : "Fader Karismas", as they call him. The ringing of the church bell announces the fact that the old gentleman has arrived, and it is not long before the church is full. Father Christmas has left his reindeer and sleigh behind the hills; but he has brought his well filled bags of sweets, toys  and picture books, also his two large clothes baskets full of useful articles of clothing. He reminds the Eskimos that this is a time of goodwill, and that friends across the seas have shown their goodwill by sending presents for their needy Eskimo friends in ice-bound Labrador.
 
I can't tell you what pleasure it has given us missionaries to conduct these services and to get the presents ready for distribution, and I can give you no idea of the happiness such welcome gifts impart to both the bodies and souls of our Eskimo brethren. God grant that our friends in Labrador may spend as joyous a Christmas this year as those we remember of years gone by.
 
One gets the idea that many people think a missionary in Labrador has heaps of time on his hands and that, in his isolation, he has considerable difficulty in killing time. "What do you do in the long winter evenings in Labrador?" is a question sometimes put to me, and I invariably answer: "We don't seem to get long winter evenings in Labrador. Our time is so fully occupied with work of one kind or another that we never notice the long winter evenings, and I have never suffered from overwork in killing time. Often we wish there were a few more hours in the day so that we could accomplish more of the duties we should like to perform."
 
But then the question comes: "Well, what is your time so fully occupied with?" That is a difficult question to answer, but when you remember that a missionary has to be a veritable Jack-of-all trades in a country where tradesmen are non-existent, you will understand that it is not difficult to find a job if one wants a job. With no doctor within 300 miles the missionary has to attend to the medical wants of his congregation, and he is a fortunate man if he has had even a short course of medical and surgical training before taking up his work as a missionary.
 
Like the rest of us the Eskimos are subject to all sorts of small ailments, to say nothing of more severe complaints. As regards accidents there are two principal sources; these are the rifle and the Eskimo dog. In a country where the natives get their living by hunting, gunshot wounds are not infrequent. The Eskimo dog again has the reputation of being more or less fond of human flesh, and I have had many cases of both kinds to deal with.
 
I recall the case of an Eskimo being accidentally shot through the calf of the leg. The bone was so badly splintered that we amateurs decided amputation was necessary. But who should amputate? An Eskimo eventually declared himself willing to undertake the operation provided the missionary administered the anaesthetic. So the limb was removed with the aid of a butcher's knife and a carpenter's saw, the wound being sewn up tightly to stop the bleeding. In a short time the wound healed and though the stump needed a little more attention when a doctor came along, the Eskimo stumped round for years on a home made wooded leg. Truly God helps them who help themselves.
 
I have had to treat several cases of children being badly bitten by dogs and have counted from 60 to 100 wounds scattered all over a child's body. These were not the bites of a single dog, for a single Eskimo dog is a coward and rarely attacks anyone, but if a child falls the whole team pounces on him, and that is when the damage is done. Fortunately such wounds seldom become septic, even though Eskimo bodies are not always clean. The pure air of Labrador is conducive to quick healing and septicaemia is not often troublesome. I have gone through epidemics of imported influenza, measles, and smallpox, and these usually play havoc with the natives. A primitive folk like the Eskimos has little power to fight the white man's diseases, and on such occasions funerals are apt to be frequent. But amateur doctoring is by no means the only work the missionary has to turn his hand to. As there are no tradesmen in Labrador he must be ready to turn his hand to anything, from building a house or church to knitting his own stockings, and happy is the man who is able and willing to tackle any of these jobs. It is in his own interest to know how to do anything, and if he is at all adaptive, he soon learns to use tools he never handled before.
 
Labrador is no country for a weakling or for one who wants an easy, smooth path through life. Winter travel by what has been called "an 8 or 10 dog power huskymotor" is strenuous work and demands endurance. A man must be able to rough it. The thermometer may register 25 or 30 degrees below Zero, the snow may be soft and deep, and progress slow. I have heard stories of quick runs being made, but it has never been my good fortune to make them. After a long experience and after having traveled many thousands of miles by dog team, I claim five miles an hour to be quick and easy traveling. I have had heart-breaking work to accomplish one mile in two hours. Pastoral visitation over a large area under such circumstances, with houses 10 or 15 miles apart, is no child's play. I have been overtaken by a blinding snowstorm and had to spend a cold night under a tree, a gale of wind blowing and the thermometer somewhere round 30 below Zero. I shall not easily forget that night for it was one of the coldest nights I have ever spent.
 
On another occasion my driver and I got astray during a storm and were more or less lost for 48 hours. We spent two lively nights in a tent with very little to eat, wandering round during the day time to try and locate ourselves. Another night out would probably have put a full stop to our careers, for both of us were getting played out with cold and lack of sleep, and our dogs were overdone too, through not having eaten for three days. But all's well that ends well. We managed to find a settlers house where shelter, warmth, and adequate food for man and beast awaited us. It is all part of a missionary's work, and when troubles are over we get a lot of fun recalling our experiences.
 
God has greatly blessed the work of the Moravian Mission among the Eskimos and Settlers of Northern Labrador where we have worked continuously since 1771. The Mission has, without a doubt, been the means in God's hands of preserving the Eskimo race on that coast. May there always be men, able and willing, to minister to the needs of my friends, the Eskimos.
 
I should just like to mention what a boon wireless has been to us in Northern Labrador. Cut off as we are from the outside world for so many months of the year with only two or three deliveries of mail between October and July we have been most thankful for the daily News Bulletins from the B.B.C. as well as from continental and American broadcasting stations. Daventry short wave station rarely fails to reach us, and between November and February, when the sun is low in the heavens, I have picked up most of the British medium wave stations during the day. Radio has broken that feeling of isolation we formerly had, and has enabled us to realize that we are still citizens of the world even in ice-bound Labrador. How often we have smiled too at the look of astonishment on the faces of the Eskimos when they listened to Big Ben striking, over two thousand miles away. Some of them may even now be in the missionary's room listening to me. If so they will recognize my voice as I give them the Eskimo greeting: "Aksuse", which means: Be strong.

(Sunday, December 12, 1937 Hubert W. Peet 3 p. m. - 5:20 p. m.  8, Endsleigh Gardens W.C.1. Missionary Travel Talk
Transcribed by Barry Perrault)

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