Manitoba History: Book Review: Elizabeth Bingham Young and E. Ryerson Young, Mission Life in Cree-Ojibwe Country: Memories of a Mother and Son, edited and with introductions by Jennifer S. H. Brown

by Maureen Matthews
Manitoba Museum

Number 79, Fall 2015

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Elizabeth Bingham Young and E. Ryerson Young, Mission Life in Cree-Ojibwe Country: Memories of a Mother and Son, edited and with introductions by Jennifer S. H. Brown. Edmonton: Athabasca University Press, 2014, 280 pages. ISBN 978-1-771990-03-5, $29.95 (paperback)

In compiling and editing the letters and memoirs of Elizabeth Bingham Young and her son, E. Ryerson Young, Jennifer S.H. Brown has facilitated access to a rare view of late 19th century Northern Manitoba—that of a woman and a child. Elizabeth (Brown’s great grandmother), with her husband, Egerton Ryerson Young, came to Northern Manitoba in 1868. Eddie, E. Ryerson Young Jr., born June 1869 at the Rossville Mission, was seven years old when they left Berens River in 1876. The volume combines the best and most engrossing elements of partial memoirs written by each, augmented with selected letters. Taken together they effectively complete both stories. One of the great strengths of the book is Brown’s firm grip on the narrative threads. Answers to burning questions are offered in her thorough introductions, footnotes, and interjections. Brown’s editing and her insightful contextualization of first-hand 19th century historical material serve the reader well and add immeasurably to the joy of reading about these lively and endearing people. The grace with which this has been effected somewhat shields us from the difficulty of the task.

The memoir written by Elizabeth brings to life the years immediately following Confederation, when she and her husband, a popular up-and-coming preacher practicing in one of the more sedate parts of Ontario, launched into a missionary life in country which she surely considered to be on the fringes of Canadian civilization. They initially served at Rossville Mission near Norway House, the most important inland trading post in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s empire. For many years before Elizabeth’s arrival, almost everyone and everything destined inland or travelling back to Europe through the Hudson’s Bay Company system came through Norway House. It was a community at the heart of the fur trade and had prospered because of its position at the nexus of key northern water routes.

Elizabeth’s arrival coincided with the gradual ebbing of that bold era. New overland routes and the rapid construction of the Canadian railroad system fatally undermined the economy of Norway House. Elizabeth provides the kind of detail—of eating fish, meal after meal, day after day, twenty-one times a week, for example—that speaks volumes about the economic pinch which affected her family almost as much as their Cree parishioners. She also shared their fears of disease and danger. Elizabeth and Egerton lost two babies over the years, one to meningitis while travelling (p. 168), another to a “summer complaint” (p. 171). In this volume Elizabeth’s voice and personality come through and, in this, Brown is aided by the clarity of her subject’s writing: the soto-voce complaints, the wonder, the culture shock, the recognition of multiple kindnesses, the social gaffes, the adventures, the waiting, the cold, the submission to Cree midwives, the struggle to maintain order, achieve cleanliness and most of all the forbearance when her all was not enough. If Elizabeth is any example, missionaries’ wives in this era really did attempt to set a standard of cleanliness which might in the long term show the path to godliness.

It was during their second year at Norway House that little Eddie was born. The addition of his memories, especially of their years in Berens River, which was less remarked upon by his mother but which he remembered vividly, add spark to this volume. He, more than any of the other Young children, grew up in a pervasively Cree/Ojibwe environment. His fluency in both languages was such that he was often called upon to translate for his father. From birth, he had a Cree nanny/nurse, Mary Robinson, who looked after him, defended him when she thought the parents were too strict or judgemental, taught him to speak Cree, and educated him in the ways of the community. While his mother was always a stranger in the North (as the revered wife of the minister), Eddie was a much loved local. He had an ear for the stories of the people and writes about them with affection and an absence of judgement that is less possible for his mother. There is a very nice example of this in Eddie’s memories of Berens River. Jakoos, a nephew of Chief Jacob Berens, became friends with Eddie and would come to the mission house and ask Elizabeth:

“’Lend me your little boy.’

‘What do you want of my little boy?’ asked my mother.

‘He likes Indian stories,’ the Indian declared. ‘I’ll give him a boat ride and tell him a story.’ So he carried me away.

The big Indian would put me in his canoe and paddle through the most picturesque surroundings to one of the beautiful islands. In the most primitive manner, often with just a string, a bent pin and a bit of red flannel cut from his shirt, he would catch a fine fish. This he would wrap in marsh grass and mud. He would make a fire on the sandy beach. When this was burned down he would pull away the embers, dig into the sand, place the fish in the hole and pull the hot sand back over the fish. Then while the fish was cooking he would tell me a story... After I was stuffed with fish I wanted to sleep and to protect me from harm the Indian took me in his arms and never moved as long as I slept. Often the shadows were there ere I awoke” (pp. 148–152).

Jakoos returned Eddie to his family long after dark, gently kicking at the door of the mission house because in his arms was a sleeping child whom he would pass to Rev. Young. Elizabeth made a point of thanking Jakoos for his kindness to her little boy and saw no harm in his going off with Jakoos again and again. Eddie’s engagement with local people was at once so natural and, for a while, so complete, that he alarmed his parents. Eddie believed that his enthusiasm for “Indian dances” contributed to the end of the family’s missionary years. His mother asked to see an “Indian dance” and at a visiting chief’s invitation, they went only to discover their young son dancing among the “heathens” (p. 193). Young Eddie was fairly harshly punished by his father, who made him dance until he fell in an exhausted heap on the floor. And then his father scooped him up and hugged him fiercely.

“’My boy, my precious boy!’ he said or rather murmured, at last. Then his words came out like a flood. He told me all about his early home, his conversion and success of his early ministry, how he and mother had left home, city church and loving friends to come out and preach the Gospel to the Indians, that they might be lifted out of their heathenish practices and degradation. Mother and he had endured all manner of hardships—cold, hunger, and loneliness—all to do Christ’s work. Had all those prayers, sacrifices and sufferings been in vain? God had given them a little boy who was more precious to them than their own lives, and instead of lifting up the Indians, the Indians were dragging down their precious boy to heathenish ways?” (pp. 194–196)

Eddie’s subsequent stories of attending school and being called an “Indian” and treated badly for his Cree/Ojibwe ways are an evocative expression of the experiences endured by less eloquent but equally unhappy children faced with prejudice. Eddie’s empathy and understanding of Cree and Ojibwe people and his mother’s intelligence and trust in those same people frame stories that run counter to stereotypes about colonial and evangelical relationships. The vocabulary of “pagans” and “heathens” is not very prominent in either Elizabeth or Eddie’s much more immediate and descriptive writing. It is extremely useful to see how these resourceful people actually lived through times characterized by radical inequality and cultural misapprehension, and yet they found a way to connect and care about others. These are not stories which exemplify colonial Canada so much as stories unique to a period in time when such lives were possible.

Eddie’s dancing fiasco caused him to see his father in an entirely new, entirely admirable, Christian light and motivated him to follow his father into the ministry. Both Elizabeth and Eddie tell their stories, sometimes long after the event, in a way which confirms their conception of a good life, of the rightness of a life following God’s path and accepting His call. There is no post-facto ambiguity expressed, and Brown carefully leaves this quality of the voices alone. These are definitely voices from “another country.” One tries to understand. I too have Methodist ancestors and my mother was brought up in a home where it was a sin to cook on Sunday. That obedience to the rules of a stern faith can be hard to imagine from a 21st century perspective. In this way, Brown’s volume is a stretch for the reader, requiring that one imaginatively accept the shape of the world within which missionaries and their families lived; one in which colonial and evangelical processes seemed laudable.

It is well worth the effort because Brown’s book gives us an important insight into present historical concerns. Neither Elizabeth nor Egerton nor their son Eddie had anything to do with residential schools, but others, seized by harsher convictions about the dichotomy between Christianity and “heathen ways” certainly did. Through Elizabeth and Eddie’s counter-narratives, we are reminded that part of the explanation is that well-meaning, high minded people with a bit of power and emboldened by faith, thought they knew what was best.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 24 July 2020