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The Selkirk Settlers in Real Life
Chapter XII - Missionary Outposts


The Indian Mission at Prince Albert, on the Saskatchewan (where there are now several thriving churches) was an overflow from the religious and educational life of Kildonan. In 1861 the Rev. James Nisbet came from Oakville, Ontario, to help Dr. Black in the growing work of the West, and after five years in and about the colony, where he is still affectionately remembered, went 500 miles north-westward and founded a mission, to which he gave the name of the Prince Consort. With that mission the old home of the writer was closely connected, for to it there went at that time two sisters and a brother: Mary, the wife of Mr. Nisbet, the missionary; Christina, the wife of John McKay, then the interpreter; and Adam, who was to teach the school, together with other relatives and connections. When the whites had settled around Prince Albert, John McKay went farther afield as an Indian missionary, and a few personal recollections of James Nisbet and John McKay may fittingly close the present volume.

My earliest recollection of Mr. Nisbet is on the day of my mother’s funeral, which took place on my fifth birthday, but some scenes of which are indelibly photographed on my memory. I can see yet the old house crowded, and then the long procession that carried out with it the dust of her whose death made a blank in my life, whose greatness I realized, not then, but more and more as the years have flown. My father, who was heart-broken, was not able to go to the churchyard, but as the funeral procession passed out he went down a little way on the field to have a last look at the coffin borne away on the shrouded bier. I can see him returning bent and in tears. With him was Mr. Nisbet, and as they walked Mr. Nisbet took the Scotch plaid he himself wore (for it was early winter) and placed it around the stooping shoulders of my father. Even then it impressed itself on my mind as a thoughtful, kind act, but as I grew in years and knew Mr. Nisbet more intimately, I feel that it was a pre-eminently spontaneous deed, and thoroughly characteristic of one who to the end of his days was a "son of consolation."

I next remember him at the carpenter’s bench, engaged in making the desks for the present Kildonan school, one day on which I was sent for him from his home, failing an elder messenger. I can see him, hatless and coatless, with the beads of perspiration on his brow, doing his own work and directing the other workmen how to follow the plans he had prepared. Next I can remember vaguely (for all these intermittent photographs are not equally distinct) the preparation for the outgoing to the Indian mission, and on the day of the departure I recall seeing my sister, Mrs. Nisbet, in the old home, giving a glass of milk to their eldest born, little more than an infant, with whom they were setting out on a wagon and cart journey they knew not whither.

There, in that Indian mission, Mr. Nisbet toiled, erecting buildings with his own hands, teaching and preaching as he had opportunity, struggling amidst the lights and shadows of a difficult life, till he and his wife returned to my father’s house utterly broken down by the strain of their labors, and died there only a few days apart. During the years at Prince Albert they made several trips home, and one winter was spent in Oakville, where his sisters lived, and where he left two of his children at school; but the journeys across the great plains were more wearing almost than the work at the mission. It would appear from the experience of Mr. Nisbet that the best people in the world are liable to be misunderstood—the servant is not greater than his Lord—for even when his life was being slowly worn away by his missionary toil, certain people, in the press and elsewhere, made attacks on his method of work at the mission. I remember well how heavily this lay upon him, and with what warmth of conscious innocence he publicly and privately defended his course and the action of those associated with him. Next I recall, his coming back to my father’s house for the last time, both he and his wife worn out and run down as those who had worked beyond their strength and time. They had both been ill before they left Prince Albert, and the long trip of 300 miles across the prairie in the jolting canvas-covered wagons was a trying one even to people who were strong.

When they arrived, Mr. Nisbet, though weaker than any one knew, was riding slowly in front on horseback, while his wife was in the wagon just behind. He rode up to the door and dismounted, and I remember well how he tried to engage my father’s attention, and stood between him and the wagon when my brother went and carried from it the frail body of my sister, who was scarcely able to put her arms about his neck as he lifted her from that poor bed and carried her into the old home to die. For her the end was not long delayed, and after she had lost consciousness I remember how calmly, to outward appearance, her husband waited for the end, counting her feeble pulsebeats with his watch in hand, while all the while the sword of a great sorrow was slowly piercing through his heart. When all was over the husband rose, and as he and my father stood together I remember how Mr. Nisbet said, "I hope you all feel that I acted for the best when I brought Mary back home," and the answer of my father, whose heart had yearned to see her ere he died, need not be recorded. Long years before he too, had stood beside a Mary (that was my mother’s name), and had watched the passing of her spirit into the unseen, where his gaze was fixed with a growing home-sickness as the shadows were lengthening around him and the ties of earth were being broken one by one.

Not many days after that Mr. Nisbet gave way before the brief illness that carried his frail life out also. His room was in one end of the big farm-house, and when he fell ill at night no one knew of it till the daybreak, for all had thought that he but needed rest to restore him to full strength. In the morning, as he came out to the dining-room, I recall how he told of suffering during the night, and how he, who always looked for opportunities to enforce the teaching of the Word, said, "I can understand now what the Psalmist meant when he said, ‘My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning, yea, more than they that watch for the morning.’" A few days later he died of a diphtheritic trouble, which his weakened system could not resist, and iu the newly-covered grave of his wife his dust was laid to rest. Over them the General Assembly of 1887 erected a granite column, such as their relatives, poor in worldly goods, had never hoped to see, but in the immeasurable influence they exerted on many whose lives have been consecrated to the service of God, in the noble record of their selfdenying labors, and in the enduring work at Prince Albert, we see their grandest and divinest monument.

Beside Mr. Nisbet, as we look back along the line of our church history in the West, we see the figure of the late Rev. John McKay, at one time the interpreter and general provider at Prince Albert, and latterly the missionary on the Mistawasis Reserve, near Fort Carleton. From my earliest childhood I remember his physical appearance and the characteristics which made him so successful in the Indian work. A powerfully-built man, with great breadth of shoulder and immense depth of chest, muscular and athletic, dark-skinned and raven-haired, with aquiline nose and piercing black eyes—his whole physical make-up commended him to the Indians, who adore physical strength and prowess. Moreover, he was of the half-blood—his father Scotch, his mother a pure Cree—and united in himself the courage and energy of the white with the skill and endurance of the Indian. This made him one of the class whose presence in this country has been invaluable as, standing midway between the white and the red man, they constituted a medium of communication and a guarantee of good faith that led to peaceful solutions of the questions that arose between them.

In the case of John McKay himself, every one who is familiar with the history of this country knows how he assisted the late Governor Morris in arranging the Indian treaties in the West, and in securing a peace and good-will that would have been impossible without his help and the help of men of his class. Down to the time of death he retained an unrivalled influence over the Indians, as witnessed by the fact that in 1885, though the rebellion broke out at Duck Lake, not far from the Reserve, the old chief Mistawasia not only resisted the incitement of Riel's runners and remained loyal, but with a picked band of men escorted the missionary’s family to Prince Albert, and there offered his services to the Government. When John McKay first went to Prince Albert his main duty was to supply the mission with the products of the chase, and since he had been used to the prairie from his childhood he found this a congenial task. He was an experienced buffalo hunter and a dead shot, though I often heard him express his abhorrence of the way in which the buffalo were slaughtered for the love of gain by hunters, who simply took the tongue and hide of the slain animal. All these qualities, with his intimate acquaintance with the language and customs of the Indians, gave him unbounded control over them in ways which proved of great service in all lines of his work. The possession of courage is always a sure passport to the respect of the Indians, and that John McKay had that courage, they were taught in a great many ways. In the earlier days of Prince Albert, roving bands of strange Indians used frequently to come to the mission and make heavy and peremptory demands for food on the meagre supply, with threats of extermination if they were not satisfied. One spring, when preparations were on hand for the sowing season, and the oxen were tied in the hay-yard, a large crowd of Indjans from a distance came and demanded an ox for a feast. One young animal was given them, but after a while they came back, and indicating a certain ox, the choicest and biggest of all, and hence the most prized for the spring work, they requested that he be given them. The demand was refused—for to give way there meant, to any one who knows the Indian, a giving way all around—and explanation made that this ox could not be spared. But the Indians "uncoated" their guns, strung their bows, and with violent demonstrations (such as they calculate will frighten people), said they were going to take the ox in any case. McKay reasoned with them as long as he could, but in vain, and when further parley was useless, he stepped within his door and returned rifle in hand. Indicating a certain post between the Indians and the coveted ox, he spoke to them as follows:

"I have your blood in my veins and you are my brothers; but I have also the blood of the white, and therefore I am more prudent than you are. We must have food here for our families, and cannot give away all our animals, or we cannot sow our fields. We have always done, and will always do our best for you; but now, I have drawn a line at that post; you know my rifle never misses, and I tell you that the first man who crosses that line will drop." None of them made the attempt, and from that time onward McKay had more influence over them than ever before.

Some years afterwards, when Prince Albert became largely a white settlement, he moved out to the Mistawasis Reserve (for his heart was in the Indian work), was ordained by permission of the Assembly a minister of the Gospel, and ministered there till his death with great success. He was a natural-born orator, and had all the dramatic eloquence of the Indian with the fire and intenseness of the Colt. The old chief Mistawasis was his sworn friend, and the work done on the reserve has on it the stamp of enduring reality. An incident I heard him relate on his last visit to Kildonan has always seemed to me a striking instance of the way in which the psalmody and hymnology of the Church attests its oneness. After the 1885 rebellion a number of the loyal chiefs, amongst them Mistawasis and his old friend Star Blanket, were taken to the East, and were greatly impressed with the evidences of power and progress they saw in the haunts of the white man. On his return, Mistawasis met John McKay at Qu’Appelle, and they spent the night together. Mainly, their talk was on religious work, and Mistawasis told the missionary how they had attended some great meeting and afterwards were invited to a reception in the home of one of the Christian workers, The chief said there were many ladies and gentlemen present who sang and played on "singing machines" (pianos). and that finally they asked him and Star Blanket to sing. "I thought," said Mistawasis, "I should have sunk into the ground for bashfulness, but I said to Star Blanket that we must sing after all their kindness to us. I told him we would sing the church song the missionary taught us, and so we began, but what do you think? I had scarcely begun when one of the ladies ran, to the singing machine and began to play, and all the people joined in the same song, but I was leading the whole band. Now what puzzles me is how these people there knew the same church song we sing away out on the prairie." The explanation the missionary gave, and which greatly delighted the chief, was that God’s children are everywhere a singing. people, because their hearts are glad, and that the song was the 100th psalm which they had learned in Cree to the old tune, and which the people in the East had learned in English to the same.

John McKay died a few years since as the result of exposure to the great hardships of his life on the plains, but his influence for good lives on amongst the dusky tribes of the Saskatchewan.


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