The People of Labrador.

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The People of Labrador.
C. F. Farnham
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The People of Labrador.


If environment moulds a people, then the Labradoreans should have strong traits. The climate, the unique features of the country, the undisputed supremacy of the sea, the | isolation from the world—all their circumstances, indeed – are so strongly marked as to be irresistible. The population of the Canadian part of the coast—down to the boundary line at Blanc Sablon—is of French origin, Canadian and Acadian; the Newfoundland part of Labrador— the Strait or Belle Isle and the Atlantic coast—is inhabited by English speaking people. Moravians and Esquimaux are found in the far North. The French Canadians consist of two classes; a part of them come here every spring to fish for the merchants, and return every fall to their families and small home-steads between Quebec and Gaspe; others live here permanently, own little isolated establishments, and fish on their own account. The Acadians have collected in two principal settlements, Esquimaux Point and Natashquan, where they have their schools, priests, churches and some other features of village life.


I was fortunate in being storm-stayed at a few of these French Canadian homes, where I found now and then a person able to give me some account of the summer and winter life of the people. To begin with external and material things, the average home of Labrador generally consists of a rough board dwelling, with two rooms and a garret, a small dock and store-house for receiving, cleaning, curing, and storing fish, and two or three open fishing-boats. All those buildings perch like anxious water-fowls on the bare rocks; they never impress me as homes, for they make for themselves no niche or place in the surface of the earth; you expect them to be washed or blown away at the next gale—as they sometimes are. For the sake of being near the fishing grounds these shelters are generally established on some outlying island offering a mooring or else a beach for their boats; they seem to be banished from the earth as far as possible seaward. They stand up gaunt, stark naked in the gales, in the midst of a desert of sea and rocks.


In the best places there may be in a hollow a little sand, enriched with decaying fish, where a few turnips and cabbages manage to show themselves during a brief season. You get a gleam of hope and of horror on beholding a gaunt scaffold about eighteen feet high; but it is not a gallows for the ending of life, only a platform for keeping the frozen fish for dogmeat. The interior of these homes is not quite so distressing as their hard surroundings, for the human hand indoors can make its mark, which is not always a clean one. The furniture, diet, costumes are rough and common-place; but the people arc courteous and kind, and they observe well their religious rites. Their isolation is such that they keep the run of time by marking the days of the week on the door-post. An exception to this dreariness is to be met here and there, at a light-house, or at the home of a merchant. I asked an intelligent fisherman how he could content himself in such a place.


"Well, sir, I expect we're fools to stay here. The worst of it is, our children are growing up as ignorant as we are—just like the dogs. Hardly any of us can read or write. Our houses are too far apart to get the children together for school, excepting at Esquimaux Point, Natascquan, and Mutton Bay. Then too, we can't see the priest more than once or twice a year, and that's very inconvenient about dying, for pleurisy and consumption are very headstrong. And there's no doctor at all, nor any roots or herbs for medicines. We keep alive on painkiller and salts that the traders sell. It's a hard life, and we don't live to be very old. We have to do all our own work—jack-of-all-trades, you know. When we came here to live, my wife and 1 cut all the timber in the winter for building these houses sawed it by hand in a pit, and in the spring rafted it down the river."


The social season of Labrador is the winter. There is no fishing then to keep people at home; cutting wood and a little hunting are the only occupations. Winter lasts about eight months; when the channels among the islands and the bays are frozen over, dog teams can run up and down the coast for three hundred miles — from Mingan to Bonne Esperance. People then go visiting; they carry no provision, for everybody keeps open house, and the little cabins are often packed with people   and dogs. The winter homes, as a rule, are back some miles from the coast where wood is handy. Several families who fish at Whale Head live on a swamp in winter, where the tread of a man along the street shakes every house. The Abbe Ferland says that in his time – about fifty years ago – the hospitality of the coast was such the people on going away from home used to leave food, and sometimes even money, on the table, and the doors unlocked, that needy travellers might enter and help themselves. But the advent of more travellers in these days has led to more caution and less generosity.


It is not surprising to find all seamen superstitious; the irresistible and whimsical forces of the ocean must appear to them supernatural, and their changing fortunes must often seem the result of some unfathomable mystery. Could events so supernatural as those told by the Ancient Mariner be so appropriate to a landsman? These fishermen are not behind other sea-faring men in either the number of their superstitions or the faith they repose in them. But Labrador, in time, will doubtless produce still more astonishing results in this regard: for what other region on earth offers such impressive hardships and horrors? Here is a region without a mile of road in three thousand miles of coast; I never elsewhere appreciated a wheel and a horseshoe. Some of these people have no idea of the shape and size of a cow or a horse, and they flee like hares at the coming of a stranger. I have stated elsewhere that lawlessness often prevails, and that those who are in need do not hesitate to break open stores and help themselves. But their most astonishing traits are laziness and improvidence here in sight of heart rending hardship and want. Labrador, however, was formerly a sea of plenty; fishing, sealing, trapping gave even the indolent a sure, though a miserable living. In a few weeks the average man could catch fish enough to exchange with traders for the necessities of life. This enabled him to idle away three-fourths of the year, and relieved him of any sense of responsibility. But now fish, oil, and fur are no longer so abundant. The average family spends about one hundred dollars per year to get only the absolute necessities of life; and yet the government is obliged very often to distribute flour and pork to prevent actual starvation; and it offers free passage and work to those who will leave the coast. The lazy depend upon the industrious, the provisions are shared, and if navigation is tardy, the first sail is watched for in the spring with eager, ness.—C. F. Farnham, in Harper’s Magazine for October.