Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Grenfell from a Deck Chair

From The Canadian Magazine, 1912 July
Digitized by Doug Frizzle 2015 November.

THE extent of the popular knowl­edge of Labrador appears to be that it has provided a grand frame for Grenfell. My friends who recog­nise the politeness of being interested in my trip down the coast of that north country consider that they have done things ample justice and re­vealed an intimacy with geography and events by asking if I saw Gren­fell. Well, I didn’t. And I’m con­trary enough to be glad of it. When “David Harum” temporarily ousted the Bible and Dickens from popular perusal, I obstinately refused to read it. What’s the use of knowing what everyone else knows? There is no niche in life for the man who is interested only in what is universal knowledge; he hasn’t time to add anything to the general information.
Accordingly, I purposely made no effort to see the man who keeps idle women busy on woollen undershirts for the Liveyere children and sleep­ing bags for the fishermen. Every­one else knew Grenfell from his own mouth; I wanted to know him from the lips of those amongst whom he worked, uninfluenced by the glamour of person or clever narrative. My im­pressions, therefore, may be unjusti­fied, because, of course, I could talk to only a few hundred; and they may be unjust to Dr. Grenfell, because it has been a pretty universal experi­ence that the great pioneers have been neglected in the disposition of rewards until it is too late to make a personal presentation.
However, I can tell only that which came in answer to inquiries that be­came more and more interesting as I got to the bottom of things, in the way of reputation and what I my­self saw. I am glad I used my eyes as well as my ears, for I am bound to admit the two impressions differed.
Away down in St. John’s, New­foundland, I began to collect local opinion of the great missionary. Everything Newfoundlandish has its starting point at St. John’s. Gren­fell may officially reside in St. An­thony, up in the north corner of Newfoundland, and all his work may be northward from that, but St. John’s is the headquarters of Gren­fell, the fisherman, the postal service, the members of Parliament, the Reid- Newfoundland Company, and all else worth claiming. So in St. John’s I began to make discoveries.
Tentatively I spoke of Dr. Gren­fell to a well-known local man, and I was prepared to duck the deluge of eulogy I knew would come from one who must know the sacrifices and philanthropy of him who moves audiences to tears and women to giv­ing up their earrings, curls and silver hags for the suffering Labradorian. I had to duck, but it was from anything but eulogy. I went out thoughtful. 1 asked a few dozen more; and, to my surprise, the same feeling appeared to prevail everywhere. Perhaps the friends I picked up on short notice in St. John's were undesirable; I did not have long to make a selection, I’ll admit.
Fortunately I had learned the sen­sitiveness of the Newfoundlander, and carefully I set about finding out what Grenfell had done to earn this resentment. I received many words in answer, words bubbling from some­thing evidently akin in sound to pre­judice, but there was little to seize for use in forming an opinion. I kept patiently at it, and the most in­telligent criticism of Grenfell I could at first receive was that he misrepre­sented conditions to the general detri­ment of Newfoundland customs and life. It must be remembered that Labrador is a part of Newfoundland, so far as the east coast is concerned.
Meeting one who was less violent and more reasonable, I got nearer to the centre of things. Grenfell, he said, travelled all over Canada and the United States depicting the very worst conditions to be found down the Labrador, until it had become the general impression that these pictures were of the life there, that Labrador was suffering and that misery and ill­ness and deprivation prevailed. Thus far anyone who has heard Grenfell will agree with my informer. The opposition of the Newfoundlander was brought home to me by a clever transference of the scene to Toronto. The man had lived in that city until the last few years.
“You know,” he said, “that any­one could go into St. John’s Ward, Toronto, and pick out conditions of life that would appear terrible from the lecture platform. But you would scarcely consider it fair that a lec­turer should use these in des­cribing life in Toronto. You have just as vile conditions, just as poverty-stricken, disease-ridden, ig­norant people south of College Street as Grenfell can meet in Labrador.”
I had to admit some ground for re­sentment there. I saw also that in this fact alone might lie the entire reason for Grenfell’s personal un­popularity in St. John’s. But grant­ed that was true, there was still no ground for withholding the heartiest sympathy with his work and the largest support in his efforts. On that point I was determined to eliminate prejudice and see for myself.
All the time I felt that there was something more hinted at in the criti­cism of the Newfoundlander, but it was impossible to get down to a plain charge. However, on the way down the Labrador I was able to corral more critics and corner them into something akin to definiteness.
Openly it was charged that Dr. Grenfell did not make a statement of his expenditure. Bluntly I doubted it. It sounded like the last stand of prejudice. 1 asked every passenger on the boat, hoping to arrive at some dependable information. With one single exception, the statement was made that Grenfell did not find it necessary to account for the money he collected through other sources than the Mission to Deep Sea Fisher­men, the English institution that is responsible for the inception of the work, but which can provide but a small fraction of what is expended in the Labrador mission.
As I expected, my informants were talking from hearsay only. None of them had seen the report, and they had all accepted it as a fact that no statement was given of the thousands received. It was pleasant for no one when they were forced to admit that they had no definite evidence to give.
The one exception to the general criticism was a government official. He stoutly maintained that a report was made, but he, too, had to admit that he was surmising only. The Government, he said, gave five thousand dollars to the mission, and in the postal service every dollar of govern­ment money had to be accounted for; therefore, he argued, Grenfell must have to account to the Government. Of course, that was of no use to me.
At last I broached the subject to two eminent English church divines, two of the best-known churchmen in Newfoundland, who were taking the trip for the rest. Here, to my sur­prise, I received the best confirmation of the report. One of them said that he knew for a fact that the statement was not made, that he had personally asked Dr. Grenfell for such a state­ment to satisfy the popular clamour, and Grenfell had refused.
A few days later I had the oppor­tunity of meeting several of the mis­sion doctors and employees. Here, I thought, I would at last reach the truth. In answer to my inquiry each indignantly insisted that a statement was made. I was weary of the in­terminable search and glad to receive any support for my firm belief in Grenfell’s worth. But an American passenger persisted.
“Have you yourself seen such a statement?” he asked, and each was forced to admit that he had not.
And there you are with all I could learn. Grenfell himself had not yet come this year to the coast; he had been called to England by illness, and had just returned to St. Anthony in August, where his yacht, the Strathcona, was ready to bring him down to his Labrador hospitals. From that time I closed my ears as much as I could and used my eyes, and what I saw might almost reconcile one to no statement of the many thousands that are turned over to the great mis­sionary, even if that charge is true.
At Battle Harbour, the first stop­ping port in Labrador, where one of the two Grenfell hospitals is situated, I saw the first evidence of the practi­cal side of Grenfell’s mission. Two large white buildings, across the front of which ran the words, “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me,” faced the harbour, and on the board porches convalescent patients rested on comfortable couches or sat in easy chairs. Thirty-five patients were receiving the bless­ing of the money that Grenfell was collecting, patients suffering from the terrible wounds and sores that come from sea-fishing when treatment is late in arriving.
On the return trip the hospital was full of fishermen and children whose sight lay at the mercy of a great New York specialist who was labour­ing early and late in the little sur­gery, doing for nothing what would have made his fortune in a regular practice. Men and women and small boys and girls lay blindly wrapped in bandages, quiet under stern self-con­trol, and awed by the first sign of re­lief that had entered their lives. All along the coast the eye-sufferers had been collected, and in the surgery a tall, thin man worked quickly and deftly to give everyone attention in the few days of his visit.
Criticism vanished at the sight. The only thought was the fear that anything might interrupt this work, that the money might not come freely enough to relieve those who were many hundreds of miles from other medical help than that supplied by Grenfell.
One of the Grenfell doctors board­ed the steamer to go north to the other hospital at Indian Harbour, two hundred miles farther down amongst the rocks and the icebergs. He was a strong, large-framed young fellow, full of the enthusiasm of ser­vice and the praises of Grenfell, his chief. And I found without excep­tion that Grenfell’s staff had the reverence for him that only worth could maintain. In itself that was one of the missionary’s strongest re­commendations.
Far down the coast the doctor went on shore on the mail-boat to see a family, the father of which was lying in the Battle Harbour Hospi­tal recovering from an amputated leg. Last year the man had gone to the hospital with a tubercular knee, and had returned without it; this year he had spoken to the doctors about his family and the sickness that seemed to remain with them. The medical men know well the trouble, and one of them was now seeing if anything could be done.
When we landed from the small boat we were directed to a mud hut, distinguished from the rest of the landscape only by a stovepipe thrust into the air, a tiny bit of board near the door and a black hole for en­trance. It was uninviting at the best, and the sound of a sick child crying from the inside did not add to its attractiveness. I refused to en­ter, but the doctor stooped and went in, while I looked from the doorway. Inside an old woman sat on a broken chair in the corner nursing with hopeless look a small child that cried weakly and helplessly. Three other children ran out into the sun at our approach, and a younger woman came forward and greeted the doctor, ask­ing for news of “her man.” Out in the sun the doctor examined the chil­dren and talked of the treatment and precautions they must take. It was a striking demand for just such ser­vice as Grenfell is trying to render, and my camera recorded it with con­vincing faithfulness.
Later the doctor told me what he had found. With the father destined to be a helpless care, the mother was blind in one eye from cataracts, the wife also blind, the baby very sick and doomed to die, and one small child blind in one eye and its face a pitiful sight. Scurvy had done its worst during the past winter and spring; tuberculosis would do the rest.
Last winter (1909-1910) one of Grenfell’s doctors started by komatik, as the Labrador dog-sled is called, to make his annual winter trip down the coast as far north as Okkuk, a thousand miles below Battle Harbour. It is the really great struggle of the year, when the young fellow is at the mercy of dogs that are half wolf, and most of the time scores of miles from any habitation of man, surrounded by the terrible storms and snows of the most terrible winter country in the world. But he did not reach Okkuk. Instead of travelling a thou­sand miles north the suffering and sickness he encountered allowed him to go no farther than Hamilton Inlet, less than a third of the way. The previous season had been a bad one for the fishermen, and in its trail came the diseases that low vitality could not fight off. Thirteen cases of scurvy he found, and the spring broke in with but a small part of his trip accomplished.
And even in this trip Grenfell came in for some of the adverse criticism that has met him in Newfoundland. The subordinate doctor, who had battled the terrible conditions of sick­ness, wired to the New York office of the Grenfell Association, stating what he had found and asking for relief in supplies. The secretary un­fortunately showed the telegram to the Associated Press, and thus went abroad an exaggerated account of the suffering and starvation on the Labrador coast, and the Newfound­lander became more incensed.
On board with us was Miss Luther, the head of the industrial department of the Grenfell missions. Here was a practical effort to educate the fisherman and his family to other work than fishing, so that all would not depend on the run of cod. From the headquarters at St. Anthony she directs the teaching of weaving, pot­tery making and metal working. For use in her department wool is im­ported and native clay utilised. On our steamer she was going north to look after the placing of a loom that had been sent to Indian Head with­out the room to use it. An ambitious Liveryere had requested that one be sent to Cartwright and that already in the north was to be transferred there. All the mission officials now dress in the product of their own looms. One of the mission proteges had become an expert metal worker, but lured by the promise of ready money, had left the mission to teach in a small school.
All along the coast Miss Luther collected the moccasins, gloves, dressed dolls, “dickies,” etc., that had been made by the Liveyeres from the materials supplied by the mission. For these she would secure good prices when sold outside. Indeed, it is owing to the influence of the Gren­fell missions that it is no longer pos­sible to purchase the handiwork of the natives at ridiculously low prices.
When I left the coast I had still been unable to arrive at an authori­tative conclusion on the many charges of the Newfoundlander against Gren­fell. As to the statement of revenues, I am still at sea. The charge that Grenfell is able to purchase at much lower rates than the resident mer­chants and can therefore undersell them, may be partially attributed to the uncomfortable opposition of the co-operative stores established by the doctor to ensure honest treatment of the fishermen. The assertion by some opponent that Grenfell preached in the morning and in the afternoon went out shooting was not worth con­sidering. From what I knew of the fishermen, too, I was prepared to ignore indefinite slurs against hospi­tals, for the fishermen consider hospital treatment as one grand spree, and the dieting and inconveniences of supply in that faraway country do not meet with their approval.

But whether Grenfell accounts for his receipts or not, whether a thou­sand dollars spent in Labrador will accomplish as much good as else­where, whether Grenfell deserves in any way the opposition he seems to receive where he is known bestthese things are of no concern to me at the moment. I do know that the only habitable buildings along the coast of Labrador are those of the Grenfell mission and the Hudson’s Bay Com­pany, the only education in sanitation comes from Grenfell’s employees, the only medical treatment is provided by Grenfell’s doctors and the govern­ment physician on the semi-monthly steamer; and were it not for Grenfell and his work the life of the Labra­dorian would be infinitely less en­durable and safe than it is now. It is for his backers to investigate the disapproval of the Newfoundlander. I know their sensitiveness and the difficulty of dealing with the fisher­men; and I saw the effects of the medical attention and education that is being given free to the inhabitants of the bleakest coast in the whole world.

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As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.