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Teachers in Northern Manitoba

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Jacob needed to be a minister, teacher, social worker, and doctor all rolled into one.


“My duties were to be four-fold. As missionary I was to conduct services in the church, baptize, marry and bury members of the congregation as the occasion demanded. Then I was to teach the Indian children according to a program of studies issued by the Department of Indian Affairs…. Next I had to hand out food rations to widows and other destitute people on the reserve…. Lastly, I was expected to tend to the minor medical needs of the people. Here I felt entirely inadequate. I tended to minor aches and pains, but refused to pull teeth. I realized that I should have gone to a sympathetic dentist and gotten a few points on basic procedures.”


“One day toward the end of June we heard a knock on the door, the first of many more to follow during the net year. I opened the door. There stood two Indian fellows. They said they had come from Black River to look after some things and to get some “medsin”, but it seemed to me they had come or had been sent out to see and size-up the new “Aneemawee Okeema” (praying boss). Anna and I had a friendly chat with them and I think they went away with reasonably favourable impressions.”


Soon after that the fishing season ended and the residents returned to the community.


“Now that the people were back on the reserve again, we could begin our church services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon…. Charlie Franklin was the official organist (we called him the organ grinder), who was able to elicit the strangest chords and harmonies from the instrument. What he lacked in talent and musicianship he made up with open pride on his accomplishment. The hearty congregational singing was bilingual: Cree for the ones who knew no English, and English for those who knew no Cree…. What I had to say by way of prayer, announcement or sermon was translated by an interpreter…. After the service Anna and I had to shake everyone's hand. We came to love these people, who stoically accepted their many misfortunes and still found time to laugh. The winter proved to be the saddest and at times the most depressing in my experience. TB was rampant, infant mortality was high. Of the 9 babies born that year 7 died, as well as several adults – a large number for a band of about 120 people. Proper medical care was sadly lacking.


“In September I started to teach in the log schoolhouse. The school program was designed to acquaint the Indian children with the white man's culture, so that they might be assimilated into our culture – an utterly hopeless and impossible prospect.”


Toews performed a variety of tasks around the community. The happier occasions included performing marriage ceremonies.


“The first couple I married were a widow and a widower. They were married at a regular Sunday service. The bridegroom sat on the right side of the aisle and the bride on the left. I called them to come to the front of the church. The ceremony was conducted through an interpreter. After each one had muttered “aha” in answer to the questions of mutual commitment to each other, both went to their former places in the congregation. Then we continued with the church service.”


After a time, Jacob and Anna decided that it was time for a change. They liked working in northern Manitoba and so, when they were offered a similar position to the one in Poplar River, they accepted.


“Another piece of news came our way. The position of minister at the Berens River mission had become vacant and Dr. Cormie on the suggestion of Dad Neufeld asked us to take over the work at Berens River. Since Miss Jean Reid was the teacher in the Indian Day School there, I would just be in charge of the Mission. We readily agreed, for we had come to enjoy the life and work far from the “madding crowd”. There were several white families at Berens River.... Furthermore there was a R.C. [Roman Catholic] hospital there with a competent, efficient nurse in charge who looked after the medical needs of the people.”


Jacob soon fell into a routine at Berens River. He held two church services on Sundays, visited homes, registered marriages, births, and deaths, and made a bi-weekly trip to meet the SS Keenora collect mail. Jacob and Anna enjoyed their work there.


“The termination of our work up north was determined by several factors. The war had come to an end, and the United Church could now more easily have its own members take over the Mission stations. After a second stillbirth the doctor advised us to leave the north if we wanted to have a family, and this we wanted.” [ASM, 65-73]


Looking back at his time in the north, Jacob writes that he came “under its particular spell and felt quite a home there.”

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