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January 12 , 2010

Doig and Lansdowne Journals

Diaries and Letters, 1954-1957


DOIG AND LANSDOWNE JOURNALS tells the story of a teacher’s life in two Indian “day schools” in northern Canada in the mid-1950s. The book is made up of the diaries and letters written by John Groarke at Lansdowne House on Lake Attawapiskat in northern Ontario and Doig River, B.C., and is the second volume in a two-volume set of books featuring the writing of John and Charlotte Groarke. 

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Ben and his sisters had no idea that two teenagers trespassed onto their property. The intruders were mesmerized when they saw Ben’s younger sister ordering the birds and ducks to fly her to the pond. These flying creatures grabbed her clothes with their beaks and bills and elevated her high up in the air. “Could this place be haunted?” the teens…

John Groarke came to Canada from England. He was initially appointed as a “welfare teacher” at a Roman Catholic “Day School” run by the Department of Indian Affairs at Lansdowne House. In his letters and journals, he reports on the hardships suffered by the Cree at Lake Attawapiskat, where they were being settled by the department, so that their children could receive schooling. His writing discusses the policies followed by the Canadian government and describes the role of the HBC (the Hudson Bay Company) and the churches in the north. He also records many details of life in the bush and writes about the missionaries, public officials, fur-traders, bush pilots, hunters and trappers that gave colour to life in the north.  His journals provide a rich source of the table-talk in northern Canada during the 1950s.

When his wife and four sons joined him in Canada, John Groarke transferred to the Doig River Indian Day School in the Peace River District. The Doig River School stood on the banks of the Beatton River, outside Rose Prairie and the boom town of Fort St. John. It served the children of the Cree and Beaver, who had settlements further north on the Doig and Blueberry Rivers. The nomadic life of the natives was still based on hunting and trapping, and depended heavily on the use of horses. Their traditional patterns of life were slowly collapsing, however, under the social and economic pressures of oil development and the influx of “veteran” farmers in search of land. The vignettes in John Groarke’s journals document these changes, highlight many of the people and places in the north Peace River Block, and immerse the reader in the rhythm of life in a northern outpost. 

DOIG AND LANSDOWNE JOURNALS is a thoughtful, frank account of a difficult time in the history of the reserve system, when the federal government was trying to settle native peoples in permanent communities. The book recounts the author’s attempts to improve conditions on the reserves, his struggle to ensure the attendance of his pupils, and the daily challenges at the edge of the wilderness. As a devout Catholic, who believed in social justice, his thinking reflects his wider concern with poverty and marginalization. Like many of his generation, he placed his hopes for the future lay in a firm belief in progress and the science of economics. His writing captures the emotional tenor of the north in post-war Canada, with its particular mix of hard realism and physical hardship, mitigated by a sense of unbounded opportunity in a new frontier.

John Groarke was born in Lancashire. He originally wanted to become a journalist but was dissuaded from doing so by his father. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted in the Royal Air Force, where he was trained as a radio operator and became an instructor. He was eventually posted to India, and later Ceylon, where he spent the rest of the war manning a transmitter in daily contact with London. On de-mobilization, he entered the teaching profession and taught in London, England. After leaving Doig River, and teaching high school for many years, primarily in Calgary, he re-entered journalism and edited a number of weekly and monthly newspapers.

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