Sunday, August 30, 2009

Free Spirits: Portraits from the North

By Bern Will Brown, 146 pages, Novalis.

“Albert, having gotten drunk on the home brew, luckily forgot about crossing the river and staggered back to his planing bench. He took hold of the plane, made one long pass along the plank he had been working on, went right off the end and buried himself in the pile of shavings. Not a perfect ending to the day, but at least Albert Faille survived another of his misadventures.”

Free Spirits offers a pure, direct history of Canada's North in the twentieth century through short chapters on various eccentrics. For Brown, these characters made the culture special. Imagine a society without pop culture, but with deeply personal, intense, and interdependent relationships. The book portrays people being as genuine as the day they were born.

Any refusal to help another person could mean death because of the unforgiving climate. Most of the white society in the North revolved around solitary men and their attempts to draw a living out of the bush through hunting, trapping, and fishing. Often from the France-based OMI order, which had a special charism to this part of the world, the priests who survived there had to adapt to this way of life.

The Oblate priests lived heroic lives, serving and loving the people well. Rather than imposing an alien, European culture, the kind of priest who stayed for many years necessarily fit in with the natives. This love and understanding for the people came from a simple, very Christian theology:

“Léonce was never openly critical of anyone, especially his flock. He found an excuse for any misdemeanor. He realized that the people had only recently emerged from [a simpler] age and that Christianity introduced a whole new set of guidelines that they would need time to assimilate. Although they had always believed in a god, Léonce told me that they had never imagined a son of God – Christ and his redemption.”

The author displays through this basic “theology of the North” a love for the people yet also a love for the Church and its mission to these people. He never criticizes or seems ashamed of this mission, in contrast to so many writers and former priests. Rather, his stories center around the comical and human sides of a harsh environment, and the importance of the Church to this society, where life before government social assistance programs was fragile and often unsuccessful.

Contrary to media portrayals, the Catholic Church succeeded in the North because it served the people and fit into their culture. People built their society around countless individual acts of generosity and self-sacrifice:

“Noticing that I didn't have a bell for [the new church], she kept an eye out for one. The next winter, on her promotion tour for the lodge, she found a bell in Indianola, Iowa, outside Desmoines, and delivered it to my dock in her Norseman aircraft the following summer. At a thousand lbs it was the biggest bell in the Northwest Territories.”

Free Spirits counters the negative, one-sided propaganda surrounding white-native relations which portrays the Church and white Canadians as taking advantage of the natives. Brown's thoughts reflect the much richer, deeper, and more human reality.

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