MEILLEUR, Helen




Author Tags: First Nations, Forts and Fur, Local History

Helen Meilleur's A Pour of Rain is a well-respected history of the Port Simpson area south of the Nass River, inhabited largely by Nisga'a. Derived largely from Hudson's Bay Company Journals, it provides details of the earliest North Coast settlement by non-natives. Published by Sono Nis in 1980, it was a runner-up for Eaton's Book Award and was re-issued in 2002 by Raincoast Books's Polestar imprint. By the time Helen Meilleur was born there in 1910, Fort Simpson had become Port Simpson. She lived here for her first five years on the Tsimshian Reservation and spent the rest of her childhood in the adjoining "white village" that occupied the Hudson's Bay Company fort site. The fort had burned down in 1914. It had been one of the earliest coast forts, predating Victoria by nearly a decade. "Its atmosphere outlived the flames," Meilleur wrote. She first learned about the original Hudson's Bay Company journals pertaining to Port Simpson from her father. In the 1930s she tried to track them down and learned they had been sent to London, England. In 1973 she learned they were part of the Hudson's Bay Company archives in Winnipeg.

Meilleur attended high school in Vancouver when Kitsilano High School was a temporary building surrounded by bush and she attended UBC "when it was in its second muddy year on the Point Grey campus." She gained her teaching certificate from Normal School "many years before the advent of Faculties of Education at the universities." She taught in northern B.C. in two Indian schools "that have grown and flourished" and at two white schools "that have crumbled into dust in abandoned communities". In 1936 she left teaching and worked in business in Powell River. She reared five children. After her husband's early death and children grew up, she turned to writing and won the Indiana University Writers' Conference award for non-fiction in 1967. Her first and only book was published when she was 70. She "stubbornly survives" in North Vancouver.

(As regards the Prince Rupert area, the Prince Rupert Daily News also published 100 Years of Progress in 1971. Hancock House published Walter Wicks' Memoirs of the Skeena in 1976. Gray's Publishing re-released Rev. R.G. Large's The Skeena, River of Destiny in 1981 and the Port Authority issued W.B.M. Hick's Hay's Orphan: The Story of the Port of Prince Rupert, in 2003. Fiction by Joan Skogan, Genni Gunn, Jean Rysstad and Hubert's Evan's The Mist on the River also pertain to Prince Rupert. See also Phyllis Bowman and Michael Turner.)

BOOKS:

Meilleur, Helen. A Pour of Rain: Stories From a West Coast Fort (Sono Nis, 1980; Polestar Press, 2002).

[BCBW 2004] "Local History" "First Nations" "Classic" "Forts and Fur"

A Pour of Rain: Stories from a West Coast Fort (Raincoast $24.95)
Info



Helen Meilleur was raised on a Tsimshian reserve. Her childhood memoirs of Fort Simpson—a Hudson’s Bay outlet near present-day Prince Rupert—have been re-issued as A Pour of Rain: Stories from a West Coast Fort (Raincoast $24.95).

Born in 1910, she witnessed tribal wars, wrecked ships, missionaries and gold seekers. When she learned, in 1973, about some Hudson’s Bay Company journals in Winnipeg archives—traders’ journals that her father had told her about 50 years before—she incorporated excerpts when A Pour of Rain first appeared in 1980 from Sono Nis Press.

According to Meilleur, a North Vancouverite, the early Hudson’s Bay staff in places like Fort Simpson “probably knew the First Nations people better than any white men since.” Her recollections—written more than half-a-century after her residency in Fort Simpson—include the following excerpt about Native women.

“Scarcely distinguishable from slavery, in the lodges about the fort, was the status of women. Chiefs had slaves and the rest of the men had wives.
A girl was subject to her father’s bidding until he sold her in marriage (though the negotiated gifts were never considered a cost price), perhaps while she was still a child. When she took up her position as wife she was subject to her husband’s bidding. Mostly he bade her do the work that was beneath his dignity. She loaded and unloaded his canoe, cleaned the fish he caught, skinned the animals he trapped, made gear and clothing and mats and baskets and she carried. She carried home firewood from distances of two miles; she carried baskets and cedar mat rolls full of possessions and cedar boxes full of food.

Among the people past middle age, she was still carrying in the 1920s when I would watch a gas boat land at the wharf and its occupant couple make their way up the wharf approach that was one-third of a mile in length. The man ambled along, completely unencumbered, while a few paces behind him his wife laboured under a load of sacks and suitcases.

In the early days women prepared food for their men; if the men were away on an expedition, the women and children subsisted on snacks and cooked almost nothing. In day-to-day life families ate together but feasts were usually all-male affairs. Lavish quantities of food were offered so that there was always some left to take home to the women and children. There were some feasts that included the entire clan and to these women were admitted.
For those who did not own slaves, women often had to serve as scapegoats in matters of reprisals… Marriages were easy, comfortable arrangements for the husbands… Marriage was a less comfortable arrangement for the wives who could no more discard their husbands than slaves could discard their masters.

And should a wife displease her husband he took care to disfigure her, before dismissing her, so that she could not remarry.

As for polygamy, it does not seem to have been distasteful to the women, probably because it was usually the chief who could afford multiple spouses, and being one of any number of wives to a chief brought distinction and some security. We lack statistics for the Fort Simpson area but we know that in the year 1803, the illustrious Chief Maquinna of the Nootka had nine wives. Women of the tribe were not regarded as trade goods as slaves were. However, the Natives were gift givers, thus they showed goodwill and welcomed strangers; the favourite welcoming gift was a daughter or a wife. Some such gifts were made on a temporary basis, others were permanent.

The women did have one defence, which was still evident when I knew them. It was a silent and granite obstinacy. When they stiffened into it their faces lost any trace of expression, their bodies set in heavy lines and they became, in every sense, immovable.”

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[BCBW SUMMER 2002]