Labrador History - 1.2 ARRIVAL IN FORTEAU

Fish! Fish everywhere! Fish on the wharf. Fish drying in the sun. The very air smelled of fish! This was my first impression of Forteau, Labrador, as I stepped on to the wharf that September of 1953, and set foot in the village that was to be my home for the next thirty years. We had just arrived by motor boat from the Quebec village of Blanc Sablon, where we had disembarked from a small freighter during the night, and as I gingerly climbed on to the wharf from the boat it was difficult to avoid stepping on fish!
I had travelled from Montreal on the North Pioneer, a small coastal freighter, and on the ten day journey had stopped at most of the small settlements along the Quebec coast. Often, at nights, we awoke to the clang, clang of the winch, as freight was unloaded. Travelling along the Quebec coast I felt the isolation of the people who live “on the coast,” and this increased with each of the ten days of the trip. The coastline became more barren and desolate.
Adding to the strangeness was the fact that the crew and most of the passengers spoke only French. I felt lonely, and even more lonely, as the days passed and, at one point, I wanted to take the next boat back to Montreal! One comfort was that there was another girl in my cabin who spoke English. She was travelling to St. Augustine, a small settlement in Quebec about seventy miles west of Blanc Sablon. Being full of missionary zeal, I gave her a booklet entitled “God’s Plan of Salvation”, and earnestly prayed that God would use this to lead her to Himself.
We arrived in Harrington Harbour a week after leaving Montreal (still 125 miles from Forteau) and I got my first glimpse of a coastal fishing community, after I climbed over some rocks. I met some of the staff from the Grenfell Hospital there, including Dr. Donald Hodd who was in charge of the hospital and Dorothy Tucker, who was in charge of the Handicraft branch. The small hospital was quite modern, more so than I had expected, and I was impressed because this was the first Grenfell facility I visited. The Grenfell Handicraft Department, with headquarters in St. Anthony, made hooked mats, ivory carvings, embroidered items, etc. and sold them to raise funds. Later that fall Dorothy visited me in Forteau and we became good friends.

Bertha, Winnie and Stewart. Forteau, 1954

Bertha, Winnie and Stewart. Forteau, 1954 

The sea was rough when we left Harrington, but by then I had my “sea legs”, so wasn’t troubled by seasickness, which is more than could be said for others on board! Our next port of call was Mutton Bay, an attractive fishing village with a little church on the hill, which we reached just as the sun was setting. The breaking waves on the rocky shoreline in the late evening made a beautiful sight, but I did not get to go ashore. Although Mutton Bay had a Grenfell Nursing Station it had no wharf suitable for a large boat like the North Pioneer.
The next day we anchored some way off St. Augustine, which was a little distance up an inlet, and I said farewell to my English speaking cabin mate - and my isolation deepened. A day was spent there and at St. Paul’s River unloading freight, before we went on to Blanc Sablon arriving (finally) at 2:00 a.m. on the next morning.
Blanc Sablon was a typical fishing community, with a gravel road leading up to the settlement from the wharf, where we landed. I had been told that Mr. Russell, the manager of the Hudson Bay Company, would meet me and I eventually located him, even though the hour was late. He had to check freight, which was being unloaded, so one of his Sons drove me to his home. The house was in darkness when we got there, as everyone was in bed, and I was left to find my own way inside. Not wishing to disturb any one, I settled myself down on a soft comfortable chesterfield, enjoying a resting-place that wasn’t rocking to and fro!
“Mummy, come and look! There’s a strange woman on our chesterfield!” I had dozed off to sleep, and the next thing I heard was that little voice.
Mrs. Russell came to the rescue; we were all introduced and, before long, I was sitting down to enjoy a home cooked, hearty breakfast. This was my first taste of the wonderful hospitality of these “coastal people,” and it was not to be my last. The warmtl of that kitchen was a real, and much needed welcome, and it was not long before the isolation I had felt on the North Pioneer melted away. I was only a few miles from my goal!
Later that morning Leslie Diack arrived from Forteau, in a small motor boat, to take me on the last leg of the journey to my new home and field of service. Leslie, the nurse I had come to relieve, a woman I guessed to be in her forties, wore her hair in an attractive braid round her head. Built by local fishermen, the boat had a small enclosed cabin on deck and was powered by a smelly diesel engine. Stewart, the janitor (and general handyman) from the Nursing Station, navigated it and I remember he bought a new peaked cap at the Hudson Bay Store to mark the occasion.
Shortly we were on our way again. We stopped at the post office and Leslie sent a telegram to the girls at the Forteau station, telling them to put a pie in the oven, as we would be arriving in time for lunch. It took us about an hour and a half to get there, and on the way we passed a large iceberg, the first I had seen. It seemed huge to me, and I was a little nervous, as I had heard that icebergs were much larger under the surface of the water than they are on top.
As we sailed into Forteau Bay, I got my first view of Forteau, and saw the village sprawled along the rocky shoreline, on the west side of the bay. The little white square houses were very attractive.
I received a warm-hearted welcome from the two girls working at the Nursing Station and the meat pie was very good so I soon felt at home. Indeed, such was the warmth of the welcome I received that it wasn’t long before I forgot my earlier feelings of homesickness and isolation. Leslie was a friendly person, and she did her best to help me get settled in, before I made myself familiar with the surroundings.

 Labrador Fish Hook in Nose

Fish Hook in Nose

The Nursing Station at Forteau was a homey place, not at all like the conventional hospitals to which I was accustomed. The building itself was like a big private house, set at the foot of a hill and in the centre of the village. On one side were the United Church and the School, and on the other was the Post Office. A long fishing stage, where men kept their fishing gear and stored fish while it was being “made” (salted), was right in front of the station, somewhat blocking the view of the lighthouse across the bay.
Topped off by a red chimney, the building was white with dark green trim, and a path that led up to the front door was lined with white stones and bordered with blue “lady slippers.” Leslie was justly proud of the station’s nice garden and tiny greenhouse, and bad grown some sweet peas that year. Afterwards, when I knew about the cool temperatures, short growing season and the difficulties of raising plants in Labrador, I learned to appreciate those sweet peas even more.
There were three levels to the house itself, with every corner of the place put to good use! The ground floor consisted of living and dining areas for staff, these being warmed by a big fireplace. There were precious bookshelves in the sitting area, and the many volumes these contained became our own private library for those rare hours off. The remainder of the floor was used for patients.
Just inside the front door and to the left was a small waiting room, which was pleasant and sunny. This sometimes doubled as a ward when we were busy, at which time patients waited in the hallway. The waiting room in turn led into a tiny clinic and dispensary, and at the end of the hallway were two rooms with a capacity for five inpatients. One was a delivery and lying-in ward for mothers, and was a cheerful room as baby baskets covered with pink and blue covers were placed on a stand beside each bed. The bathroom was between the wards and shared by both rooms.
I was happy to see we had not only some electricity, but hot and cold running water as well! Somehow, I had not expected these modern conveniences. Power was provided by a generator connected to storage batteries, giving us D.C. current for use in the station, A well, serviced by an electric pump, gave an adequate supply of water. I learned, in due course, that nurses had to understand something of the mechanics of these machines; they had a habit of going wrong at the most inconvenient times!
Heating, for both space and cooking, was with wood and coal. A furnace in the basement heated the building, there being hot water radiators in each room, and meals were cooked on a large stove in the kitchen, under the capable hands of Winnie, our cook A little woman with a big heart, she was in her forties and wore her dark hair in a bun.
Staff bedrooms were upstairs. I had a front room that overlooked the sea and, when awake in the early morning, I could enjoy lovely sunrises, as the window faced east. There was a guestroom next to mine, as we frequently had visitors, and other staff members occupied the remaining bedrooms.
In the basement, beside the storage areas and the laundry, was the clothing store. This was used for donated second hand clothing, which in turn was used to pay for items sold to the Mission, such as fish, caribou, wild berries and wood. One of my duties, in fact, was to issue clothing vouchers that could be used as cash at this store. We also made up the much appreciated “baby bundles” that we issued to expectant mothers (for $2.50.) Usually new clothing each contained a night-gown, shirt, six diapers, a cap and sweater set and a baby blanket.
During the next few days, Leslie introduced me to the intricate details of running a nursing station. She showed me many things I would need to know; how to keep accounts and records and how to order food, household supplies and drugs for periods of six months at a time. I could see that I would have to be prepared to be a “jack of all trades.”
Clinics, the reason Nursing Stations existed, were held daily from ten o’clock in the morning until four o’clock in the afternoon except Saturday, which was the nurse’s half day. As there was no resident doctor, the nurse held these clinics and dealt with many problems, including dental work. Ours were similar to doctors’ clinics, in that we saw anything from babies with earaches to expectant mums. A one-hour lunch break at midday enabled the nurse to care for any inpatients that were in the station.
In a small station one had to be prepared for any emergency, including lacerations that needed sewing up. I had my first taste of this while working at a children’s camp the summer before coming to Labrador, so I was slightly prepared. Men would cut themselves in both summer (while splitting fish) and winter (while chopping wood) and sometimes got fishhooks embedded in their skin. The first time I was faced with this emergency I was at a loss to know how to remove the hook, but managed somehow. (It was at times like this that a book on emergency treatment, which sat on the station bookshelf, came in very handy!) Later, when hockey became popular, we had injuries from pucks and sticks to deal with as well.
I remember one summer a dentist got a salmon hook through his nose! He had come up from the United States for some recreational salmon fishing when this happened, so he took home some memories of the trophy he caught! At that time I removed the hook and sent him on his way, but several years later he paid us a visit and reminded me of the occasion!
So here I was in Forteau! This was where I would be serving the people of the community for many years, although I did not know it at the time. In the years ahead I was privileged to see God at work in a remarkable way, for the light of the gospel was going to shine into the lives of many people. As I got to know them I found that they were good living people, who had Bibles in their homes. I wondered if they knew the Saviour, as I knew Him, and I longed for them to do so.
My reason for writing this book is to give the background against which this work of God took place. The history of the Grenfell Mission itself has been written elsewhere. My aim, rather, is to describe what it was like to be present during those early years, from the point of view of a nurse who was there when God began to work in our midst.