Kate Brighty: nursing in Onoway and Wanham

That winter (1919) was my introduction to rural life in Western Canada. During the round of the year I learned something of the struggle men and women endured to wrest from the land a clearing, to raise a dwelling and establish a home, eventually passing a legacy of forthright independence on to the next generation.

In that small Cottage Hospital, an unusually large new crop of babies kept us busy as bees. There were minor accidents, varying types of illnesses to cope with, calls from distances involving long drives, anxious moments searching for the right decision. One sustaining thought supported us through many difficulties. The Edmonton physicians, whom we seldom saw, gave us much reassuring advice. It was Dr. J.D. Harrison who said to me, "Remember, the telephone is at my bedside. Call me at any time during the day or night."

That same winter, an urgent call came from the village of Lesser Slave Lake and although it was a long distance outside of my territory, who could refuse the need of a sick child?

Fortunately it was train day and I hurriedly packed my bag and shortly left on the eastbound train. I had no sooner arrived at Lesser Slave Lake when an Indian approached me, said he had come to take me to his friend's sick baby. Would I come with him at once?

The temperature had dropped to zero, a stiff wind was blowing off the lake and "nippy" was the word for it. We cut across the corner of the frozen lake in the Indian's open, homemade cutter with his team of Indian ponies.

I had had the good sense to wear moccasins, for with two pairs of woolen socks and moccasins large enough not to cramp the feet, there is no better way to keep the feet warm and comfortable in zero weather. . . .

During the drive, Goosekeeper (for that was his name) gave me several words in Cree from which I listed a good-sized glossary. All of the words would be useful to me in my dealings with the Indians. The Cree vocabulary is simple and direct, making their language rather easy to learn.

In due time we reached a one-room log cabin that proved to be very comfortable. Inside, I found a young Indian woman bent over a cot where her sick son lay, a baby about sixteen months old. One glance at the small inert figure told me that the child was beyond human aid. The lamp of life was dim and as we watched, it flickered and went out.

The poor distraught mother was little more than a girl and I devoted my attention wholly to her. She was a woman who took pride in her household possessions; the polished kitchen range, the clean cooking utensils, the neatly curtained windows. But what surprised and interested me the most was a booklet on child welfare that lay on the table. Here, indeed, in this house more than the usual small comforts were to be found, while somewhere in the background there must surely be a husband who was a good provider. Together, in a mixture of Cree and English, we talked of many things, of Indian burial customs, of Christian rites, of the husband who was away on his trap-line, of the bereaved mother herself waiting for his return. . . .

Beyond the small clearing, in the direction of a hill covered with lodge-pole pine, I saw a string of dogs weaving their way through the trees, drawing a heavily laden sleigh. A tall Indian ran beside the sleigh, urging the team of huskies into greater speed with voice and whip. The team swung around the building, coming almost to the door of the cabin where, red-eyed, footsore and utterly weary, the dogs dropped down on the snow. Still harnessed together, they curled up into furry balls, their noses tucked under their tails, and settled for a well-earned rest.

The Indian ducked his great height beneath the door and entered the house. Fearing to intrude on the grief of the bereaved parents, I stayed outside. At last, I opened the door, but the stricken man and women, bending over their beloved child in his small cot, took no notice of me. . . .

Indian parents have a deep love for their children. Over the years I have seen much ignorance that led to sickness and, frequently. I have seen distress, but during my long association with the Indians I have never once seen an ill-treated child.

An excerpt from, While Rivers Flow by Kate Brighty


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