history,  politics

On the Trail of Ella McLean

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As a child growing up in Smoky Lake, I remember my dad, newspaper editor Lorne Taylor, taking me up to the graveyard off Victoria Trail. We pushed through the bushes to find a big pink granite stone, the text of which read:

“Ella A. McLean
Devoted Missionary.
Born June 24, 1881.
Died July 6, 1912.
Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”

“This is the grave of the woman whose husband built our home,” my dad would tell me. We lived at 4924 50th Street, the old Smoky Lake Signal Office. Miss McLean had been a missionary first at Wahstao mission and then Kolakreeka mission. She married Rev. Percy Sutton, a Methodist missionary to Smoky Lake from 1911 to 1921.

Ella McLean was born in 1881, about a week and a hundred years before I was born, and my curiosity took hold of me. Who was she? What was she like? Did she ever live at my house? The Smoky Lake History Book “Our Legacy” had a picture of Rev. and Mrs. Percy Sutton but since Rev. Sutton remarried after Ella’s death, I wasn’t quite certain it was her until I found other pictures elsewhere, later on.

Frank Mitchell’s history book, “A History of Pioneering” gave more tantalizing information. Frank Mitchell wrote:

On another spring day before the ice went out of the river, two mission ladies, Miss Weekes and Miss McLean, arrived at the river in the late afternoon to find they couldn’t possibly drive across. This would mean returning twelve miles to Andrew to spend the night, then on about seventy miles to Fort Saskatchewan the following day to cross on the bridge. From there they could continue on home to Kola Kreeka Mission at Smoky Lake after two days of travel. So to avoid all this, a friend, Harry Gordon, my brother, Gordon and I decided we would try to help the ladies in distress. We put long planks an dry dead trees together to make a kind of rough bridge across the twenty-foot stretch of open water that was flowing on either shore. This proved sufficient to hold the ladies. Crossing the horses over was much more difficult as they had to be forcefully led into the icy cold water up to their necks. Dr. Lawford met us on shore with horse blankets and took the horses to his warm barn. The buggy crossed last but not without a thorough ducking also. Without too much loss of time, the ladies went on their way rejoicing, promising they would remember us in their wills.

As a teenager I worked several summers at Victoria Settlement Provincial Historic Site and I took advantage of the opportunity to do more research about Ella McLean. I gathered every mention I could find of her in the local history books. I was also lucky enough to be on duty when the famous Dr. Lawford’s youngest daughter came to the historic site to visit. It was a rainy day and we sat in the clerk’s quarters and visited about the history of the site. She told me that she remembered hearing about Miss McLean, and that Miss McLean had not died from a wagon accident, as was recorded in the Smoky Lake history books, but to complications of a pregnancy. Miss McLean’s death certificate, which I acquired a copy of that year, confirmed this. She died of an infection gained after surgery for an ectopic pregnancy.

I found copies of letters written between two missionaries years, speaking of how fires would start in the chimney pipes at the Wahstao mission and the different missionary women would all grab their own supplies for dealing with it. One would go for a pail of water, another for a pipe-plate of salt, and the third a tin baking board to try to catch the horizontal pipe if it fell. They reminisced about how startled Ella McLean was the first time she witnessed this activity.

At university in Calgary a professor  donated his microfilm copy of the Missionary Outlook archives to the university library so I could browse it in my free time and look for articles that Ella wrote. Years later I made contact with the relatives of some of Ella’s coworkers. I have quite a file of information about her and the missions where she worked. Ella McLean’s ancestors were loyalists who settled in what is now Ontario during the 1790s. Ella’s father was a physician. He had five children, of which Ella was the second oldest. At least one of her brothers fought in WWI. Before arriving in the Smoky Lake area, she attended classes at Victoria University. Then she signed up with the Women’s Missionary Society.

The Women’s Missionary Society was a Methodist organization that worked hard to keep its independence from the general (male-run) Methodist Missionary Society. In a joint letter to the executive of the WMS, Miss McLean and her coworker Miss Chase wrote: “The General Board men have their own sphere, which is not ours; their wives still another, which is not ours. The evangel will reach the women only indirectly, the children will not get gospel unless we give it to them.” The WMS was a place where unmarried women could play a public role in society and they could work with people spreading their faith.
Rosemary Ruth Ball Gagan wrote in her book about the WMS that they tended to send their best educated missionary women to Japan and China. The Canadian missions had less prestige. The same letter by Miss McLean and Miss Chase quoted above says “We have heard that life out here is thought to be unduly hard. It certainly has features that are peculiar to itself but considering our healthy climate, and our opportunities for an occasional relief from our comparative isolation it cannot be harder to bear physically than life in Japan or China. It may be said that the numbers reached in this field are comparatively small. True, we have not the crowded streets of China, nor the large boarding-schools of Japan, but considering other fields in this home-land, and other causes which are freely supported, we feel that this work in the Austrian settlements presents as strong a claim as any.”

The letter reflects the tendency to send those whose health was deemed to poor to go to China or Japan to the Austrian missions, and it acknowledges that there was competition even within the Canadian missions.

Gagan’s book points out that of the missionaries working in Canada, those with more education tended to be sent to work with the Ukrainian missionaries and the less qualified were sent to work with the natives. It was unfortunate, discriminatory division, made particularly horrifying in the light of the abuse that took place at residential schools, some staffed by members of the Women’s Missionary Society.

Thoughts of the residential schools are always in the back of my mind as I read about Ella McLean’s work at the Kolakreeka mission school. The vast majority of information we have about the school was written by the missionary women themselves. They wrote regular articles to convince the communities sponsoring mission work that their work was not only important but successful. Their writing has not all aged well. Much of it is filled with slights towards the Ukrainian population that they served. (As Ukrainian national consciousness was still just growing at that time and no nation of Ukraine existed, the Ukrainian population were referred to in writing of the time as Austrians, Ruthenians, Galicians and sometimes Russians.)

One article in the Missionary Outlook begins:

Miss Sanford writes: On looking back over the winter season it is difficult to decide just what has been accomplished. The sewing meetings were kept up regularly each week, except when special holidays interfered. How can one comprehend the moral standard of people who drink and dance, or buy and sell, on the Sabbath day, yet consider it very wrong to even sew a few patches on a day set apart in the memory of some saint, or of some more or less well-known event in the history of their church? I confess to a sense of bewilderment at times. However, the patches were finally sewing, and most of the quilts are finished.

They greatly enjoyed the very brief moment of time while the Ukrainian parishes were getting organized, before they found themselves in competition with Ukrainian priests.
Dr. Lawford wrote in 1910:

“This year has been one of peculiar trial and tendency to discouragement in our Women’s Missionary Society workers here. The priests, both Romish and Greek, have done very much to try and prevent the mothers and children from receiving the services of our lady workers, and repeatedly they have broken up their children’s classes; but with faith in God our ladies have gone steadily on, and one door is being opened to them as another is closed. As our native ministry shall open up work, there is a bright prospect of our Women’s Missionary Society workers finding a very userful and encouraging field of labour.”

Likewise, their mission run schools were soon challenged by the growth of public schools, though they accepted working in and alongside the public schools with more grace than they accepted the other churches. At times they struggled with having to keep their religious views out of the public education system.

The January 1911 article begins like this:

Miss Chase writes: The Public School closed November 2, but some parents were so anxious that their children should not stay home and lost what they had gained that I promised to open over here if they secured a minimum attendance of ten at fifty cents a month. This is the third day, and the number is assured. I shall have a free hand here for Bible teaching, as seems best. We rejoice in keeping our hold on the children. I did so long while I was away last week for more freedom in the Russian language, and yet I have not got in a half-hour’s study since. We have a chore-boy in the house who came to us cheap for the privilege of learning English, so we must perforce talk English with him. Yesterday he aroused as at five a.m. by making on the fires, and a few minutes later we heard the low drone of his voice over the primer.

When they had some of their first students boarding at Kolakreeka, the missionary women offered postcards as a prize to students who were able to go the whole day speaking only English. Ella McLean described this in an article that was published July 1913, after her death:

Miss Code gave a picture postcard each night to those who had talked English all day. Poor Peter wanted a card so very much, but his English vocabulary was very limited, and he loved to talk, so we would hear him counting in English up to fifty, and going over lessons from the Primer. ‘Arthur can run-Can you run?’ When this failed to express his thoughts he would sing, ‘Hallelujah, thine the glory.’

Mixed with the reports from the local missionary women are the reports from the Edmonton mission. The Edmonton mission to the Ruthenian Girls provided a safe place for young women while the missionary women helped them secure employment. In this way they helped keep women from being coerced into prostitution or exploited by their employers. It also provided educational assistance. Miss Robinson, from the Edmonton mission, wrote in the March 1911 issue of Missionary Outlook: “Many of my girls have no mittens or warm coats. One little girl was badly frozen when coming to school on Monday, so we are trying to supply their needs as quickly as possible.”

The Kolakreeka and Wahstao missionaries also provided needed services at times. They had bundles of clothing to distribute to those who needed. They taught sewing skills and provided companionship visiting women during the first hard years in a new country. They touched many lives and many of the people who went to their boarding schools looked back fondly at it. Unlike the native residential schools, the Ukrainian people were not forced into staying there. Parents could – and did – pull their children out if they disliked it.

Yet the intent behind the missions to the Ukrainians and the mission to the natives was the same. The intent was to create protestant English Canadians. As someone raised within a multicultural Canada, where I could take Ukrainian classes in elementary school, the goal of the missionaries horrifies me. I love their history, the stories, the thought of young women out in the pioneer settlements facing freezing cold and fiery chimneys delight me, but I hate the goal they were out there for.
I hear echoes of the missionaries ideas today when people talk about the need for immigrants to learn English or to close the doors to immigration. Sometimes people try to frame the discussion in terms of helping immigrants adjust and assimilate, a goal that, to varying degrees most immigrants likely share to, but often, like in the articles from the missionaries, the distain for other cultures is lying just below the surface. We have to guard against that and recognize the strength that has come because the missionaries were unable to reshape everyone in their image. Diversity is our strength.

We have just passed Alberta’s 114th anniversary as a province. When the politicians of Canada were looking at creating new provinces from the space between British Columbia and Manitoba they were worried about how they would divide up the land. They could have created two with a dividing line stretching East and West, so one province was north of the other, but to do so would have allowed the Ukrainians of Alberta and Saskatchewan to dominate the politics of the northern province, and the politicians were uncomfortable with that idea. The fear of “foreigners” dominating politics continues today.

(This blog post was originally published in the Smoky Lake Signal, August 17, 2019.)

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