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First Person My grandfather was one of Canada’s colourful Hudson’s Bay Company fur traders

Illustration by Ashley Wong

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In 1939, I stood in the cemetery at Gogama, Ont. My grandfather, James Slater Miller was being buried on the side of a hill. It overlooked the forests and lakes he travelled by canoe and dog team for almost 50 years. He was one of the last of the fur traders who married Indigenous women, raised families, manned the trading posts and ruled these vast territories as judge, jury, doctor and mediator for the Hudson’s Bay Company.

They, along with the Indigenous population, adventurers, missionaries, doctors and teachers, kept the country together and made it strong.

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A news item published in the Sudbury Star the day before read:

“James Miller, north pioneer passed away. He was Factor with the Hudson’s Bay Company – one of the most colourful frontier figures for the past century in the north, died early this morning in Gogama in his 86th year. From many remote parts of the District Indians, trappers who can be reached will come by canoe and trail to Gogama where tomorrow afternoon at 2 p.m. a simple funeral service will be conducted at St Mary’s Anglican Church. Canon G. Prewer will conduct the service for the widely respected Factor, who in his later years of retirement had been affectionately known as the “Old Man.'”

In 2018, his descendants gathered on the same hill. Bagpipes played Scotland the Brave, Going Home and Amazing Grace. We placed a plaque, attached to a stone from the Canadian Shield, on his grave. It replaced a leaning and fragmented wooden cross that stood as a sentinel and guardian for those many years in between. There was a religious service and remembrances.

I imagined what it must have been like for him to leave home.

On a windy day in 1871, 16-year-old James and other young men in Orkney, Scotland, signed a five-year contract for 25 pounds to work in the fur trade as labourers, voyageurs and tradesmen for the Hudson’s Bay Company. Most would never return.

A lone piper, his tam-o’-shanter tipped slightly on the side and a vest covering a homespun woollen shirt, played them farewell. Mothers, fathers, siblings and friends shed tears as these men and boys turned and waved as they walked the gangplank, carrying chests and duffle bags to this place of ice and snow called Canada, a land of myth and illusion.

The onlookers cheered as salutes were fired from gun batteries of 19-pounders at Hoy Sound and echoed in the ever-present wind. Sailors, high in the rigging, unfurled the billowing sails. Three ships, loaded with supplies and men, began the six-week journey across the North Atlantic to Canada.

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After a year’s service at Moose Factory, the main trading post on James Bay, he was sent to Fort Mattagami as a voyageur. He married Hannah Naveau and raised nine children. Her ancestors were the Métis from the Red River Settlement, now located in Manitoba. Others were the Faries and Hardisty families, Hudson’s Bay Company chief traders and governors.

James Miller was one of the signatories, along with his brother-in-law James Naveau, of Treaty No. 9 in 1906.

Hannah would leave a lamp burning in the window during the nights she expected James home from his travels delivering furs to Moose Factory on the James Bay coast, for shipment to England. They returned with supplies and trade goods.

One night in November, 1903, James noticed from faraway up the lake that the house was in darkness. She had died of tuberculosis.

Just before retirement in 1917, James purchased a five-acre piece of land jutting out into Minisinakwa Lake and built a house on the edge of the newly inhabited village of Gogama. It had come into existence when the Canadian Northern Railroad was being built from Toronto to the Pacific Ocean.

Once a year, on a warm summer day, he’d hire a truck and approximately 15 of his grandchildren would jump on the back for a ride to the Hudson’s Bay Company store for a treat. We’d hang on to the truck railing as it swayed and shuddered over the road as the sand billowed into the sky behind us.

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During the last year of his life, I remember seeing my grandfather sitting and sobbing. He’d talk of his sister, Mary. When I asked my mother why, she said he was yearning for his family he’d last seen as a boy. Like most of the immigrants of those times, it was the last they’d ever see of their families.

The following afternoon, on Canada Day, we gathered at our grandmother Hannah’s gravesite at the Mattagami First Nation Reserve for a ceremony in her honour. In the evening, there was a gathering at the community centre and a celebration of their lives. Then came the feast. Elders led the group to long tables laden with food. Wine was poured and toasts rang out.

Approximately 100 of James and Hannah’s descendants, with relatives and friends, reached out for a long-neglected relationship. The differences that resulted from those who left the land of our heritage and those who stayed are being reconciled. Many will attend the powwow and visit the new acquaintances and friends made this summer.

It was an opportunity for this diverse group to discover whom we are, where we came from and embrace our differences and rich history. We brought the teachings of our ancestors alive, and remembered the other men and women who experienced the triumphs and adversity in this remote, harsh but beautiful land.

Gordon Miller lives in Oakville, Ont.

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