Ogemah

Ogemah

From Chicken Soup for the Canadian Soul

Ogemah

We are all creatures of the wilderness, children of the frontier, even though the frontier has been pushed back into the mists of the North, even though the wilderness has given way to concrete. Wild and mysterious, savage and forbidding, this is the cyclorama against which the drama of our past has been staged; for better and for worse it has helped to fashion us into our distinctive Canadian mould.

Pierre Burton

It had been the best year of my life. I had signed on with the mighty Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), which still reigned in Canada’s north after three hundred years. An adventurous soul, I had fled the stifling poverty of Cabbagetown, in Toronto’s inner city. Before this, I had taken a year off after graduating high school and enjoyed an exciting career working swing shift in a hockey puck factory. It was grimy and sweaty work and I was sure there had to be a better life out there, somewhere. Having spent my summers as a ranger in Algonquin Park, I had a secret ambition to be a bush guy and impress female tourists with my uniform and outdoorsy ways.

One day I saw an ad in The Toronto Star. “Join the HBC, See the North!” the ad cried out. It was illustrated with a handsome young native family, waving to a departing floatplane. I sent in my resume, carefully leaving off my puck-making credentials. The thought of escaping to the north kept me going through a long, hot Toronto summer, during which I saw more hockey pucks than Gordie Howe. At some point, I suddenly became aware of the monotonous, soul-draining torment that factory workers face every day. It clearly explained the despair and premature aging I had seen in my parents. And I knew my own soul was withering.

In early November of 1975, a letter from HBC headquarters in Winnipeg arrived. It contained a job offer, a hotel reservation and a plane ticket to Winnipeg. A short time later, I woke up in the Hotel Fort Garry, right across the street from Hudson Bay House in downtown Winnipeg. I had thirty bucks in my pocket and a whole new life ahead of me.

At the HBC office, I was greeted by a guy named Len from the Garden Hill Reserve in northern Manitoba. He showed me the ropes and gave me a ticket to board the Polar Bear Express, a train from Manitoba, up to James Bay. I would be trained to purchase fur from the native trappers and to run the little general stores the bay still had scattered about the north. My destination was a little reserve called Ogoki, on the Albany River.

The people of Ogoki were Cree, like Len. He told me that both the Cree and Ojibway words for my position was “ogemasis,” which loosely translated meant “little manager.” If I played my cards right, I would make manager within a couple of years. In days gone by, the HBC called their manager the “Factor,” but the natives called him “Ogemah.” Well, from that moment on, I was determined to make Ogemah, and nothing was going to get in my way.

I spent the following year in the single-minded pursuit of “Ogemahness.” I moved from northern Ontario to northern Saskatchewan and then on to Baker Lake in the Northwest Territories. Sadly, I soon discovered that because of my extreme youth, I would not soon be accepted as an Ogemah. An Ogemah had to be older and much wiser than I could possibly be, even with my newly forming downy whiskers.

It was in Baker Lake that I got the call—I had been promoted to manager, and the remote Lac Seul Post would be mine. Elated beyond measure, I flew out on the next DC-3, and made my way to Sioux Lookout, Ontario, and then by boat to my new post on an isolated island. The HBC outpost there had been in continuous operation for over a hundred years, and there I was—the newest Ogemah! Five miles across the lake was the Kejick Bay Reserve: log houses, no water, no sewage, no power, no phones and some of the best trappers in Canada.

The post had a World War I–vintage, 32-volt generator and a single sideband radio. At 5:30 P.M. each day, I powered up the generator and allowed the vacuum tubes to warm to the orange glow that meant it was ready. If the conditions were right, I could contact the HBC posts at Webequie, Grassy Narrows, Landsdowne House and Sioux Lookout. On a good day, I could reach the radio operator in Thunder Bay and actually make a radiophone call.

Although the people were kind and understanding as I learned their ways and tried hard to fit in, no one actually called me Ogemah. I referred to myself as Ogemah a few times, just to see, and was greeted with puzzled looks and occasional laughter.

Isolation led me to read a lot, and I enjoyed the abundance of Hudson Bay Company legends and memoirs I found at the post. I learned that in days gone by the Hudson Bay Factor often enjoyed a lofty position in native communities, and was frequently called upon to be a counsellor, doctor, lawyer, clergy, police officer or undertaker. In a pinch, one would seek out the Factor for help or advice. A respected Ogemah enjoyed the prestige accorded a chief, elder or medicine man.

Unfortunately, those days were almost over. It seemed that Ogemah prestige was fading along with the fur trade itself. I felt I was living through the end of a significant era, to which there would be no return. I began to despair when I realized what I had missed. Still, I enjoyed getting to know the trappers, and slowly grew fond of the people of Lac Seul and they of me.

The end had come to a long, hot summer. I had learned much from the Cree of Kejick Bay, including how to read the weather and when to stay off the lake, which could be whipped into a maelstrom with the howling north winds. Not even the most experienced trappers would brave the waters of Lac Seul when she was angry.

It was on such a day that I was surprised to see a small boat carrying four people picking its way towards the post through the unforgiving rough waters. Something had to be very wrong for anyone to attempt crossing in this weather.

It was Philip and his wife, with their young son Andy and his wife, Sarah. Sarah had just arrived home the previous week with their newborn child, named Mequin, which meant “feather” in the local dialect. The baby, born several weeks early, was very tiny.

I got soaked dragging the boat up onto the beach as the breakers crashed over its transom. The four grim-looking soaked figures scrambled ashore, and Andy turned to me, without emotion, and said, “Our baby is sick. Can you help?” Sarah pressed a bundle into my arms, and then all four stepped back, looking into my eyes.

In my arms lay a tiny baby, soaked to the skin, with blue lips, struggling to breathe.

“What do you want me to do?” I asked. My heart raced as I realized there was no medical help available. And with the lake raging, there was no hope of a plane or boat getting in.

Philip looked at his wife and then at me, “But you are the bay manager, there must be something you can do . . .” Philip’s voice trailed off as he looked at the panic in my face. The baby was by now quite blue, and although I was trained in CPR, there was no getting any air into her lungs. She obviously had pneumonia, and all of her tiny air passages were blocked.

“I’ll try the radio,” I shouted as I passed Mequin back to Philip. With pounding heart I sprinted to the post, knowing there was slim chance of making contact. The weather was bad, my batteries almost exhausted, and it took at least twenty minutes for the tubes in the old radio to warm up.

The tubes were still quite dim when I impatiently began sending my distress call, but there was only silence. After repeating the distress call several more times, in desperation I flipped the switch and tried Thunder Bay and then watched helplessly as the radio died. With no radio, there would be no calling for help.

I raced back to the beach to find that Andy had built a small fire and the family was seated in a circle, their faces calm, their voices soft. “No radio,” I almost choked on the words. Philip quietly motioned to me to join their circle, then each of us took a turn holding Mequin, rocking her, her family saying a silent prayer.

As I held Mequin close to my face, I felt a soft warm breath on my cheek, almost a sigh, and then she was gone. It was the most beautiful and peaceful journey I had ever witnessed. All the parts of my soul that hurt me softened and were released. All the pain and despair I had pushed down deep inside of me long ago left me. All that had happened in my life before this moment became pure and clear.

In that gentle moment, my life was saved. Sitting in that circle of love under the cloudy sky, warmed by the fire, this small family and a tiny girl had created a circle of peace—and there was room for me in it. The family sang several traditional songs, which I did not understand but could feel. When we stood and walked back to the boat, we found the lake had calmed. Philip’s family quietly boarded, and I leaned into the bow to help push them off. As Philip leaped into the boat, he turned and called out, “Ogemah, thank-you.”

The breath caught in my throat at his words as the boat moved away and they took Mequin home. I walked around the shoreline of the island until dark, seeing it all for the first time, my heart bursting.

I stopped and sat by the dying embers of Mequin’s fire and watched the sun dip behind Kejick Bay. I put my hand to my face, where Mequin had touched me with her last breath. I closed my eyes, and it was there I waited for the sun to return. I wanted to be sure, that without Mequin, there would be another day. But I knew that there would be; I was Ogemah.

John J. Seagrave
Yellowknife, Northwest Territories

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