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Researching the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada
  Recherche sur la Forteresse-de-Louisbourg Lieu historique national du Canada


Extracts of Matters of Historical Interest from "The Huissier, News For and About the Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff" By The Fortress of Louisbourg Heritage Presentation Staff


(September 15, 2003)

Life at the Missions

By Sandy Balcom

During Louisbourg's time period, the French established a mission at Malagawatch in the southern Bras d'Or Lake. This mission later was moved to Chapel Island. Abbé Maillard noted a seasonality to life at the missions. During the winter, it was the women and children who most often stayed at the missions, while the men went in search of beaver, moose, caribou; checked their traps for martin, mink, lynx and otter; set snares for foxes and looked for where seals had come ashore. The men could be gone for fifteen days, a month or even longer at a time and would not return without bringing oil, or meat, or furs with them. Typically, the men were back only a short time before thinking of returning to the hunt. Each day of this season was precious as it was when the snow was most abundant, that they made the most frequent and longest hunting trips.

During the men's absence, the women, older girls and some of the older men stayed near the mission ice fishing, using harpoons for eels or hook and lines for cod or trout. Sometimes weather or ice conditions or poor fishing created shortages and they were forced to ask the missionary for supplies of dried peas, flour and fat pork. These supplies the missionary gave out according to the number of people in each wigwam. These food shortages may have been created by the concentration of numbers at the mission. Bernard Hoffman, among others, suggested that traditional winter practice among the Mi'kmaq would be to break into small family hunting units.

The women spent the winter producing a variety of handcrafts, both purely functional and decorative. According to Maillard, the manufacture of snowshoes, essential for winter travel over snow, was the principal occupation. He also noted the making of birch bark boxes decorated with "toubi" or spruce root and porcupine quills. The women also made sealskin tobacco pouches, decorated with small pieces of wool cloth in different colours, and moccasins made of sealskin and broken-in moose hide. Further handwork included decorated chemises as well as jackets of calamanco (a striped woollen fabric), chintz or printed cotton, and decorated with ribbons.

Maillard valued the winter as the time when the most effective religious instruction and practice took place. The continued presence at the mission of the women and children gave an opportunity for them to memorize prayers and services, and to write them using Mi'kmaw hieroglyphs in small paper books for future reference. The women also practised singing parts of the service. Maillard found that the women's practising of these chants, etc., motivated the men to improve their own mastery of prayers and song, in competition with the women. This does not mean that all Mi'kmaq abandoned their traditional beliefs in favour of Roman Catholicism. Maillard records instances of lively debate with non-converts, and of even being mocked by them for some of his beliefs and practices. Yet he also records instances of women attending devotions in their best clothes, of learning prayers and practising chants.