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Camsell’s cure for loneliness

By David McGuffin

Charles Camsell (at left), shown at a survey camp in the Tazin-Taltson watershed, N.W.T., explored vast areas of the North as a geologist. (Photo from Canadian Geographic, Dec 1989/Jan 1990
Society founder Charles Camsell’s tales of growing up in Canada’s Far North in the late 1800s helped stave off homesickness for a young girl living away from her parents for the first time. My mother, Lynne McGuffin, was that girl. Starting at the age of seven and for most of the Second World War, she lived with Camsell, her grandfather, to attend school in Ottawa.

He was one of Canada’s most senior bureaucrats at the time, part of a small team running the country’s wartime economy. She remembers the leadership exhibited by her grandfather, the man whose drive and vision also inspired him to establish the Society in 1929. She describes him as having piercing blue eyes and the ability to command the attention of any room into which he walked.

And yet, as my mother recalls, “Every night, he would totally cut his workday off, sit at the dining room table and talk about his life in the North.”

He would tell her stories of growing up in Hudson’s Bay Company trading posts his father ran in the Northwest Territories. His narratives were filled with danger and excitement. How he nearly died of starvation as he made his way to the Klondike Gold Fields. How he ran traplines, taught school at a trading post and delivered mail by dogsled to remote communities.

The account of the start of his schooling especially fascinated my mother. It involved a three-month journey from Fort Simpson, west of Great Slave Lake, N.W.T., to Winnipeg. Camsell and his mother, father and five siblings travelled by York boat and canoe. His youngest brother died en route and was buried by the side of a river in a quick ceremony.

Joining them on the voyage was a man who had been convicted of cannibalism. It was a fascinating crime for an eight-year-old to ponder. With a smile, he told my mother: “I always made sure he got enough to eat at dinnertime.” Camsell stayed on in Winnipeg, separated from his family in the North for 10 years.

“I think he shared his stories because he knew that he’d lived in a time and place that was disappearing,” says my mother. “But I think he also told them to help me. He understood how hard it is to be away from home.”

David Robert Camsell McGuffin, CBC’s Africa correspondent, is also inspired by Camsell’s stories.

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