Jane Megarry (1881 to 1958) committed her life to Indigenous people in Canada vowing to help Indian people “take their rightful place in their Native land.” To this end she formed boys and girls Hospital of St. John’s of Jerusalem ambulance teams that ranked first in paramedic competitions in Alberta.
A trained nurse who immigrated to Canada from Ireland in 1901, she was educated at the Galt Hospital in Lethbridge Alberta, and the Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria, British Columbia. As a nurse Megarry enjoyed her mission for training the Indian students. The girl’s team ranked second in Canada. From the girls team, Megarry tutored St. Paul’s residential star school pupil Nora Gladstone who was chosen to be part of an entourage headed to the coronation of King George VI in England 12 May 1937.
Proudly and wistfully members of the Blood Indian Reserve bade safe travels to the entourage as the children left from Calgary. “As the train steamed slowly away from the station amid ringing cheers,” Megarry beams,” it was a lovely sight to see the happy smiling faces of those eager young girls.”
Though Megarry focuses distinctly on the St. Paul’s school students in her memoir she makes cryptic yet familiar descriptions of the racial variegation and disparities inherent in early 20th century British North America. Infused with traditions from her Irish background and loyalty to the British Crown, she makes ironic allusion to the historic significance in the creation of Canada and the relationship between Indians and whites.
In the midst of her memories of the children’s travels to England for the coronation she intersperses her commentary with reflections that include with broad overtures to the Mohawks. The journey to England fell within the school year just prior to summer holidays. Though the planners had originally scheduled the boys and girls to travel separately, Megarry reports that a Mohawk boy had been writing his final examinations and missed “the special train that the boys were traveling across Canada on” before catching their ship to London.
Consequently, as Nora told Megarry much later, the Mohawk Indian boy travelled with the girls. “(Nora) said he did not appear to mind being among the girls,” Megarry writes, ”She said she thought he enjoyed the trip very much.” Once aboard ship enroute to England the girls and Mohawk boy were treated to exotic fare and entertainments.
Parties and concerts kept the troupe busy though no doubt many of the details were provided by the social debutant Nora Gladstone. However, Megarry continues to pay homage to the Mohawks. Even aboard a steam ship headed for the coronation in far off England, Megarry takes special pleasure in describing her protegé’s role in the ocean going entertainment. “For the concerts,” Megarry writes,” Nora donned her beautiful white buckskin dress and beaded head band with the two eagle feathers.” Nora then proceeded to recite poems often cited by Megarry that were written by “the beloved
Indian Poet princess” E. Pauline Johnson the Mohawk Confederation Poet.
Whether the poem titles were exactly those performed by the young Blood student, Megarry highlights “As Red Men Die” and “Canadian Born” as exemplars of the unique relationship between British-Europeans and Indigenous peoples. Megarry beams in her report of Nora’s performative presence reciting words written by “Tekahionwake” that echoed the Irishwoman’s sense of the Indian’s “rightful place”:
“We first saw light in Canada, the land beloved of God; We are the pulse of Canada, its marrow and its blood:
And we, the men of Canada, can face the world and brag
That we were born in Canada beneath the British flag.”
And to punctuate the bravery of the Indian children voyaging to distant England she recalls the defiance of the Mohawk captive in “As Red Men Die”.
This Johnson poem describes resistance to a threat that portrays Mohawks vividly as respected ally for what Megarry describes through the foundational principles of her own mission — echoing her “faith in God…that carries me through, (to) have courage and I am not a coward.” She sees this courage reflected by the stalwart Mohawk prisoner of the dread Huron foe who “loyal to his race, He bends to death—but never to disgrace” while mocking his torturers. Though beaten, burned and slashed at knifepoint, the Mohawk maintains his courage.
The presence of Mohawk lore with an Irish émigré working 2000 miles across the continent in a residential school provides an exotic and ironic context for Indigenous peoples’ rightful place in their Native land. The place of Indigenous peoples never obscures Megarry’s own tightly held ultimate truths from western Christendom’s United Empire.
She repeats her conviction that Indigenous peoples hold a rightful place. But what was that place based on? Where do ideas of Empire affect Indigenous Peoples international rights? What traditions rooted in extant worldviews appear in a woman’s writing who later would be lionized in the Lethbridge, Alberta lodge of the International Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE)? The answer lay in the odd transmission by Megarry of reverence for the Iroquois and reports of the adoption of Canada into the long house of many nations in 1869.
Not well known to contemporary Indigenous people is their rightful place. In 1867 the British Crown approved legislation called the British North America Act (BNA) that formed colonies north of the medicine line (the border created in 1760 by the Iroquois to separate the English and French) into the Dominion of Canada.
However, Queen Victoria understood that the preemptive right of the Indigenous people needed to be included. Conferring membership on the Iroquois People in the British Commonwealth in the late 1800s demonstrated the lofty position she accepted. So, Queen Victoria sent her son Prince Arthur the Duke of Connaught to the Iroquois people in Brantford at Her Majesty’s Chapel.
On that Friday the 19-year-old Prince was given the condolence ceremony by Chief John Buck, made a chief (Rotiianer), and was adopted into the Long House with the name “Kar-a-kow-dye” which is the Mohawk wolf clan name Karakontie.
In Alberta, a residential school nurse recognized the rightful place of Indigenous peoples to accept the Canadian rafter into the continent-wide lodge. Canada exists because their Indigenous friends said it was good. As Megarry describes in her memoirs on that day in 1869 Canada was added as a rafter to the long house of many Nations.”
Wish Canada a happy birthday on July 1. They became a legal nation because of us. How’s that for “aboriginal” history!
Thohahoken is an educator from Six Nations of the Grand River