1. The logging camps
  2. The forest industry in Eastern Canada in the 19th century.
  3. Deion of a camp
  4. The work of the missionaries
  5. The main missionaries of the camps
  6. Closure of the work at the camps

From 1845, three years after their arrival in Canada, the Oblates began a new apostolate – ministering to the men and young people who were logging along the rivers flowing into the St. Lawrence, especially the Ottawa river and its many tributaries, as well as the St. Maurice and the Saguenay.

The logging camps
What these camps were like was well described By Bishop Ignace Bourget in a letter to Bishop de Mazenod, October 19,1843, proposing that he send Oblates to Bytown [Ottawa] :

“There are many migrants and men by the thousands who are working to cut down the immense forests along this beautiful, magnificent river, and they are all worthy of the zeal of your children. From Bytown, your apostolic men could go to minister in what we call “chantiers” [logging camps]. I should make it clear for you what these are. Logging is a booming industry here. We have many entrepre­neurs who take 300 to 500 workers to live in the forests for five or six months of the year, cutting wood for construction and heating. The rest of the year, they send the logs down the many rivers of our country, to sell in the cities of Quebec and Montreal, and to export from there, especially to England and elsewhere. Each camp is almost like a village in France, except that they are at a considerable distance from the rest of the population . To reach some of them, one must travel 60 to 80 leagues [= 200 miles], through the snow in winter and bypassing the rapids in summer. You can see why we cannot have regular parish priests in these moveable camps. That is why we must send them missionaries to visit them in the forests in winter, and to meet them in spring at the mouth of the rivers. There they gather to make log-rafts, which cover our St. Lawrence River for a good part of the summer. When left to themselves, these poor people can go to many sinful extremes. But they can give edifying example when they are blessed with having a short mission in winter, and, in spring, meeting their spiritual fathers with whom they have settled their matters of conscience. I believe that if there are any people on earth who are the reason for the work of your Congregation, the real lost sheep of the house of Israel, it is the poor people from these camps” .

In order to convince Bishop de Mazenod of the importance of sending his missionaries to Bytown and to the camps, Bishop Bourget, in a letter of December 15, adds that many Indians live upstream of the rivers. In 1844 and 1845, in his reply to the letters of the Bishop of Montreal, and later to Frs. Jean-Baptiste Honorat and Eugène Bruno Guigues about starting an Oblate mission in Bytown, the Founder often speaks of “making the camps holy, and the conversion of Natives”.

In 1844, Frs. Adrien Telmon and Damase Dandurand arrive in Bytown, and from 1845, Frs. Eusèbe Durocher and Auguste Brunet visit the camps of the Gatineau during the months of January and February.

The forest industry in Eastern Canada in the 19th century.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the forests in Canada were hardly touched. But then the demand for wood for construction grew, and later for wood pulp for paper, first from England and then from the rapidly growing cities of the U.S. and Canada. Beginning around 1810, wood harvesting and trade became a very prosperous enterprise. For example, in 1851, in Lower Canada, there were 203,307 people at work cutting trees, compared to 78,437 in farming. By 1861, this rose to 249,286, as against 108,121. In 1851, there were 1567 sawmills in Upper Canada with 3670 employees, and 1065 sawmills in Lower Canada with 3634 workers.

Deion of a camp
First of all, the campsite is cleared of all trees and other obstacles. The camp itself is built in this little clearing, raised up somewhat, high enough to that rain water can run off, but not too exposed to the weather. It is near a river of lake to have drinking water for the men, and near the centre of the cutting. Since the camp move from year to year, a new one must be built every year.

The buildings are made of raw logs, not squared off, and the chinks or holes are filled up with moss or cedar bark. The interior is normally one big room, with beds or cots all around. The mattress is made of pine branches, and cloth covers complete the bedding. Few bring pillows along., but those who are on good terms with the foreman ca afford a pillow made of straw in a gunnysack.

A stove is in the centre of the room, where the loggers hang their socks and mittens to dry them for the next day. There is also a table and chairs, at times made from pine branches, which gives them a rustic appearance, and which the men call “chiennes” (travois). Work begins at daybreak and continues until sunset, so that the men, tired after a long day of chopping or sawing, do not stay up for long.

The camp is organized in a very rigorous way. Numbers vary according to the size of the camp, but the “hierarchy” is always the same : the foreman, the cutters (loggers), the carpenters, those who do the clearing, with the cook being especially important. The foreman has full authority. The “clearers” prepare the roads and the terrain. The loggers cut the trees and lop off the useless parts.

Once the logs are ready, they must be floated down the rivers to the mills. The men who do this are drivers, (draveurs). This job is very difficult and dangerous, especially in rapids. The logs are put together into rafts called “cages”, and make up floating wood trains. It often takes 30 or more men to convey the “cages” down river. (Cf. Gaston Carrière, Histoire des Oblats… II, pp.202-203).

The work of the missionaries
The work of the missionaries is as hard as that of the loggers. One deion is found in the death notice of Fr. Louis Reboul (Notices nécrologiques, Vol. 3, pp.361-362 ):

“The mission begins in the first days of January, and normally finishes at the end of March, and so, almost three months of non-stop work. During that time, the missionary travels 8 or 9 hours a day, through the forest, across frozen rivers and lakes, exposed to all kinds of weather. In Canada, snow and storms are common during those three months of the year. He can lose his way at any time, taking the road to the work site instead of the one leading to the camp. At other times, he is in danger of drowning in ponds that may be covered with a thin layer of ice and snow; or he can lose all he has. The cold penetrates whatever precautions he takes. When he arrives at 4 or 5 o’clock, he stays at the camp. His table are his knees. His food, bread and lard, washed down with a cup of tea without sugar or milk. His flock are the young men, often uneducated and rough. The air he breathes is the thick steam coming from the socks and boots drying around the fire, to be ready for the next day. After a hard trip, he usually has some time when he arrives, to say his breviary, often in the light of the fire, before the men come in from work. From 6 to 8 o’clock, no matter how tired they may be, he instructs them, to open them up to Jesus Christ. From 8 to 11, and often until midnight, the priest prays, organizes an examination of conscience, preaches, hears confessions, and brings back the lost sheep to the fold. And when his work is done, he wraps himself in his blanket to take his rest, and, as do the others, sleeps on pine branches. The sleep is short, since at 4:30 he is up to prepare the altar and celebrate Mass. After a final few words and the breakfast – the same food as the previous night’s supper – the missionary goes off to the next camp”.

The main missionaries of the camps
In the 19th century, the Oblates worked mainly in the camps along the Ottawa River and its tributaries. The main ones were: Frs. Eusèbe Durocher, Médard Bourassa, Auguste Brunet, and then Fr. Louis Reboul from 1854 until his death in 1877. They were normally accompanied by a young priest.

In a letter to Bishop de Mazenod on February 19,1854, Fr. Léonard Baveux spoke of the different works of the Oblates: “Add to that the work of the camps, where we need at least 12 missionaries to evangelize 10,000 men spread out in the immense forests of the country. To do this work (both admirable and difficult) efficiently, we need strong, robust men, of great dedication, and completely devoted to saving souls”.

Normally, there were at most four Oblates in the camps of the Ottawa river, while at the Saguenay, and the north shore of the St. Lawrence, it was the missionaries to the Amerindians who visited the camps from January to March, especially Frs. Eusèbe and Flavien Durocher, Ferdinand Grenier, Louis Babel, Charles Arnaud, and Jean-Marie Nédélec.

Closure of the work at the camps
At the end of the 19th century, the camps moved north, to the areas of Maniwaki, Mattawa, and Ville-Marie in Témiscamingue. In the 20th century, they moved even further north.

Oblates worked in the camps until about 1950. The periodical Missions OMI says little of this apostolate in the 20th century. Yet, in 1947, Fr. Léo Deschâtelets, Provincial of Eastern Canada, wrote in his report to the General Chapter: “The logging industry brings tens of thousands of young men to our forests every year, and almost all of them are French-Canadian and Catholic. Since the OMI arrived in Canada, they have specialized in looking after this floating, motley, but very interesting group. It is easy to see that these young men must live for months on end, far from the Church and priests. So, every winter, the missionaries go from camp to camp to where the loggers and other forestry workers are found. At each spot, they have a short 24-hour mission, which always ends with the confessions of almost all of the men in the camp. Only rarely do they refuse the ministry of the priest, and after several rounds, you can count those on one hand. The missionaries who do that work find it very consoling. It is a very hard life for the priest, going every day from one camp to another, in all kinds of weather, and by whatever means available. At present, our missionaries are working in four different centres : Maniwaki, Sanmaur, Kapuskasing, and Senneterre. This ministry is increasing rather than decreasing […]. This important ministry prevents the development of wrong ideas that could corrupt those groups of young workers. The power of this ministry is so effective that it is recognized by the forestry companies themselves, including Protestant ones, who ask to have the priest come and who help his work in every way. Most often, the missionary receives free travel, food and lodging, and is greatly respected…” (Missions OMI, Vol. 74, pp.471- 472).

In reporting to the General Chapter of 1959, the Provincial of St. Joseph’s Province said that three Oblates still work in the “logging camps”. The Provincial of Holy Rosary spoke of Oblates working in the camps of St. Maurice, and the Gaspésie (Missions OMI, 86 (1959), p.240 and p.290 ).

There is no mention of this work in the reports to the Chapter of 1966. By then, the work itself had changed very much, with few loggers and camps. The men were replaced with huge machines, and those still working were often brought by hydroplane to regional hostels.

As a general conclusion, we can take the words of Bishop Guigues in his report in 1850: “From the eyes of faith, and even for the sake of civilization, this is among the best work we do in Canada. I have no doubt that it brings abundant blessings to the Congregation to which it has been entrusted”.

Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.